Sumo Comes to America, in 24 Vivid Photos

Sumo Comes to America, in 24 Vivid Photos

It took a journey to an Indian casino in upstate New York to experience a level of elite sumo rarely seen outside of Japan. And those who made it to Turning Stone Casino & Resort on Saturday night did not leave disappointed, with 10 international sumo champions from seven countries offering a thrilling showcase of a centuries-old sport in an exhibition tournament.

The format for the event was a true round robin: Each rikishi (wrestler) faced off against all of the others across 45 total matches, many of which lasted only a few seconds. Here, Kelly — a five-time U.S. champion and the lone American in the field — prepares to face Mongolia's Byamba, a veteran of Japan's pro ranks. Both are known simply by their shikona (ring names), typically a shortened version of their given names.

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To win, a rikishi must either knock his opponent out of the dohyo (ring) or down to the ground. Slapping, leg sweeping and pulling the belt are within the rules, while punching, kicking and hair-pulling are illegal.

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There are more than 80 recognized techniques in sumo, but most involve either pushing or throwing.

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A crowd of nearly 2,000 filled the Turning Stone Event Center before the rishiki were introduced to great pomp — with a performance by traditional Japanese drummers Taiko Masala.

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A festive atmosphere greeted spectators at the casino, located roughly 30 miles east of Syracuse.

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Saturday's event brought out an eclectic crowd ...

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... a range of curious spectators across all ages and backgrounds ...

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... many of whom were attending their first sumo event ...

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... with the easy-to-understand rules making for an energetic, engaged audience.

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Kelly (left), the Guinness World Record holder as the heaviest person to complete a marathon, scored his first win of the night by forcing Japan's Aoba from the dohyo. The Idaho native, who holds a masters in geography, is a statistician at a hospital by day — when he's not helping popularize a sport beyond its traditional borders. "We're pioneers," he said.

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In international sumo, competitors start at the referee's command. The referee also announces the winner, but his call can be overruled by sideline judges, who have the ultimate say. Here, the judges are ruling that Soslan (far right), a Russian competitor, used an illegal move in an apparent victory over Mark. A rematch was ordered, with Mark prevailing.

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Yama (right), at 550 pounds, is billed as the heaviest Japanese human being in history. He reached makuuchi — the topmost of Japanese sumo's six divisions — achieving the rank of maegashira in 2009.

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A match begins when each competitor has both fists on the mat, much like a four-point stance in football. The upward thrust and initial collision is reminiscent of the line play seen in the NFL trenches every Sunday during the fall.

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Mark (left), a 550-pound rikishi from New Zealand, emerged as a crowd favorite by playing to the audience after winning his first several matches.

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The sacred, highly ritualistic sport, thought to be as many as 2,500 years old, taps deep into Japanese culture and remains an important part of the country's heritage.

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Mark, who's also played American football and rugby, brought an 8-0 record into his final match with Poland's Michal, a former European champion. Matches are preceded by a ritual called shikirinaoshi, in which the rikishi clap their hands to awaken the gods and expose their palms to show they are unarmed.

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Michal's modest size — he was listed at 280 pounds but entered Saturday's exhibition nearer to 250 — made it a matchup of the lightest and heaviest competitors in the field.

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Michal offered a spirited challenge ...

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... but he was ultimately flipped from the dohyo by Mark, who clinched the championship with the victory.

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Mark soaks in the applause after lifting the trophy. Beside him is Andrew Freund, president of USA Sumo and the promoter of Saturday's event.

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Afterward, he spent nearly 20 minutes posing for photos with fans.

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Backstage, Michal snaps a photo of his fellow rishiki.

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Many of Saturday's participants will compete in the 14th Annual U.S. Sumo Open on Sept. 20 in Long Beach, Calif., which for the first time will be televised by Universal Sports, an NBC-Universal affiliate.

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Mark, 25, won bronze at the 2006 Junior World Championships to earn a scholarship to train for a pro career in Japan, but homesickness led him back to New Zealand. He earned $2,500 for Saturday's first-place finish.

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