Sumo isn’t something one normally associates with the University of Cambridge.

The 800-year-old seat of learning is better known for scientific and medical breakthroughs, as well as names like Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Alan Turing.

Eleven monarchs, 47 heads of state and 121 Nobel laureates have passed through Cambridge’s hallowed halls, but no sumo wrestlers.

Until now.

Colton Runyan, an American who spent several years in Japan training with top collegiate and professional wrestlers, is three years into a Ph.D. at Cambridge that’s exploring the role sumo and other traditional sports played in the Heian Period.

The 31-year-old has gone from taking on Tobizaru and Daiamami in the ring to the (arguably more demanding) task of tackling ancient and abstruse Japanese texts in Cambridge’s vast and sprawling library system.

His doctorate, which has the working title “The Power of a Tourney,” seems set to throw cold water on the predominant narrative of what Japan’s national sport was a millennium ago.

According to Runyan, sumo at that time “was far more legitimately competitive than anything that anyone has written about before. Everyone ties it into religion very strongly even though it has only the most tenuous relationship with religion in the Heian Period.”

Despite the perceived wisdom — particularly in historical English-language sources, that sumo progressed more or less in a linear fashion from ceremony to sport, Runyan reveals that mentions of sumo as religious ceremony don’t actually appear “in any text until the 15th century,” adding that “back in the 10th and 11th century they ain’t talking about pleasing the gods — it’s about pleasing the emperor.”

Colton Runyan trains at the Otake stable in Tokyo in September 2015. | JOHN GUNNING
Colton Runyan trains at the Otake stable in Tokyo in September 2015. | JOHN GUNNING

Although not a competition in the way that we think of them today, Runyan explains that Heian Period sumo, unlike archery and horse racing, wasn’t restricted to members of the imperial court and had real world political implications.

The tribute system in place at the time meant that the provinces were obliged to send wrestlers every year as a way of acknowledging the legitimacy of the court. Further, an edict that rikishi shouldn’t just be big and strong, but also good at wrestling, showed that sumo was no mere ceremony with a predetermined outcome, but something that those watching wanted to be entertained by.

Shedding light on the obscure world of classical Japanese texts is just the latest step on a sumo journey that had taken the burly Texan around the world over the past decade.

It’s also an adventure that might not have happened were it not for a video game.

While playing Kessen (Decisive Battle) — a real-time tactic game centered on feudal era Japan — Runyan developed an interest in Japanese military history. That attraction grew, and eventually led to a move to Akita and a position teaching English in local schools.

It was in Japan’s north that the then-20-year-old first encountered sumo at the Akita International Basho, a charity tournament set up and run by foreign English teachers in the area.

Competing under the ring names “King” and “Bear Mountain,” Runyan took gold in 2011 and silver in 2012.

That initial taste of success led to him continuing with the sport after returning to the U.S. He eventually made it onto the national team for the 2013 World Games in Colombia.

The lure of Japan was strong, however, and it was during a second stint in this country that Runyan took his sumo to another level.

The Texan competed in a tournament held at Tokyo’s Kokugikan as a member of Saitama University’s sumo team, but it was during a six-month period living and training with the Nihon University sumo club that he blossomed into an extremely powerful middleweight.

Training at Nichidai — arguably the best amateur setup in the world of sumo — and going up against future professional wrestlers every day, meant that when opportunities came for him to participate in training at stables, Runyan was well prepared.

The 31-year-old echoes the thoughts of many other wrestlers in saying that practices at some heya are actually easier than the famously intense sessions at Nihon University.

Regardless, he says that he “very much enjoyed going to Nishikido and Otake stables because I got to fight professionals and guys at different levels and I was like ‘OK, here is where my wrestling level is in the professional realm.’”

Runyan acquitted himself well in those practices, only really having problems handling rikishi like Gokushindo who would go on to reach sekitori level.

Colton Runyan plays in the Urban Football League in Tokyo in May 2017. | JOHN GUNNING
Colton Runyan plays in the Urban Football League in Tokyo in May 2017. | JOHN GUNNING

Sumo wasn’t his only sporting experience in Japan as the lifelong football fan also found an opportunity to put on pads for the first time while in the country — playing for a local amateur team in Tokyo.

That’s a sport he has continued with in England.

Cambridge University lacks a sumo club but it does have an American football team and Runyan has become a standout on the defensive line as well as club captain.

The former U.S. middleweight champion intends to continue to play on the gridiron when the pandemic eases and he is finally able to take advantage of a grant to continue his research at Kyoto University.

Making the football team there figures to be a taller order as the six-time national champion Gangsters are one of the strongest teams in the country.

Runyan also plans to return to the clay ring when in Kyoto — which should be a much easier task. Even with a break of several years, the American will be a strong addition to a sumo team that lags well behind powerhouse universities like Nichidai.

Regardless of where his passion for the sport takes him from here, Runyan’s first decade in sumo has inarguably encompassed one of the most unique and wide-ranging journeys anyone has ever had in the sport.

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