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Enter the Mongolian

A SEMI-GONZO PLUNGE INTO THE HEART OF THE AMERICAN SUMO MACHINE
DISCUSSED
Hunter S. Thompson, Asashoryu, Mandalay Bay, French Vanilla-Flavored Creamer, Giant Cans of Sapporo, Complacency, “Blue Morning Dragon,” RoboCop, The Teppo Pole, Oahu, Lots and Lots of Chanko-Nabe, Takamisakari, Kotooshu, The Annals of Sumo, Public Enemy, The Human-Interest Schmucks
by Jim Ruland
The Mongolian Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj, a.k.a. Asashoryu, working the press. Photo courtesy of the author.

Enter the Mongolian

Jim Ruland
16 Snaps

HOW TO COVER A LAS VEGAS SPORTING EVENT AFTER THOMPSON: PART I

You hear about the tournament from Mac, a friend who used to wrestle for his high school in the California high desert. Mac taught you to revere men who bring honor and integrity to combat sports: Cael Sanderson, the Iowa State wrestler who went undefeated (159–0) his entire collegiate career; Dan Gable, the wrestling legend who coached Iowa to fifteen national titles; Rulon Gardner, the Greco-Roman wrestler who ended Alexander Karelin’s thirteen-year undefeated streak in the 2000 Ol­ympics. Mac is a sumo fan. Over the phone, he tells you sumo’s grand champion is a massive Mongolian who has taken the world of sumo, indeed all of Japan, by storm, and now he’s coming to Las Vegas. He stresses this is something you both need to see. Even though it means you’ll probably end up pinned to a beer-soaked carpet at three o’clock in the morning, you agree to go.

Your plan is to drive across the desert with a third amigo—Christian—and a cooler full of beer. It’s a poor parody of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and you know it; but Hunter S. Thompson’s sudden passing in 2005 is fresh in your mind, making the trip feel necessary, urgent even. You will pay homage to Thompson by immersing yourselves in a spectacle you don’t understand. “We’re going to get drunk and yell at fat men!” Mac shouts as he rings off.

The dohyo-iri (entrance ceremony) at Mandalay Bay. Photo by Nuvia Crisol Guerra.

There is only one way to ap­proach the city and that is by automobile traveling at a high rate of speed, but the week before the tournament, Christian breaks his leg in three places in a skateboarding mishap and Mac has a family emergency. You consider renting a big red convertible, but the sad truth is there’s a Texas oilman in office and in the autumn of 2005 it’s cheaper to buy a ticket on Southwest Airlines than to drive a Carter administration–era vehicle across the desert. Your lead-foot fiancée’s Pepsi-can of a Volkswagen will have to do.

Your journey is fueled not by cold beer, LSD, and ether, but by tubs of gas-station coffee laced with French vanilla–flavored cream­er. You arrive at the hotel mid­morning, check in, get your press credentials. Check your equip­­ment: notebook, laptop computer, digital camera, shotgun mi­­crophone, minidisc recorder, head­phones, backup tape re­corder, and a shitload of batteries. You have everything you could possibly need except the co­mestibles essential to the job, and like the great man says, the job is all that matters.

Remember that every casino has a convenience store that contains a variety of chilled alcoholic beverages at a price far cheaper than you’ll find anywhere else on the premises. Be extremely nice to the people who work in this store, as you will be doing a lot of business with them. Although it’s not customary to tip convenience store workers, it is in your best interest to do so. Don’t be ashamed of your spoils. After all, you are not a minibar drunk blitzed on six different spirits with peanut M&M’s stuck in your teeth. When people ask you where you got that giant can of Sapporo, tell them it was airlifted in straight from the factory in Hokkaido. They will look at your credentials and assume you are part of the machine that has taken over the casino and they will be right.

