It’s a little known fact that both Erinn and I are accomplished sumo wrestlers. Believe it. In fact, both of us hold silver medals from an officially sanctioned California Sumo Association tournament. While this is old news to us, I figured it’s about time I shared this tidbit with the rest of you, before it’s ancient history.
During the fall of ’09, Erinn and I set out to attend the Shuubun (fall equinox) sumo tournament at the “Dohyo of Dreams” in Garden Grove. We’d been invited by U.S. Heavyweight Sumo Champion Dan “Sumo Dan” Kalbfleisch after I’d asked him to sit for a portrait shortly after meeting him at a sumo demonstration at Venice Beach. He happened to be participating in this tournament the following week and thought it would be a great place to shoot, as well as to get some photos of the wrestlers in action. (You can see the portrait here.) Of course, I thought this was a brilliant idea, but at the time had no idea what I was getting us into. My first goal was to get a portrait that I liked, plus Erinn and I also thought we could collaborate on a story on the sport. When we got there, I set about lighting the portrait against the backdrop of a garage, which was decorated with Japanese script that I’m told translates to “Dohyo of Dreams.” The dohyo is located in Jim Lowerre’s backyard, behind his suburban Garden Grove home and, I believe, owes much of its name to the Kevin Costner classic, “Field of Dreams.” “Build it and they will come,” was the famous line, and it appears they have. Not in droves, but enough that the venue hosts annual spring and fall equinox tournaments as well as practice sessions. At least it did. An old link I had showing the dohyo is no longer active.
After the shoot they realized that there was only one female participant present – a 10-year-old girl – and turned to Erinn to see if she would be willing to participate in the tournament in order to give the girl a competitor. Caught a little off guard, she agreed. Saying no would of course send the little girl packing, so what choice did she have? Besides, how hard could it be for an adult woman to wrestle a 10-year-old girl? They went about signing her up, weighing her in and fitting her with a mawashi, the standard loin cloth worn by wrestlers.
This was pretty funny, I thought, watching her get ready. I didn’t expect that a minute later they would be convincing me to do the same. Uh oh. With my background in photojournalism, I usually try not to get involved in what I’m shooting. Often times that’s for ethical reasons, but it can also be for the simple fact that it can prevent me from doing my job. But, despite a moment’s hesitation, I couldn’t pass this up. We weren’t there working for anyone and when would I ever have this chance again. Suit me up.
Seeing as I didn’t bring my own, they were kind enough to lend me a pair of shorts to wear under the mawashi they lent me. How do you make a man in a mawashi look more ridiculous? Make him wear pink shorts underneath. After we were both fitted we went through a training session, first outside the ring with the referee, and then in the ring with Sumo Dan himself. You don’t realize what you’re really up against until you find yourself face to face with a 300+ professional, who, by effortlessly leaning into you causes you to buckle as you simply try to hold your ground.
Fortunately, neither of us had to actually wrestle Dan. After our training, which included a routine of tossing salt into the ring to purify it, squatting, stomping, clapping your hands and then raising them to show you are unarmed, we stepped out of the ring and waited to compete. While not competing, I was of course shooting while Erinn took notes and interviewed wrestlers. Then it was time to wrestle.
Erinn was up first. Her competitor nearly equaled her in size. The daughter of one of the male competitors, this was not her first time in the ring, and she quickly took Erinn in the first bout. Erinn stepped up and was able to push her out of the ring on the second bout, but lost again in the third. A valiant effort and enough to earn her second place.
Then it was my turn. Erinn grabbed my camera and I stepped into the dohyo. There were just enough men that we could have two weight divisions. Myself, another man in his 50s and a third approaching 80 comprised the lightweight division. My first competitor was the younger of the two, who effortlessly knocked me off balance by grabbing my belt and lifting as he pushed me backwards out of the ring. One of the keys to sumo, I learned, was keeping a low center of gravity. This I do not have, and lifting on my belt was enough to completely take away any chance that I could push back. But I had my revenge. Not on him, but on the 80-year-old. I shouldn’t be proud of that, but I am. You gotta take the victories where you can. We squared off and, using my reach and the fact that I was more than a foot taller than him, I overpowered him forced him out of the ring. Despite his overwhelming defeat, he was all smiles.
Following the sanctioned competition, I wrestled one more guy just for fun. Despite looking like a sumo wrestler, he was actually rather new to the sport and had traveled with his sister from New Mexico to compete. Someone volunteered me as someone with whom he could get another round of practice. I was given some tips on how to use his inexperience to his disadvantage, but my own lack of experience combined with his mass were enough to assure him of the win.
As this was an official event, a ceremony was held at the end of competition, and medals were awarded. Both of us proudly took our silvers and posed for a photo with our weight divisions and again with the whole group.
I did get some photos from the event that I liked, but it’s fair to say that my work did suffer from participating. But screw it. We medaled in a sumo tournament! I’ve had conflicts that have prevented me from going to some recent sumo events, but I’m hoping we can pick this up again and publish a piece at some point. I’ll be sure to share when we do.