The Red Bulletin September 2019 (UK)



Japan’s best wrestlers

are regularly bettered

by Russians, Mongolians

and Ukrainians

meanwhile, comprises lighter fare such as fried mackerel,

noodles and salad. And because sumo is a 365-day sport without

competitive seasons, the diet of a professional wrestler remains

the same all year round.

All of this feeds into the typical Western image of the sumo

as an obese but muscular athlete. Many sumo – especially

the Ukrainian competitors – come from a more traditional

wrestling background, but packing on as much mass as possible

is essential for the heavyweight stars of the show, not just to

add to the spectacle but to make themselves an immovable

weight. The heavier you are, the harder it is for your opponent

to shift you from the ring.

Training with opponents who weigh in excess of 160kg makes

match preparation easier, too: try to stop one of them and your

legs will quickly develop the strength necessary to withstand

their onslaught in the ring. Sumo can grow so large that a

1994 study by sports scientists from four Tokyo universities –

conducted to determine the upper limit of fat-free body mass

in humans – found that the average competitor’s body is 26.1

per cent fat, as opposed to a bodybuilder’s 10.9 per cent.

But to be classified as a professional sumo involves more

than just a big appetite; it requires dedicating oneself to a sumo

stable in Japan and training day-in day-out to compete at the

highest level. Anything outside of that is considered ‘amateur’.

While Amitani was only ever a collegiate sumo wrestler in Japan,

both Sumi and Ulambayar competed as professionals. Now,

all three live in California and, as such, are arguably the face

of the sport outside Japan. With sumo now recognised as an

Olympic sport (though still not on the programme for Tokyo

2020), their services are more in demand than ever.

When he isn’t competing, Amitani teaches in a nearby dohyō

(ring) and regularly performs for television, expositions and

conferences, as does Sumi. Ulambayar, meanwhile, came to the

US in 2007 to appear in the film Ocean’s 13, and he hasn’t looked

back. But the US Sumo Open is not just another expo for these

wrestlers – as well as being the most prestigious competition

outside professional sumo, it’s also a way to keep their hand

in alongside foreign competitors. Ulambayar has taken the top

spot in the heavyweight class 10 times since 2007, while Sumi

won 234 matches during his professional career in Japan.

“Sumo is very simple,” Amitani translates for Sumi. “There

are many people who respect what sumo is, so I don’t mind

if non-Japanese people compete. Sumo is still a minor sport,

and I want it to be more popular. I was a professional for many

years in Japan, but I wanted to show my techniques to more

people. That is why I came to America.”

Our resident Mongolian, Ulambayar, is a man of few words

but deep insights. “I love my sport,” he says. “In America, it’s a

growing sport. The competitors are getting stronger and learning

a lot. I think they respect the culture. It’s difficult to fight the guys

who haven’t been professional. With a professional, you know

their moves. Others come from different sports, like judo, so we

don’t know how they will move.” He shrugs. “But I’ll handle it.”

Brawn in the USA

While the former pros are feeling strong, there are a whole host

of American-born sumo eager to make their names known.

Lightweight Andrew McKnight is a wiry, kinetic Californian

native. “I’ve always wrestled, and sumo was just something to

do,” he says. “I think a lot of guys hope to be a professional boxer

Left: Andrew McKnight prepares his sumo

belt – mawashi – for his first tournament.

The length varies from five to six metres

for amateurs, up to 10m for top professionals.

Opposite page, clockwise from top left:

Takeshi Amitani (JAP), Owen Albers (USA),

Jose Galindo (USA), Sviatoslav Semykras (UKR)


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