Over more than a decade, Mariah Holmes developed a hardened athletic edge as a rugby player, learning how to take hits and overpower her opponents. So when a friend and fellow coach at Southern California’s Empire Rugby Club challenged her to come to sumo wrestling practice with him in February, her competitive streak kicked in, even if she hardly knew what to expect. “I kinda wondered, Who actually does sumo?” says the 26-year-old Holmes, who grew up in Wyoming and has been living in Riverside, California, for the last five years. “I thought it would be fun, but not necessarily a real sport worth pursuing.”
Sumo is one of the world’s oldest and most distinctive sports, with historians agreeing that it existed in some form as long as 2,000 years ago. A bout begins as two opponents meet in the center of a roughly 15-foot diameter ring covered in a thin layer of sand and squat low on their legs. They lean over to gently touch the ground with their fists; as soon as the last hand touches the ground, the fight is on. The goal is to either push your opponent out of the ring or make them lose balance and touch the ground with any body part other than the soles of their feet. The initial explosion is critical, as matches usually last only a few seconds.
Holmes figured her rugby experience had prepared her for this sort of dynamic movement, so she agreed to attend a practice and discovered a string of surprises, starting with the venue — a small space in the back of a Carson, California, paintball shop, sticky with humidity and stale air. She also quickly noticed that of the 20 people who trickled into the room, only two or three were women. And as the warm-up routine commenced, Holmes laughed at its lack of intensity: Some stretching and slow, steady leg raises weren’t exactly intimidating to a woman who had spent years lifting weights, sprinting across fields and tackling big bodies.
But a few minutes in, as the room reverberated with the percussive slap of feet on mats, her confidence started to fade. Her thighs were burning. Sweat laced her brow. And that was just the start: Once the warm-ups ended, the wrestlers assembled into a circle, leaving enough room for two people to go head-to-head in the center. The practice started in full, and Holmes was thrown into the fire without too much training, facing not just women in a series of quick “matches” but also massive, 300-pound-plus men, too. Holmes thought she was strong, but getting tossed onto her ass several times in a row proved otherwise.
“After three or four short matches, it felt like I was dying, like I had sprinted three or four miles. That was one of the most impressive workouts I’d ever done,” Holmes recalls with a sharp laugh. “I saw how beautiful and elegant this sport was. Each match looks quick, but sumo wrestlers are using almost every muscle in their bodies. It was clear that this is a thoughtful sport, almost chess-like. I was addicted.”
Just four months later, Holmes is part of a trio of American women who are headed to Taiwan next month for the World Sumo Championships, where they will face off against top female wrestlers from around the world. She qualified by medaling at the U.S. Sumo Open in May, where the 174-pound Holmes took silver in her weight division (middleweight) and gold in the openweight (no weight restriction) competition. The world stage represents a big leap in competition for all American amateur sumo wrestlers, but especially for women, who form a small niche within an already esoteric sport.
The relationship between women and sumo remains a convoluted, and sometimes conflicted, issue in the sport’s home of Japan. In April, a professional sumo tournament there garnered international headlines when a pair of female EMTs jumped in to begin emergency care on the mayor of Maizuru city, who had collapsed in the middle of the ring. Almost instantly, a nearby referee demanded the women get out. The reason? In sumo tradition, women are considered ritually “impure.”
The Japanese Sumo Association apologized for the incident, but an old and latent debate was renewed as observers claimed this was another instance of sexism in the sport, which has prohibited women from participating since the inception of professional tournaments in the 17th century. Steeped in the rituals and beliefs of the Shinto religion, sumo first served to entertain and placate the gods. Even today, professional sumo wrestlers spend more time on pre-bout ceremonies — composed of a series of symbolic movements like hand claps, stomps and tossing salt as a purifying ritual — than on the actual wrestling itself. And under the tenets of Shinto rituals, women aren’t allowed to stand inside or even touch the sumo ring.
Japanese politician Fusae Ohta, who had herself been stopped from presenting a sumo trophy in the ring when she was governor of Osaka in 2000, noted that the criticism from around the world was legitimate and should be considered by Japanese officials. Another politician, city of Takarazuka Mayor Tomoko Nakagawa, has been petitioning for the ban on women to be repealed. “I can’t understand why it’s only the sumo world that refuses to change or is even going backwards,” she told Agence France-Presse.
The incident sparked change in another Japanese sport with religious traditions, however — bullfighting, with the national association lifting its ban on women in the fighting ring in May. “By opening the ring to women, we hope this traditional bullfighting will continue far into the future,” Katsushi Seki, an official with the Yamakoshi bullfighting organization, said in a statement.
While no official numbers exist, reports from around the world suggest more women are getting involved in amateur sumo, which was officially organized with the founding of the International Sumo Federation in 1992. One major motivation from Japanese officials is to make sumo an Olympic sport, which demands weight classes (professional sumo has no weight divisions) and the inclusion of women. Much of the growth has been propelled by women in Eastern Europe and Mongolia, and they dominate on the international level, much like their male counterparts.
As for the U.S., it may have the best competitors in the world for sports like basketball and baseball, but it trails in sumo, admits USA Sumo Director Andrew Freund. A former amateur sumo wrestler himself, Freund has overseen the organization since he founded it in 1998, training men and women for competitions in the U.S. Sumo Open (the largest amateur tournament outside of Japan, created in 2001) and on the international level. There have always been women training since the inception of USA Sumo, but never steady growth in numbers, he says.