 

SUMO IN THE CITY

I  get my first look at the wrestlers shortly after I check in to the Mandalay Bay Hotel. They are impossible to miss; in­deed, they seem to be everywhere. Dressed in colorful robes and ­simple sandals, they wander about in groups of two or three, turning heads wherever they go. They jam quarters into slot machines and talk into tiny cell phones. They come in all shapes and sizes, from surprisingly short to freakishly huge. Some are athletic looking, others decidedly not so. Some resemble extras in a mobster movie. Some are still boys, squinting through eye­glasses, trying not to appear over­awed by their sur­roundings. They are like little ele­phants, compact powerhouses of flesh. Foot traffic in the casino bottlenecks when they stop to pose for photographs with Asian tourists and curious Westerners. They are a sensation in every sense of the word and with good reason: for the first time ever, professional sumo has come to the city of Las Vegas for a three-day tournament.

In Japan, the basho, or tournaments, are held six times a year and last fifteen days. Most sumo fight once a day and their rank is determined by their overall performance. The basho at Mandalay Bay, however, is just three days long so the thirty-eight wrestlers who’ve made the trip will have to compete in several matches a day in order to produce three daily champions and one grand champion.

All this and more is explained at the press conference in the Mariner Room, a banquet hall adjacent to the events center festooned with colorful parasols, basketed ferns, and promotional posters emblazoned with logos for Toshiba, Japan Airlines, and Ha­kuhodo DY Media Partners. Asa­shoryu, the current champion, is light-skinned and seems almost pale in his brilliant gold robe, which conceals his physique from the prying eyes of the Japanese press. He isn’t nearly as big as I’d thought he’d be. I was expecting someone larger than life, manga big. Asa­shoryu is neither extra-large nor super-fat. He seems almost trim, like a defensive lineman for a Division II football program.

Asashoryu is the current Yoko­zuna. To become a Yokozuna, you must rise to the rank of Ozeki, win two consecutive tournaments, de­monstrate that you can win consistently, and carry on the rich traditions of sumo. Being a Yokozuna is not like being a heavyweight champ: you don’t lose your title if you lose a match, and you can never be demoted. Although it is rare, there can be more than one active Yokozuna at a time. Once you ach­ieve the rank, you must either keep winning or retire, but once you do, you retain the title for life.

The president and COO of Mandalay Bay makes the introductions and declares what an honor it is to welcome professional sumo back to the United States for the first time since an exhibition at Madison Square Garden in 1985.

“We are excited about the spec­tacle we are about to see here called sumo,” he says.

The dour-looking chairman of the Japan Sumo Association says a few words about what an honor it is to bring real sumo to the entertainment capital of the world. The association director is the only one who doesn’t say how honored he is, because he declines to speak. Throughout the proceedings the Yokozuna remains completely still, as stone-faced as a statue. I get the impression he is bored. Even during the question-and-answer session, which is prolonged by the work of the translators, he barely moves his lips.

“Do you like to gamble?” a local reporter asks.

“I am losing in gambling, but would like to win at sumo.”

Everybody laughs at the clever Mongolian.

Las Vegas has none of the Big Four professional sports teams, mostly out of fear that the native gambling element will corrupt it somehow, but in the age of internet offshore gambling, this is a curiously outdated notion. Ne­vertheless, Las Vegas is one of the world’s leading hosts of pro­fessional prizefights—the sport most susceptible to corruption. I’ve only been to one of these, a disappointing IBF heavyweight title fight between Vaughn “Shake and Bake” Bean and defending champion Michael Moorer at the Hilton Hotel. It was a sluggish affair, with Moorer sleepwalking through the bout and barely doing enough to win. The most memorable moment was when Moorer’s trainer, the legendary Teddy Atlas, frustrated by his charge’s effort, waved a cell phone in Moorer’s face and screamed, “It’s your son! He wants to know why his daddy doesn’t want to be a champion anymore!” I don’t think this was staged, but it might as well have been. Moorer’s effort reeked of complacency.

Much to my surprise, the sports book at the Mandalay Bay Casino will not set odds for the sumo tournament. I can wager on college football, English Premier League soccer, and NASCAR futures, but not sumo. After the disappointment of “professional” boxing in the big ring, I am ready for some sumo, but as a pair of wrestlers waddles past me on their way, I pre­sume, to the buffet, I wonder what is the point of having a tournament in Las Vegas if you can’t bet on the outcome?

