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Original Issue

Strip Tease

Las Vegas's first taste of sumo wrestling proved the U.S. is not quite ready for the big boys By Richard Hoffer

Sumo wrestling is a 2,000-year-old sport that remains, unlike baseball or basketball, entirely defined by its history. There has been no pandering to the changing interests of the fan. There is no designated hitter, no 24-second shot clock--nothing to admit the passing of time. The rituals, the ceremonies, the costumes, the simplicity of the action all survive intact. Even the spartan lifestyles of the rikishi (wrestlers), who begin training before dawn in dormlike beyas, recall the sport's spiritual origins. The yokozuna, or grand champion, may be celebrated in his culture and entitled to an entourage and other perks, but the rank and file know nothing of mega-million-dollar contracts or endorsements.

Yet somebody thought it would be a good idea to airlift this ancient spectacle to Las Vegas, where any old-timer who once saw the Rat Pack is considered a social historian. Anything that comes to Las Vegas represents a cultural collision, of course. But this much waddling antiquity was a seismic shock to tourists' sensibilities, especially in a town that admires thong outfits for reasons beyond historical accuracy. There are extremely obese people bustling through buffet lines in the hotels, but none in robes and topknots, and none who can explode from a dead squat to bully another 350-pound man off the dohyo, the traditional clay ring.

This entertainment, as performed last weekend at Mandalay Bay, may have to wait some time before its next exposure in the U.S. These were high-caliber sumo athletes--there are about 800 pros in five ranks competing in the six Grand Tournaments in Japan each year--and while the Las Vegas event was more of an exhibition (a Grand Tournament lasts 15 days), it was nevertheless all too authentic. Any sport that requires 45 minutes of pomp and circumstance to get going is probably doomed in this country. "Tempo is a problem," admitted Dan Yoshida, the promoter and self-avowed minister of cultural exchange between the two countries. (He once took Siegfried & Roy to Japan.)

Still, it was refreshing to see, in this most modern of cities, such meticulous caretaking when it came to tradition. Naturally, there was a fascination with competitors who are force-fed up to 10,000 calories a day, producing a rather weird athletic ideal. In fact, most are not any bigger or rounder than an NFL lineman, or even an average tourist on the Strip.

But would the sport fly here? For a town that has made a name for itself with floor shows, sumo ought to have been a hot ticket, but attendance was spotty on Friday night and there still wasn't a full house on Sunday as Asashoryu was crowned grand champion of the three-day event. The wrestlers parade in and out in elaborate costumes, their loinclothes so colorful that when assembled on the dohyo during introductions, the boys--everyone calls them the boys--resemble a NASCAR grid. Alas, they are not as shapely as the typical chorus line and their sex appeal applies to an extremely niche audience (although one wrestler, called onstage at the risqué Zumanity show early in the week, did a passable bump-and-grind, to the crowd's delight and the sumo federation's horror).

But the action itself, which often amounts to about five seconds of NFL line play, might not translate to any audience but the homegrown aficionados. In fact sumo is said to be losing popularity even in Japan, which does not appreciate the influx of foreigners to its sacred sport. Asashoryu, the current yokozuna who is going for a record seven straight tournament championships--a streak unaffected by his exhibition victory last weekend--is Mongolian, as are many of the rikishi, and attendance is down. Explained Konishiki, the Hawaiian-born champion of the 1990s, "It's like when Magic and Bird left the NBA."

Las Vegas likes its spectacle, but a celebration of cultural history just won't play regularly in a town that routinely implodes any hotels older than 30 years. As for something that's been around for 2,000 years, that's just confusing, although it's nice to learn that all-you-can-eat existed well before casino execs invented the $3.95 buffet.



BIG UPSET Asashoryu wastossed by Chiyotaikai (right) on Day 2, but came back to win.