Amateur Sumo Competition Shows The Sport's Growing Diversity

The 13th Annual U.S. Sumo Open took place over the weekend, bringing contestants from around the country and even the world. Some don't fit the traditional Sumo profile as amateur Sumo becomes increasingly diverse.

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When I say sumo wrestling, you probably think of two beefy guys in loincloths grappling with each other, emphasis on the guys. But over the weekend, the 13th Annual U.S. Sumo Open was held in Los Angeles and as NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports, some of the hopefuls there reflected a new diversity in the amateur sumo world.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: On this beautiful early fall Sunday in downtown L.A., the air vibrates with the beat of taiko drummers who are revving up a capacity crowd. More than 2,000 people have squeezed onto the plaza of the Japanese American Cultural Center to watch several hours of lightning-quick sumo matches. Many have come to see the women compete, including the U.K. women's champion, introduced by the Open's director, Andrew Freund.

ANDREW FREUND: Next, the multi-time champion against world record holder, the heaviest sportswoman in the world, Sharran Alexander.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

BATES: Alexander waves a beautifully manicured hand to the crowd. She stands out as a woman and as one of the few black contestants. Although women aren't allowed in professional sumo wrestling, on the amateur circuit, they're welcome if they're good enough. But to get good enough, you have to learn sumo and practice it a lot.

And that's what took me to a musty gym in the L.A. suburb of Van Nuys last week. Inside, the air conditioning is struggling valiantly with the accumulated essence of a couple dozen sweaty athletes. Very few are Asian. John Sinnott is a 22-year-old blond and a two-time state wrestling finalist. Sinnott's a big solid guy, 6-feet, 240 pounds, but, he says, in sumo, your frame of mind is much more important than your body's frame.

JON SINNOTT: I think there's a mental aspect to it that can really overcome the physical aspect of it. You gotta believe in yourself to push the other person out of the ring, right?

BATES: Liz Seward is only 5'4" and she doesn't look like she weighs the 175 that's on her stat sheet. Seward's skill and determination have made her a comer. And like everyone else here, she tells me it's heart, not heft, that matters.

LIZ SEWARD: You have to have so much power to squat down in that ring and then go at your opponents. And for me, like, even before I take that first step, I have to have my heart in the game and my heart goes first.

BATES: You might get lulled into believing that until you meet their coach, Bayambajab Ulambyar. You can call him Byamba. Byamba was a pro sumo wrestler in Japan for several years and is a three-time world sumo champion. He's tall and genial and mostly muscle. At one point in the practice, Byamba took on all 24 students, one after the other, without a break, giving them pointers as he beat all of them.

Byamba is Mongolian and was spotted by a sumo coach when he was nine.

BAYAMBAJAB ULAMBYAR: Yeah, I love the sport, so I'm trying to teach for everybody, you know. So this is my whole life. I've been doing like 13 years.

BATES: His students are all ethnicities and both genders.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: This is the final weight event.

BATES: A week later, several of the folks who practice with Byamba are competing in a ring in Little Tokyo. Liz Seward has vanquished all her light and middleweight opponents. Now, the last open weight match finds her opposite Sharran Alexander, who outweighs her by about 200 pounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHEERING)

BATES: The undefeated U.K. sumo champion has been pushed out of the ring. Alexander pats Seward on the shoulder in congratulations and they both move to opposite sides of the ring. Alexander bows deeply to Seward. Seward assumes the champion squat before springing up and walking off the platform. She's just made amateur history and proved her earlier point. In sumo, sometimes heart really is more important than heft.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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