US Sumo Open

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US Sumo Open Photograph courtesy of Ramy Elgazar

US Sumo Open

The World's Largest Annual Sumo Tournament Outside Japan

Founded by Andrew Freund in 2001, the US Sumo Open is the largest annual sumo tournament in the world outside of Japan, with over 400 sumo wrestlers, including numerous past and present World Sumo Champions. Through his organization, USA Sumo, Freund has arranged for sumo wrestlers to appear in over 20 films, 250 television shows, 300 television commercials, 500 live events and numerous other public appearances. These include such films as Ocean’s Thirteen, Memoirs of a Geisha and 47 Ronin, plus commercials for Nike, Doritos, Ford and other brands. Freund spoke to Tokyo Journal Executive Editor Anthony Al-Jamie about his event and how the roots of the US Sumo Open trace back to Tokyo Journal, while four sumo stars shared their thoughts on the sport.

TJ: Can you tell us how you started USA Sumo?
FREUND: I worked in Japan in the early ’90s and I had done some other martial arts. I wasn’t familiar with sumo at all. In May 1991, I came across a Tokyo Journal posting of a sumo tournament. I entered the arena on a weekday at about 9:30 a.m. It was all kind of a blur because you watch about 250 matches over the course of the day [laughs]. That was my first exposure [to sumo.] I went to the U.S.-Japan Expo back in ’97 in down-town L.A. They had a martial arts area and they were doing a sumo demo. At the end, the announcer said, “Hey, does anyone want to try it?” So that was my first exposure of actually doing it. I started a club at UCLA in the late ’90s. That was the genesis of what we have now. When I started out, it was absolutely as a hobby for fun. Three times a week, we would go to the big gym and we would train. We still hold regular practices. We’ve had different dojo [training facility] spaces that we’ve rented over the years. We don’t have a permanent location where we have a dojo ready-made. We bring in a port-able sumo ring. I’ve run something like 1,500 practices with about 500 or 600 people. We went from novice level, where I didn’t know what I was doing at first, to the first somewhat semi-legitimate coach. [He] was a guy from Bulgaria who didn’t really know traditional Japanese sumo at all, but he was the two-time world sumo champion, which is not pro sumo, but still a pretty high level of competition. Over the years we gradually improved. We have been bringing in former sumo wrestler [Ryūta] Yamamotoyama [the heaviest Japanese-born sumo wrestler in history] on various projects for about the last five years. “Yama” is what everyone calls him here. We have had him in L.A. continuously for over a year and he has added a lot to the sumo training and culture here.

TJ: Are there other associations similar to USA Sumo in other countries?
FREUND: The governing body for international sumo is the International Sumo Federation, and they’re headquartered in Tokyo. Ostensibly, each continent has its own continental governing body, and each country that is a member within that continent has its own national governing body. In theory, there are about 80 supposedly active national sumo federations worldwide, but the world championship probably has 20 countries showing up. So the level of actual participation is not quite what it purports to be. I’m also the president and trustee of the U.S. Sumo Federation. On the International Sumo Federation’s website, I believe I’m listed as the director of the North American Sumo Federation, which makes me the vice president of the International Sumo Federation.

Ramy Elgazar (Egypt), 2015 US Sumo Open Heavyweight Gold Champion
TJ: In sumo you’re expected to restrain your emotions, but after you win, you throw your hands in the air. Why is that?
ELGAZAR: I throw my hands in the air because I am very happy and excited to win! Having 7,000 people see me win is very exciting! And I beat Byamba! He’s a legend.

Byambajav “Byamba” Ulambayar (Mongolia), 2016 US Sumo Open Heavyweight and Openweight Gold Champion
TJ: Does size matter in sumo?
BYANBA: It doesn’t matter how big or small they are. You gotta gure out a strategy to throw them out of the ring or knock them down. That’s what’s interesting about sumo.

Roy Sims (USA), 2015 US Sumo Open Openweight Gold Champion
TJ: Do you study Japanese sumo matches?
SIMS: I watch professional sumo videos to see how they’re doing it. I watch their movements, how they get off their first initial contact. I look at the different angles.

Ryūta “Yama” Yamamotoyama ( Japan), Former Professional Sumo Wrestler
TJ: Can you tell us about the 2015 tournament?
YAMA: There were heated matches. I think it was more exciting than last year. In the U.S., sumo becomes a battle of strength versus trying to move the opponent and trying to get a better position. tj

The complete article can be found in Issue #278 of the Tokyo Journal. Click here to order from Amazon.

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