Sumo is a sport of honour. Emotions opposed it. The excitement was different. And all that. This is the code and the way.
Respect sumo, please, ring announcer Katrina Watts kept repeating over the speaker system inside the historic Boutwell auditorium on Saturday. It was sumo championship night for the World Games in Birmingham in 2022, and Watts, with his measured and graceful Australian accent, wanted people to know that what they had just witnessed was not like habit in his sport.
She was bewildered, clearly, but her singsong words of propriety remained somehow calm.
“We’re really having an interesting time here,” she said into her microphone with a comment that would have made Howard Cosell and Mene Gene Okerlund fall in love. “I’ve been involved in sumo for over 30 years, and this is a first for me… Really, I can’t tell you how exciting it was for a little old sumo commentator.”
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Watts is an international celebrity in the world of amateur sumo. She travels the world to organize sumo matches. She speaks several languages. Not just an announcer, Watts has a huge influence on the sport wherever she goes.
That’s what happens, I wanted to tell him, when sumo comes to Birmingham, Alabama.
Sumo is an ancient sport. How old, they don’t really know. It all started in Japan thousands of years ago. They fought to the death, according to the ancient tablets. In Birmingham, a sumo man found new life after losing a gold medal match by disqualification.
History was made when Egypt’s Abdelrahman Elsefy won, then lost, then won again the sumo match for the men’s lightweight division gold medal at the 2022 World Games. . It was an experience.
Elsefy was disqualified for celebrating a winning streak against Ukrainian Demid Karachenko. Elsefy threw Karachenko out of the ring, then Elsefy threw a backflip for the crowd. The people of Birmingham loved this backflip. The referee and judges and Watts, the ringside announcer, did not. Big no-no.
Watts explained over the speakers that sumo is about honor (not backflips) because that’s how it is in Japan. Boor-ring.
Definitely not boring: this video.
At first glance, sumo is the most basic sport. Two opponents try to push each other out of a circle. Like Vulcan on Red Mountain, sumos wear very little and show a lot. The rituals and nuisances are what make their sport fascinating. That’s what they tell me. Honestly, I still don’t know what to believe after witnessing something unprecedented in major sports leagues. They won a gold medal. And then won another gold medal. It was shocking.
I spoke to an American wrestler immediately after the controversy. She was ringside when it all happened, and she was stunned, just like me. Elizabeth Salazar is from San Antonio. She got into sumo six months ago because she wanted a free trip to Las Vegas.
How did she do at the World Games?
“I lost immediately,” Salazar said.
But aren’t we all winners after what we have just witnessed?
“It had a lot to do with the crowd,” Salazar said.
The whole night was a cultural awakening. There was a lot going on at old Boutwell, and all at the same time. Due to their country’s war with Russia, Ukrainian wrestlers were crowd favorites all night long. Scenes and Scenes. At one point the mayor of Birmingham, Randall Woodfin, looked straight at me and smiled.
“Can you believe that?” said her smile.
The mayor had a ringside seat, and so did I. Like everyone seeing this sport for the first time, we were in love. In sumo, they call the raised ring for tournaments a dohyo. They dimmed the house lights around the dohyo at main event time, and the place vibrated with the sound of fight night in Las Vegas.
Then came the heckling. It was the hubbub at Boutwell. Put it like this. It got so crazy at one point that the cops had to come out on the floor and set up the very tall Egyptian sumo coach.
The coach went crazy for the WWF after his charge was disqualified. It wasn’t an act, but the guy was a character all the same. He even took off his shirt, which was a tank top patterned with palm trees, bird of paradise flowers and human skulls. I watched it all go down 20 feet away.
The Egypt coach fumed and raved for almost two minutes. He has the crowd behind him. The Boutwell Auditorium began chanting, “E-gypt! Egypt! Egypt!” I bet no one saw that coming when the World Games were awarded to Birmingham, Alabama, USA.
Who needs diplomats? Sumo, the great unifier of the people.
The protests and chants and the fact that Elsefy would not leave the ring after being disqualified caused the referee and judges to demand a rematch. It’s like they don’t know what else to do. Nobody wanted an international incident. It was amazing.
In the rematch, Elsefy and Karachenko carried themselves out of the ring, but Karachenko’s toes touched him first. This time Elsefy didn’t backflip, so he remained the winner.
Naturally, I interviewed Elsefy and the coach after it was all over and a gold medal was around Elsefy’s neck. The coach translated. Was Elsefy worried about his revenge? Shit, no. “I knew I was going to win again,” Elsefy said.
Then I spoke to the coach one-on-one. I told him he was like a hero or something. It turns out that the coach is famous in Japan for being the first professional sumo wrestler from the African continent. His name is Abdelrahman Shalan, but he wanted me to refer to him by his ring name in my column.
Well, what is it?
This is what he wrote in my notebook: “Osunaarashi”.
His full ring name, according to the internet, is Osuna-arashi Kintaro. Look at me, he said.
And that’s what I did. And so the English translation of his ring name is “Great Sandstorm”.
Osunaarashi, who is 30 and now retired, is from the Cairo suburb of Giza. He grew up as a bodybuilder, but fell in love with sumo when he was 16. He was majoring in accounting when he dropped out of college and moved to Japan to try out professional sumo. The man is a legend in my book. Consider me a fan for life.
Osunaarashi, how long have you been coaching the Egypt sumo team? I started last night, he told me. He was serious.
Coach Osunaarashi said he knew the mayhem he had caused was wrong and against sumo code, but he also knew he had to do what he thought was right. I imagine that’s how Nick Saban feels when he loses the lead on the sidelines against Auburn.
“He’s my guy,” the great Osuna-arashi Kintaro said of his first gold medal champion.
Turns out the big slack was just a player’s coach. We all know the type.
Joseph Goodman is a columnist for the Alabama Media Group, and author of “We Want Bama: A season of hope and the formation of Nick Saban’s ‘ultimate team'”. You can find him on Twitter @JoeGoodmanJr.