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A Mongolian and a Bulgarian walk into a basho…

It’s the end of autumn and the beginning of winter here in the Berkshires. Usually, this is the time of year I’m arranging my schedule to ensure I catch as many Green Bay Packers games as possible. But with the Packers playing abysmally – 2-8 – I’m consoling myself with my other favorite sport played by very large men: sumo.


The Kyushu Basho, the sixth and final tournament of 2005, finishes this Sunday. Mongolian wrestler Asashoryu – the only Yokozuna (“grand champion”) active in sumo today – is 12-1 in his first thirteen bouts. With yesterday’s victory over Kotomitsuki, Asashoryu tied a 27-year old record for the most victories in a year’s worth of sumo – 82 victories. (Rishiiki compete in only 90 matches a year. With today’s loss, Asashoryu was defeated only six times this year.) With one more victory, he will likely win the Emperor’s Cup for the seventh time in a row, making him the first sumo in the modern era to win all six Bashos in a single year.

Looking at recent sumo history, the only Yokozuna who compares to Asashoryu in statistical terms is Tamanoumi, who now shares the 82 win record with Asashoryu. To find a Yokozuna who scores “yusho” – a tournament title – as often as Asashoryu (75% of the time), you need to look back to Yokozuna Jinmaku, who last fought in 1867… and that’s only because Jinmaku fought in, and won, a single basho, giving him a 100% record.

With such a champion for the ages, tickets must be scarce at the tournaments as people line up to see a great champion in the flesh. History is being made. Records shattered. It’s a golden moment for sumo!

Or not.

Actually, sumo’s undergoing something of a crisis in Japan. Arenas are half-filled as fans age and new generations are forsaking sumo for more “modern” fighting sports like “K-1”. One possible explanation why sumo’s having such trouble attracting Japanese fans? It’s not easy to find great Japanese wrestlers to root for.

Over the past ten years, foreign-born wrestlers have been a major presence in sumo. In 1992, Akebono – originally named Chad Rowan – became sumo’s first foreign-born Yokozuna – he was born and grew up in Hawaii. Because Akebono was so physically dominating (he stands 6 foot 8 inches (2.03m), and his wrestling weight was 525 pounds (240 kg)), his success in the ring was attributed as much to his mass than to his wrestling talents. (There’s little shame in losing a match to a man who outweighs you by 100kg.) Similarly-sized Samoan Musashimaru was viewed much the same way – more as a force of nature than as a fellow sumo wrestler.

Asashoryu is different. When he entered professional sumo, his wrestling weight was 120kg, making him one of the smallest competitors in the sport. He’s subsequently bulked up to 145kg – still slightly below average weight for top-ranking rishiki. Asa wins matches through a combination of strength, speed and technique, sometimes lifting much larger men out of the ring, sometimes quickly throwing them over a shoulder. There’s no way to argue that he’s got a natural advantage over his opponents, like Akebono or Musa. He’s simply better than his peers.

Increasingly, his peers aren’t Japanese. They’re from around the world, especially from the former Soviet Union. One of the most promising up-and-coming rishiki is Kotooshu, a Bulgarian wrestler who will likely become the fourth Ozeki (sumo’s second-highest rank) after this basho. (After beating Asa today, Kotooshu is 10-3 and will likely receive promotion with one more victory.) There are now two Russians and a Georgian in sumo’s top ranks, as well as 6 other Mongolians wrestling in the top Makuuchi division.

But don’t hold your breath for Japanese sumo to become a fully globalized sport. According to today’s Japan Times, the Japanese Sumo Association is sticking to a policy where each sumo “stable” can have only one foreign-born wrestler. Four of the 54 stables have said they won’t be accepting any foreign wrestlers, and there are currently 50 foreign born wrestlers in the sport. In other words, the doors opening sumo to the world currently appear to be closed, despite dozens of Bulgarian, Mongolian and Russian wrestlers who’d like to join the ranks of professional sumo.

It’s easy to dismiss boneheaded policies like this as racism or xenophobia – what’s next, a great wall around Japan to repel the Mongol hordes? But that misses a critical fact: sumo’s not just a sport. It’s a religious and cultural ritual, something that becomes apparent as you watch five minutes of ceremony, including a sprinkling of salt in the ring to ritually purify it, before a match that might last only ten seconds. There’s a widespread perception that some of the foreign wrestlers – notably Asashoryu – don’t take the entirity of their role as rikishi as seriously as they should.

Listing some of Asa’s ritual transgressions, Howard French (who writes as brilliantly about sumo as he does about African politics) notes that Asa uses his left hand to throw salt into the ring (instead of his right), has been photographed wearing a suit (instead of a traditional robe) and tends to follow his (numerous) victories with decidedly un-sumo displays of enthusiasm. No, we’re not talking Terrell Owens pulling a pen out of his sock to sign a football – we’re talking about a discrete pumped fist – but that’s been enough to put some members of the press on permanent Asa-scandal watch.

Assume for the moment that Asashoryu wins one of the next two matches and sets several records in the process. Assume Kotooshu is promoted to Ozeki. Assume that Bulgarian and Mongolian kids start dreaming of a future in sumo, while Japanese kids play video games. (In French’s article, Asa argues that Mongolian kids – who grow up on horseback, following herds across the plains, end up tougher than Japanese kids who grow up on Nintendo.) Can sumo survive globalization?

America’s chief ritualized sport – baseball – seems to be doing quite well in a global environment. Sure, the alleged “World Series” pits US teams from teams as far away as Canada. But Ozzie Guillen, manager of this year’s victorious White Sox team, declared his success a victory for his native Venezuela. Many of the best players in the game are Dominican, Japanese, Korean or Cuban. Steroids, labor strikes and the designated hitter aside, baseball still looks more or less like it did in 1900… just a lot more colorful.

Is sumo really different? Is the sport so Japanese that it won’t be recognizable as sumo if many of the heroes come from overseas? Or will globalization make the sport better, more exciting, more relavent to a new generation of fans, inside and outside of Japan.

You know what I’m rooting for.

Asashoryu won. Won big, as is appropriate for a rishiki. Asahi Shimbun starts their article on his victory as follows:

“Yokozuna Asashoryu, sumo’s most dominant wrestler ever, won yet again Sunday to close the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament with a 14-1 record and an unprecedented seventh straight title.”

Never thought I’d see a major Japanese paper acknowledge Asa’s dominance quite so directly. And without even mentioning his Mongolian heritage in the lede… great to see him getting the respect he so richly deserves.

Photo from AP Photowire