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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber

Nothin’ in Common, Except a Whole Lotta Love for Tochinoshin

There must be something to the cliché opposites attract. When I first spied Phyllis sitting in the control booth in the Brewster-Boland-Brockway dormitory complex at Syracuse University, two people could not have been farther apart in the universe.

If we had ever been asked to be on a quiz show where you had to guess what the other person was thinking about, I’d surmise we’d both blurt out the word PIZZA simultaneously. We also had a passionate love of music. While I could not fathom her interest in The Beatles (She was at the 1964 scream fest concert at Shea Stadium), we attended many (a real, real lot of) concerts together. Phyllis turned me on to Johnny Hammond Jr., one of my favorite bluesmen, and introduced me to Kenny Wayne Shepherd (our favorite rock guitarist) – I’ve lost track of the number of times we’ve seen him in concert.

Up until about four years ago, I’d say music and food was about it for the last half century. We even took separate vacations every summer. While we’d both end up on the east coast, she’d hang out in New York while I was visiting friends in Pennsylvania. Had it not been for one fateful night when our paths crossed in Yonkers back in 1984, Sasha wouldn’t be here…

And then something interesting happened about three years ago: she started watching Grand Sumo with me. I had been interested in Japan’s national sport for at least a year before Phyllis got the itch. Now we have Rikishi (wrestlers) in common. We both root for Tochinoshin, Enho, and Takayasu. Phyllis can tell the difference between an Oshidashi (frontal push out) and Hatakikomi (slap down). With 72 known winning techniques, the ability to recognize a half dozen of them is quite a feat

When the bout is too close to call, she yells out Mono ii (judge’s conference). We get together early in the day to watch Basho (competition) during each 15-day tournament, six times a year. Looking on in awe as these giants collide during the Tachiai (initial charge) gets us rooting and cheering on our favorites. It’s an awesome half hour we spend together, analyzing the matches, watching the leader board develop, and holding our breaths as our favorites inch their way to a Kachi-koshi (more wins than losses).

Sumo is an absolutely brutal sport, and it is not uncommon to watch wrestlers enter the Dohyo (ring) with every single joint on their bodies bandaged. We wince when they wince, cry when they lose, cheer when they win. Six tournaments a year and mindboggling training in between each Basho means there is absolutely no time to recover from injuries. Rikishi either tough it out or retire. There are no other options.

The common view that the bigger / heavier wrestler usually wins is so far from the truth that we never make any assumption before a match regarding who might be the victor. There is a certain amount of jonesing that occurs on day 15, the last day of the tournament when we realize it will be two full months before we can cheer on our favorites again.

It’s disheartening to watch them descend in the rankings due to aggravated injuries that sap their strength and ability to outmaneuver an opponent. Once you have several years under your belt, you gain a perspective, an insight, to the twists and turns that make Japan’s national sport such a crowd pleaser. Learning the history of Sumo, which extends back an unbelievable 2000 years – when matches were fought to the death, adds depth and understanding to this very brutal sport.

While Phyllis used to be a basketball fan (The Lakers for sure and for certain), the political machinations that have usurped the sport from the sport, have pushed her away during the last few years. We used to watch the World Series and the Super Bowl together; but both have lost something lately, making it difficult for us to be enthusiastic fans any longer.

While many can make the point (and accurately so) that Japan is an insular and homogenous culture, it was only relatively recently (1993) when foreigners were permitted to enter the training / competition for a shot at being promoted to Sumo’s highest rank of Yokozuna. There are now a ton of Mongolians wrestling in the upper division, as well as men from Georgia (Russia), Brazil, and even Hawaii. Past grandmaster Akebono was the first non-Japanese Rikishi to earn the highest honor of Yokozuna. He paved the way for wrestlers from all over the world to enter the grueling regimen that can take years to master.

Certainly, my background in the Japanese martial arts piqued my interest in Sumo, or was it the sushi? Can’t say for sure. Now, if we could only get some decent NY pizza to munch on during the tournament, our common loves would be fused together forever.

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