When I showed up at Japantown’s Peace Plaza for their free sumo wrestling demonstrations, I was excited to see a quickly growing crowd, filled with children, undeterred by the afternoon’s baking sun. What sumo wrestling lacks in a mainstream following, it certainly seems to make up for in cultural novelty. We take our seats, excited to partake in the 2000 year old pastime. The audience is first treated to a short Taiko drum performance from GenRyu Arts; the running rhythm and chanting are a perfect prelude to battle. Though I’m on a hard plastic seat in a sea of iPhone cameras, I might as well be in feudal-era Hokkaido.
I was jolted out of my time-travel moment by the introduction of Andrew Freund, the master of ceremonies, referee, color commentator and founder of USA Sumo. When asked to imagine who would be credited with bringing sumo to popularity in America, I don’t think Freund, a slight, Caucasian, balding man in a light blue tee shirt doing stilted crowd work, would come to mind.
Freund then introduces the wrestlers. Rami, from Egypt, Byamba, from Mongolia and Yama and Takeshi from Japan. Freund reminds the audience several times that Yama is the heaviest man in Japan’s recorded history at over 600 pounds. “Don’t laugh, it’s true!” he says into the microphone, to a crowd that isn’t really laughing. Thus begins the afternoon’s theme: forced jokes at the expense of the wrestlers for an audience that didn’t ask for a comedy routine.
Sumo is famously performed near-nude in only a small belt or loincloth called the mawashi. When the wrestlers are about to drop their robes, Freund instructs the audience of hundreds of people to chant “take it off,” like they’re about to spin the Wheel of Fortune, and not perform an ancient sport steeped in ritual and tradition. It’s around this point that the show stopped feeling like a real sport and more like spectacle in the grand tradition of carnival side shows.
The audience counts down together in hastily learned Japanese, and a match begins. Rami and Yama face down. “This is an 11 hundred pound collision, ladies and gentlemen! 12 hundred, if I get caught in the middle of it!” As though the audience needs further reminder of the differences between the announcer and the show. Yama and Rami slam into one another, shockwaves rippling through both of their bodies on impact. They’re closely matched and they strain under one another’s grip for a few seconds before Rami buckles slightly, giving Yama the chance to land one powerful shove and forcing Rami to step a foot outside the ring. The crowd chants Yama’s name in celebration after less than thirty nail-biting seconds.
At one point, between matches there is a question pertaining to Byamba’s size. Almost zookeeper-like, Freund makes a little whistle into the mic and instructs Byamba to stand up, which he dutifully does, and then silently resumes his sitting on the mat as Freund continues his answer. Later, there is an announcement for a lost child and Freund jokes that someone should check Yama’s belly. Yama must be used to that one by now.
On one hand, I absolutely get it. Sumo is funny. Watching the large men wearing diapers slap one another’s chests is funny. I’m sure no one has more respect for these men than Andrew Freund. Still, to see the wrestlers being portrayed more as Andrew Freund’s Dancing Follies than as athletes of a niche sport undermines cultural education. The man needs some new writers. I say we give Byamba, Rami, Takeshi and Yama a shot.
Featured Photo: Onlookers watch a traditional sumo fight in JapanTown. Racquel Gonzales/FOGHORN.