 

HOW TO WIN AT SUMO

The yobidashi calls your name in a song that has not changed in a long-ass time. This is how they summon you to the ring. How you approach the dohyo—from the east side or from the west—says a lot about your skill, your rank, whether fortune has been smiling on you or not. You climb onto the clay mound topped with soft sand and enter the fifteen-foot ring. The dohyo is circumscribed by rice bales buried deep in the clay so that only the very top is visible. This is where you fight. It is a very small space. When your opponent makes his charge you will only have about four feet in which to maneuver. You perform the chiri-chozu ceremony. First, you face your opponent and squat on your massive legs. Extend your arms outward and clap them together. Then you extend them again and slowly turn your palms, first up, then down. This is to demonstrate that you bear no weapons. You are the weapon. Proceed to the center of the dohyo. Lift your leg high in the air and stamp it hard on the clay. The shiko drives the evil spirits from the ring, pounds them into the ground. Return to your side, where the winner of the previous match passes his energy to you through a dipper of power water. Rinse your mouth and wipe it with a paper towel. Take a fistful of unrefined salt and scatter it about the ring. The shikiri purifies the place, prepares it for combat. Repeat this series of events—squat, stamp, drink, scatter—four or five times until the timekeeper signals it is time. Face your opponent. Assume the sonkyo position of respect. Crouch forward and prepare for the tachi-ai. Most matches are won or lost in the opening charge. Focus on breathing—your opponent’s as well as your own. When the referee raises his war fan to the vertical position, you may attack, but only when both you and your opponent are ready. There is no starting bell or referee’s whistle in sumo. When the moment is ex­actly right, you explode out of your stance like a missile shot from a cannon.

 

FRIDAY NIGHT FIGHTS

The man on the public address system shouts, “Let’s make some noise!” and the crowd obliges with appropriate applause. A pair of retired wrestlers, Musashimaru and Koni­shiki, handle the introductions and color commentary. Musashimaru is a Yokozuna; Konishiki holds the distinction of being the heaviest wrestler ever to have climbed into the ring. Both men were brought up on the western side of Oahu. Musa­shimaru reads the names of the com­batants as they approach the ring, the name of the victor when the match is over, and the technique he used to win. He calls to mind the somber public-address men of major league baseball. Ko­nishiki, on the other hand, is from the Public Enemy school of spec­tacle management, and every second or third bout, he can be ­counted on to exhort the crowd with some kind of command that would not be out of place at a hip-hop concert. It’s not WWF Smackdown, but we’re a long way from the hallowed Kokugikan in Tokyo.

The crowd loves it. In a city of simulation, sumo is as real as real gets.

There are, however, quite a few empty seats in the house and it’s obvious to everyone that the event is massively undersold. With tickets ranging from $75 to $350, it’s easy to understand why. It’s impossible to know how the wrestlers feel about all this as they seldom, if ever, show emotion. Every once in a while the combatants will stare each other down, but that’s it. Even when they lose, they seldom do more than shake their heads as they make their way back to the im­promptu locker rooms on either side of the events center. They are most demonstrative in the mo­ments before the bout when they adjust their silk belts and slap their bellies as if to prepare them for the collisions to come.

The action is every bit as spectacular as advertised. At first glance, the sumo look like bull seals battling for the supremacy of an ice floe. This impression is borne out by how brief the matches are; after only a few seconds, one of the wrestlers steps outside of the ring—by force, guile, or gravity. It’s extremely rare to see a match last longer than a minute. But the more I watch the more I come to appreciate the various techniques that are employed: an arsenal of kicks, trips, thrusts, throws, and, of course, displays of staggering strength. The most commonly used maneuver is the frontal force-out, which is exactly what it sounds like and involves one wrestler getting a two-handed grip on his opponent’s silk mawashi, lifting him off the ground, and carrying him out of bounds while the loser’s legs thrash in the air like a rambunctious child being put to bed.

On the surface, the charge is not unlike what one sees on a football field immediately after the snap, when the offensive and defensive linemen come together in a furious rush. But in football the clash is not the point, but a by-product of the athletes trying to prevent their opponents from achieving their ob­jective. In other words, the collision is irrelevant. In sumo, the collision is everything, which makes the fact that they do it wearing nothing but a piece of silk all the more impressive. No helmets, no pads, no cleats. Nothing to protect them but their own fat.

