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Sumo cum laude
Ancient martial art all about honor, tradition
Jackson Hole, Wyoming – When Kelly Gneiting stomps into the sumo ring, known as a dohyo, he carries with him all the weight his massive frame will bear. At six feet tall and five feet around, that’s about 435 pounds these days. He also brings hours, months and years of training and preparation. But most importantly, Gneiting, and wrestlers like him who honor the sport’s rich tradition, shoulders with him two millennia of Shinto ritual that found its feet sometime around the birth of Christ.
Casual sumo fans see only the short bursts of brute force plied by massive combatants in diapers. Bout times often are measured with a second hand. What most are not privy to, however, is the pre-bout ceremony steeped in tradition and the daily religious reverence wrestlers have for the oldest of martial arts, born of the Samurai.
“I and [other wrestlers like me] are ambassadors for a sport that has so much history that NFL football can’t touch it,” says Gneiting, a five-time U.S. heavyweight champion. “We take pride in that. Sumo is a 2,000-year-old martial art that could be the oldest sport on the planet.”
Gneiting is once again organizing a wrestling event in Jackson Hole. He and other stars of the sport, like fellow American wrestler Trent Sabo, return to the valley for the third time with a World Championship qualifier event taking place at Snow King on Saturday. Both Gneiting and Sabo help spread interest in sumo in America, both having studied in Japan where they gained a respect for the culture and ritual surrounding the ancient art.
The powder clapping, the bowing and squatting, the thigh-slapping – what exactly is going on before two fat guys get it on?
“What you will see, culturally, is wrestlers bow to each other to show respect,” Gneiting says. “This is a culturally significant battle: man on man, or spirit on spirit. Picture two armies rushing at each other. What happens is you end up pairing off with one person and you have a small space in which to fight and kill that person. You give respect because in a matter of seconds one of us is going to die, symbolically, on the battlefield. You squat facing each other. You wash your hands to show you are going to fight clean. You lift up your arms to show you are unarmed. You clap to wake the gods and let them know that sumo is about to begin.”
Sabo adds, “The cultural significance is important. The symbolic death is a little more than just symbolic in Japan. A sumo wrestler’s whole lifestyle is based off his sport. It’s 24-7. It’s mentally taxing.”
According to Sabo, hierarchy is everything, and the strict regimen of a sumo athlete in Japan defines his daily routine. Lower-ranked grapplers are treated with disdain, akin to buck privates relegated to toilet cleaning and catering to those more honored. Win and you move up the ranks to the point where you are allowed a cell phone, driving privileges, or a girlfriend. Lose, well, grab a mop and feel shame.
“The only way you can move up or down in the ranks is through win-loss,” Sabo says. “It’s supposed to be very, very easy to lose. That pressure helps you summon a superhuman performance and give you laser focus.”
The stripped-down, mano y mano nature of sumo is the same primal urge that has appealed to the men and women who participate in and follow MMA fighting, which has exploded over the past decade. The confined space, the simplicity and purity of the sport – there’s nowhere to hide in sumo. It’s fight or die.
“In the NFL, for example, it seems everyone is battling for personal pride or to be the best,” Gneiting explains. “It’s completely different in sumo. This is our life. It’s the David and Goliath story, where a [combatant] is chosen to represent an entire people. And when you are backed into a corner you fight or die. You find the strength of a dragon.”
Sumo today is enjoying a bit of a resurgence in popularity even after bout-fixing scandals rocked the sport a few years ago. Once solely a Japanese thing – it is the country’s unofficial national sport – 87 countries are now registered with the International Sumo Federation.
Russia, Ukraine, Mongolia, and Eastern European countries in particular have embraced the sport. The international appeal threatens to erode the spiritual and cultural aspects of sumo – a sport written in Kanji to mean “mutual bruising.”
“Sumo represents the essence of what it means to be Japanese. It’s far more involved than what even the international guys recognize,” Sabo says. “There’s always going to be a corruption with anything you introduce to the world in the mainstream. Western cultures, for example, don’t put the same emphasis on the spiritual connection.”
Gneiting says, “And things like the wearing of the mawashi. Some athletes will have shorts on underneath, some won’t. The Japanese would think that is some corruption. Trent and I never wore shorts because we want to keep intact the cultural significance of sumo.”
Probably the most significant bastardization of sumo has come in the lack of respect and understanding for the somber occasion. Losers are vanquished, killed, in essence, symbolically. Victors do not gloat. Stoicism is prized. A win is cause for quiet humility.
