The Red Bulletin September 2019 (UK)

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Sumo

Viewed from the bleachers, the three sumo

squatting on the basketball court below look

like oversized tan beach balls. It’s an unusual

juxtaposition. After all, this is California –

the arena of California State University Long

Beach, to be precise. Built in the shape of a

pyramid that mirrors the clement sky, this

4,000-seater is home to the Long Beach State

49ers basketball and athletics teams. The

interior of the Walter Pyramid is festooned

with gold and black banners reading ‘Go Beach’, there’s a stall

selling kettle corn, and, whichever way you turn, vendors are

ready to furnish spectators with hot dogs and oversized sodas.

In short, the place is as American as apple pie. All of which

makes the two Japanese and one Mongolian sumo all the more

conspicuous as they warm up against the polished wood and

black markings of the basketball court.

The three athletes are Byambajav Ulambayar, a 1.84m-tall

Mongolian and former sumo pro; the 1.92m-tall Hiroki Sumi

from Japan; and, standing at 1.7m, the relatively diminutive

Takeshi Amitani, the former five-time Japanese National

University Champion. What brings them to town on this mid-

March afternoon is the 19th annual US Sumo Open – the largest

and longest-running sumo event outside Japan. Collectively, its

participants have amassed 18 World Sumo Champion titles and

travelled from as far afield as Japan, Mongolia, India, Egypt,

Tajikistan, Georgia, Ukraine, Norway and Germany.

If the eclectic make-up surprises you, it shouldn’t. More than

any other sport, sumo is a tradition in transition. In Japan, the

best national wrestlers are regularly bettered by a new influx

of Russians, Mongolians and Ukrainians – nations that have

proudly adopted its national sport and set out to dominate it.

So great is the impact of non-Japanese in sumo that in 2017

Japan celebrated its first yokozuna (the highest rank) in almost

20 years: Kisenosato Yutaka. But when Yutaka retired this

January, at the age of 32, a brace of Mongolian wrestlers were

competing for the top spot. This development is indicative of the

changes happening across sumo. In short, sumo is a heritage

in the midst of being reimagined and remoulded to fit the tastes

of a wider, global audience. And nowhere is this more evident

than at the US Sumo Open.

Worth the weight

Two days before the 19th US Sumo Open is due to begin, The

Red Bulletin arrives in Long Beach. Inside the Walter Pyramid,

sheltered from the bright sunlight, we find some of the event’s

most famous competitors weighing in. Ulambayar, the 35-yearold

former pro, tips the scales at 161kg. “I’m so skinny,” he jokes.

As Ulambayar dons a purple floral gown and paces around

with regal grace, 29-year-old Sumi clutches his plentiful stomach

in his hands and climbs onto the scale. At 220kg, he will be one

of the heaviest sumo to compete in the competition. At 100kg,

26-year-old Amitani easily makes middleweight class.

As Ulambayar attempts to score a basketball with a balled-up

towel, Amitani and Sumi form a little-and-large double act, with

the former translating our questions for his towering counterpart.

Perpetually beaming, Sumi – who, in 2018, fought in a one-off

WWE Greatest Royal Rumble – resembles a Japanese version

of Dustin from the Netflix series Stranger Things. Amitani,

meanwhile, is handsome and muscular with swept-back hair and

a cauliflower left ear, one eye partially closed from injury.

“I train very hard,” Sumi says through Amitani. “I benchpress

90kg, shoulder-press 60kg, and leg-press 140kg.” He acts

out the movements as he speaks, fleshy limbs bunching up.

He points to his right knee, where an angry, jagged red line

58 THE RED BULLETIN

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