Middle America?

Kelly Gneiting, left, is a 36-year-old former truck driver who now weighs 420 pounds. When he discovered sumo, he
Kelly Gneiting, left, is a 36-year-old former truck driver who now weighs 420 pounds. When he discovered sumo, he "had goose bumps because I knew that's what I'd be really good at." (By Jonathan Alcorn For The Washington Post)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 9, 2007

LOS ANGELES Attention, American people! The sport of the future is sumo -- a contest of great guile and strength, of heart and mind, that seems to offer nothing but exciting possibilities for a nation prone to pack on a few extra pounds.

At the U.S. Sumo Open here at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Saturday, the largest (pun both intended and not) amateur sumo contest in the country, 50 combatants battled in the circular ring, grunting and slapping and shoving each other to the wild squeals of a crowd that booed and cheered for both master and underdog. It was WrestleMania, with super-size-me stylings -- and nothing about it was fake.

Here are some things we learned about U.S. sumo. First of all, in America, the sport is still dominated by foreigners and immigrants, best of all the Mongolians. Some of the athletes snack most heartily during their breaks. There is also a timeout called for lunch. They carry heaping piles of noodles, very popular, as they strut-waddle around in their bathrobes like Tony Soprano going down the driveway to get his morning paper.

And the victors? We admire any sport where the winners not only get a medal, but are awarded a 12-pack of Sapporo beer or an extra-large bottle of sake.

And there's more. One of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the day turns out to be a blond Norwegian named Hans Borg (6 feet 2, 331 pounds) who showboats around the ring goosing the crowd of 2,500 with raised fists, the kind of performance that would never happen in tradition-bound Japan, the birthplace of this ancient, ceremonial martial art.

In a brief interview ringside with Borg, we ask the too-obvious question. Sumo? Norway? Whaaa? "I am a special guy from Norway," Borg says and grins with mock menace. "No one like me." This is a guy who would definitely not fit into the middle seat on any commercial airliner, but then you look down at his legs, and see pure rippling muscle logs. Says one of his opponents after he was flung airborne from the ring by Borg, "He comes at you like a fully loaded freight train."

We also learned that sumo here is fought in weight divisions. There are lightweight (up to 187 pounds), middleweight (up to 253) and heavyweight (over 253), and when we say over, we mean over. There were matches on Saturday in which the combined mass of the two wrestlers topped 800 pounds. And the sport, which has Olympic aspirations, also includes women. Six competed Saturday, and they fought like well-fed tigers.

Having weight divisions means that sumo is not just the sport for the biggest boys on the block. Consider Art Morrow, bald and bespectacled English teacher from Palm Desert, Calif., who at 42 years of age and a mere 185 pounds was an obvious underdog. "People ask me, 'What are you doing this weekend?' and when I tell them I'm going to get my butt kicked in an international sumo tournament, they're not sure if they want to believe me," says Morrow, who mostly did get his rear handed to him, but with a lot of class.

So. How did Art decide his Rocky Balboa dream was sumo? He'd lived in Japan for 10 years and there he became infatuated with the sport. "But obviously, it wasn't something I could pursue in Japan." True. But the weight classes opened the door for him in America. He thinks sumo should be an Olympic sport but says, "I don't think it's going to happen anytime soon."

Why not?

"I think the problem is the attire. I'm not sure the world is ready for big guys with their cheeks hanging out."

Ahh, the buttocks. It does take a little getting used to. In sumo, a spectator is exposed to a wide landscape of fleshy, jiggling, muscular (and sometimes less so) bottoms, because remember that in sumo, the two fighters begin their contest from a low squat, like football linemen. Depending on a fan's vantage point in the arena, one could indeed see all the way to France.

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