March 19, 2007

It's Time for the Haru Basho!


Meaning the "spring tournament," held every year in Osaka. Of all the full-contact martial sports, only one deserves the same coverage accorded to prime-time sports like golf, basketball, baseball and football.

That's right. Sumo.

Boxing used to hold this position, but these days you can't make a regular feature of two guys beating the crap out of each other except in the movies. Even boxers who rise to the top of the profession and parcel out big matches once in a blue moon--thus making boxing impossible to follow as an individual "fan" sport--will still probably end up with mush for brains.

Efforts to "clean up" boxing with idiocies like the hit-count scoring system employed at the Olympics reveal the inherit weakness of martial arts in general: no real spectator sport is scored by judges. One reason wrestling is vanishing from collegiant sports (besides Title 9) is that nobody except ex-wrestlers can tell what the heck is happening on the wrestling mat.

To say nothing of the far-to-common, not-made-for-prime-time moment of two wrestlers locked together for seeming hours in a tangle of arms and legs, and then one being declared the winner because of some move (indetectable to the casual viewer) that pushed him ahead on "points." Altogether now: boring!

Sumo tolerates none of such nonsense.

It's a winner-take-all sport with simple rules (first wrestler to go out of bounds or touch any part of the body above the sole of the foot loses). Like golf (hit the little white ball in the hole), sumo is a strict meritocracy where you prove your worth by beating the field. It doesn't take a golf fanatic to know that Tiger Woods is that good, and the same goes for the top sumo wrestlers.

Sumo as a sport can most simply be described as what the center and nose guard in American football do immediately after the ball is snapped. In fact, a visitor from outer space could be forgiven for assuming that sumo was somehow a byproduct of football or the other way around. Sumo could very well be advertised as "Requium for the lineman."

And like football, sumo looks great in instant-replay, which in turn invites vigorous armchair analysis and Monday-morning quarterbacking, the elixirs of fan participation.

The mistake American networks make when broadcasting sumo matches (as a curiosity time filler) is to show the "live" NHK feed. Except that most Japanese fans watch the nightly wrap-up, which features the individual bouts with the pre-game rituals and warm-ups removed, pared down to the actual combat. Granted, the ritual is part of the fun, but a day's sekitori bouts can be summed up in thirty minutes.

That makes it possible for even the casual viewer to follow the entire drama of a tournament, such as Chiyotaikai's 5-4 collapse during the current March meet and Hakuhou's unexpected 8-1 surge, pushing 7-2 Asashouryu out of first place.

Offered in this format and accompanied by informed commentary, I think American audiences could better grasp what a dynamic, suprisingly individualistic, upset-rich, "high-scoring" (best of 15 consecutive bouts fought on 15 consecutive days wins), fast-moving, rock'em sock'em, full-contact sport sumo is. All the things Americans want in a spectator sport (and hate about soccer).

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