Las Vegas Comments
The primary focus of Sumotalk.com has been and always will be the 90 minutes from 4:30 PM to 6:00 PM Japan time during the hon-basho. And while we do dabble elsewhere from time to time, if you're looking for the aesthetic report on the history of sumo or information on a day in the life of a rikishi, you're going to have to look elsewhere. The only reason why I even mention this is because I'm trying to come up with some sort of excuse to justify irresponsible sumo reporting from a city with a helluva lot of distractions. Exhibition sumo? In Las Vegas? Where do I even start?
How about the format of the three-day exhibition. One tournament was held each day where the rikishi were divided into brackets. The winning rikishi moved on while the losing rikishi went back to his hotel room or back to the pool to do backflips if you're Kotooshu. A champion was determined each day, and then after the tournament on Sunday, the three winners faced off in a playoff to determine the overall champion of the exhibition. Ozeki Tochiazuma felled Asashoryu in the final on Friday with a belt throw to win day one; Ozeki chiyotaikai took the title on day 2 slapping down Asashoryu in the final giving the participating Ozeki each a tournament win; and then Asashoryu finally got his name on the board on day three by winning that tournament when he defeated Hakuho by yori-kiri in the final. The Yokozuna exacted his revenge on the two Ozeki by defeating them in consecutive bouts to take the overall title. Does having the top three rikishi on the banzuke each win a day of the tournament sound too convenient? Of course it does. There was some scripting going on in Vegas, but it doesn't mean that the exhibition wasn't worthwhile for the fans who attended.
It would be useless for me or anyone else to comment on the sumo of the various rikishi by pointing out their strengths and weaknesses during the festivities. You can't come away from an exhibition tournament and say, "Wow, rikishi X looked good, and rikishi Y fought well at the belt. I think they'll be the ones to watch at the next basho." Why? The four goals of any exhibition sumo tournament are don't get anyone hurt, give the crowd their money's worth, promote the sport outside of the cities hosting the hon-basho, and earn money for the Sumo Association. While I have my guesses as to how much money was generated, the Sumo Association executed the first three items to perfection.
First, regarding the injury bug, the Association made it through the three days in Vegas unscathed. While setting up three different rikishi to yusho on each day was planned, the sumo was legitimate for the most part as each rikishi stuck to his brand of sumo normally displayed at the major tournaments. A vast majority of the winning techniques were the staples: yori-kiri, oshi-dashi, and uwate-nage. When a rikishi was thrown over, it was the text book fall...land on your shoulder and roll. No tachi-ai henka, no hari-te, and no potentially harmful moves such as tsuri-otoshi.
The content of the previous paragraph should not be misconstrued as negative because the rikishi put on a fabulous display of sumo. The crowd definitely did get its money's worth. Not only was the sumo solid, but there were the exaggerated staredowns, the throwing of more salt than usual as well as throwing it higher and farther than usual, and even Takamisakari put more into his pre-bout ritual than at the hon-basho...and that's saying something. Former Ozeki Konishiki also provided commentary throughout the event providing details of the rikishi's career records, ranks, milestones, and announcing the winning techniques. I get how that explanation was necessary for those new to sumo, but when Konishiki tried to get the crowd to chant "SU-MO! SU-MO!" it was a bit over the top. I kept asking myself "how old does he think we all are?" I thought the performance by the rikishi was more than sufficient to get the crowd fired up, but in fairness to Konishiki, his act helped more than it hurt.
As for promoting sumo in a city that normally doesn't get to see the rikishi in person, the Mandalay Bay crowd was easily won over by the exhibition. I guess it didn't hurt that seemingly one fourth of the spectators were Mongolian, a Mongolian rikishi was fighting pretty much every other bout, and a Mongolian ended up winning the whole thing. Even Asashoryu's parents were in attendance observing ever so stoically as their son took the overall yusho. I was quite skeptical going in because I knew that this was exhibition sumo, and I knew that somewhere along the line that bouts would have to be compromised to ensure that the same rikishi didn't win multiple tournaments. Still, the atmosphere was electric, and even though the win-at-all-costs effort wasn't there, one couldn't help but appreciate the way in which the rikishi displayed their craft. It was fabulous.
The most telling aspect of the exhibition was just how marketable sumo is. Near the end of each day and especially on Sunday during the playoff for the overall championship, the crowd rose to its feet with the end of each bout and roared in appreciation. Maybe that's why I came away so impressed with the tournament. The success in Vegas really puts the Sumo Association in a tough place. They see the crowd go wild in Vegas, and they enjoyed brisk ticket sales in a city where you have to be damn good to get people to choose to spend their money on you instead of something else. So they have to be wondering "what do we have to do to get that kind of reaction in Japan?" The biggest obstacle of course is the stubbornness of the Japanese fans not to accept rikishi of a different race...and no, liking a rikishi because he's handsome and white is more along the lines of shallowness than acceptance. While not much can be done to change the attitude of the Japanese fans, the Association has made two recent announcements that I think are a step in the right direction.
