The two sumo wrestlers squat, fists on the mats, and stare at each other.
“Hakkeyoi!” another wrestler yells from the sidelines. The Japanese word translates to “Put some spirit into it” and signals the start of the match.
The two charge toward each other and try to take their opponent to the ground or out of the wrestling ring. About 10 seconds in, they’re entangled. Then one loses his balance and the other flips him out of the circle and wins.
This is a typical move in the sport. But these sumo wrestlers don’t look like stereotypical sumo wrestlers. No one weighs more than 250 pounds. These are just regular Kansas Citians with an interesting hobby.
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And the sumo ring doesn’t look like a sumo ring either — it’s made out of PVC pipe covered with blue and yellow swimming noodles. It’s in a craft room in the Kansas City North Community Center; glitter and sequins are still stuck to the mats from an art project.
That doesn’t bother the coach or the wrestlers; they bow every time they step on and leave the mat. For the mat is a sacred place, and it deserves respect.
And the coach deserves respect as well. André Coleman, owner of Welcome Mat Sumo Club, will travel to Long Beach, Calif., next weekend for the U.S. Sumo Open, the largest sumo competition in the country. Later this month, he will be one of the few Americans to compete in the world championship in Japan.
Coleman, 36, of Liberty, isn’t very tall but weighs a foreboding 205 pounds. He has a full black beard and, during practice, wears only black shorts and his mawashi — the sumo belt. Tattoos cover his torso: An Egyptian pharaoh on his back symbolizes leadership and his drive for greatness. His newest one is the black rhino, his nickname to competitors.
Pockets of sumo wrestling are popping up around the country, but the U.S. still has one of the weakest teams on the world championship level — Coleman compares the team to the “Bad News Bears.” But Coleman trains with the goal of standing on the winners’ podium as well as teaching others in Kansas City the art of sumo.
“When you step onto the mat,” he says, “it’s just you and another person. There are no advantages.”
The rules of sumo, a sport that dates back 2,000 years, are simple: The goal is to force your opponent out of the 15-foot ring or make your opponent touch the ground with anything other than the soles of the feet. Punching, gouging and kicking aren’t allowed, but slapping and tripping are. Each match usually lasts 30 seconds. Sumo wrestlers depend on strength and speed to push opponents, or balance and technique to take an opponent to the ground.
Coleman, who is an accounting consultant, holds practices for the six members of his club every Monday and Wednesday. He leads and participates in all of the drills. He delivers critiques quietly and encouragingly, usually with a smile.
Coleman only got into sumo about two years ago, and at the time he was studying judo. He was briefly introduced to the sport at the gym where he trained, and became hooked. About three months later, Coleman won his first competition. He reads books, watches YouTube videos and travels to different states for training camps. And he spends a lot of time on the mental strategy.
“It just looks like these fat guys, but it’s more like a chess game,” Coleman said. “You need to be two to three steps ahead of the other person.”
Coleman’s willingness to constantly learn has always been one of his strengths, said Steve Scott, the founder of the Welcome Mat Judo and Jujitsu Club, who has known Coleman for more than 10 years.
“He’s a great young man. He’s not buff, not big like a bodybuilder, but he … works his butt off to make up for it,” Scott said.
The toughest obstacle during training is cutting the weight, Coleman said. To be eligible as a lightweight competitor, he has to weigh in at 187 pounds.
For the past three months, Coleman has been on a strict diet of 2,700 calories and the same four meals a day: six eggs and two pieces of toast for breakfast, a whole chicken breast with broccoli for both his second and third meals and then a protein shake after he trains. In addition to sumo practices, he works out multiple times every day, mostly cardio and lifting. He says he can lose the 15 pounds before the competition by mostly sweating it off.
Coleman is an asset to the sport because of his teaching, said Jenelle Hamilton, the reigning U.S. lightweight women’s sumo champion, who is on Team USA with Coleman.
“He wants to build up everyone around him. He has a love for sumo, not just a love for himself,” she said. Hamilton, who lives in Los Angeles, recently visited Kansas City to teach an introductory sumo workshop for women but to also train with Coleman and one of his female athletes. Hamilton said Coleman made sure the attention was placed on the women learning.
Another challenge for U.S. sumo wrestlers is the cost of travel. More competitive countries, like Japan, Mongolia and even the Netherlands, give the athletes stipends and help cover costs. American wrestlers pay for everything, she said. And they must frequently travel to compete and even train since you “don’t just run into sumo gyms on every corner,” Hamilton said.
“Considering that the only thing that you need is a loin cloth, the sport is actually very expensive.”
While Coleman wants to win as many matches as possible, he said his ultimate goal is to keep improving as a sumo wrestler and teach others about the sport.
“I don’t think I’ll be the best sumo wrestler in the U.S. or the world,” Coleman said. “But I have the hunger.”
During the last 45 minutes of practice, the sumo wrestlers and Coleman do a round robin series of matches. The smell of the craft room has gotten mustier during the two-hour practice, and Coleman is now facing off against his wrestlers. But he falls to the ground and bangs his knee on the pipe of the sumo ring.
Does he want to sit out the next round or get some ice, his assistant coach asks.
Coleman shakes it off and just slides on a black knee brace. He then crouches in the opening sumo position, places one fist at a time to the mat, and waits for the starting call.