Sumo wrestling - the crown jewel of Japanese sport

Baku, March 18, AZERTAC

Originating over 1,000 years ago, Sumo incorporates elements of Shinto — the native religion of Japan. Back in ancient Japan, Sumo was performed as a ritual dedicated to the gods as a prayer for good harvests.

In the Edo period (1603–1868), Sumo became regulated, with tournaments being held to fund shrines and temples. In the process, the sport’s audiences transitioned from the elite to the masses, commercializing the sport and creating professional sumo wrestlers.

Today, many traditions are still preserved such as wrestlers clapping their hands to attract the attention of the gods, tossing sacred salt to appease the gods, and stomping their feet to drive evil spirits away from the ring.

Taking place in a clay ring (Dohyo), matches are contested between two wrestlers, with the first to knock down or push out the opponent winning. There is no time limit, although most matches last less than one minute.

Inside the ring, wrestlers can pretty much do anything, from slapping to tripping, to defeat the opponent. However, they can’t punch, poke sensitive areas, or pull hair. Additionally, if a wrestler’s loincloth (Mawashi) comes off, it leads to immediate disqualification.

Though it sounds simple, there are actually eighty-two winning techniques (Kimarite) which a wrestler deploys to win the match, such as a leg tripping, throwing, and pushing out.

Unlike most other professional combat sports, Sumo has no weight or height classes, occasionally creating mismatches of over 100kg. The current average weight of first-division wrestlers is around 160kg, with the all-time heaviest sumo wrestler, Anatoly Mikhakhanov, weighing a whopping 288kg.

Fortunately for the mere mortals, it’s not just about size. Factors such as experience, speed, and agility play an equal part in the sport.

There are six tournaments held in a year. Each tournament is fifteen days long, with wrestlers competing in one match per day.

Based on their win-loss record at the end of the tournament, wrestlers are promoted or demoted ranks.

Sumo’s highest rank is the Yokozuna (Grand Champion), which is considered a god-like figure in Japan, being publicly recognized and earning upwards of one million USD annually. To earn a promotion to the highest rank, a wrestler has to win two consecutive tournaments. To illustrate its difficulty, there have only been seventy-two Yokozuna in the history of the sport, out of the thousands of challengers who have set foot on a clay ring. Currently, there are 702 professional sumo wrestlers.

Once a wrestler reaches the Yokozuna rank, he can never be demoted — though he is expected to retire if he cannot uphold the rank’s standards.

Sumo wrestlers lead highly regimented lifestyles. Since the age of fifteen, they live in a stable, where they train, eat, and live alongside other wrestlers. Prize money earned by the wrestlers is then split between them and the stable, thereby aligning their interests.

Their diet mainly consists of Chanko Nave, a stew with a mix of proteins, vegetables, and broth. The actual ingredients vary by personal preference but typically include fish, meat, and lettuce. For those looking to put on some weight, Chanko Nave is also available in restaurants across Japan for regular citizens.

Given the enormous size of the wrestlers, most people believe they sit around eating all day. However, the reality is that they only eat two meals a day — lunch and dinner. As they typically train in the morning, they don’t tend to have breakfast, since grappling on a full-stomach is probably not the best idea.

Following lunch, the sumo wrestlers take a long nap before they eat again for dinner.

Japan is the only country in which the sport is practiced professionally and it is a significant part of Japanese culture. Professional matches of the sport are organized by the Japan Sumo Association whose all members (oyakata) are former wrestlers who are the only people to train new wrestlers.


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