US Sumo Open, April 9
Sumo originated over 1,500 years ago in Japan as an oracular ritual connected with prayers for the harvest. In spite of the fact that foreigners like Americans, Mongolians, and Bulgarians become top professional sumo wrestlers, including the current yokozuna (grand champion), professional sumo maintains most traditions, such as not allowing women to enter or even to touch the dohyo (sumo ring) in Japan.
Just like other Japanese martial arts spreading throughout the world, sumo is gaining popularity amongst an American audience.
The Sixth Annual US Sumo Open tournament will take place at the Los Angeles Convention Center in Petree Hall on Sunday, April 9 from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Athletes are coming from Japan, Eastern and Northern Europe, Mongolia and from around the U.S., including a large portion from Southern California. Athletes from all walks of life, large and small, male and female face off at the yearly event.
The US Sumo Open was founded and organized by Andrew Freund, an English teacher to foreign students at Santa Monica College and UCLA Extension. The first US Sumo Open was held in 2001 at UCLA’s John Wooden Center gymnasium with former top-ranked professional sumo wrestler Konishiki and Japanese university champions.
It was 15 years ago when Freund was introduced to Sumo for his first time when he was teaching English in Tokyo. After coming across an advertisement in a local journal for a sumo tournament, Freund bought a ticket in the nosebleed section and spent the entire day, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., watching the professional sumo wrestlers go at it.
Upon returning to Japan in 1994 to again teach English, Freund was exposed to more sumo, but it wasn’t until he was living in Los Angeles in 1997 when he urged a friend to compete in a sumo exhibition at the Japan Expo that Freund got hooked. “He was a big guy, and I pushed him to try it,” Freund explained. “He said ‘I’ll do it if you do it.’”
After participating in the exhibition, Freund started the California Sumo Association at UCLA. CSA had three to four participants at the time and would practice from one to three times a week.
“In 2000, I ran into (Bulgarian) Svetoslav Binev, who won the ‘98 and ‘99 World Sumo Championships,” Freund said. “I got his input and philosophy in the club.” With Binev’s input, Freund organized the first US Sumo Open in 2001 at UCLA.
“Our first year, we had only 25 athletes and the level of competition was not very high,” Freund explained. “but Konishiki had such a big heart and was very energetic, so the event was a big success.” Each subsequent US Sumo Open has seen top-ranked guests from the world of sumo, including former Yokozuna Akebono, Yokozuna Musashimaru and the Japanese teams.
From the first US Sumo Open at a UCLA gymnasium to this year’s Los Angeles Convention Center, things have changed. With more foreign teams participating and the level of U.S.-based sumo athletes increasing with each passing year, Freund is looking for this to be the best tournament yet.
“Every year we’re trying to improve our level. Foreign teams are a big part of that. Athletes from Mongolia, maybe a team from Japan, European teams including teams from Bulgaria, Norway, and Germany all add to the quality,” Freund explained. “It’s really a step up when you bring over the foreign teams.”
In the past, Freund has recruited many teams from overseas to participate. While he has had success, there were visa issues for many of the invitees who ended up not being able to make it over. But this year, it was Freund who was approached by a team of Mongolian sumo athletes, who were already in Los Angeles, and who are also helping to invite more top sumo athletes from Mongolia.
“The Mongolians will be a very interesting story. Many are students here in the U.S. learning English,” Freund said. “Like the Japanese, their speed and techniques are great.”
But it’s not just the new foreign talent that sets the Sixth Annual US Sumo Open apart. According to Freund, it’s been the constant strong showing from Los Angeles and U.S.-based athletes. For example, 39 year-old LAPD officer Troy Collins, who has medaled in both the middle and open weight classes every year since 2002, will compete in this year’s US Sumo Open. “He’s been a really positive influence and a role model,” said Freund.
According to Freund, most of the U.S.-based sumo athletes practice and participate for fun, but with time, some learn about the tradition and the culture. “Most of the guys in the club (California Sumo Association), don’t watch sumo regularly,” Freund explained. “Most are guys with football or wrestling backgrounds who just like to compete.”
Another differentiating factor over the years has been the officiating. Last year, two officials came from the Shizuoka Sumo Federation, and played important roles as referees and judges in the tournament. According to Freund, their expertise on sumo brought more authenticity to the US Open.
“Japanese officiating is a big deal,” said Freund. “These guys have decades and decades of experience.” He is currently working to get last year’s officials to return.
Freund sees the tournament as changing the image of sumo wrestlers that the novice might hold. “One of the biggest comments that fans tell me is ‘Wow, that wasn’t what I was expecting at all’ or ‘They really are athletes.’”
The US Sumo Open tournament for both the men and women is broken into three different weight classes: lightweight, middleweight, heavyweight, along with an open weight selection, where all are able participate against each other. Those who wish to participate in this year’s competition can get more information by calling (310) 288-3641 or by logging onto www.usasumo.com.
Freund went on to explain that while he’s made mistakes in the past, and that the tournament has not always made money, particularly in the first few years, with each passing year the turnout has been getting larger, hence the move from UCLA to the L.A. Convention Center last year, and now to a larger hall this year, that can sit twice as many as last year.
“We want to make it (US Sumo Open) a standard, like the L.A. Marathon, as THE sumo tournament every year. We bring over the best from around the world every year,” explained Freund. “and we are building a good fan base.”
This year, ticket prices range from $15 for general admission to $45 for V.I.P. seating. For tickets, call (310) 617-3343. A free preview event will be held on Saturday, April 8 at Noguchi Plaza in the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Little Tokyo. This event will run from 11 a.m.- 3 p.m.
Posted by culturalnews
at 00:30 PST
Updated: 03/31/06 00:30 PST