The Skinny Side of Sumo
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because maybe size doesn’t matter after all.
By Eugene S. Robinson
There’s only one country where it’s practiced professionally, and there’s probably only one country where it could be practiced.
The practice? Sumo. The place? Japan.
Sitting somewhere at the intersection of the deeply held Japanese belief in bushido — a gentlemanly code of warrior behaviors, literally the “military scholar road” — and religious ceremonies dating back as far as the third century, is sumo: a competitive sport that mates battle muscle and finessed grace so well that you forget you’re watching mostly naked fat guys smashing each other into the dirt.
Until you see a guy who is not tipping the scales at the industry average of about 410 pounds.
That guy is Pavel Bojar, known by his Japanese name Takanoyama Shuntarō. The 31-year-old Czech sumo sensation, weighing in at 216 pounds, entered the gates to sumo through another Japanese martial art: judo. Coming from the only place in Europe that’s as crazy about sumo as the Japanese are, Bojar’s first step into one of his country’s 10 sumo clubs came at age 17 — where it was soon evident that he was already skilled enough to win the bronze medal that year at the 2000 Junior World Sumo Championships in Tokyo.
After this super-surprising win, he was accepted into the semi-secret and super-structured Naruto stable at the all-too-delicate weight of less than 200 pounds. But it’s not his weight at this point that’s so impressive. It’s the fact that they asked him to join in the first place.
“Westerners who come to train in Japan need to know that they’re going to go twice as hard on you as they normally go,” says Harley Flanagan, himself a Westerner who’s trained in Japan (in addition to founding old-school hardcore band the Cro-Mags). “And they normally go super-hard on an easy day.”
And in the wild world of sumo, with its hazing (younger sumo are supposed to help the older, more established and bigger fighters by wiping their asses, if called upon to do so — tough gig), accusations of Yakuza connections, corruption and the scourge of performance-enhancing drugs (insulin usually, to gain weight), few make it through to the world competition level for any bit of time, never mind as long as Shuntarō has.
It’s a joy watching the little guy get his due.
Of course, sumo can be a very hot and sweaty roller coaster ride of ups and definite downs. Shuntarō reached the third-highest division in 2004, where he stumbled before making it back the next year, a place he then stayed at for about six years. He was promoted to a higher division in 2011, the Jūryō division, where he reeled off wins in seven of his eight bouts, notching another promotion that’s only been achieved two other times since 1958.
But the road since late 2013 has been nothing short of rocky for him. What does rocky mean in the higher reaches of the upper echelons? So far in 2014: A 4-11 in Jūryō.
For which Shuntarō offers no excuse, but the reasons abound, including a marriage and a baby daughter. He’s still competing — sometimes winning, sometimes losing, but always pulling it off with such élan that the name he was given, Takanoyama, makes even more sense when you know that its literal meaning is “noble mountain.”
“No matter how you cut it, bro,” says Flanagan, himself a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu, “and no matter what they say, not getting seriously hurt when you’re doing anything with super-athletic guys that weigh more than 400 pounds is a real skill.” And it’s not so much even his “not getting seriously hurt” that makes him a joy to watch. It’s just a simple case of watching the little guy get his due.
A little something like this.