One of the first words every new sumo fan learns is tachiai.
Combining the characters for “stand” and “meet,” it is the term for the initial charge that gets all sumo bouts underway.
To call the tachiai the key moment is to vastly understate its importance.
Sumo, unlike other fighting sports, has no rounds. There are no halftimes or timeouts. Most bouts are over within seconds and the vast majority are decided at the faceoff.
It’s extremely difficult to recover from a bad initial charge. That’s one reason so much of sumo training is focused on generating maximal explosive power at the tachiai.
Countless hours are spent developing lower body flexibility, ramming into upright wooden poles and pushing stablemates back and forth across training rings like blocking sleds, all with the single purpose of creating an ability to power out of a crouch and drive your opponent backwards.
It’s a plan that can be undone with a simple sidestep at the tachiai. Henka, as it is known, is something that can get fans riled up, especially when it happens in a highly anticipated bout. Without the move, however, sumo would simply become a matter of who could become the biggest or heaviest, and the sport would be robbed of giant killers like Enho and Mainoumi.
The style of tachiai that we see in modern day sumo is very different from the one that was prevalent in the 1970s. A gradual drifting away from the requirement to place both hands on the ground meant that bouts between legendary figures such as Kitanoumi, Takamiyama, Wajima and Takanohana began with virtually a standing start.
In amateur sumo, wrestlers must place their hands fully behind the white line and wait for the referee to start things with a shout. In professional sumo hands can be on the line and a bout begins once rikishi have “synchronized their breathing.”