The Red Bulletin September 2019 (UK)



America’s Kelly

Gneiting (left)

grapples with

a fellow contender

during the early

rounds in the

men’s heavyweight


Lords of the ring

It’s competition day. The 4,000-strong audience is hunkered

down with bento boxes and cans of Sapporo as ritual taiko

drummers perform. These Japanese accoutrements aside, this

could be the crowd for any traditional American sport: eclectic

and not shy of verbalising their enthusiasm.

By the dohyō, a Japanese referee in a white shirt, bow tie

and gloves calmly officiates. Matches frequently last as little as

10 seconds before being won by the first wrestler to either knock

down their opponent or force them out of the circle. There are

82 recognised techniques for doing this, most of which involve

pushing or throwing. Slapping, leg-sweeping, and pulling of

the belt (mawashi) are allowed; punching, kicking, and pulling

of the hair are not.

Beneath the bleachers, the sumo await their matches. Some

sit wrapped in towels, others chat among themselves. The

Ukrainians – an unusually muscular group – are sequestered

in a corner, warming up. Some competitors alternate between

practising moves and napping. McKnight has taken himself off

to perform some Jedi-esque stretches. Ulambayar waits calmly

in his purple gown, eating. The Norwegian team – all blond hair

and matching tracksuits – have set up their national flag in

a corner, like some makeshift Arctic base camp.

The men’s lightweight matches are over in a flash, with

McKnight and the 12 other US competitors quickly ejected from

the dohyō and the tournament. At the climax, Ukrainian

Sviatoslav Semykras launches himself at his opponent’s chest

and, with a half somersault, sends him flying into the crowd

before landing neatly on his feet to claim gold. Not for nothing

are the Ukrainians revered in this sport.

The men’s middleweight competition offers few surprises.

Amitani is the clear master of his class. While others grapple

and shove, the Japanese wrestler deftly sidesteps, tussles and

pushes, using his opponent’s weight against him to claim the

top spot, his second win in three years.

It’s the men’s heavyweight competition that most spectators

have been waiting for. Next up is Ulambayar, squaring up against

the Egyptian Ramy Elgazar, US Sumo Open champion in 2015.

A sumo match begins when the two opponents rest both fists on

the floor of the dohyō, and Ulambayar and Elgazar revel in the

element of theatre by placing just one hand down, then standing

up, stretching or walking around the ring when the other’s

knuckles hit the floor. When they finally clash, the Egyptian

knocks the Mongolian down and out. It’s only Ulambayar’s

seventh loss in more than a decade of US sumo matches.

Newcomer Galindo’s tournament looks set to come to an

abrupt halt as he squares up against Gneiting, but then, all

of a sudden, the veteran is out of the ring and Galindo stands

victorious. It’s an incredible result for someone who admits to

having trained for only a few months.

Galindo’s next opponent is Sumi. They grapple for a while,

then Sumi goes down. The referee, believing the American’s foot

left the ring first, awards the match to the Japanese wrestler. The

crowd boo. A replay is checked, the panel of officials consulted.

The result is reversed and Galindo wins, beating his second world

champion in two matches. As Sumi sits serenely, the victor gees

up the crowd with his arms. “I’ve been to Super Bowls, NBA finals,

and this is more fun than all of them!” says an audience member.

Eventually, with every favourite eliminated, Galindo faces

off against Oleksandr Veresiuk in the final, but succumbs to the

onslaught of the Ukrainian. Resigned to second place, a beaming

Galindo shakes his opponent’s hand. “I feel good,” he enthuses

afterwards. “Going up against Hiroki was amazing. I didn’t think

I’d beat him – I was just hoping to tire him out.” His confidence

newly bolstered, Galindo wants to continue to compete in sumo.

If today’s performance is anything to go by, he could well be

America’s best sumo athlete since Gneiting.

As the day’s competitions come to an end, the Ukrainians

have emerged victorious in every category – both men’s and

women’s – except men’s middleweight, which Amitani claimed

for his home country, the originators of the sport. Results such

as these are becoming commonplace, but Amitani appears to bear

no ill will towards the foreign usurpers, believing instead that

the increase in popularity is good for sumo. “I think it’s great,”

he says. “Sumo is very simple, and many people can enjoy doing

it. People in Japan don’t mind when Japanese sumo don’t win.”

Perhaps, then, the influx of foreign talent into the sport

does not represent a dilution of sumo’s traditions, but rather

a widening of its parameters – and people’s perceptions –

making for a more inclusive sport. “In America, they see sumo

as two fat guys belly-bucking, and they think it’s funny,”

Gneiting says in parting. “But sumo is a legitimate martial art,

and nothing could be further from the truth.”


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