Of course, not all sumo wrestlers fit the stereotype, and I was shocked to discover, as most Westerners usually are, that there are no weight classes in sumo. The eight hundred or so professional rikishi, or street fighters, are slotted into a staggering number of divisions that range from the Yokozuna all the way down to the equivalent of a relief pitcher on an AAA farm team; but weight does not factor into either the divisions or the rankings. The biggest men have to fight the speedier, more agile wrestlers, just as the smallest ­fighters have to go against the heavyweights. In fact, spectators at Mandalay Bay are treated to a video clip of Konishiki in his heyday, losing to a man that was easily a third his weight.

It’s also surprising how many non-Japanese wrestlers there are in the top tier of professional sumo. A great many of the rikishi are from Mongolia and Eastern Europe. One of the rising stars is a Bulgarian sumotori named Kotooshu, a sleek, muscular giant who at six foot seven looks more like a power forward for a basketball team than a pear-shaped wrestler. Of the thirty-eight wrest­lers in the tournament, there are six Mongolians, two Russians, a Georgian, a Bulgarian, and a South Korean—almost a third of the wrestlers aren’t Japanese. Not only are non­native athletes flocking to Japan’s na­tional sport in record numbers, they’re winning.

Asa­shoryu, the pride of Mongolia, has won an incredible six consecutive tournaments and is poised to make history if he wins a record-breaking seventh—an un­precedented feat in the nearly fifty years since the current tournament schedule was formed. The twenty-five-year-old Mongolian’s real name is Dolgorsuren Dagvadorj. Asashoryu, which translates to “Blue Morning Dragon,” is his fighting name. When a rikishi begins his sumo career, he leaves his old name behind and as­sumes a new one, which becomes the only name the Japanese Sumo Association recognizes. A wrestler can change his name as often as he likes, and some will do so several times in the hopes that their luck will change as well.

Sumo is practiced all over the world—Mongolia, Belarus, there’s even a California Sumo Association—but only at the amateur level. For professional sumo you have to go to Japan, and be­cause the sport is intertwined with the country’s culture, language, and traditions, it is exceedingly difficult for nonnative practitioners to succeed, but that is exactly what they are doing. In four short years, Asa­shoryu has risen to the pinnacle of a sport historically dominated by the Japanese. Asashoryu is Mongolia’s Lance Armstrong.

Watching Asashoryu fight, it’s obvious how much better he is than his competition. He’s per­fectly put together. At six feet and 325 pounds, he is compactly built. He possesses the agility of a gymnast, the strength of a bull, but it’s his reflexes that are truly astonishing. He can execute any maneuver he pleases, and when he chooses to do so, the match usually ends. I watch Asa­shoryu’s opponents psych them­­selves out over and over again. They seem less concerned with their own attack than with countering Asashoryu’s, and in doing so often leave themselves in a vulnerable position, which Asashoryu immediately exploits. These bouts end as quickly as they begin. Like a talented, ­well-conditioned basketball player who only needs to get to any one of a handful of spots on the floor to make a basket, it only seems like Asashoryu’s combatants are in the match. In other words, he does what all great champions do: he makes it look easy.

The fan favorite is a Japanese wrestler named Takamisakari, who, prior to every bout, moves to a corner of the arena, faces the audience, and proceeds to slap his face, beat his chest, and thrust his arms out. He looks like an overly aggressive baseball manager sending a signal to the batter’s box. This rare and rather demonstrative display of emotion never fails to draw cheers from the crowd. It seems Takamisakari was injured some time ago and the fear of reinjuring himself made him timid in the dohyo, so he devised this ritual as a way to awaken his fighting spirit. The fans in Japan have dubbed him “RoboCop.”

