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The Sumo wrestlers are the largest and heaviest of athletes. And when they sprinkle the salt, stomp their feet and exchange intimidating positions to begin the bout, one gets to watch one of the most scintillating sights in the world of sport. This is among the features that has made Sumo wrestling so thrilling to the Japanese for centuries and now to the West. The biggest proof of this is the recent win of the highest Grand Champion title by the US-born Akebono. 

There is no clear date when Sumo wrestling, Japan’s national sport, evolved as few written records have been maintained. Sumo is also regarded as the earliest of martial arts with Jujitsu being its direct descendant. Many believe it goes back 1,500 years, while some fans say that ancient paintings have revealed that the sport was played in 23 BC.  

One thing is for sure that Sumo wrestling has its origins in religion. According to legend, the very origin of the Japanese race marked the victory of a God, Take-Mikazuchi, over his rival Take-Minakata in a Sumo fight. The Emperor of Japan traces his ancestry to Take-Mikazuchi. The bouts, along with dramas and dances, form part of the rituals and prayers dedicated to the Gods for a bountiful harvest.  

In the beginning, these were held mostly in shrines and later moved to the forecourts of warlords, who used the event as another means to demonstrate power. In the 8th Century, Sumo became an integral part of ceremonies of the Imperial Court and most of the rules and techniques then developed laid the foundations for the Sumo we know of today. Today’s Japanese Sumo Association has its direct origins in the professional Sumo groups first formed in the early 17th Century. 

The most fascinating thing is the wrestler’s gigantic size that is based on a scientific principle – the heavier the fighter, the lower his center of gravity and therefore that much tougher for a rival to force him out of the ring. To ensure this, the wrestler has an elaborate rice-based diet. For breakfast, he is served chanko – a fat-rich stew comprising pork, eggs, cabbage and bean sprouts. Then after training, it is lunch followed by a nap. Soon, they are ready for dinner. This process, too, is based on a principle that heavy eating followed by sleep results in weight gain. Not surprisingly, the champions weigh several hundred pounds. Though they look obese, they do pump a lot of iron. 

Earlier, the contestant wore beautifully embroidered aprons indicating the feudal family he represented. 17th Century onwards, the hair was tied into a topknot to cushion the fighter’s head during a fall. This tradition continues till date. Nowadays, wrestlers wear equally colorful aprons that denote their birthplace, ranking and the professional group they belong to. 

The commencement of the game is preceded by a ring-purifying ceremony. Salt and sake (rice wine) are placed at the center, after which the priest blesses the ring. Salt is meant to purify the ring and rid it of evil spirits. Just before the bout, the wrestler rinses his mouth with water to symbolically cleanse his mind and body. The higher the ranking, the greater are the ritualistic obligations on the wrestler. For instance, the Grand Champion has to perform a dance before the bout. The steps are only extensions of his stretching exercises. 

Sumo is said to be essentially a mind game, which is why there are occasions when opponents stare at each other far longer rather than engaging in the physical bout itself. In the 4.55-metre wide ring, there is much slapping and pushing. The aim here is to break the other’s concentration. Kicking in the groin or the chest or any move intended to injure the contestant is not allowed. 

The wrestler’s dress is the mewashi or loincloth. Interestingly, these are never washed as belief has it that if washed, the wrestlers’ entire experience is washed away in the process. At the physical level of the bout, it is the mewashi that the rivals seek to hold in a vice-like grip so that he can try to have the rival’s body, other than the soles, touch the mat. Thereafter, it is simple – the winner goes up in rank and the loser is demoted. And no matter what, the wrestler would simply show no emotion.


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