Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Sumo world attracts wide range of characters

by John Gunning

Sumo is a monolith. Individual stables may exhibit variances in training and culture, but for the most part life for wrestlers is the same throughout the sport. Enter any stable early in the day and you will find training going on. Come back at 6 p.m. and everyone will be eating dinner.

It’s a remarkably consistent world but unsurprisingly so when you realize there are rules governing virtually all aspects of a wrestler’s existence.

Everything is codified, from the exact routine to be followed in tournaments before and after bouts, to the footwear and clothing you are allowed to wear in each division.

Sumo is not a sport where individual expression is encouraged. The disparity with the ongoing World Cup is striking. Every day in Russia we see a parade of tattoos, hairstyles and goal celebrations, all cheered on by fans decked out in unique costumes.

Watch a sumo tournament, by contrast, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single difference from five, 10 or even 50 years ago.

Indeed, professional sumo is more akin to a military organization than a sporting body.

It’s precisely that similarity, however, that means you will find a far greater variety of backgrounds and personalities among sumo wrestlers than you will among soccer players.

While on the surface, athletes in football, basketball, etc. display high levels of individualism, dig a bit deeper and most of the stories and childhoods begin to sound strikingly similar.

Of course success in a sport that has millions, if not billions of active participants requires a singular focus from a young age, but talk to the people in any soccer locker room and you’ll find the vast majority have spent little time since elementary school doing anything other than playing their sport or training for it.

In a sumo stable, by contrast, you will find people from all walks of life. Some, of course, have been doing sumo since childhood, but they are in the minority. You are far more likely to encounter young men coming from other sports or none at all.

Sumo’s relative lack of global exposure means the paths foreign wrestlers take into the sport in particular are widely divergent. Some, like Tochinoshin, discovered amateur sumo through its links with judo and wrestling.

Others, like several of the Mongolian wrestlers, moved to Japan to finish their schooling and came across the sport only after arrival.

Osunaarashi, from Egypt, famously encountered sumo for the first time on YouTube and was so impressed with videos of Takanohana’s bouts that he immediately starting emailing me and others asking how he could join.

There are countless similar tales from Japanese wrestlers who saw sumo on TV or at a regional tour event and decided to give it a shot.

The fact that they got that shot is incredible in and of itself.

I can think of no other top-level sporting organization where it’s possible to just rock up at age 17 or 18 without any experience, ask to join and the very next day you are a professional athlete.

Press the buzzer on the gate at Manchester United’s training ground, tell them you’ve never kicked a ball in your life but you’d like a chance to play in the Premier League and see how far you get.

That’s precisely what happens in sumo, though, and the sport’s willingness to take in anyone means that despite the uniformity on the surface, it’s filled with a wide range of characters.

Otake stable’s Tsuyukusa, is half-Polish and comes from a soccer background. He was an interpreter for Japan national team player Ryota Morioka when he played for Slask Wroclaw.

Wakaichiro, in Musashigawa stable, chose sumo over his second option — becoming a pilot.

While that might seem incongruous, he isn’t the only one. Several rikishi in recent years have completed courses at an aviation high school in Ryogoku and one former wrestler is a pilot with a major airline.

The paths wrestlers take after retirement is a good illustration of the wide variety of personalities found in the sport.

Some, of course, remain in sumo, either in the professional version or as coaches at amateur clubs.

You also find a lot of former wrestlers opening restaurants or massage businesses, reflecting two skills that all young guys have to learn upon joining the sport.

The wider entertainment world is a natural fit for some men, the same way it is for ex-pros in any sport.

Sumo wrestlers don’t just limit themselves to being talking heads on sports shows, however. Several have gone on to become tarento (TV personalities), actors or singers.

Former ozeki Konishiki has had a long and successful post-retirement singing career, releasing several albums and touring constantly.

In the old days, you didn’t even need to wait for retirement to start gigging. Former ozeki Masuiyama released several enka albums while active and reportedly earned ¥1.5 million a night singing in clubs before the Japan Sumo Association put an end to his moonlighting.

In recent times, the sumo world seems to be a breeding ground for those with future political ambitions.

Former komusubi Kyokudozan, of course, was a member of the House of Representatives, while his stablemate Kyokushuzan was elected to the Mongolian parliament.

Ex-ozeki Baruto, who, post-retirement, has been both an MMA fighter and an actor, also intends to run for office with the goal of someday becoming president of his native Estonia.

So the next time you are at a sumo tournament, remember the two fighters in the ring in front of you might be big names in music or politics in the future. Have fun guessing which one will be Kanye West and which one Donald Trump.