Mudsock Heights

Mudsock Heights

This is an official White House photo of Grand Sumo, from May 2019, when Japanese Prime Minister Abne Shinzo (since assassinated) invited Donald Trump to attend suring a state visit.

Fat Men Fighting

By Dennis E. Powell | Posted at 11:04 PM

A friend was preparing for a visit to Japan. He would be spending a few days in Osaka and wondered about things to do in Japan’s second-biggest city.

I said that I’d seen that the Grand Sumo championship would be underway there during his trip. It might provide an interesting cultural experience.

Having recommended it, I felt slightly obligated to watch — endure was the word I had in mind — the bouts myself. The Japanese national public broadcaster, NHK, carries some of them in full and has a daily summary broadcast a half hour in length. I’ve accidentally caught a few of these — there are six championships, called basho, each year — and, frankly, semi-naked men who are deliberately fat trying to push each other out of a ring was mildly disgusting to me. Japan, though, eats it up. It’s their national sport.

Having resolved to watch at least some of it, I decided to learn a little about this activity that fascinates a likable, civilized country. The more I found out, the more interesting it became. To my good fortune, I’d happened upon the most exciting tournament in a very long time.

A “sumo wrestler,” as we in the West call him, is a rikishi. He trains at a heya, or stable, where he also lives. He, for obvious reasons, is likely to die young: While the rikishi is not usually especially tall, he is fat. Sometimes his muscles are noticeable, but he is always fat and shows no evidence at all of having abdominal muscles. He trains extensively.

His hair is cut and arranged in a chonmage, a style once popular throughout Japan but banned during the country’s first period of Westernization, 160 years ago. Sumo was granted an exception. It now manifests as a kind of ponytail that’s folded up over the head. (No, it is not pulled by one’s opponent; in the recent basho one rikishi who had won was ruled to have lost because he touched his opponent’s chonmage.)

The dohyō, where the action takes place, is about 15 feet in diameter. It is bordered by brick-like bales of rice straw, the tawara, and the floor is compacted clay.

The goal is for the rikishi to push, shove, or throw his opponent out of the ring or to get him to touch the ground with anything other than the bottoms of his feet.

The proceedings are overseen by a referee, called a gyoji. He carries a knife, not to dispose of losers or rikishi who have gone berserk but because he has taken an oath to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide, if he ever mis-calls a bout. (Apparently this is not strictly enforced; during the recent basho there was at least one time when the gyoji’s ruling was overturned by the judges, one of whom sits on each side of the doyho, but he did not kill himself and best I can tell remains alive today.)

A Grand Sumo basho lasts 15 days. The winner is the one who has won the most bouts, no surprise there, but even below that the won-lost record is important. When a rikishi has won eight of his 15 bouts he knows he will not have a losing basho and therefore won’t lose major rank as a result of this basho.

Ranks? Oh, yes. There are five main ranks in sumo. The two most commonly seen at the high-level basho are Ōzeki and Maegashira. The Ōzeki have strong winning records over recent basho, while Maegashira are one rank lower. There are a total of 42 Maegashira rikishi, and they are ranked by number. Maegashira are usually on their way up or on their way down. Sometimes a rikishi will go back and forth between the ranks. His hairstyle reflects his rank: a top-ranked rikishi’s chonmage is arranged in gingko style, the end of the ponytail splayed out in the shape of a gingko leaf above his forehead.

You would not believe the amount of ritual involved in sumo. There are rituals before the basho begin that put the opening festivities of the Olympics to shame. There are rituals at the end of each day and at the end of the basho. Before each bout, the rikishi throw salt into the ring, shio-iri, to purify it. This is after each rikishi has purified himself by taking a sip of chikara mizu, or power water, from a bamboo dipper. (There is also a Japanese soft drink called Chikara Mizu, but it is different: a rikishi spits his power water into a spittoon under cover of a piece of paper; consumers of the commercial product are supposed to swallow it.)

