One of the Most Important Lessons of the Martial Arts Can Be Learned From Sumo

Sometimes members of our community are surprised to hear sumo referred to as a martial art. It certainly doesn’t seem to fit in with karate, judo, aikido and the like. Sumo is still largely an unknown entity in the United States. Our exposure to it has been limited to occasional snippets on the news played to amuse audiences until they mutter, “Oh, what a bizarre sport this is, fat guys in diapers pushing each other around.”

In reality, sumo is centuries older than any other fighting art in Japan, and its traditions have influenced all the combat systems from that nation. Often the practitioners of those styles are completely ignorant of where those traditions originated.

Big in Japan

It’s too bad more Westerners don’t have a practical knowledge of sumo’s techniques and a deeper understanding of its spirit. In Japan, where sumo was until recently as popular as baseball, many young martial artists have a background in or at least some familiarity with the art. They’ve probably grappled informally or in school contests, and they know some of the techniques. That can give them a terrific advantage when they begin training in other forms of budo, or the warrior ways.

Two sumotori compete in a sumo match.

Young Japanese also benefit from having sumotori (sumo competitors) as role models. Despite the allegations of bout-fixing that have surfaced in the sumo world, the manner in which the wrestlers generally conduct themselves — especially during competitions — is one from which martial artists everywhere can learn a lot.

No Breaks

The professional sumo calendar in Japan includes six tournaments a year. With each one lasting 15 days, athletes have 90 days of competition every year. Few professional sports demand that much from their participants.

For the sumotori, competition is very much like a battle in that you can’t just stay home if you don’t feel well. If you sit out a tournament — even if you have a broken arm — you’ll be demoted. You can apply to have a board of coaches review your claim, but even if they grant an appeal, you must enter the next tournament no matter your condition, or you risk losing your professional standing. That’s why a sumotori has to be in extremely bad shape before he’ll agree to go before the injury board.

There are many stories about sumotori who have competed under the most dire circumstances. For example, days before the September 1956 tournament, the 4-year-old son of then-grand champion Wakanohana Kanji I was scalded to death in an accident. Most fans expected the wrestler to sit out the competition, but he didn’t. In the opening ceremony, he wore Buddhist prayer beads in remembrance of his son and went on to have a remarkable record of 12 consecutive wins. Just before the last day of the event, however, he came down with a high fever and was forced to withdraw. Good as his record was for that tournament, the Sumo Association refused to go easy on him and decided that he hadn’t compiled enough victories to be declared a yokozuna (grand champion). He was forced to compete in two more tournaments before he would win that honor.

In 1989 one of the most outstanding champions of that decade, Chiyonofuji Mitsugu, competed in and won a playoff on the last day of a tournament despite the fact that his daughter had just died of sudden infant death syndrome.

Inspiration for All

Stories abound in the sporting world about athletes who have persevered under similarly trying circumstances. Still, there’s something unique about the sumotori’s challenge. He must go into the ring alone in front of millions of fans. If he fails, he can’t shift the blame onto other members of the team. He must deal with not only the stresses of competition but the anxieties of combat, as well. Being distracted by a personal problem — a fight with his wife, the death of a loved one or an illness — can mean more than just a loss. It’s a good way to get seriously hurt. Like a samurai preparing for battle, the sumotori must put aside those feelings and control his natural tendency to want to crawl back into bed when he’s ill. He must tough it out.

I’m not a warrior. I haven’t participated in combat, and the fighting arts in which I have competed are nowhere near the level of professional sumo. Still, there are times when I must go out and take care of my responsibilities even though I don’t really want to. Occasionally I have to perform, just as you do, under circumstances that render me far below my best level. In those situations, I try to find inspiration in the sumotori. They’ve toughed it out in tough times. So can I, and so can you.

Dave Lowry

Shotokan Karate Black Belt Lyoto Machida: 2009 MMA Fighter of the Year

It’s satisfying to watch someone work his way to the top in his chosen field, especially when it’s something as unpredictable as the mixed martial arts. It’s even more gratifying when that person exemplifies qualities you respect and wish more people would emulate. So it’s with no small sense of excitement that I exercise the privilege to talk about fourth-degree shotokan karate black-belt Lyoto Machida, the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s light-heavyweight titleholder.

Back in 2006, when MMA’s popularity started to spike, Lyoto Machida wasn’t even a blip on the radar. He was a stealth competitor who quietly devoured his opponents one by one. He made no splashy headlines with his decision finishes, but he gradually became the kind of MMA fighter his peers hope they never have to face. Undefeated in MMA, he scored a string of seven victories in the UFC. With every win, he garnered more accolades and more admiring fans.

Just when people were beginning to define him as an elusive, contact-shy tactician who preferred decisions to finishes, the half-Japanese half-Brazilian displayed his knockout power by dispatching Thiago Silva, a frighteningly physical specimen. Thiago Silva, a thickly muscled pit bull of a man, was seen as the most dangerous opponent he could face, someone who’d push for a stand-up battle. In pre-fight interviews, he predicted he’d knock out Lyoto Machida. Cynics and doubters thought Lyoto Machida’s shotokan skills would render him less than courageous and figured his downfall was inevitable.

Instead, Lyoto Machida controlled Thiago Silva in every possible sector. He put him on the ground twice and then, faced with a defensive clinch against the fence, he kinked Thiago Silva’s knee, sending him to the floor. Lyoto Machida followed him like a diver, perfectly timing a blow that knocked the beast out cold just as the horn sounded. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted a better finish.

Lyoto Machida followed that seeming anomaly with a spectacular knockout of reigning light-heavyweight champ Rashad Evans, another undefeated mixed martial artist. The equally easy-looking win signaled his arrival at the pinnacle of success. From this point on, he’ll have to adopt a new approach to competition—namely, the more challenging task of defending a title, one of the true tests of a champion’s caliber.

Along with Georges St-Pierre, the current UFC welterweight champion and an exponent of kyokushin karate, Lyoto Machida has become the martial arts’ standard-bearer and ambassador to the world of MMA. His family tradition and lifelong commitment to training, improving, meeting challenges and overcoming them epitomize what it means to be a martial artist and what dedication and discipline can achieve.

Any martial artist who enters professional competition is treading on thin ice. On the one hand, he’s putting his skills and education up for public scrutiny and even ridicule. On the other hand, he risks being branded an opportunist who’s sold out his training for profit and fame. Lyoto Machida is safe from those perils. He’s able to employ not only his karate but also his sumo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills, proving that he’s thoroughly rooted in the martial arts. He isn’t likely to suffer from the temptation to brawl or begin a new discipline to shore up a major gap in his knowledge. Money won’t sway his focus because this is the culmination of a lifetime of preparation.

Some may claim that Lyoto Machida enjoys an unfair advantage, having been raised in a household of martial artists, yet the choice to follow this path was his. He’s the one facing danger alone in the cage, standing up to the tireless media focus on this or that attribute, always searching for the slightest weakness to exploit. More than ever, this is the time when his training will be tested. It’s up to him to demonstrate that it’s possible to participate in combat for public entertainment and still maintain all the qualities that have made him a champion.

For all his accomplishments and the balanced, samurai-deadly philosophy that he embodies, Black Belt has named Lyoto Machida its 2009 MMA Fighter of the Year.

(This profile originally appeared in the December 2009 issue of Black Belt.)