by Rami Genauer, MMAWeekly.com (Photo courtesy of Rebekah Genauer)

MMAnthropology: How Sumo Solves the Mysteries of Japanese MMA

Without fail, foreigners can’t help but be fascinated by a trip to Japan. Maybe it’s the interplay of ancient so close to cutting edge, the conflicted soul of a country so steeped in tradition yet obsessed with advancement. Or maybe it’s the $75 cantaloupes.

Whichever it is, the sense of old vs. new is pervasive in the country, with things no different in the realm of combat sports. Within the span of two weeks in November, I had the chance to attend a Sumo tournament dating back a thousand years but selling tickets on the Internet and a mixed martial arts tournament that could easily be described as post-modern, yet draws its inspiration and name from the ancient Bushido code.

From a distance, it wouldn’t seem like a Sumo and MMA have much in common aside from Teila Tuli, Akebono, and a penchant for attire that leaves little to the imagination. However, after attending an event from each discipline, one can’t help but notice some similarities. And in taking note of the things that have been borrowed from Sumo, one gains a greater appreciation for some of the unique characteristics of events run by Pride, K-1, and other Japanese organizations.

In retrospect, it is not at all surprising that Japanese MMA should take some of its cues from Sumo. According to legend, Sumo is as old as Japan itself, with popular mythology telling of a Sumo match between two gods to determine possession of the Japanese islands 2500 years ago. Its recorded history is long and proud and, to foreign eyes, it is as recognizably Japanese as samurai swords or Hello Kitty. It is also Japan’s oldest martial art, combat sport, and longest running professional spectator sport as well. In trying to win over the Japanese fan base with a new sport, mixed martial arts organizations have naturally latched on to certain traits with which Japanese combat sports followers are already familiar.

Insofar as the way match-ups are organized, Japanese organizations have clung fiercely to two ideas that have both been regulated out of the American MMA scene: the tournament format and matches between opponents of different weight classes. Tournaments, or basho, are the only way official Sumo matches are conducted, with six tournaments held per year.

One could make the argument that Grand Prix hurt the MMA scene by confusing the title landscape. After a Welterweight Grand Prix that saw belt-holder Dan Henderson lose to eventual winner Kazuo Misaki but saw Misaki lose to Paulo Filho, can anyone legitimately claim to be the champ at 83 kilos? Pride recently announced that it would begin dialing back on its tournaments, holding only one per year. But given the cultural attachment to the tournament ideal, the format is unlikely to disappear completely, as it has stateside.

In addition, Pride recently announced the advent of a Super Heavyweight division, which will likely result in a decline in the huge differences in weight between fighters. However, the idea that strength and size do not always reign supreme is well entrenched in Japanese philosophy. All Sumo events are open weight, and while Sumo wrestlers are often portrayed uniformly as mountainous, Michelin Man-shaped fatsos, the truth is that they come in all shapes and sizes. Indeed, it is not uncommon for one rikishi to outweigh his opponent by 200 pounds or more. For a fan base raised on the idea that technique usually beats size, we are unlikely to have seen the end of “freak show” matches. Ikuhisa Minowa probably shouldn’t get too comfortable.

Sitting in attendance at a Sumo tournament leaves one with the impression that several other unique features of the Japanese MMA scene have their roots in the ancient customs of Sumo. The elaborate introduction ceremony at Pride events, where each fighter emerges to stand on the same stage, can be seen as mimicking the dohyo-iri, the Sumo entrance procedure in which the rikishi are introduced to the crowd one by one in ascending rank order.

Corollaries can also be seen in the way matches are introduced and conducted. One of the great mysteries of Japanese MMA is the strange allure of female announcers who seemingly take a half hour to say the word Brazil. Love them or hate them, one can’t help but wonder why both Pride and K-1 would employ women with that, shall we say, unique gift for elocution. The mystery is solved, however, with the introduction to the yobidashi, the official announcer who calls out the names of the Sumo wrestlers about to compete. While the yobidashi must be male, he must also recite the names in a distinct, high-pitched voice with enough melismatic flair to stretch competitor’s names for several extra syllables. After hearing the yobidashi for a while, it’s not hard to figure why Japanese get such a kick out of their screechy female announcers.

Before an MMA match even begins in Japan, there is already one major divergence from the way things are run stateside. Every Pride or K-1 fight starts with a staredown, while only championship bouts get the staredown treatment in America. In Sumo, the staredown, or shikiri, is designed to let participants purify the ring and try to gain a psychological advantage and it holds a revered place in the pageantry of each match. While Sumo tournaments have begun instituting time limits on the shikiri, starting with 10 minutes in 1928 and moving down to the current four-minute limit, the staredown will almost always take longer than the match itself. An MMA staredown, while brief and functionally pointless – fighters should really know the rules by that point – provides that same chance to get inside an opponent’s head, psyche them out, and ratchet up the drama.

Taking note of the ways the ancient customs of Sumo have shaped modern Japanese MMA productions, one can’t help but notice that the influence only runs in one direction; Sumo stands virtually unchanged despite changing times and tastes. Perhaps this is for the best. If there’s one image we can avoid it’s that of one Sumo wrestler kissing the other at the staredown.