“Greetings Grapple Fans!” was how commentator Kent Walton used to open ITV Sports’ wrestling programme on a Saturday afternoon, a must-watch for this teenage fan in the UK 50 years ago. From the Royal brothers tag team of Bert Royal and Vic Faulkner, to bad boy Mick McManus, the man they loved to hate, from the masked mystery of Kendo Nagasaki to Johnny Kwango, the head-butt specialist, everyone had their favourites. But perhaps the most iconic of this ‘sporting’ phenomenon were the massive Big Daddy (real name Shirley Crabtree) and his erstwhile tag-team partner Giant Haystacks (Martin Ruane) both of whom I had the pleasure to see in a live tournament in London’s Royal Albert Hall in the late 1970s.
That was shortly before I was first sent to work in Japan. The UK’s grunters and groaners (both sound effects used to good dramatic effect), would not have gone down well in the more refined world of sumo wrestling where displaying emotion is not considered acceptable in this traditional martial art. But I soon grew to enjoy the six televised tournaments a year alternating between Tokyo and regional cities of Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka. As well as learning about all the traditions and rituals that accompany the bouts; the techniques of pushing and thrusting or grabbing the opponent’s mawashi belt to force him either out of the ring or onto the floor; and the ranking system from the junior divisions through to the seniors, I got to know and appreciate some of the characters who graced the dohyo ring.
Not all the wrestlers were Japanese born and bred. One of the more personable was Hawaiian-born Takamiyama (Jesse Kuhaulua). At more than 200 kgs and with his trademark sideburns, he was instantly recognisable and not just to sumo fans. But it was in the ring that he achieved most fame by becoming the first foreign born rikishi wrestler to win a top division yuusho championship back in 1972.
Closer to home was Chiyonofuji (aka The Wolf) from the northern island of Hokkaido. At ‘only’ 126kgs, and 80kgs lighter than Takamiyama, he was one of the lighter wrestlers relying on his muscular frame and skill to achieve the top rank of Yokozuna grand champion at the age of 26. He held that position for a record 10 years. Following his retirement in 1989, he went on to join the ranks of the sumo elders, owning and running his own ‘stable’ or club.
Chiyonofuji was still around when I returned to Japan in 2011, 30 years after I first took an interest in the sport, and I often was able to see my hero when I, also semi-retired, started to attend tournaments and ceremonial events. But, sadly, the world of sumo lost one of its greatest stars when he died of cancer aged only 61.
Nowadays, the sport is dominated by wrestlers from Mongolia, none more so than Hakuho (actual name: Mönkhbatyn Davaajargal), who set plenty of records of his own (longest reigning yokozuna, most top division championship wins, most matches in a professional career) surpassing most of his own heroes and role models from which he became known as the King of the Ring. He retired just over a year ago and now runs his own stable as well as getting out to meet his fans and promoting the sport.
Like most sports which receive wide TV coverage, nothing is better than watching it live and in recent years I’ve been lucky enough to see a few tournaments as well as the ceremonial events such as the Yokozuna performing the entering the ring ceremony at Meiji shrine in the new year.
In Tokyo the tournaments are held three times a year in the Rygoku kokugikan stadium on the banks of the Sumida River.
A day out, especially pre-covid, involved turning up early to watch some of the junior division bouts and the rising stars; buying a bento lunch, from one of the many food and souvenir stalls, to eat in your seat, either a mat on the floor or a regular cinema style chair; enjoying the entering of the ring ceremonies as each wrestler is introduced to his fans; and hopefully seeing one of your favourites beating someone from a higher rank to register his suitability for promotion.
One develops favourites of course, and I follow the careers of some of the (eastern) European wrestlers who have become successful in recent years.
There can be up to four yokozuna grand champions at any one time. But currently, mongolian Terunofuji is the only to one to hold the rank, so he performs a solo entering the ring ceremony.
If you’re lucky enough to get a ticket for the final day of the tournament there will also be the climax of the trophy presentations to the winner who just happened to be Terunofuji.
But more than anything else, it’s a day which guarantees drama and good sportsmanship and an insight into this aspect of Japanese culture and tradition dating back more than 1300 years. So, sit back, and when the referee turns his gunbai, ceremonial fan, forward, Let Battle commence.