In the semifinals, Tochiazuma, a Japanese bulldog of a wrestler who carries 331 pounds on his five-foot nine-inch frame, topples Ko­tooshu, the giant Bulgarian. Chi­yotaikai, a massive, no-neck Ja­panese wrestler, uses his furious slap­ping technique to land a dozen blows on the champ in half as many seconds, drawing murmurs of appreciation from the crowd, but once Asa­shoryu gets his hands on Chiyotaikai’s mawashi, he dispatches him with ease.

For the final match of the eve­ning, Konishiki urges on the spectators—“Las Vegas, are you ready for some sumoooooo?”—and every­one rises from their seats and stamps their feet and cheers on the champ because no one loves a champion like Las Vegas. They clap their hands together and call out his name and the little old Japanese ladies in the audience, of whom there are several, lose their freaking minds.

Las Vegas is ready, but Asa­shoryu isn’t.

The Yokozuna goes down in a heap at Tochiazuma’s feet.

The mighty Mongolian has been defeated.

 

HOW TO BECOME A YOKOZUNA, OR, HAVE YOU EARNED THAT MAWASHI?

First, try to be born somewhere in Asia. Japan, Mon­golia, or Eastern Europe will do. Anywhere but the United States. You can come from Hawaii, but only if you leave your Western ideas about individuality and independence on the island. Big hands and feet are a plus, but these concerns are secondary to your appetite. As the means to satisfy your hunger is essential, it helps if you grow up on a farm. If you can’t stomach gross quantities of rice and fish, sumo is not the sport for you.

If you are one of the lucky ones, when you are fifteen years old you will sign on with a stable, where you will learn the skills necessary to succeed. You must be willing to be the first out of bed and the last to eat. Your day begins at four thirty or five a.m., and training lasts all morning long. You will not lift weights or run through the streets at dawn, rather, you will roll around in the mud, practicing your moves. In sumo, your moves are everything and flexibility trumps strength every time. First there are the matawari, or sumo splits. If you cannot press your chest and forehead to the ground with your legs fully extended, one of the senior rikishi will be instructed to climb onto your back. Do not cry, as this only encourages the ­coaches. Shiko training involves lifting your legs and stamping them into the earth, hundreds of times a day, until the soles of your feet become giant calluses. Then you will work on the teppo pole, a large block of wood that has absorbed tens of thousand of blows from experienced sumo and as many tears from the novices. Your hands go numb from the battering and are speckled with ­bruises. The worst exercise is the butsukari-geiko, which requires you to drive your opponent across the ring. Thus, in order to become a sumo, you must learn to move mountains.

After training, you put away the equipment, sweep the ring, restore everything to its proper order. Then you go to the kitchen to prepare chanko-nabe, the carbohydrate-laden stew thick with carrots, cabbage, radishes, soybean curd, and fish that is the staple of the rikishi’s diet. Only after the ­highest-ranking wrestlers have eaten may you sit down on the straw mat to eat your first meal of the day. On Monday you eat chanko-nabe. On Tuesday more chanko-nabe. On Wednesday chanko-nabe again. You eat chanko-nabe every day until the concepts “chanko” and “food” are fused in your mind. Food is chanko and chanko is power.

There is a sameness to your days. The wax on–wax off bullshit never ends. Once you are accepted into a stable, you are not permitted to compete in other sports, nor may you take a job. It is a twenty-four-hour commitment. Your whole life is sumo.

 

KOTOOSHU HAS A POSSE

Saturday morning I go to the pool to read about Tochiazuma’s startling up­set in the Las Vegas Review-Journal and am baffled when I can’t find any mention of it in the sports section. I read quite a few articles about the Texas Longhorns’ tilt with their archrivals from Oklahoma, but nothing about sumo. There is plenty of coverage of the sumo sightings all over the city—sumo at the baccarat tables, sumo backstage at Zumanity, sumo chugging beer at a restaurant, but this is the obligatory “fat guys in diapers” crap one expects from a Las Vegas daily. It surprises me that in a town with more boxing writers per ­capita than practically anywhere in the country, not one had bothered to file a story about the tournament. I know they were there. In fact, a couple of guys from the boxing press sat directly behind me. They bet five bucks a bout and drank a lot of beer. It didn’t seem like they had much interest in the tournament save for the instant gratification they got out of it when they won. In their view, sumo is a story for the human-interest schmucks. Do they know something that I don’t?

