Sumo isn’t the only show in town this September, as the world’s third-largest sporting event comes to Asia for the first time ever.
The 2019 Rugby World Cup kicks off just as the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament is coming to a close, meaning thousands of rugby fans, officials and players in Japan for the global meet will get their first exposure to this country’s national sport.
Media personnel following the massive showcase will be filing stories and taping reports on the host nation and its culture almost daily.
So for all those people getting a first taste of one of the world’s oldest sports, here’s The Japan Times “rugby guide to sumo.”
Question No. 1 on most people’s lips when it comes to sumo concerns the size of its combatants. “Why are they so fat?” is a question I’ve heard more times than I can count.
For rugby fans, though, there is an easy answer to that.
Imagine if a front row player’s only job was spearheading the scrum and they weren’t required to run. Now you have a rikishi.
Sumo wrestling skills and techniques most closely mirror those used by offensive linemen in American football, but what props and hookers do also has overlap.
Moving an opponent from point A to point B against his will is at the heart of what all three types of athletes do on the field of battle.
If you are trying to picture the ideal rikishi shape, think of Ben Tameifuna. The Tongan tighthead prop has the ideal combination of power and size to succeed in sumo, something which isn’t all that surprising, as Polynesians took over the sport when they joined it en masse in the 1990s.
Had Opeti Fonua, or almost any of the Tuilagi brothers followed the path blazed by Konishiki, Akebono or Musashimaru rather than taken up rugby, they too would have been stars in sumo.
But it isn’t all about size, with technique and fighting spirit being equally important factors in determining who succeeds and who doesn’t.
There are also no weight classes, so in the ring it’s backs against forwards, wingers against second rowers and fullbacks against flankers.
In terms of who’s who in the modern game, all you need to know is that Hakuho is sumo’s version of the All Blacks— only more successful.
The Mongolian-born yokozuna, who just this week switched his nationality to Japanese, has dominated the sport like no other wrestler in its 2,000-year history.
In an activity where 10 championships gets you called one of the all-time great champions, Hakuho’s 42 titles (and counting) is a mind-blowing feat.
Combining speed, power, size and technique, Hakuho has ruled over sumo since the mid-2000s. His reign is coming to an end now, however, and just like with the current All Blacks, losses to lower-level opponents are becoming more frequent and less shocking.
It’d be no surprise to see Hakuho or New Zealand triumphant this autumn, but neither would an early exit be as stunning as it might have been four years ago.
If Hakuho is the high-profile All Blacks, fellow Mongolian yokozuna Kakuryu is Australia. Lower key and more successful than people tend to think.
Coming off his sixth Emperor’s Cup, Kakuryu tends to be overshadowed by Hakuho, but the veteran is more than capable of downing his more illustrious rival when it counts the most.
The rikishi that best embodies the host nation is Takakeisho. A rising star that achieved a stunning victory with what seemed to be very limited tools.
Japan’s win over South Africa in 2015 was arguably the greatest upset in sporting history.
As 80-1 underdogs for that game, the Brave Blossoms demonstrated how much can be achieved with heart alone, spurning several chances at a game-tying kick to courageously go for, and get, the last-gasp win.
Takakeisho likewise overcame his lack of stature, short arms, and non-existent belt skills to claim the title last November and earn promotion to the second-highest rank (ozeki) this year.
The spotlight is firmly on both Japan and Takakeisho now. It’s been a rocky road since those heights were scaled and the jury is out on whether either one can push on and cement their place with the big guns on a more permanent basis.
Continuing the theme of matching rikishi, Takayasu is most certainly Ireland. He seems to have the ability to go all the way but has always failed when it counted most.
Results in 2017 and 2018 seemed to be pointing toward greater things for Takayasu/Ireland but now there is a real feeling of the peak having passed and the opportunity missed.
Neither can be written off, however, and the celebrations among their fans will be long and joyous if either pulls off the big one.
Tochinoshin is the Georgian team for obvious reasons. The burly ozeki even recorded a message of support for the Lelos ahead of their game against Japan last year, and it’d be no surprise to see the Mtskheta native show up in person at one or more of their matches during the RWC.
There isn’t space to make comparisons for every side coming to Japan but Fiji certainly deserves the tag of the “Enho of rugby.” Not really a title contender but capable of taking down almost anyone in a single contest, and normally one that is wildly exciting. Fiji and Enho are everyone’s second-favorite team/ rikishi and a joy to watch.
Oh, and if you are someone who enjoys the Haka, be sure to check out the yokozuna ring-entering ceremony.