Giving it our all: Learning to love sumo and life

Photo of sumo wrestling
David Steadman/Creative Commons

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The first time I saw a sumo match on TV, I was captivated. Yokozuna Kisenosato and ozeki Terunofuji, two of the sport’s most promising and successful stars, faced off for the championship title in Kisenosato’s first tournament since receiving his promotion from ozeki to the coveted highest rank of yokozuna. In a thrilling match, Kisenosato defeated Terunofuji, forcing a playoff match to decide who would emerge with the overall best record at the tournament. With an injured shoulder swathed in bandages, Kisenosato emerged the champion, clinching what would be his first and only tournament victory as yokozuna.

Kisenosato Yutaka was the first Japanese-born yokozuna in 19 years, and my grandma was ecstatic. Her love of the sport was how the final day of the tournament found its way onto our TV. Kisenosato was a sumo prodigy, reaching the top division, makuuchi, at the tender age of 18. In a sport tightly bound to Japan’s national identity, the top rank of yokozuna has been dominated by Mongolian wrestlers for the past couple decades, disappointing many Japanese fans such as my grandma, to whom the sport is a great source of national pride. Kisenosato marked a return to Japanese excellence in sumo, and Grandma’s joy was infectious.

Her love of the sport was how the final day of the tournament found its way onto our TV.

After the tournament I watched with my grandma, Kisenosato had a string of missed tournaments due to an unfortunate, persistent injury, culminating in his retirement at the beginning of 2019. The exit of Kisenosato as yokozuna also marked the end of my brief interest in sumo during my junior year of high school. I never forgot the impression Kisenosato had on me, but sumo quickly fell to the wayside as my attention was captured by my high school debate career, which would be my single-minded focus until graduation.

My first two years at UC Berkeley were a bit of a nightmare. I was across the country from my friends and family back in Georgia, and I constantly felt both overwhelmed and at a loss with what to do with myself. I had made the decision not to debate in college, so the regimented practice that had taken up all of my free time in high school and kept me motivated to stay on track suddenly evaporated. I threw myself into being as involved as I could with the Daily Cal, but eventually, that only became an even greater stressor as I fell into a cycle of depression and anxiety.

The pandemic pushed me to my breaking point. The carefully planned-out study schedule I had finally put together after two disastrous, depression-ridden semesters collapsed after I moved back home, and I again found myself calculating what assignments I could sacrifice without tanking necessary grades. I spent the summer learning to adjust to pandemic life and the havoc it wreaked on my mental health. By fall, I was fortunate enough to be in a far better place and was even feeling optimistic about the upcoming semester.

I spent the summer learning to adjust to pandemic life and the havoc it wreaked on my mental health.

Kisenosato wasn’t the only one from that championship match to hit a rocky patch in his career shortly after. Just more than a year later, Terunofuji would suffer his second debilitating knee injury that sent him on a long road to recovery, including major surgery on both knees and a subsequent demotion to the second-lowest division in sumo.

Terunofuji was only 26 at the time of his injury, and although his career looked as though it was over, his coach convinced him to tough out the recovery period and demotion and attempt to regain his former status before retirement. For Terunofuji to retire at 26, he would still be one of the more successful retirees in the sport, but the world would never see his full potential.

The first sumo tournament I watched in three years was Terunofuji’s second tournament back in makuuchi, and watching him, I felt the same indescribable awe that I had felt watching Kisenosato years before. Even with bandages wrapped around both knees, Terunofuji fought with the grace and practiced movement that proves him to be a truly gifted athlete and sumo wrestler.

Even with bandages wrapped around both knees, Terunofuji fought with the grace.

When my grandmother was a child, just before World War II broke out, her mother took her to see a sumo tournament where the great yokozuna Terukuni was competing. “It was so beautiful,” my grandma remembered. “His sumo was just so beautiful.” That was the first time my grandmother watched sumo and the last time she would see it before adulthood, as the war was about to steal the last of her childhood.

Even with her Japanese pride, my grandmother grudgingly likes Terunofuji. He’s hard not to like — not only is he incredibly skilled, but he’s never demonstrated less than impeccable sportsmanship. He embodies the values of hard work and integrity that sumo holds in esteem, and his movement in the ring is poetry in motion. Terukuni to Terunofuji; that the sport is no longer dominated by their countrymen may be disappointing to many fans in Japan, but the spirit of the sport lives on, unbroken from one generation to the next.

I’ve begun going over to my grandma’s apartment every day during sumo season to watch the day’s matches with her. It’s grounding — even on days when I don’t want to get out of bed and it feels as if my depression is about to swallow me whole, I don’t want to miss out on valuable time spent with her now that we’ve found something to bond over, and it’s usually enough to get me to take those first few steps to get through the day.

Terunofuji is one good tournament away from regaining his old ozeki rank, and I made it through last semester unscathed. Sumo has been the guardrail on my path through the pandemic, and it’s opened my eyes to how people become such devoted fans of sports. For an athlete, sumo takes faith to see through — even moreso than other sports, the chance you can make a successful career out of it is pretty slim. To see men risking life and limb for love of a sport that demands everything from them is enough to inspire awe in anyone.

My grandma told me today she misses having me over for sumo now that the latest tournament is over, and I miss it, too. In a world where everything seems so unstable and chaotic, there’s something very reassuring in my grandma’s company — in her apartment that never changes and in the sport that has carried on the same for centuries. She cheers for (or bemoans, really) the ozeki Asanoyama, and I silently place my faith in Terunofuji. They win some, they lose some, but the thrill is in watching the artistry they weave into each fight and knowing, each time, that they’re giving it their all.

Contact Saya Abney at [email protected]