The casino is abuzz with sumo talk and on the way up to my room I overhear a conversation in the ele­vator between two statuesque blonds.

“Watch out for the sumo guys. They stay up late.”

“I know! I saw like five of them last night. I was like, don’t you have a tournament tomorrow?”

A Texas fan from Los Angeles tells me that Kotooshu was in the House of Blues Foundation Room until at least three o’clock in the morning partying with a bevy of babes.

“The Bulgarian dude has a posse,” he says.

If posses have profaned sumo wrestling, a sport that dates back fifteen hundred years, can any tradition be safe?

When my fiancée comes back from the gym, she tells me that she saw the Yokozuna working out, and this buoys my spirits. Let the Bulgarian party with painted ladies and the Japanese get drunk on the spectacle of Las Vegas. The humble Mongolian was carrying on like usual: working out, staying focused. His virtue ensures that, like a virgin in a slasher flick, he will be there for the final showdown. For a combat sport to break through to the mainstream consciousness, it requires an honorable man, someone we can look up to and admire as the embodiment of the best aspects of the human species. Is Asashoryu that man?

Barbara Klein, former editor of Sumo Fan Magazine, who has been following Asashoryu’s career from the instant he first set foot in the dohyo, assures me he is. Whenever Asa­shoryu returns to Mongolia to visit his family or take part in a charity event, he runs up and down the mountains to keep up with his training. When I press Barbara for an explanation as to how Asa­shoryu could have lost, she tells me that he was battling a cold and that he’d been up half the night waiting for the happy news from home that his wife had given birth to a healthy baby, his second child and first son.

This is encouraging news. I need Asashoryu to win. Mailer had Ali. Thompson had the road race. The Mongolian is my shot. But the next night, Asashoryu is defeated again—this time by Chiyotaikai, the mad slapper. I watch the post-tournament press conference from the pressroom. I’m scarfing down a soggy chicken salad sandwich when a reporter asks the champ what happened and Asashoryu says through his translator that he’d in­tended to win, but slipped.

Intended to win? What the hell does that mean? Don’t all rikishi, scratch that, all competitors, “intend to win” whenever they compete? Isn’t that what makes Cael Sanderson’s perfect college career so special, or Rulon Gardner’s Olympic upset of the Russian wrestler so memorable? It all starts to make sense: the way the casino’s pub­licity people kept referring to the tournament as a “performance”; the sports book’s refusal to set odds or take bets; the lack of coverage in the sporting press. Asashoryu’s startling admission that he had deviated from the script was the last straw: Grand Sumo Las Vegas was an exhibition dressed up like a tournament. The “real sumo” we’d been promised was a sham.

 

SAYONARA, SUCKER, AND THANKS FOR ALL THE SAKE

Cashing a winning ticket after the Texas game im­proves my outlook, so does a fabulous Mexican meal with my fiancée by the pool, but by the time the final tournament rolls around on Sunday, my cynicism is so pervasive that when I look up at the yakata, the roof suspended above the dohyo that resembles a Shinto temple, I see an Edo-period Jumbo­Tron.

On the third day, “RoboCop” ad­vances to the quarterfinals, much to the delight of the crowd. Ko­tooshu loses his first match of the day and is eliminated. Perhaps all that partying with his posse has finally caught up with the Bul­garian. Asashoryu is a monster and mows through his competition. He seems more focused, more ani­mated. He glares at his competition and grabs huge fistfuls of salt, which he flings to the rafters. The crowd eats it up.

Asashoryu dispatches his opponent in the championship round, a fellow Mongolian named Hakuho. A round-robin ensues to determine which of the three daily champions—Tochiazuma, Chiyotaikai, or Asashoryu—will be named the grand champion. To absolutely no one’s surprise, Asashoryu prevails.

On my way to the press conference, I pass Tom Arnold, Best Damn Sports Show Period host and all-around douche bag, as he tries to interview Chiyotaikai—without the aid of a translator. It’s supposed to be funny, but it’s not. This is what the ancient sport of sumo is to America: a comedy bit, a cultural curiosity, a freak show, and not the kind Dr. Gonzo would have approved of; our Las Vegas is no longer his Las Vegas.

