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Although Ryuichi Yamamoto rose through the ranks of sumo wrestling, winning five national championships as a college student and reaching the top six of pros in his native Japan, he seemed destined to live a life beyond strict sporting traditions.
For example, Yamamoto – better known as Yama – remembers being reprimanded by broadcasters for daring to crack jokes during post-match live interviews. He also remembers that he was completely unable to summon the competitive mentality that many coaches preached since elementary school, which was to imagine that his opponent had killed his mother and then retaliate against him. And that’s without mentioning the financial losses of the comprehensive training system that gave him only two weeks of annual home visit leave throughout high school and college.
“At the time, just being a stronger sumo wrestler was the best thing in the world we lived in,” says Yama, 38, in Japanese. “Now that I think about it, it was a crazy scientist.”
Perhaps some people from this old life will make a similar judgment regarding the new judgment that Yama is now leading. You might not recognize the name, but you’ll likely come across his work: On top of appearing in hundreds of shows in commercials, on news shows, and in live performances at events ranging from anime conventions to cultural festivals, Yama has I danced with One Direction And the Click on Ed Sheeran in music videos; Help create a harem for Owen Wilson’s character in Zoolander 2; The Sumo Flag for Contestants in Season 11 of The bachelorette. An argument can be made that no other rikishi of his caliber, past or present, has achieved this level of global reach.
Throughout his competitive career, Yama has seen himself become a ringside commentator whenever his battle days are over. But those plans changed in the spring of 2011. When he and 18 fellow wrestlers got involved in the yaocho (match-fixing) scandal. They were forced to retire. “I was doing it even though I knew it was wrong,” says Yama, who was competing in the third tier of sumo, now. “To tell the truth, she wasn’t fighting as hard as she could.” Reflecting on his passing, Yama expressed outrage at what he considers the sumo leadership to be a scapegoat for concealing a widespread – and widely acknowledged – practice in which wrestlers intentionally lost matches to help their friends avoid relegation. “But I thought [the directors] They created the system and just followed it,” says Yama.
Yet he also remembers being beaten with a sense of relief: “I felt, Oh, I don’t have to do sumo anymore. As for what to do next, Yama had no idea. Then he received a letter from Andrew Freund, founder of the American Sumo Open—At 22 years strong this coming September, which is the longest running tournament outside of Japan – and something of a manager and cultural liaison to former sumo professionals looking for work in the United States. “I hated to see him lose his career in this way,” Freund says. “But it was an opportunity to do something he hadn’t done before.”
Feeling that yaocho’s scandal had closed all doors to his future sumo business for him back home—”there was no room for me in Japan, really”—Yama made a blind leap. His first gig was a demonstration at the 2011 Kansas City Japan Festival, the first time in his life that he had traveled anywhere in the United States other than New York and Hawaii. from there is I booked a Doritos adHe appeared on a couple of local news shows, settled in Los Angeles, and never looked back.
“If other professional wrestlers who left sumo in Japan were asked to do the same thing as I did, I wonder how many of them could do it,” says Yama. “I don’t think anyone can do that.”
At the height of his sumo career, Yama was dedicated day and night by three types of personal assistants known as tsukebito, lower-ranking rickish whose responsibilities included buying groceries, managing his finances, and handling other menial tasks so he could focus solely on firing His opponents are from the dohyo (episode). “They kind of screw up the big players,” Freund explains. “Here, doing it all on his own, it wasn’t just a culture change [for Yama]. It was a lifestyle change.”
It was also rocky at first. “I had a lot of difficulties opening a bank account, getting a mobile phone, and getting a Social Security number,” Yama says. I went to a restaurant, but I couldn’t even order water [due to the language barrier]. I said: Water, water. Bring the Coke.” But over time, he found his footing, relying on a tight support network of Freund and friends from Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, including a Buddhist priest whose former temple in Japan hosts an annual sumo tournament.
Then there was Byamba. If anyone in the world understands what Yama has been going through, it is Olambayan Byambagav, a former sumo wrestler from Mongolia who first moved to the United States in 2006 for cameo role in thirteen oceans. And during Byamba He died after a long illness in the early 20’s, at the age of only thirty-five, made a trail in Tinseltown for Yama to follow. “He was my role model so I copied everything I could from him,” Yama says. “I couldn’t do anything but imitate him.”
While Byamba captivated audiences with an arsenal of athletic maneuvers and muscular poses, though, Yama realized his future lay on the other side of the stage: “I think I’m better suited to movies, learning for imagination.” But Yama has scope, too; So far, the most memorable party of his career took place in late 2016 in a park in Montreal, in a group John Wick 2. Play a proper killer who tries (and ultimately fails) to eliminate the titular killerYama loved working with Keanu Reeves, and found it fun and down to earth. “During the scene it was raining,” says Yama. “Even though, he didn’t get into his trailer and [instead sat] We sat on the same seat and he was smoking. I was impressed that he didn’t brag like, “I’m cool.” But the photography was also important because, as Yama notes, it was his first time on camera wearing something other than his usual livestock apron.
