WASHINGTON, March 26 (By Maria Young for RIA Novosti) - Two giant men, clothed in towels, armed with massive muscles and nerves of steel, stand side-by-side in a ring surrounded by wide-eyed Americans, hushed in anticipation.
“Who wants to see Soslan and Byamba take it off?” asks the announcer, and the crowd whistles and cheers as the towels come down.
The two men, now wearing little more than tiny scraps of material covering their privates, face each other and put four mountainous fists on the mat, a sign that the competition is about to begin, and the room is silent again.
There is a flash of action, a tremendous explosion as flesh slams on flesh, and the room filled with about 70 spectators erupts in cheers and applause.
“Come on, Byamba!”
“You can do it, Soslan!”
“Whhhoooooootttt!!!” screams one ecstatic woman, unsure which warrior to cheer for. In the excitement she knocks over a glass of sake, the traditional Japanese liquor, but there is more where that came from and the cheering continues until Mongolian-born Byambajav Ulambayar, a three-time World Sumo Champion, forces his opponent to step outside of the ring and wins the round.
Sumo wrestling has come to America – at least for a few months – as part of a nationwide “Sumo + Sushi” tour, and it’s being served up to sold-out crowds from coast to coast for $79 a ticket including sake and sushi, all reminiscent of ancient Japan where the sport originated.
Organizers at LivingSocial, a website for discounted deals, bill the events as a way to “partake in an authentic Japanese cultural experience with no flight necessary,” said spokeswoman Elizabeth Hebda.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this here in Washington,” said Lesley Byrd, a spectator who said she was thrilled for a chance to see something so unique in person.
In a nation known as a cultural melting pot, and a city that has embassies from all over the world, sumo wrestling has rarely been seen in Washington… or in many other places in America, for that matter. Those who love the sport say that’s something they hope will change.
“When Americans think of sumo they mostly think of a joke, they think of two fat guys belly bucking and one of them falls down and ‘ahaha, look how funny it is.’ But other people who see our performances know it’s about real athletes doing a real martial art… and actually, the oldest martial art. In Japan it’s 1,500 to 2,000 years old, and so we take a lot of pride in what we do,” said Kelly Gneiting, a four-time US Sumo Wrestling Champion, in an interview with RIA Novosti.
Most of the tours feature Gneiting, 430 pounds (195 kg), and Ulambayar, 370 pounds (168 kg), but on a recent night in Washington Gneiting was nursing an injury, so Russian-born Soslan Gagloev was flown in from Florida for the match, all 340 pounds (154 kg) of him.
“I am big boy,” he said, smiling and stating the obvious, in an interview with RIA Novosti. A member of the Russian Junior Olympic team in freestyle wrestling, he literally outgrew his own sport and moved to Japan as a teenager to study sumo.
“I like action, it’s a very impressive sport,” he said. “For Japan, it’s a culture sport, a national sport, but in America, everybody loves American football but sumo is a new sport and I hope everybody can learn.”
It is part sport, part show as announcer Andrew Freund whips the crowd to a near-frenzy. During a break, there are audience questions, and one woman – spurred on by her cackling friends -- asks if the wrestlers have lots of girlfriends, like other pro-athletes tend to have.
Gagloev says no, but the other wrestlers laugh. In the end, Ulambayar wins all five rounds and takes the match.
He is slightly bigger than Gagloev, but Ulambayar says the sport is about more than just size.
“Of course the first hit is really powerful and really heavy, but… there also has to be speed and technique, flexibility,” he said.
A few brave spectators enter the ring to try sumo against the professionals, and most, even the men, are easily picked up and carried off of the mat.
Afterwards, there is a crowd lined up for pictures with the stars.
Ulambayar is modest about his win, and convinced that to know sumo is to love sumo.
“It’s a great sport,” he said. “Everybody has to learn first what it is, and then sumo it’s just going to get bigger and bigger.”