Monday, August 07, 2006

Lords of the Ring

We've all seen them, those behemouths in thongs, mountains of flesh with long hair that you could hardly call humans, let alone athletes. Well today, my friends, we stood in awe of these beasts, exploring the humid habitat of the majestic Sumo Wrestler.
In a regular high school gym in Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, we watched a full day of fat men throwing each other to the ground, or picking each other up and lifting them out of the ring. One 400 pound man just gets his arms around another 400 pound man and lifts him like a cheerleader, like a bride over a threshold. They floated like a semi-truck and stang like a piano falling out of the sky. It was awesome.
First came the rookies, the Sumo Little Leaguers, who looked like high school kids fed 30 daily bowls of udon. Their matches were over pretty quickly: they step up to the platform and bow, they lift their legs up and show off to the audience, throw a bit of salt into the ring, and squat facing each other. Then like moose in mating season, they charge each other. A person between them could easliy get crushed. The rookie matches were over pretty quickly, then came the Minor Leaguers who were better with technique, more bravado and belly slapping and longer matches. Finally, in silken thongs that only a 6'2" 400 pound man can pull off, our heros paraded through the crowd into the ring. And these guys were really good. Longer matches with plenty of throat grabbing, torso twisting smackdowns. In one match, both wrestlers were holding each other with one leg out behind them, like figure skaters. Graceful, limber, agile elephant figure skaters.

One of my favorte parts came between the rookies and the minor leaguers, when 2 clowns came out and did some amazing slapstick sumo, for the kiddies. One fat guy and one sort of normal sized guy (normal being football quarterback, not linebacker) who pulled hair, slapped like girls, fell into the laps of the judges, tripped the referee, and finally went out into the audience and grabbed beers from poor elderly Japanese spectators. But when a 6'2" 400 pound bear wants your beer, you sacrifice the beer and don't ask questions.

Not all of the wrestlers were Japanese; some are Mongolian and several are Eastern European. The Eastern European dudes are Sex Symbols- hairy chests, more muscle less fat, pale skin- just add gold chains and dark sunglasses. I don't know how they end up doing sumo in Japan: one guy was a bouncer at an Estonian nightclub, another was some farmer in Russia. I assume the guys in their little towns got sick of them winning bar fights and sent them out of the country. And of course they have trading cards with photos and stats! What's a sport without cards?

Plus I got to watch an on deck wrestler get his thong wedged in by another wrestler behind him. Sometimes all you can think when they are grappling in the ring is "Oh, god, please don't let that shift."

The saddest part was the end, as they awarded the winner his prize ceremonial bow and arrows. He starts to do his touchdown bow and arrow dance in the ring, he's beaten the big dog and wants to prance around in the glow of victory, but all 300 spectators stand up and rush the doors. He's up there swinging his bow around and looking like a badass and no one notices because they have to get out of this hot stuffy gym where they've been sitting for 5 hours. That's Japan: intensely polite and unspeakably rude all in the same breath.


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