Byamba & Yama
Words: Mathieu Mathon
Images: Joshua Aronson
Since departing the world of traditional Japanese professional sumo, Byambajav Ulambaya and Yamamotoyama Ryūta, or Byamba and Yama as they’re known in the ring, have found themselves in the United States wrestling with USA Sumo. Along with the change of location, the two have vastly expanded their horizons into exhibitions, coaching, articles with GQ and the New Yorker and acting too. With changes so momentous, the two famed wrestlers are in new territory and also amidst the spotlight that comes with it. Byamba and Yama talk us through where they the see themselves now after leaving the Japanese sumo world behind.
GS: Can you tell us a little bit about who you are, where you are based and what you do?
Yama: I competed for years in the top division of Japanese Pro Sumo, but I’m now in Los Angeles. I do sumo exhibitions, coach sumo, and also work on many TV shows and films. It doesn’t hurt that I’m the heaviest Japanese sumo wrestler in history!
Byamba: I competed in Japanese Pro Sumo, but left by age 20. USA Sumo brought me to the United States 12 years ago for a movie project, and since then, I’ve been on over 400 shoots for commercials, TV, and film, all over the world. I’ve also won 4 World Sumo Champion titles in international sumo competition.
Yama, you started Sumo at the age of 7, how did you get into it? Were you practising any other sports when you were younger?
Y: At age 7, I was almost 150 pounds and physically active. My teachers recommended to my parents that I needed to get into sports, and they suggested sumo. That’s almost all I did growing up.
Byamba, at 15 years old you were the Mongolian National Junior Champion of Judo, Sambo and Mongolian wrestling. When the Japanese grand champion Onokuni invited you to join his Professional Sumo team in Japan had you ever practised or been interested in sumo before this?
B: I had no idea about sumo when I was recruited. Onokuni watched many of the top young Mongolian wrestlers competing with each other in our traditional wrestling style. Based on my athleticism and technique, he picked me to join his sumo team. When I flew to Japan, Not knowing the sport, the language, the culture, the food etc., I really had no idea what I was getting into.
You’ve both had impressive sumo careers but both quit Pro Sumo Japan after a few years to then move to International Sumo and USA Sumo – Why not stay in Japan? What did the international scene have to offer that traditional Pro Sumo in Japan didn’t have?
Y: Not everyone has the opportunity to come to America. I got a special offer from USA Sumo, so I took it. And to be honest, the Pro Sumo lifestyle is a little monotonous. Now I feel lucky that I have so many diverse experiences and am able to promote sumo all over the world.
B: When I stopped Pro Sumo I had no particular plans, but once I was brought into the entertainment world, and once I got the opportunity to continue competing in sumo internationally, I was very happy! The international sumo scene and my lifestyle as a sumo icon and ambassador gives me a lot of diverse experiences, plus more independence than the Pro Sumo lifestyle. It’s nice for me.
I really had no idea what I was getting into.
Are you still in contact with the Pro Sumo in Japan? Would you be interested in going back?
B: No I don’t really keep in touch with them. I wouldn’t be interested in returning to Pro Sumo now either.
Y: I don’t really have much contact with the current competitors, but I still keep in touch with some of the guys who I competed with, plus coaches. Once you retire from Pro Sumo and have the hair-cutting ceremony you’re not allowed to return.
International Sumo gathers athletes from different backgrounds and levels of training, can you tell the difference during the match? Could you tell if the wrestler had professional Japanese training?
Y: Well, I couldn’t say with total certainty whether or not the athlete had “PRO” sumo training, but I could definitely tell if he had proper Japanese sumo training, i.e. at the university level, for example. There are many specific movements and techniques unique to sumo. Someone without that background would not use those at all.
B: Actually, I can tell, just by looking at an athlete and seeing his body type. If I watch someone walking, warming up, etc., I can tell right away if the person has a background in karate, or football, or sumo, etc. These things are evident, even before I observe the match.
If someone did criticise what we are doing,
it wouldn’t bother me at all.
You brought sumo with you to some creative projects and media appearances – do you realise that you have opened the world’s eyes to Sumo and influenced other athletes? Did that also put you in some inconvenient situations in relation to some traditional sumo enthusiasts?
Y: Sure, I realise that I have made an impact on many sumo fans, worldwide. We almost always get compliments and love from the audiences. I’ve never really heard any complaints at all, but even if someone were to say that they didn’t like the way sumo is presented by USA Sumo, I am sure that even a critic would agree that our demonstrations are quite interesting!
YAMBA: I recognise that I’ve taught and shown many interesting things about sumo all over the world, for well over a decade now, but I never really thought too much about my impact on others. I just do what I love. If someone did criticise what we are doing, it wouldn’t bother me at all. I just do my thing and don’t care what others think.
The past few years female Sumo athletes have made their marks in the International Sumo, and with the support of the USA Sumo Open for example, they keep emancipating female participation in the sport. Some Japanese females are training and organising matches but Pro Sumo in Japan still doesn’t allow women on the dohyo (the sumo wrestling ring) for some traditional reasons – Do you think there will be a change someday?
B: In Japanese culture, women will not be allowed in Pro Sumo. There is such a long history in Japan, and the culture does not easily change. Everyone follows the rules.
Y: When Japanese people think of sumo, they see a person clad only in a mawashi (the sumo loincloth). That attire would be inappropriate for women. So, Japanese culture will not allow women to be a part of Professional Sumo. In the same way, men are not allowed to become geishas.
Within just 1 or 2 pushes, the match could be over.
What sport or job would you do if you were no longer involved in the world of sumo?
B: I have no idea. It’s hard to imagine…
Y: I wanted to try many different sports. In particular, if I didn’t do sumo I really would like to try team sports, like baseball or soccer. In sumo, I only have to rely on myself, but team sports are different.
What would you eat if there was no Chanko – Nabe?
Y: Any food is OK for me…
B: Hot dogs!
What do you think about the night before an event?
Y: I don’t worry on the night before a big event. I just keep the same habits daily, with no special changes.
B: Before a competition, I get nervous, and don’t sleep well. Especially back in my Pro Sumo days, I would also be thinking about my opponents. Now, I still get nervous, but it’s a little bit less.
What interests you the most about Sumo?
Y: Being the biggest does not mean being strongest! There is so much more involved.
B: The match is so brief, and in a very limited space. So how can you defeat an opponent in those conditions?! Within just 1 or 2 pushes, the match could be over. It seems very simple, but there’s actually a lot of complexity involved.
What is something that you believe needs to change within the Sumo sport and community?
B: Well, I do hope that sumo becomes an Olympic sport…
Y: In amateur sumo, International guys need to learn the basic rituals before and after each bout. It’s important that they learn respect. Pro Sumo also needs to be more open internationally. If they could do more worldwide tours, to teach people real sumo, that would be great.