National Geographic : 1997 Jul
For all the mystery surrounding the sport, the rules are simple. Two wrestlers face off inside a ring 15 feet in diameter. The winner is the first to knock the other guy down or out of the ring. Slapping, pushing, tripping, and judo-style flips are all allowed; punching with a fist is not. There is no weight limit, which is why many sumo wres tlers spend years striving to make themselves seriously fat. The aver age weight for the top-level wrestlers is 350 pounds. The Sumo Association runs six major tournaments each year. Each one is a 15-day round-robin, with each wrestler facing a differ ent opponent every day. The man who emerges with the best overall record wins the championship. The tournament champ and other top performers earn prize money and promotions within the care fully structured ranking system. In recent years Akebono has been earning more than one million dollars annually. It takes enormous mental strength to maintain a winning edge for a whole tournament. "Your toughest opponent in sumo is always yourself," the great young wrestler Takanohana (The Noble Flower) told me. "Making yourself stand up to that daily pressure for 15 straight days is the hardest thing in the sport." Takanohana should know, for he earned the top rank, grand champion, at the age of 22. For the past two years the competition between the two current grand champions, Takanohana and Akebo no, has been the dominant rivalry of the sumo world. Their head-to head match, always the last bout of the last day of the round-robin, is the most anticipated event of each tournament. ON THE SECOND DAY of the Autumn Tournament the heat gave way to dismal rainfall. In the ring The Dawn turned cold as well. A tough young wrestler named Musoyama, or Two Battling Moun tains, jumped nimbly away from Akebono's initial charge, then sent the grand champion sprawling to the turf with a powerful shove in the back.