Like many around the sumo world and beyond, we are extremely saddened to hear the news of Byambajav Ulambayar’s passing at the age of 35. Most sumo fans around the world will have known him simply as Byamba.
Let me first say that the first few times I heard of Byamba, usually my feeling was less curiosity and more of bemusement. Pieces like this VICE article introduced him as a character in an environment very different to how many of us know the world of ozumo. Most times, he would be referenced without much detail as to his origin story, and the caricature of the traveling entertainment tours would be presented as a representation of the sport as a whole. The journalistic lilt in some publications made me miss the bigger picture at first with Byamba.
I’ll stop and say two things here: the first is that many fans look at the NSK-managed ozumo as if it’s the only sumo that matters. Some folks even look at makuuchi as the only division that matters. To miss the rest of the picture is to miss a detailed portrait of a very rich history, sport, and lifestyle.
The second thing is that ozumo doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The sumo life that exists outside of ozumo – from local children’s dojos, to amateur sumo tournaments like the Hakuho Cup for kids and the World Sumo Championships, to upstart associations like USA Sumo and even the vast entertainment work done by Byamba – are things that attract and develop new fans and athletes, and build communities and relationships around a very special game.
To both of these ends, Byamba really delivered.
My first inspiration from him wasn’t anything he did on the dohyo. It was from another video (again, for VICE) which surfaced of him detailing his chanko preparation routine, honed after thousands of preparations in his ozumo stable. While similar content exists elsewhere of course, for a new fan it is an illuminating insight into one of the cornerstones of the sumo lifestyle. And it made me think, “I’ve got to make this myself at home.” While my recipe is admittedly different – as they are in every heya – that inspiration provided me a way to enjoy some of a staple of the Kokugikan and sumo experience in my own home:
As you can see in this video, he also spent time training amateurs (including another certain North American ex-rikishi).
In addition to his sumo media work, Byamba of course competed at the World Sumo Championships, where he won four titles. Our friends at Inside Sport Japan are always keen to remind sumo fans where their favourite rikishi come from: often times, it’s great success at ama-sumo tournaments just like this. In 2012 (several years after his intai), he competed and emerged victorious alongside current Grand Sumo standouts Endo and Ichinojo:
Still stunned here by the loss of Byambajav Ulambayar.
Here’s a couple of shots of him at the 2006 and 2012 World Championships.
The wider sumo world just lost probably its most well known wrestler.#Byamba #sumo #相撲 pic.twitter.com/gJEW0virfI
— Inside Sport Japan (@InsideSportJP) March 2, 2020
According to his homepage, he was a “global ambassador for sumo, performing 1,000+ live sumo exhibitions, shows, competitions, TV appearances, film shoots, and much more. Many have called him the most prolific sumo entertainer in history.” Owing to this work, many fans discovered sumo, including a gentleman I happened to interview for this site about his experience “fighting” in a live cultural exhibition, as Byamba and pals were traveling across America. Surely, his work in this area paved the way for recent retirees such as Musashikuni to have opportunities on a similar circuit.
As for Byamba’s ozumo career, having been scouted and recruited by the former Yokozuna Onokuni (Shibatayama-oyakata), he fought under the shikona Daishochi (大翔地). He collected an admirable 95-66 record while picking up a yusho in his debut basho in Jonokuchi. Retiring with a career high of Makushita 15, Byamba didn’t face many future sumo stars in his short career in the mid-2000s. He did however face future Ozeki Baruto once, as well as a 17 year old compatriot of his in Sandanme, none other than future Yokozuna Hakuho. Both matches ended in defeat.
Every fan’s origin story in sumo comes from a different place. For some followers, it’s the NHK highlights. For others it may well be Byamba’s fun (and at times cringe inducing on behalf of the comedians) turn with Kevin Hart and Conan O’Brien. It’s a broad church, and Byamba welcomed many.
Byamba’s official site has now opened a tribute page, for fans around the world to share their memories. He is survived by a number of family members including his wife and two year old son.
He is gone too soon. RIP Byamba.