Sumo in crisis

I’d not been able to see any sumo wrestling since ITV Digital went under a couple of years back. I’ve had Sky now for five months, and there was no sign of it – I thought maybe it wasn’t on any channels I have. But then this weekend it shows up on British Eurosport, which has made me pretty happy.

It’s a widely misunderstood sport, often caricaturized as a couple of hugely fat men smacking into each other’s bellies. My last post here was about old British wrestling, and that was indeed all you got from Big Daddy, but it’s not something you actually see much of in sumo. The average weight for sumo’s top division is almost exactly Big Daddy’s weight, in fact. But the big difference is in the athleticism. These huge men may not look like athletes in any other realm, but their strength, speed, balance and skill are all very impressive. And there are many different ways of fighting: I think my favourite two, both ozeki rank (with only the single current yokozuna Asashoryu above them), make a nice contrast. Chiyotaikai, a protege of certainly the greatest I ever saw, Chiyonofuji, who was the best belt wrestler ever, is a bulldog-like character who launches from the squat with mighty thrusts up at the throat and jaw, one hand then the other, until the opponent’s head is forced back and up, at which point he is generally knocked over or out of the ring. Kaio is the other interesting character: an erratic fighter at times (he’s said to be a very heavy drinker – and I can barely imagine what counts as heavy drinking for men built on this scale – which sometimes leads to a lacklustre showing, and his occasional threats towards becoming a yokozuna have never quite worked out), but with immense strength, and seeing him grasp the belt and throw a fighter down dismissively is one of the great sights in the sport.

But sumo has a big problem nowadays. Its popularity is slipping in Japan, and this seems to be because there haven’t been many great Japanese sumo recently: Takanohana was the last Japanese yokozuna (‘supreme champion’) and he had a troubled time with the other two yokozuna at the time, the colossal Musashimaru and Akebono (he was 6’9, 40 stone), both foreigners, both generally finishing ahead of Takanohana. Asashoryu looks very good right now (and has won 28 bouts in a row as I write this, an outstanding record), but he is Mongolian. Sumo may have lost its grip in Japan, but I think it still has a special place in their zeitgeist, and they don’t like it that the biggest and best have been foreigners. The top (makuuchi) division has a couple of other Mongolians and the first ever European (a Georgian) to reach so high, and none of the four ozeki look to be on the verge of earning yokozuna status right now (though this is based on a brief snapshot after some time away, so I could be wrong). A more global intake is surely a good thing, but the Japanese really need a new national star to rise to the top, and very soon.