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Sumo, American Style

Japan's national sport doesn't carry as much weight in the U.S., but it's stirring up some fighting spirit in classrooms and studios.

April 02, 2001|J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The two hulking men squatted on the balls of their feet, facing each other in the fighting ring. They rubbed their hands together to symbolize washing before battle, clapped once to alert the gods that a fight was about to begin, then opened their palms to show they had no hidden weapons.

They leaned forward and touched the knuckles of both hands to the ground, just as the gyoji, or judge, gave the signal to begin. The fighters lunged toward each other, jockeying for a hold as they tried to grapple their opponent out of the ring. At last, Tonkatsu (a.k.a. Harry Dudrow) prevailed over Yukikaze (a.k.a. Jim Lowerre). Both men were gasping for breath when it was over.

Here in the backyard of an unpretentious Garden Grove neighborhood, Dudrow and Lowerre were practicing the ancient art of sumo wrestling. The clay flooring for the 18-by-18-foot fighting ring, or dohyo, had been carved out of the middle of Lowerre's lawn. A thick wooden pole to practice slapping, one of the sumo fighting maneuvers, was anchored to the ground in a corner of the yard.

And, yes, they wore the traditional loin-covering belts, or mawashi, but over cotton and spandex shorts. This was, as Lowerre dubbed it, his "dohyo of dreams."

In between warmups at their weekly gathering, which is lucky to attract half a dozen people, the backyard wrestlers were talking about the lure and lore of the sport. Lowerre, whose fighting name means "Snow Wind," told of how he liked the respect that sumo wrestlers showed one another, as well as the head-to-head competition. Barber talked knowledgeably about the recent retirement of a grand master after a distinguished career. And Dudrow opined that Japanese Americans seem to him to have no interest in the sport of their ancestors.

"You say 'sumo' to them and they look at you like you're from Mars," he said.

This is the world of American sumo, the poor cousin to that of Japan, where it is the national sport. But to hear Dudrow and others tell it, interest in sumo is expanding in the United States and other parts of the world. It will be an exhibition sport at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and perhaps be added to the 2008 Games, with odds improving if Osaka wins the bid. Dudrow, who operates a Web page called Sumo Shimpo, "The Voice of California Sumo," said the last time he checked, he was getting 12,000 hits a month on the site, http://www.sumoshimpo.com. "There's a lot of others out there," said Dudrow, 60, a longtime volunteer coach whose fighting name means "pork cutlet." "I get contacted by people in isolated places all over the country who'd like to get involved in sumo."

Perhaps, but it's clear sumo remains far down the list of popular U.S. sports, in part because of the way people view a wrestling match in which the participants are usually fat-to-ultra-fat and almost naked.

"When I tell people I'm a sumo wrestler, it's either 'Whoa' or 'You're the guy in the diapers,' " said Marcus Barber, a 450-pound sumo wrestler from Hemet, who teaches music and has performed in a few operas.

Sumo here is a somewhat lonely experience. Unlike the matches in Japan where thousands attend, these backyard wrestlers are lucky to get even a second glance from the neighbors, much less draw an audience to these informal practices. "They're not overly supportive, but they're tolerant of it," said Lowerre, a 47-year-old technical writer who built the dohyo in 1998.

Still, the search for converts continues. Dudrow teaches a sumo class for youngsters at the Police Athletic League facility in Long Beach. And it's actually taught as a class at UCLA. But American sumo is still disorganized. The site of this year's national championships wasn't decided until the last minute, and the designated venue was hardly auspicious: a New Jersey judo and karate studio.

The sport, often ridiculed by Americans as a freak show with bared buns, is one that few Americans have penetrated with any success. Only two Americans are now in the professional sumo ranks, and just 21 more are from countries outside Japan, most notably Mongolia. All the rest of the 800-plus pro wrestlers are Japanese.

Sumo is steeped in hundreds of years of tradition, dating to a time when it was part of Shinto religious rites used to ensure good harvests and peace. As time went on, the religious wrestling matches became a part of life in the Japanese royal court. Leaders of the various Japanese provinces were ordered to produce their best wrestlers for special occasions. There were even sumo scouts appointed by the imperial court.

Sumo is also filled with ritual that is unfathomable to outsiders, from the loincloth to the topknot that is the sumo wrestler's badge. Before each match, wrestlers strut and stare, brush themselves with a paper towel to cleanse mind and body, and toss salt into the ring to purify and guard against injury.

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