The sumo world lost a legend on Feb. 28 with the passing of Byambajav Ulambayaryn.
A former makushita division rikishi who left the professional game at age 20, Byamba, as he was commonly known, went on to become arguably the most high-profile sumo wrestler in the world.
From Super Bowl commercials to Hollywood movies and One Direction videos, the Ulaanbaatar native’s face has probably been seen by more people across the globe than any other rikishi in history.
Over the past 15 years, whenever a U.S. television show or advertisement featured sumo it was almost inevitable that Byamba played a starring role.
Not that the former Daishochi, who died at age 35, gave up competitive sumo entirely after leaving the pro ranks.
A two-time world heavyweight champion, Byamba also won gold medals at the World Games and World Combat Games and utterly dominated the sport in the United States in the decade after his arrival.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact the burly Mongolian had on the amateur game worldwide.
Byamba ensured his home country was always among the medalists at global tournaments, but his presence in America also raised the overall level of sumo in that country and gave it a profile far beyond anything the sport there had known previously.
Whether it was appearances on various talk shows or getting in the ring with Conan O’Brien and Kevin Hart, Byamba put sumo in front of more eyeballs than ever before.
That latter video has almost 18 million views, and while the famous comic pairing is obviously a big factor in those numbers, another (celebrity-free) video detailing Byamba’s diet and showing how he makes chanko (sumo hotpot) has close to 10 million.
Amateur tournaments also saw increased participation and larger audiences after his arrival, with the U.S. Open — Byamba’s cornerstone event each year — now justifiably claiming to be the biggest sumo competition in the world, outside of Japan.
The former Shibatayama stable man’s body slam of 205-kg Kelly Gneiting at the 2013 U.S. Open remains the most viewed amateur sumo bout of all time.
The reaction of the crowd that day confirmed what many already knew — namely that sumo is such an exciting and accessible sport that, with just a bit better organization and promotion as well as a few star names, it could take off in a big way in other countries.
Losing the biggest star of all, though, has made that task more difficult.
Gneiting, who regularly played the Washington Generals role to Byamba’s Harlem Globetrotters, wrote a tribute to his longtime sparring partner and rival, calling him “a champion of the highest caliber, a man among men, a warrior full of life and a vibrant competitor with a soft handshake but a killer tachiai.”
That respect for who the soft-spoken Mongolian was as a person and a wrestler comes through when you talk to anyone who knew him.
It’s all too common for star athletes to be venerated in death, with discussion of their various misdeeds and crimes becoming taboo, bringing a wave of online abuse onto the head of anyone daring to suggest they were anything less than perfect.
That’s not the case with Byambajav Ulambayaryn, though. In the two decades that I knew the man, I can’t honestly ever remember anyone having a bad word to say about him.
Despite his fame, Byamba took his role as a teacher and ambassador for the sport seriously and would devote significant time and energy to any newcomer taking up sumo. Getting to train with a superstar and multiple-time world champion was a huge factor in many American athletes’ decision to try (and to stick with) sumo.
Of course, there are the usual tiresome bores online that dismiss amateur sumo and look down their noses at what Byamba achieved. Their claims that only ōzumō (professional sumo), and specifically its top division, matters makes about as much sense as saying just the roof of a house is important and we don’t need the walls.
Byamba may have left the pros just as he was on the cusp of reaching the salaried divisions, but he never lost his love for the sport.
There is debate about how high the 184-cm, 152-kg man would have risen had he chosen to stay in Japan, but it’s highly likely he would have spent most of the following decade in makuuchi or juryo.
Sumo, of course, is an extremely harsh world and because of his later fame people tend to think quitting was the obviously correct course of action, but it should be remembered that Byamba was giving up what was probably going to be a well-paid position for 10 years or more, for an uncertain life in the United States.
Fame didn’t come immediately after the move either. With almost no English, the former rikishi was limited to low paying manual labor and spent his early days in Los Angeles washing dishes in restaurants and loading and unloading cargo at docks.
Just like in many of the movies made in the Hollywood that would soon become his stomping ground, however, Byamba lived the American dream and worked his way up from menial jobs to stardom.
His passing is not only a tragedy for his wife and small child, but a massive blow for the sport of sumo as a whole.