LONG BEACH, California — “At first, they’re thinking it’s just big, fat guys pushing each other,” says Byamba Ulambayar. “But after they see our show, they respect us.”
Los Angeles wouldn’t seem like an easy place to make a living as a sumo wrestler, but Byamba is living proof that it can be done. He’s slowly watched the American appetite for sumo grow over the past few years, as both an athlete and an actor.
Byamba left the Japanese pro circuit long ago, so his most high-profile matches now take place in Long Beach, which has turned into a kind of sumo mecca. For the last 19 years, Long Beach has been the home of the U.S. Sumo Open, the longest-running annual sumo tournament outside of Japan. This year’s event, held in late March, was bigger than ever, packing a stadium with over 5,000 people.
Visiting a tournament is like a crash course in Japanese sumo culture – the program booklet contains a brief rundown on sumo rules, and Andrew Freund, the head of the U.S. Sumo Organization, also acts as an evangelizing hype man during the tournament, explaining sumo techniques to the crowd. But as novice-friendly as the tournament is, Freund takes tradition seriously, and regularly makes competitors re-enter the ring after a match is over bow to each other if he thinks they didn’t bow properly the first time.
But amateur sumo trophies don’t pay the bills, which is where Byamba’s second career as an actor comes in. He’s already been in "Oceans 13," and plenty of commercials, starring him as a sumo wrestler. And both he and Freund are hoping that he’ll soon be able to find a career outside the ring.
VICE News visited this year’s tournament to find out how an American organization may hold the key to an alternative career path for retired Japanese sumo wrestlers.
This segment originally aired April 4, 2019, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.