“One of the main problems in international competition is we tend to celebrate too much,” Gneiting says. “The Japanese are always telling us to stop celebrating. There should be a humbleness to victory.”
Rumble in the ring
Sumo should appeal to Western folk. Rodeo comparisons abound, with four to eight seconds of colliding tonnage, a perfect storm of momentum and surrender. But what appears to be nothing more than brute force and cherished mass has, in actuality, strategy and technique.
Bouts begin when both players squat and “knuckle down,” placing both hands in the dirt.
“The practice squats and practice touch, that’s what the pros do. It builds more drama so we do it now, too, to be more like the pros,” Gneiting admits. “Who touches first, that’s totally personal preference. Sometimes both athletes will want to put their hands down first. I always like to put mine down first. As soon as I see the other guy put his hands down I charge.”
Sabo, who is almost always undersized in his matches, always enters the ring with a pre-game plan.
“I, like Kelly, like to get set first. I’m down and ready to go,” Sabo says. “If they are fooling around, waiting to put their hand down they are likely still thinking of a plan. I already have one.”
And sumo has strategy. A force in motion tends to stay in motion. Sabo likes to use that to his advantage.
“Sumo is the most basic form of wrestling,” Sabo explains. “You start on your feet and the idea is to take the opponent down to the ground or out of bounds. You are allowed to use just about any technique – foot sweeps, open palm slaps, and a variety of throws. The fact that you can push a person out to win adds a completely different element. It’s very difficult for a smaller person to win in most forms of wrestling but when you add the element of pushing a guy out, my agility can come into play. You see a lot of lightweights do well against heavyweights. They say there are infinite ways to win.”
Pushing an opponent out of the ring for a victory was added later to the sport. Originally, it was a tussle to see who could make their opponent touch the ground with anything other than their feet.
When Gneiting and Sabo tangle, and they have on dozens of occasions, Gneiting usually comes out on top.
“Whenever I wrestle Trent, if I come full bore at him, he will step aside. He’s full of nifty tricks,” Gneiting divulges. “So I slowly stand up and react to any offense he gives. Trent has beat me before. When he does, to me, it’s dishonorable and embarrassing.”
Sabo wrestles a more reactive style. He studies his opponents, looking for telltale giveaways that might indicate what the mass of man he’s up against may have in mind. “In my case, it comes down to momentum,” he says. “I’ve got to get the bigger guy moving. As long as they are doing something, I have something to work with. I look at certain things like how they step off the line – right or left foot. If I face a very stoic opponent, I might try to booby trap a guy by [feigning] a move of my own and then doing something different.”
Bouts are short. The longest ever recorded was an eight-minute match between two Mongolians, who prefer to grapple opponents to the ground rather than shove them out of the dohyo. Gneiting and Sabo say their most grueling bouts have never gone more than 30 or 40 seconds.
Thunder in the Hole
The tournament scheduled for Jackson Hole will feature a diverse group of sumo athletes, from several of the sport’s top names to up-and-comers just learning the ropes.
“This is our third time in Jackson. Every year we’ve increased the number of athletes. We will set a record for the number of athletes competing this time from all over the country,” Gneiting says. “It’s unique to have a tournament like this in Jackson Hole. Maybe one day Jackson will get a reputation as a place to sumo.”
Sabo says fans in Jackson can expect several very large and powerful athletes all tipping the scales at 400 pounds or more.
“I think people in Jackson will be most surprised to see sumo sort of flies in the face of the couch potato that can’t do anything. We are athletes.
Gneiting, who calls himself the “Man of Fat Steel,” holds the distinction of being the heaviest person to complete a marathon. He has ran three now and also is training to swim the Anacapa Channel on July 8 in preparation to one day cross the English Channel. Gneiting says he is the only 400-plus grappler who can do the matawari, or full splits (he did so for America’s Got Talent in 2010, and you can see it on YouTube. Gneiting also can be glimpsed in the movie Oceans 13, where he plays one of the sumo wrestlers fighting in a Vegas nightclub.
The 44-year-old married father of five is mostly retired now from competing. He serves as an organizer and director of U.S. competitions, like the one to be held in Jackson this weekend. Sabo is VP of the United States Sumo Federation. Both men studied the martial art in Japan.
Trent Sabo (left) and Kelly Gneiting travel to Jackson Hole this weekend for a sumo World Championship qualifier event.