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Stateside Podcast: Amateur sumo wrestlers find new challenge in ancient sport

An adult man and a young teen face off in a sumo wrestling ring wearing traditional Japanese sumo wrestling belts
Yesenia Zamora-Cardoso
Michigan Public
Head of the Grand Rapids Sumo Club Gabe Unick, right, and his student Kai Pruiett, left, standing off in the sumo ring at Blues Gym.

When you think about popular amateur sports, what comes to mind? Football, basketball, or maybe even pickleball? How about sumo wrestling? In recent years, amateur sumo wrestling boomed in popularity across the country, and has started to make inroads here in Michigan.

“Sumo is one of the fastest growing sports in the country, and we've had clubs pop up in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois. We have a sister club in Rochester, Michigan, and we have a guy we're trying to start a club with in Lansing," said Gabe Unick, head of the Grand Rapids Sumo Club.

The rules for sumo wrestling are pretty simple. There is no scoring system, no points being awarded, and no time limit during the match. Two wrestlers start in a crouched stand-off position on their feet, and the only equipment that is allowed is their sumo belt, traditionally known as the mawashi.

The phrase hakkeyoi is then shouted by a referee to signify the start of a sumo match. In Japanese, the saying roughly means, "put some spirit into it!" It serves as an encouragement for wrestlers to give it their all during the match.

The first wrestler who touches anything outside of the ring, or has any part of their body besides their feet touch the ground, loses the match on the spot.

"Sumo is probably the most mentally strong game, mentally strong sport, and ... it’s 15 seconds about," said Kai Pruiett, a 13-year-old member of the club. "So it’s about quick thinking, leverage, as opposed to just size and pushing.”

While the rules may be simple, the art of sumo wrestling takes a lot of hard work and time to perfect. Sumo wrestlers practice extensively for many years to obtain not only strength and gymnast-level flexibility, but also to learn how to think and move fast on their feet.

"It is the world's fastest chess match. It is a sport that is very technical, where there's a lot of moving parts going on, but at the same time, there's this incredible simplicity of it, of, you know, push your opponent out, throw them down."

You can hear the full story above. If you're lucky, you might be able to catch a sumo match near you sometime soon, and get a firsthand look at how intense and entertaining the ancient Japanese sport can be.

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Yesenia Zamora-Cardoso is a production assistant for Stateside.