 

HOW TO COVER A LAS VEGAS SPORTING EVENT AFTER THOMPSON: PART II

Never leave the hotel. If this logic is good enough for Captain Wil­­lard, it’s good enough for you. There are many perils beyond the vacuum-sealed doors: strippers, tattoo parlors, punk-rock bars that never close, and absolutely none of this has anything to do with the ancient sport of sumo. If there is a big-ass tub in your room, use it. If there is a machine installed in the swimming pool that generates waves that break on the beach like on Bora-Bora, take advantage of it. At all costs avoid the buffet. The job will require that you brush elbows with pissants and peasants: don’t volunteer for extra duty.

Never forget that you are being watched. When you walk down the long corridor toward the media room, passing bags of fresh bagels in the morning and troughs of cold beer at night, act professional and be on your best behavior. In Vegas, you’re always on camera.

Be wary of other media. They are not your friends. Unlike you, they have to be here. Avoid the local print journalists, for their sadness is overwhelming. Ditto the in-love-with-himself ESPN tool. Be­ware the television puppets: they’ll turn on you in a second. Enjoy the fact that the Japanese translator re­fuses to translate half of the questions posed by Jay Leno’s not-so-funny man, John Melendez. Do not be angered or surprised when Tom Arnold sticks a microphone in your face and ridicules your personal style by asking if the circus is in town. Simply reply: “I thought you were supposed to be the clown, Tom,” bump fists with the boxing press, and beat feet to the bar, where the globe-trotting New Yorker from the online sumo zine and the Canadian anthropology grad student with beers in his camera bag—your kind of people—are waiting.

Since the casino won’t take bets on the outcome of the bouts, channel your newfound enthusiasm for sumo by betting heavily in the sports book. Tell yourself that the clash of offensive and defensive line­men in American football is akin to sumo. Celebrate with the Texans when they finally beat Okla­homa, and seek consolation in the fact that no one could have predicted Penn State’s dominance over the unusually erratic Big Ten, not even Joe Paterno. There is no shame in betting on baseball in October—just don’t dwell on the number you could have gotten on the White Sox. No matter what happens, make sure you plop down a nice chunk of change on the Indianapolis Colts (even if they are laying four­teen on the road in San Francisco), so that when you leave on Sunday afternoon you’ll have a couple hundred dollars with which to start your week.

On the drive home, while watching The Incredibles on your fiancée’s laptop, do not reflect on how watching a children’s movie, a freaking cartoon, while soberly sucking down Pringles and Diet Cokes as you cross the California state line makes you the anti-gonzo. Thompson shot himself out of a cannon to bring new places and ex­periences to his ­readers; the wrestler makes enormous personal sacrifices so that he can become the best that he can be. Realize that Thompson and sumo are the opposite extremes of rigorous ex­cess; most of us live in the middle ground and that’s exactly the way it should be.

 

POSTSCRIPT

Asashoryu went 14–1 at the basho in late November and won his seventh consecutive tournament, a new re­cord in the annals of sumo (the record for six consecutive wins had stood for twenty-seven years). His only loss came against Kotooshu, who went 11–4 and was elevated to Ozeki—the first European to hold this elite rank. Asashoryu also broke the re­cord for most bouts won in a year—eighty-four. In addition, he is the first and only wrestler to win all six tournaments in a calendar year. I don’t dwell on my final im­pression of Asashoryu, flexing for the press like a Venice Beach goon before a gaudy trophy with flashing lights. I prefer to imagine Asa­shoryu running up a misty mountain in Mongolia, doing whatever it takes to compensate for the training he missed in Las Vegas. I choose to consider Asashoryu’s accomplishment from the Mongolian’s per­spective: in the midst of preparing for the greatest tournament of any sumo wrestler’s career, Asa­shoryu brought the great sport of sumo to the American people. He endured the glitz and the glamor, the cheers and the chatter, and then he returned to Japan, entered the ring, and showed the world what a true man of honor can do.

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