Often, those of us who pontificate about the skills of those who mount the dohyo will throw in a few qualifiers about the strengths and weaknesses of said rikishi: “If they could just add a yotsu-element” or “if they could just set their feet” or “if they could just maintain composure in the vital moment” are all things you’ll sometimes hear in the context of the development of a sumotori.
It’s why being a pundit is great fun. But it’s also easy to say, because it ignores the fact that there’s a whole other person in the dohyo with that rikishi. And usually, that other person is a whole lot of man-mountain to move. And usually, most of us spilling the ink can’t say from experience exactly what that’s like.
But equally, all of this enthusiasm and desire for sumo analysis has brought a new enthusiasm for professional, amateur and exhibition sumo around the world – especially the English speaking world, as we here at Tachiai have been fortunate to experience. While NHK World recently covered the USA Sumo Championships – one of the larger events in the amateur calendar – in their latest Grand Sumo Preview, all around America there are plenty more sumo exhibitions, and many of them feature some familiar names.
Recently, the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan hosted its annual Asian-Pacific Festival. As part of the festivities, the popular Byamba (the 33-year old former Daishochi of Shibatayama-beya, now a multiple amateur title winner) and Yama (the 34-year old former Maegashira Yamamotoyama of Onoe-beya) descended on the town to take on each other as well as some locals.
Following the event, I connected with Christopher Acklin, a Grand Rapids local who was able to fight Yama in the ring. He was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about the experience:
Tachiai: How did you find out about sumo coming to Grand Rapids?
Christopher Acklin: I’m pretty lucky. At my firm, we have a fairly diverse crowd. One of the partners knows the organisers of [the event]. One day she said, “Hey! Would you like to go as our representative? You can invite some people and get to experience this event” So I said “Sure, I’ll go.” I was planning on going to Japan in September, so I felt this would be a great way to learn a little bit more about the culture and one of the more unique cultural aspects of Japan. Later, [the partner] said “they’re going to do celebrity matches – would you be interested?” And I said: “Why not?” If you’re going to go, you might as well go all the way. I started doing a little research and I watched some of the old Grand Sumo tournaments, which caught my eye, because it’s amazing – the tradition behind all of it, the preparation and effort that they take, and the style too. I do Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, where balance is important, and I was noticing that balance is so important for sumo. In an Americanized way you think “oh, well these aren’t athletes,” but then you see them in action and it’s not just their size, but their ability to balance and their speed – it’s pretty impressive, which I got to find out first-hand.
Tachiai: When you signed up, did you get to pick who you fought? How did that work?
CA: When I went up, they had three guys. So I said, “I might as well go for the gold” and go for the biggest guy they had there [which was Yama]. I’m about 300 pounds, I’m pretty strong… and when we actually faced off, it wasn’t even as much the size difference that got my attention – still, he’s twice my size – it was his ability to move with my movement that surprised me. I’m thinking, “he’s just a big guy, how much is he going to be able to move?” He shifted his feet immediately and so I instead of pushing just dead-on on him, I’m pushing off to the side, my force was going off to the right and I didn’t have a clean shot on him. And he was good about it after that, he just kind of let me push him out, but clearly this was only because he was allowing me to do it at that point.
Tachiai: What is that even like when you’re trying to push a guy like Yama – the biggest guy?
CA: The organizer explained to me later, that although there’s a lot of fat there, it makes it very difficult to get a solid hand hold or grip anywhere. I’m trying to push him and my hands are moving on me, so it’s hard to get force when your force is moving in different directions. Combine that with him being able to shift his feet, all of the sudden instead of trying to push a boulder, I’m pushing up against a pillow or a water mattress – I’m not getting anywhere!
Tachiai: So, when you step into the dohyo and you see that guy: what are you thinking? Like you said, he’s twice the size of you. What’s the first thought that comes to your mind?
CA: Actually, my first thought was that he was really cool. He gave me a handshake at first, he was chill. I like to push myself, so that made me feel that this would be a fun test, it would be exciting. Afterwards, he was very polite and very pleasant, but when you first see him, you’re like, “Man! What did I get myself into? Well… alright. Now I’m here, I might as well make a good show of it!” And he was cool: I didn’t see, because I was busy pushing, but apparently he was posing for people out in the crowd while I was pushing him. Which basically says he was very polite and it could have been much more difficult had he actually [had to try]. Even without him trying, trying to push him was incredibly difficult.
Tachiai: What else did they do at the event? Was there any kind of tournament?
CA: They had a mini-tournament with the three sumo wrestlers. They explained the rules with the scoring, and how that worked. Byamba ended up winning the mini-tourney, and they had a more traditional opening with the drums. They didn’t do the whole ceremony with with the [salt-tossing], and I liked that they explained that, and that you get a sense that this isn’t like [American] wrestling, there’s actually symbolism and history and tradition to it.
Tachiai: Thank you for sharing your story with us! I think you chose wisely – out of all those guys of course, Yama’s the one who made it to the top division.
CA: More than happy to. I was so excited just to get the opportunity – how often can you say that you’ve partaken in something like doing a sumo match, but to do it against somebody like Yama, who has the pedigree that he had. Now I can say that at some point in my life I stepped into the ring with somebody that big, who’s been that successful.
Check out some video of Christopher’s match against Yama below:
(video provided courtesy of Christopher Acklin)