Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Sumo skills applicable on the gridiron, not in the ring

by John Gunning

Former top-division wrestler Osunaarashi fell to 45-year-old actor Bob Sapp in his mixed martial arts debut this week.

The fight at Saitama Super Arena, which was widely derided online and in the media, slowed to a snail’s pace after 30 seconds, and ended with both men gassed out, standing in the middle of the ring unable to even throw a punch.

Sapp’s victory gave him his first win in MMA in eight years, and the first triumph of any kind since he defeated Akebono in a kickboxing bout in 2015.

Osunaarashi, for his part, became yet another sumo wrestler whose exploits in the squared circle don’t make for easy viewing.

Former maegashira Sentoryu’s 7-18 overall record is about as good as it gets for former rikishi trying their hand at martial arts.

The problem, of course, is that sumo has little in common with other fighting sports when it comes to the skills or physical attributes needed to succeed.

MMA, kickboxing, and boxing all require a high level of stamina and cardiovascular fitness, whereas sumo is centered around generating maximal explosive force over a few seconds.

Rather than martial arts, the sport that best suits a sumo wrestler’s skills is one Sapp also played (albeit briefly) at a professional level: American football.

“Sumo is based on the same logic as playing offensive line. The same principles apply,” said Uche Nwaneri, who spent seven seasons as an offensive guard with the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars.

Nwaneri, who has gotten in the ring with professional sumo wrestlers, explained what he meant in detail saying, “When I participated in some sumo drills (I) noticed that many of the techniques used by offensive linemen play similar roles in sumo.

“Leverage is the X factor in blocking as a lineman.

“You must have your eyes up. Your feet must be under your frame, and firmly pressed into the ground. This allows for the generation of power. You must have your hands inside the frame of your opponent.”

He continued: “These were all concepts that seemed to translate quite nicely to sumo. I observed that leverage and hand placement were essential to control. While feet did not play a huge role as it pertained to speed, the principle still held true that each (wrestler) battled to gain leverage through a strong and balanced base. Their feet were firmly planted and their power came from their ability to generate lift through their base.

“Sumo (wrestlers) and offensive lineman are cousins of one another. The governing principles of both positions are written in the same ink with the same pen. Explosive, balanced power and precise targeting of hands go a long way to deciding the winner of a very physical, gritty battle.”

Indeed, a favorite saying of offensive line coaches everywhere, “there is no greater pleasure than moving a man from point A to point B against his will,” could just as easily have been coined about sumo.

Football is an extremely technical sport with millions of Americans participating in it from a young age, and sumo’s physical similarities haven’t been enough for former rikishi attempting a second career to overcome the knowledge and experience gap that exists.

Yokozuna Wakanohana famously tried and failed to make the jump in his 30s, signing with the Arizona Rattlers, an Arena Football League team, in 2002 after a stint with the X League’s Onward Skylarks.

Soslan Gagloev (former maegashira Wakanoho), who was just 20 when he dismissed from sumo, fared better, and made it to the NCAA Division I FBS-level South Florida Bulls. But in a sport with no minor leagues and numerous former Pro Bowl-level players and free agents vying for the same spots, reaching the NFL was always the longest of long shots for the Russian.

If sumo, that most individual of pursuits, is closest in technique to a team sport, where then does its greatest champion rank among the pantheon of worldwide sporting legends?

Yokozuna Hakuho’s exploits and achievements certainly make him worthy of inclusion in any discussion of the top athletes of all time. Yet Michael Jordan, Pele, Wayne Gretzky and Babe Ruth, along with their peers, all participated in team sports. While athletes in these sports can be measured by individual stats, success and failure also depend, to varying degrees, on the whole of the team.

Tennis and golf, with four big tournaments a year, seem to offer the best comparison to sumo.

There are many more tennis players than professional sumo wrestlers, but the number with a realistic chance of winning a Grand Slam isn’t all that different from that of rikishi with a decent shot at each basho.

Hakuho won his record 41st Emperor’s Cup in September. Margaret Court is the tennis player with the most Grand Slam titles (24). Extrapolating her success rate to match sumo’s six yearly tournaments gives us a figure of 36 — well behind the Mongolian — who still aims to compete for a couple of more years yet.

In golf the gap is even more pronounced. The legendary Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major titles would give him 27 tournament wins in sumo. That would be just ahead of Asashoryu and good enough for fourth all time but still 14 Emperor’s Cups behind Hakuho.

Fans new to sumo might not realize just how dominant Hakuho was at his peak. Starting in March 2007, Hakuho was the winner or runner-up in all but three of the following 54 tournaments.

Undefeated 15-0 championships in sumo could be translated to winning a Grand Slam without dropping a set, a feat arguably the greatest tennis player of all time — Martina Navratilova — managed six times. That would put her second in sumo (on nine), one ahead of both Taiho and Futabayama.

Hakuho, by the way, has 14 perfect titles — almost twice as many as the legendary yokozuna pair.

While on a technique level sumo seems to have few counterparts outside American football, there is no doubt that the performances and career of its greatest champion makes him worthy of being compared with the most famous and greatest names in the wider sporting world.

If sumo ever gets a football-style Hall of Fame, Hakuho is a lock to be among its first inductees.