Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Sumo practice blowups nothing new in sport ruled by traditions

by John Gunning

The problem of violence reared its ugly head in sumo again recently, but this time it came with a twist.

Instead of a hazing and bullying or a drunken brawl in a bar, the violence on this occasion occurred inside a ring — specifically the practice at the Miyagino stable.

Anyone who has ever attended a sumo training knows they aren’t for the faint of heart and that controlled aggression is an ever present in stables.

On Jan. 4, however, things between Ishiura and a lower-division wrestler got out of hand with the senior man kicking and punching his opponent after some particularly heated bouts until the rikishi in question, Hokaho, snapped and threw fists back until Hakuho broke things up and called an end to the session.

The Miyagino stablemaster reported the incident to the Japan Sumo Association and the case is winding its way through the processes there currently.

It’s unknown at this time what, if any, punishment will be handed down, but Ishiura is unlikely to escape censure completely.

The incident seemed to catch a lot of foreign fans off guard and I’ve gotten quite a few messages and emails asking if fights of this kind are a common occurrence at sumo.

The answer to that is fairly straightforward.

Yes and no.

Yes things can overheat — especially when two wrestlers engage in a series of intense bouts. To expect otherwise would be to make demands on human biology beyond its current capability. When the testosterone and adrenaline flow, control regularly takes a back seat.

Sumo doesn’t have boxing-style sparring. When two rikishi get in the practice ring, they go at it with essentially the same ferocity that you see in tournaments.

If one of the wrestlers is a pusher-thruster, the chances are much greater of a jab to the face setting things off.

The “no” part of the answer is that while practice sessions can get overheated and angry the actual throwing of punches is rare.

It does, however, happen from time to time, but controlling your emotions is an intrinsic part of sumo and things cool off quite quickly. I suspect that had there been no observers present in the Miyagino stable, the incident would have been immediately forgotten and probably not reported. As with training camp fights in the NFL, blowups in sumo practices are an inevitable byproduct of the methods used.

One of the most well-known episodes of fisticuffs took place during an official tournament in 2006 when 40-year-old Kotokanyu was so incensed by the slaps being dished out by the then-19-year-old Ikioi, that he followed his younger rival into the dressing room and punched him in the face.

That loss of control brought a swift end to Kotokanyu’s 25-year career and he was immediately forced into retirement.

The actual use of punches and kicks is rare when rikishi get heated. A few extra hard shoves of an opponent into the dirt of a wall is normally as far as things go.

One of the reasons that things rarely escalate is that sumo training is utterly draining. When you are involved in a continuous series of bouts with an opponent, it quickly becomes about just trying to keep your legs under you and not collapse from exhaustion.

During my 10 years in the ring, I often found myself in those very heated long battles with opponents. But while you glare and try to psych the other person out in the early exchanges, and engage in tactics like stepping right over the white lines to get in their face before the tachi-ai, and shoulder bump them when passing, very quickly energy for such extraneous activities becomes depleted and everything goes into the bout itself.

How often things get carried away normally depends on the personality of the rikishi involved. From time to time when watching training at certain heya stablemasters will ask if I want to put on a mawashi and join in. The atmosphere is often light and friendly, but I know full well from bitter experience how quickly that can change. I might be dumb in many ways, but I’ve enough sense to know getting back into a pro ring almost a decade after retirement wouldn’t end well.

Because I trained with pros (who were of a much higher level than me) on a fairly regular basis I tended to go much harder than was probably necessary just to avoid being blown away.

The first time I trained with former juryo division wrestler Wakanoshima, for example, I hit him with an extremely aggressive thrust to the throat right at the face off. The sheer surprise of the tactic almost got me the win. Almost.

Of course that got his blood up and by the time the session came to an end I was battered and bruised.

Afterward, however, it was all good and we laughed it up in the dressing room.

That’s quite typical.

Sumo rings are places of violence. If you step into the ring for training, know that it’s going to be intense even during the lightest session, and feel like a war during most of them.

Once outside it, though, opponents who seemed like they were trying to kill you five minutes ago are suddenly people with whom you have a shared experience that most won’t understand.

Without knowing the specifics of what transpired between Ishiura and Hokaho it’s hard to say if what I described as typical is what occurred in this case, but generally speaking things spilling over inside the ring in sumo isn’t comparable to violence scandals that occur outside it.

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