‘More than a silly little sport with fat men wearing nappies’: The ancient art of sumo wrestling warrants mainstream attention
I have never been one for combat sports. I enjoy them in principle; at their heart, they are very basic but pure forms of competition. Every fan can grasp that the competitor unable to rise after a fall is the loser.
They are accessible, transcending language, culture, and class. My avoidance of them is very personal; I just don’t like watching people trying to hurt one another.
Sumo wrestling could be considered a combat sport, but since the aim of the contest is not to hurt your opponent, it does not quite fit the label.
Similar to judo, sumo wrestling involves various throwing techniques crucial for victory. Korea has ‘ssireum’, and Mongolia has ‘bökh’, but because of sumo wrestling’s age, it would be more appropriate to say these sports are like sumo wrestling.
Sumo wrestling is old, about as old as it gets with its first mention in writing from the year 712. The modern version of professional sumo wrestling has been in existence since the 1600s.
The sport has undergone some rule changes over the last few hundred years. The number of tournaments held per year has risen from two to four and has sat at six per year since 1958.
However, the meat and potatoes of the sport have practically remained unchanged. Outside of a few technicalities like hair pulling, the only two ways to lose a sumo wrestling match are to be forced outside of the ring or for any part of your body besides the soles of your feet to touch the ground: even your hair touching the ground counts as a loss.
Each wrestler in the top two divisions must compete for 15 consecutive days, with a match scheduled for each day.
Although a sumo wrestling match lasts on average only six seconds, top division wrestlers may spend less than three minutes competing over the 15-day period – the fights are very hard and very intense.
Each match begins with a ‘tachiai’ where the wrestlers signal their readiness to compete by placing both fists down on the ‘shikiri-sen’ placed along the centre of the ring.
They charge at each other with intensity, and their heads often collide, sending an echoing crack around the arena. It is no surprise that the issue of CTE is a common topic in the world of sumo discourse.
Sumo wrestling can be a very cruel sport. Injuries are not a matter of if but when for every single wrestler who steps onto the clay.
With a ranking system that is harsh on those who need to sit out of a tournament due to injury or illness, it means wrestlers can lose significant portions of their careers in the top divisions if they sustain an injury that will take a year or even just months to rehabilitate.
Unfortunately, this incentivises all wrestlers to compete through their injuries. A wrestler by the name of Wakatakakage is a top division tournament winner who was competing at the third highest rank of ‘sekiwake’ when he tore his ACL.
He put in a middling performance in November 2022 and January 2023, likely due to competing while injured, and then ultimately sat out the next three tournaments after receiving surgery, which counted as 45 straight losses.
He returned this past November as a salary-less competitor in the 3rd division. He will be unlikely to make it back to his sekiwake rank in the top division even if he consistently puts in strong performances during all six tournaments in 2024.
This story is not at all uncommon and has hamstrung or even ended the careers of countless wrestlers.
Despite an obvious language barrier, the simplicity of sumo is what makes up part of the appeal to international fans. The winner of a tournament is the person in each division with the most match victories, with equal scores resulting in final-day playoffs for tournament wins.
You can know nothing about the Japanese language and enjoy the sport of sumo wrestling just by knowing how a match is decided and how a tournament is decided. I am hoping that reading this article will be enough for you to want to dive in too.
Although I do not consider it to be a combat sport, sumo wrestling still appeals to any die-hard combat sports fanatic because of the technique, strength, and skill displayed by wrestlers during their bouts.
There is thrusting, charging, pushing, slapping, and a myriad of throws using the opponents ‘mawashi’ (belt) or practically any other part of their body.
Ring awareness especially being a vital skill in the arsenal of any sumo wrestler as a strategic use of the ‘tawara’; the risen hay bales that signify the ring boundary, commonly being the deciding factor in the winner of a match.
Unfortunately, accessing sumo wrestling broadcasts in Australia can be a challenge. There are satellite dish services available that can give you access to channels that broadcast the sport, but it is a big hurdle even for the most invested of fans.
For international fans, YouTube and other streaming websites become invaluable for accessing sumo wrestling broadcasts, as the growing international fandom has facilitated a need for accessibility to watch the tournaments and many streamers have stepped up to the plate to provide that service.
If you live in Japan, it is not so bad. NHK, the national broadcaster in Japan, provides an English commentary broadcast for English-speaking expats.
The roster of English commentators even includes Murray Johnson, a Perth native, who also works as an English commentator for NHK’s horse racing broadcasts.
As a fan who picked up the sport in 2020, it has been pleasing to see the rising interest in sumo in the international community.
My exposure to sumo wrestling of any kind growing up was only in parody form in the Austin Powers films, and I think this pop culture touchstone was far-reaching in its impact on the average person’s view of sumo wrestling as a silly little sport with fat men wearing nappies.
As any reasonable person would suspect, that is incredibly far from the truth and insulting to how tough the sport is.
The depths of sumo wrestling as a sport know no bounds, and its fantastically long history and complex culture give any type of fan ample opportunity to find an aspect of the sport that they can love.
Whether it be fantasy team building for each tournament, rankings chart predictions between tournaments, learning about sumo wrestling styles and ‘kimarite’ (the winning techniques) or learning about sumo stable life.
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Despite the issue of access, falling down the sumo rabbit hole is exceedingly easy.
A community of dedicated and passionate international fans exists on the social media channels of Twitter/X, Youtube, and Discord making the sport an incredibly fun fandom to participate in.
Sumo wrestling has something to offer fans of MMA, boxing, and martial arts and I think you will quickly find the joy in this unique sport.