First, the Association announced a revolutionary move where they plan to open up all tickets to the general public and not reserve the best seats for the chaya ("pleasure" entertainers), the corporate stiffs, etc. It's about time. Sitting in my floor seat just West of the dohyo, I was able to observe firsthand the effect of having the people surrounding the dohyo going absolutely nuts. Get the blue hairs, the mama dressed in kimono with gobs of makeup, and the guy in Tokyo who wears his yellow hanten to the bouts out of the front rows and put in people who are there to cheer on their favorite rikishi. Seat the younger crowd around the dohyo, and by "younger" I mean someone mobile enough to actually get out of his/her seat in a few seconds.
Second, the Association also announced that it is replacing some of the masu-seki seating at the Osaka venue with actual seats. Fans were complaining that it was hard to see the action from their masu-seki seating that was higher up in the venue. Let me also add that it's uncomfortable as hell to sit in those things. In the useless trivia department, a masu is one of those wooden sake cups, so that term is used to describe the square meter or so of space that four people are expected to cram into for a few hours to enjoy sumo. More seats equals a much more lively audience who can jump to their feet in excitement and whoop it up before the big bouts. Vegas was a testament to this. I had more fun at the Vegas tournament than I've ever had at a real day of bouts simply because of the atmosphere. I guarantee that the crowd reaction would have been different if everyone was forced to sit on the floor. The Sumo Association needs to find more ways to liven up the atmosphere both at the hon-basho and at their jungyo tours in Japan.
Upon returning to Japan, the Association held a press conference at Narita airport. The question was asked of Kitanoumi Rijicho if more overseas jungyo were planned for next year. "No," was the simple answer. The Association is going to focus their attention on the local jungyo, which are in complete disarray. Cancellations abound because they can't sell enough tickets to justify holding the exhibitions. Apparently, offers have come in from a host of other countries who want the sumo caravan to visit their own parts of the world. "Going to only these high profile overseas jungyo is not good. We are definitely going to shift our focus internally in the near future," he concluded. Let me translate that statement for you: "We can't make enough money by going overseas, so we have to find a way to fleece the locals again." As successful as the Vegas exhibition was in fan-friendly terms, the lack of a purse being awarded to the winner tells you all you need to know about the finances.
My solution for the problem all along has been to move the starting time back several hours. You can't start a sporting event at 4:30 PM on a work day and expect to be successful. It is no coincidence that the only days that sell out since the retirement of Takanohana are the weekends and holidays. There are locals out there who want to attend sumo; they just don't want to take time off to do so. Hell, the Japanese won't even use their vacation time for themselves...why would they take time off for sumo then? I guess what I'm trying to say is that I like the general direction that the Association is heading in by rethinking their tickets sales methods and adding more seats. If they can promise the fans a good time as they did in Vegas, the seats back home are going to start filling up again.
Wow, how was that for a tangent? Getting back to Vegas, before I went I stated that I hoped to track down some of the rikishi outside of the venue and ask them some candid questions. I didn't see any of the rikishi venturing outside of the Mandalay Bay confines. I did spot at least half of the guys gambling in the Mandalay Bay casino late Sunday night, but I'm pretty sure that Chiyotaikai didn't want me to interrupt his game of cards to answer my questions of "are you really injured?" and "why don't you use your tsuppari against the tough opponents?", and I'm convinced that Takekaze wouldn't have appreciated the question "where did you get those ridiculous reading glasses that you're wearing to see the blackjack cards?" Outside of the casino, the rikishi were constantly being hounded for pictures and autographs from the sumo groupies, and if I'm spending my (snicker) hard-earned money to pay my way to Vegas, I'm not fighting that crowd when there are so many other fine entertainment establishments around to keep me busy (museums, libraries, etc.). So in lieu of any enlightening comments from any of the rikishi, I'll post my favorite picture from Vegas to the right. You've got to admire a man who appreciates good boo..er..uh..birds when he sees them.
To wrap up, I'm out of my element a bit here commenting on exhibition sumo, but if a trip to Vegas is involved, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. The event was a success, and it showed that sumo's popularity is alive and well if marketed correctly. Things will eventually turn around in regards to the popularity among the Japanese people. As they showed in Vegas, sumo is just too damn exciting to be ignored forever. See you all in a few weeks for the Kyushu basho.