Go to follow
As the heaviest Japanese rikishi in recorded history at around 600 pounds, Yama knows that jokes often start and stop with his appearance. “Americans think sumo wrestlers are just fat, naked guys cuddling each other,” he says. I try to tell myself that this is how Americans look at us because they don’t know. That’s why they say something rude. This is it. If they learn, they will change their thinking.”
There are always still those who seek to use sumo for personal gain, and cultural appropriation is damned. One noteworthy example came earlier this year, When Elon Musk challenges Vladimir Putin to a fight by tweeting a picture of himself, from 2014, wearing a kimono and facing Byamba as supposed evidence of the billionaire’s martial prowess. “I shouldn’t have said this, but Elon, he was lewd,” Freund says. “Our guy stood there trying to let him push him, and Elon fell by himself over and over again.” And while Yama wasn’t at the steampunk-themed Japanese billionaire’s 43rd birthday party, he’s not afraid to talk about whether he feels the concepts are going too far, referring to a Nicki Minaj video shoot last August when Yama and another wrestler from The sumo wrestler refused to wear leash collars so the rappers could walk in them like dogs. “It was quite an insult,” Yama says. “They really lack respect.” (According to Freund, the entire scene was scrapped from the final video. The Minaj camp did not respond when asked for comment.)
Once defined by that single mission – getting stronger – today Yama is working on multiple fronts towards its new goal of spreading sumo. Representation at the surface level in the media is one. The other involves sowing the seeds at a grassroots level as a volunteer coach alongside Freund with USA Sumo, which plans to send 19 wrestlers to the Compete in the 2022 World Games in Birmingham. why? As he explains, “I think the style of sumo is changing compared to the old days. Sumo seems to lean towards strength sports. If that’s the case, I think there are opportunities for Americans… [to] become tremendously powerful.
“But there is no one who can teach sumo on a deeper level until they become stronger.
“I think I’m the only one who can [one day] do it.”
Although the two men he describes as his “best friends” no longer exist, between Byamba’s death and a Buddhist priest who moved away from Los Angeles several years ago, Yama continues to search for new communities, volunteering weekly at the Little Tokyo Information Center and on occasion Cook meals for the elderly. (As rikishi, Yama was a famous chef for chankunabe sumo broth.) “All my friends in Japan thought I wouldn’t be successful,” he says. “Now, they think I’m fine.”
When he’s not traveling for work, in his relatively new spare time, Yama enjoys riding his bike along the Pacific Coast; Stream video games like Apex Legends for him 57 Twitch subscribers; He hangs out with his wife Megan – they first met at 16 and married last year – and their cat Hanzo. He’s also a huge fan of anime, booking a sumo show at last year’s Anime Matsuri convention in Houston with one new goal: “Because I was able to visit the booths,” he says.
Yama brings a similar cheerful spirit to his coaching side, seeking to redefine the strict limits he grew up under as a child. “This is the very exciting thing about working with Yama,” says Killian Paul, a 28-year-old accountant from Chino, California, who has trained with Yama for the past three years. She recently won the gold in the women’s heavyweight category at the 2022 US National Sumo Championships in Salt Lake. “He’s trying to set up lessons for not just ‘let’s hit each other,’ but ‘let’s laugh, too.'”
This spirit is evident on the morning of the first Sunday in May, when Yamamoto Sumo Dojo gathers for its first citizen-following practice, inside a karate studio next to a foot massage spa and a 99-cent store. Yama arrives early, wearing a fanny pack over a palm tree dress shirt and Crocs stand Toy Story The alien charm is 16 feet tall. Stepping behind a curtain, he turns into cattle, flops on the stumbling ground and sweats through a methodical stretching routine that ends up hitting his thighs as he does a full leg opening.
Among the six students in attendance is a 9-year-old boy who started learning sumo in Japan before his parents moved to the Los Angeles area. In the absence of anyone his age to quarrel with, the boy steps into the dohyo and bends against the yama, top to knot. Moving forward, the boy sticks his feet and slaps his palms on Yama’s stomach. Taking the hit with a concentrated grunt – if fake – Yama falters half a step back. The boy charges again, Yama backs off again, and the entire sequence is repeated until the retired Rikishi is pushed out of the ring.
“Cute,” Yama says, smiling and gently patting the boy’s head.
“Arigato,” the boy replied with a giggle.
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