Rikishi wear a mawashi, a kind of loincloth about 30 feet long and 20-25 inches wide, wrapped around them in a precise way. Opponents grab this to aid in their throws. Some wear it loosely to gain an advantage. These, too, vary acording to rank and, like everything else in Japan, every detail — especially color — has a special meaning to the rikishi. They are specially woven for the rikishi, traditionally of silk. If it falls off during a bout, he loses (and maybe asks the gyoji to borrow his knife, publicly shamed as he is — yes, that’s a joke). Mawashi are rarely if ever laundered. There are sometimes strings stiffened with glue hanging from the mawashi, and these often fall off during the bout.

Men carrying vertical banners circle the dohyō before each bout. The banners name the sponsors of that particular bout. When it is over, the loser bows and leaves. The winner remains and the gyojo gives him a packet that appears to be a stack of envelopes tied with a ribbon, which is exactly what it is. The envelopes contain money, from the sponsors. (Winning rikishi are usually paid 70,000 yen, or about 462 dollars, for the bout. Of this, 30,000 yen are put away for his retirement, 30,000 are paid to him, and 10,000 goes to the stable.)

This isn’t even the start of a comprehensive explanation of sumo. There are special names for each of the throws involved in the sport. There are special names for everything. But perhaps the above is enough to impart the important aspects. One thing more: if you have ever seen a sumo bout you might have noticed the strange movements undertaken by rikishi before the bout. This is chiri-chozu. Its purpose is to prove that the rikishi has no weapons.

With this much knowledge one can enjoy a basho. The March one, just finished, moved from interesting to exciting, even for someone who like me knows next-to-nothing. (Do you know anyone who knows everything about every World Series since the beginning of time and every baseball rule or change thereto? There’s one World Series every year, but there are six Grand Sumo basho. Though the rules don’t change often, the meaning of some of them are obscure. It is very complicated.)

This time, all eyes quickly turned to Takerufuji. His real name is Mikiya Ishioka. Rikishi adopt ring names (as do gyoji — the practice is common in several Japanese pursuits; in some cases such as kabuki it is more of a title than a name). He is just under 25 years old. He is six feet tall and weighs 315 pounds, but shows actual evidence of musculature. He is from Aomori Prefecture, part of the area affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

This was his first Grand Sumo basho. His rank is Maegashira #17 — far down in the rankings among the second tier of those competing.

The first day, he won his bout. The second day, too. He kept winning. To the surprise of everyone, he was soon 11-0, even after having faced rikishi of much higher rank. There were four days left in the basho. Even if he won no more bouts his performance would have been remarkable.

On day 12, he lost. Day 13, he won. By then the other rikishi had established their scores, and all had lost enough that with 13 wins the basho would be his. He was now 12-1.

I do not know the viewership, but I suspect that it was at or near a record the 14^th^ day. Takerufuji lost, but it was worse than that. He was pushed off the elevated mound of the dohyō. When he returned to bow, it was clear he was limping. He was actually taken away in a wheelchair.

He had ripped a tendon in his ankle.

This is worth considering in an era when in our sports we have grown accustomed to seeing athletes carried from the field on stretcher after they have suffered a pinkie spasm or something.

Was he out? Was his tournament over?

Come day 15. There is Takerufuji, his ankle taped up like a mummy. He did not seem comfortable.

But he won. He had won the first Grand Sumo tournament in which he had appeared. That’s a rare thing. How rare? The last time a rookie won was 1914.

It was big news, the way Dennis Conner losing the America’s Cup in 1983, the first American loss in the race’s 132 years, was big news.

My friend visiting Osaka didn’t go. Truth be known, I don’t blame him.

But I’m glad his visit caused me to watch the most exciting sumo I’m ever likely to see. And to learn that it’s a lot more than just fat men fighting.

Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large at Open for Business. Powell was a reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio, where he has (mostly) recovered. You can reach him at

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