Friday, June 24, 2016

An Update on the Beautiful Sport of Sumo

When I lived in Southeast Asia in the mid 1990s, I fell in love with the ancient Japanese sport of sumo. It was a timely moment to encounter sumo, as its popularity soared in the 90s with the epic matches of two incredibly popular young stars, Japan's Takanohana and the American Samoan Akebono. Akebono was the first non-Japanese wrestler to ever achieve the title of yokozuna, or grand champion. Since those epic matches and exciting days watching two weeks of the basho, I have lost track of the sport. So, I was pleasantly surprised to run across this great bit of sports commentary on the current champions and state of the sport. Sportswriter Benjamin Morris has put together an impressive review of the sport entitled "The Sumo Match Centuries in the Making," recently published on Nate Silver's The point of the title and the focus of Morris' perspective is a championship match featuring an all-time champion Hakuho who defeated his rival Harumafiji in a one-second match by "stepping aside," which is a legal move but almost unheard of at the championship level. Morris explains how the sport came to this.

There is no bell. The match starts with a tachi-ai (initial charge), which generally happens the instant the opponents are set. Harumafuji lunged from his crouch, low, exploding toward Hakuho in an effort to take control of the bout early. Instead, he caught a quick palm to the face — and then air. His momentum carried him clear out of the other side of the ring, like he’d tried to bull-rush a ghost.
The match had lasted one second. Kisenosato scowled and walked out of the ring area. Commentators didn’t quite know what to say; one of the English announcers let out a long “hmmmmm.” The crowd booed its champion. This is not normally how a match of this scale plays out. Side-stepping an opponent’s charge is legal but considered beneath the dignity of top sumotori. The move is known derisively as a henka (変化), which translates to “change” or “changing,” while connoting the root “strange” (変). That it would be used by an all-time great in one of the most consequential matches of his career was strange indeed.

In a tear-soaked post-match interview, Hakuho appeared to express regret for the tournament ending the way it did. But he did not clarify his side-step’s strategic underpinnings, such as whether it was planned, or a response to something he saw while the wrestlers were getting set, or a reflexive reaction to Harumafuji’s charge itself. But regardless of premeditation, consider the story told on the faces of the competitors: Snatch Hakuho from his peak, shove him into your DeLorean and send him into any point in the past — including the 1790s — and he will almost certainly be a favorite to stay in the ring, on his feet, against any human or human-like god-giant that he runs into. We know this.
But considering his unprecedented domination of his competition, his broad skill set and, yes, even his controversial willingness to push boundaries in pursuit of victory, he can likely match any sumotori legend for legend as well.

In reading Morris' commentary, I was inspired to do a little digging into the sport, and I was quite pleased to discover the link to the match featured on a YouTube channel. Jason's All Sumo Channel appears to be a great place for Westerners who once had a fondness for the sport to re-connect. Here's a look at that final match with some voice-over commentary from Jason, the creator of the channel.

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