Japan’s top university sumo programs may have more than a dozen women each, but only around six or seven American women are involved at USA Sumo’s training hub in Southern California. This hub routinely puts out the best U.S. competitors, but a lack of resources around the country or a strong community of female wrestlers is making consistent improvement in America a major challenge. Even extremely talented female sumo wrestlers often quit the sport after just a year or two, Freund says.
“The turnover rate is extraordinary. All the women who went to the world championship last year aren’t involved this year. I’m hopeful enough that three or four women will stick with it for another year, two years, maybe five,” he says. “There’s various reasons for it, including that men and women are paying their own way, with flights, lodging, everything. But especially for women, there are too few women to compete against and learn from. Often you can’t even find a woman in a given weight class in nationals.”
Morgan Chateau, a 32-year-old lightweight, began practicing sumo after watching a match in L.A. for the first time two years ago. She started training last year and is already one of the most talented lightweights in the country, despite juggling her athletic career with a full-time job as a research scientist at the University of Southern California. She’s blunt in her assessment of her chances at next month’s world competition — “unless lightning strikes, I know I won’t get a medal” — but also feels that sumo deserves to be bigger in America, especially for women. “The federation, to its credit, is trying to find younger competitors. There are so few women that there’s a drive for the club to recruit them and find ways to encourage them to stay,” Chateau says. “In most male-dominated sports, women won’t join until they see other women are there. I was the only woman in the gym on my first day of practice.”
Part of the uphill battle isn’t just resources, but the gendered traditions that ground sumo. The imagery around the sport is deeply masculine, whether in the heft and strength of top competitors or the daily rituals and rules that professional wrestlers abide by. Professional sumo is militaristic, says expert and former Japan Times sumo columnist Mark Buckton — you join a “stable” at a young age, and you stay with that stable until you leave the sport, working grueling hours as an apprentice and slowly proving your worth in an all-male atmosphere. The pro sport has six ranks of proficiency, which you climb by winning matches; only the top two ranks get any sort of salary, making this a punishing life choice financially as well as physically.
“And the top two levels are when you’re finally allowed to have a girlfriend or a wife and live outside of the stable you train at. If you fall back down to the third rank because of injury or something, you have to move back into the stable and leave your family or partner behind,” he says. “And women are never allowed in the ring because in the Shinto religion, the ring has a god in the center. A woman’s monthly passage of blood is the problem in this cultural view. To be frank, there never has been, and there never will be, a woman in pro sumo. And all the Japanese women I’ve asked have no issue with this.”
That doesn’t mean women in sumo don’t have supporters from the pro ranks. Ryuichi Yamamoto, a former two-time champion best known as Yama, coaches amateur wrestlers alongside Freund in L.A., working with both men and women. He’s noticed a wave of female sumo wrestlers since he began competing at the university level in Japan in 2003, despite the widely held assumption in Japan that women can never be a part of the pro sport. While pro sumo wrestlers must contend with the absence of weight classes — bigger is often better, which is why the typical pro wants to bulk up as much as possible — amateur wrestlers come in a variety of shapes and sizes, which allows a broader range of women to take part.
“Women don’t have the pure power that men often do, so we teach them technical finesse, and emphasize a lot of skillful movements and speed,” Yama says (through Freund as a translator). “Now, the women we’ve been training, they’re very strong competitors. Someone like Mariah or Morgan or our heavyweight Danna [Engelberg], if they can keep it up for a few years, they might have a chance at a third place medal in the world championships. But they must keep it up.”
Holmes and Chateau both express frustration with the sexism of the cultural beliefs around professional sumo, but as Holmes puts it, men in professional sumo aren’t exactly like the men who profit big off other pro sports like football or basketball. “The vast majority of professional guys can’t make a living off it either,” as Holmes puts it. The media coverage of sumo this year may have made a big deal of the discriminatory aspects of sumo culture, but the bigger issue for the middleweight wrestler is that even in the U.S., women see less resources and support in an array of sports.
“The gender imbalance is nothing new to me. As a lifelong athlete, I see the tension in how men get great training and the best coaching and top sponsors while women often don’t get any of that,” Holmes says. “In my experience in sumo, this is some of the highest quality, most equal training I’ve seen for women. The big difference is that the number of women in sumo hasn’t grown, and you see amazing women dominate in a competition and disappear the next year, whereas many top men can somehow stay involved.”
Chateau’s goal is to stay healthy and keep wrestling for four of five more years, although she admits the likelihood of injury is increasing as she heads toward her mid-30s. Most importantly, she wants to stay on as a USA Sumo official (she’s currently the secretary) and perhaps referee for sumo events after she retires. “There was this amazing moment at sumo nationals last year, which was happening at the same time as nationals for junior wrestling. A mother and her little girl came up to me in our break room, when I was wearing my mawashi [the loincloth-like sumo belt], and this girl asked me excitedly about how to sign up,” Chateau says. “A parent can’t really know what’s to come without seeing female competitors and coaches, so seeing a grown woman like me walk into a sumo ring is important. It makes the sport legitimate.”