England’s not a place that normally springs to mind when thinking of sumo, but over the past few decades, that green and pleasant land has produced several figures who have made significant contributions to Japan’s national sport.
The first ever European rikishi was English of course, and while Nathan Strange’s sumo career may only have lasted a few months, he helped open the door for other wrestlers from that part of the world.
Fighting under a ring name (Hidenokuni) that used the same kanji characters as those found in Great Britain, Strange was inspired to go to Japan after watching sumo on Channel 4 — a British domestic broadcaster that aired the sport for several years starting in the late 1980s.
The commentator on, and driving force behind, those shows, Lyall Watson, not only sparked Strange’s interest in sumo, but created so much demand for the sport in England that the Japan Sumo Association decided to hold a full five-day event in London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1991.
Strange and Watson though were long predated by Nottingham native Doreen Simmons.
Although not experiencing sumo live until after arriving in Japan in her early 40s, Simmons went on to immerse herself in the sport and become one of its most authoritative voices.
Whether in print or on-air the Cambridge graduate consistently provided a window into sumo’s inner workings for over four decades.
Following Simmons passing in 2018, it appeared to most as if England’s links with ozumo had been completely severed.
What the regular fan on the street probably didn’t know however, is that not only was the connection still alive, but that in one corner of the sumo world an Englishman had, for years, been racking up Hakuho-like numbers and utterly crushing the competition.
Simon Siddall, who goes by the shikona (ring-name) Pandaazuma, continues to dominate and has now been crowned Sumo Games World Champion in five of the last six years.
In the almost two decades that the online fantasy-style tournament has been running only two other players have managed to win the title on more than one occasion.
Siddall also holds a host of other records, and according to Jurgen Buder, who runs the competition, “In terms of consistency … Simon is now for years the most dominating player ever. Never has any player held so many top ranks in so many different games, and Simon is setting one record after the other.”
Combining the results of the 19 most popular and widely played sumo games on the internet, the World Championship is part of a wider competition called the Superbanzuke which, like its real-world namesake, assigns a rank to every single player from yokozuna on down.
Drawing competitors from 50 different nations and territories, the Superbanzuke began in 2002 and Siddall unsurprisingly is also top of the heap there.
With many of the games requiring daily inputs during real sumo tournaments, staying competitive can be a time-consuming process, but for the Manchester native that only adds to his enjoyment of the sport.
“I was always a big sumo fan but I focused mostly on the top wrestlers. Sumo gaming forces you (in a good way) to take an active interest in not only all the top-division wrestlers but also those from the second and third divisions. It might seem like a chore but it opens up a whole new world and you can learn a lot of stuff about sumo you would never have known otherwise.” As to the secret of his success, Siddall says he uses a combination of intuition and math.
“I have my own way of assigning strength ratings to wrestlers that is not at all based on stats but my own personal assessment and my selections stem from that basis. In individual games I follow a kind of customized algorithm that enables me to avoid dumb picks. I have to say, sadly, that I still make plenty of dumb ones so it definitely isn’t perfect.” Siddall doesn’t elaborate on that algorithm, which according to Buder isn’t surprising.
“Like chefs or bartenders, many strong players are highly secretive about their gaming strategies, not sharing their recipes for success.” An expert on knowledge exchange, and human information processing, the German scientist is impressed by Siddall’s capacity to cut through the data and find what really matters.
“When I once watched sumo together with Simon, I learnt a little bit more about his approach. He barely uses mathematical formulae. Rather, he has an almost uncanny ability to see the action on the dohyō. Where I have seen an average bout, he can better assess things that are hard to grasp mathematically, like determination of a rikishi. He sees weaknesses in victory or strengths in defeat that other players apparently miss.”
Buder compares Siddall’s success across a wide variety of games to being ozeki in 20 different sports, but despite all the Englishman’s success there is still one record he doesn’t hold.
Unlike in ozumo, yokozuna on the Superbanzuke can be demoted as the title is automatically conferred on whoever are the two highest rated players currently. In the almost two decades that it has been going only 15 players have earned that title. Siddall sits third all-time (having been a yokozuna for 33 tournaments) but is well behind the record of 56 held by a countryman of Buder that competed under the name of Doitsuyama.
With that gaming legend having hung up his algorithm however it’s likely only a matter of time before Siddall adds the record to his growing collection, especially as his fighting spirit remains undimmed.
“I have no plans to retire from gaming as sumo is a life-long passion and the games make it all the more enjoyable. On top of that, the sumo gaming community is very friendly and there are some great characters involved so I’m happy to keep going indefinitely.” Siddall’s dominance seems set to continue. The only question that remains is will he utter the famous Kenneth Wolstenholme line “They think it’s all over – it is now” when he finally overtakes his German rival.