warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Sumo Wrestlers Gear Up For The U.S. Open

Hailey Sayegh |
September 17, 2014 | 8:15 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Wrestlers warm up while Andrew Freund (left), organizer of the U.S. Sumo Open, referees. Photo by Hailey Sayegh
Wrestlers warm up while Andrew Freund (left), organizer of the U.S. Sumo Open, referees. Photo by Hailey Sayegh

At the Couprie Martial Arts Center, David Prado helps Angel Castillo into his mawashi, the loincloth-type belt that sumo wrestlers wear in the ring. The two joke around with Andrew Freund – the surprisingly slender leader of the practice – while setting up the Velcro circle that marks the fighting ring on the mat.  

Prado and Castillo are American and both of average weight. Castillo is short. When he takes off his shirt, Prado congratulates him on his weight loss. "These guys can't be sumo wrestlers," I thought. "They're neither Japanese nor morbidly obese."

Then Byamba walks in the Van Nuys studio. The 360-pound four-time World Sumo Champion drops his bag and sits down in a butterfly stretch. Freund greets him with a friendly wave and slides easily into Japanese conversation with him, despite Byamba’s reticence. When Freund jovially tells him (in English, for my benefit) that a reporter who would like to interview him is here, Byamba grunts.  

By noon, six wrestlers, a mix of nationalities and weight classes, have gathered in the martial arts studio under Freund’s supervision. All are there to practice for Saturday’s tournament, the U.S. Sumo Open. 

Freund founded the U.S. Open, the largest international sumo wrestling tournament outside of Japan, in 2001 and has been running the competition ever since. He talks proudly about what the televised event has done to bring sumo to a wider audience. “The U.S. Sumo Open has developed into an incredible tournament,” he said. “This year there [are] over 70 competitors from all over the world, from 10 or 12 countries.”

Byambajav Ulambayar – who goes by “Byamba” – has won the U.S. Sumo Open 13 times. Born in Mongolia, he started competing in Japan at age 15, when a Japanese grand champion scouted talent in Mongolia and picked Byamba to compete on his sumo team. Byamba then came to the United States in 2006 for a movie role in the blockbuster “Ocean’s Thirteen.” “It was a long day, but in the movie it’s just a couple seconds,” he said of his cameo with a smile. 

At 29 years old, Byamba has won seven gold medals in the heavyweight division and six gold medals in the openweight division.

Four-Time World Sumo Champion Byamba practices for the U.S. Sumo Open, to be held Saturday, Sept. 20. Photo by Hailey Sayegh
Four-Time World Sumo Champion Byamba practices for the U.S. Sumo Open, to be held Saturday, Sept. 20. Photo by Hailey Sayegh

Although the U.S. Open is an amateur tournament, Byamba has competed professionally as well, with five years of Japanese pro sumo under his belt. According to Byamba, professional wrestling is easier. “In Japan, everyone has the same kind of technique,” he says, which makes his opponents predictable. He thinks that amateur wrestling is harder because wrestlers are not trained solely in sumo, but instead have all kinds of mixed martial arts training. 

Looking at Byamba, whose legs are like tree trunks, one understands how he might have fallen into sumo wrestling. For Castillo, however, the decision was more calculated. “I majored in Japanese in college and I had traveled to Japan twice,” he says, “so I watched professional sumo a lot on television.” His interest in Japanese culture brought him to the sumo ring. 

Prado also did his research. His partner, Shoko Lawry, said he was introduced to sumo through videos on YouTube. While some might view a sumo wrestler's body as unhealthy, others see it as a sign of strength. “He said he [didn’t] want to waste his body,” says Lawry of Prado's reasoning for trying sumo. 

Sunday the wrestlers gathered for their last practice before the tournament, with lightweight Castillo and middleweight Prado taking turns facing Byamba for the mere challenge. Both Castillo and Prado were consistently beaten within seconds, losing either by stepping out of the ring or being knocked to the ground. Several times Byamba physically lifted his opponent by the belt and lumbered out of the ring, where he dropped him off, winning the match. Byamba and a few of other technically-skilled wrestlers seemed to have come to the practice more as a favor to the novices than for their own training. 

Byamba will be competing Saturday for his eighth U.S. Open championship in a row. According to Freund, no one besides Byamba has ever won the tournament more than twice consecutively. “When Byamba steps in the ring, it’s understood his opponent will lose,” says Freund. “It’s just a matter of how long [the other] can last.” 

Reach Staff Reporter Hailey Sayegh here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.