By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS, Rafu Sports Editor
The U.S. Sumo Open returns to Little Tokyo this Saturday, and the return will showcase much more than just wrestling.
Now in its 21st year, the Open has become a wildly popular annual event, and this year, will help further realize the aspirations of generations, when it takes place at the new Terasaki Budokan.
“We’re proud to be the first large-scale sporting event to take place at the Terasaki Budokan, which is appropriate since sumo is considered, at least unofficially, to be Japan’s national sport,” said Andrew Freund, president of USA Sumo. “We have actually been in contact with the Little Tokyo Service Center for many years about possibly holding sumo events in the Budokan – once it was completed – and the turns of events in recent years have actually made that happen in a way we didn’t expect.”
Having been held three times in Little Tokyo, the event became such a local sporting hit that the a much larger venue was needed for the 2014 U.S. Sumo Open. It found a home at the Walter Pyramid on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, where the competition was staged yearly, and had been planned for April 2020.
“We had sold out nearly all 6,000 seats at the Pyramid, and were expecting 80-plus wrestlers from around the world,” Freund explained. “Then, one month before…everything shut down. We made alternate plans, and finally, when it become clear that no venue would allow large audiences, we ended up holding the tournament in October 2020 – with only 33 wrestlers and zero fans.
“It was a big blow to go from expecting 6,000 fans and then having zero,” he added. “Nevertheless, we held the 20th annual U.S. Sumo Open and kept the 20-year streak alive. ”The Terasaki Budokan was a dream of generations of local athletes and sports leagues, and to host a tournament of this size has long been part of that dream,”
However, local health guidelines on crowd numbers are still in effect, so attendance Saturday will be limited to around 1,000 spectators.
Freund agreed that the Budokan is an ideal and iconic location for a sumo competition.“We’ve had a long connection with Little Tokyo,” he said. “For example, we brought (former professional star) Konishiki to the Nisei Week Parade in 2001, the day after he was our special guest at the first U.S. Sumo Open.
”USA Sumo has also collaborated to bring events from Japanese sumo to the U.S., including Grand Sumo Las Vegas in 2005 and a Grand Sumo tournament Los Angeles in 2008. Both featured well-known professional wrestlers to compete in front of American fans. This year’s U.S. Sumo Open boasts some 60 athletes representing seven countries, competing in both men’s and women’s weight classes, as well as an openweight class. The Open is the largest and longest-running sumo tournament outside of professional sumo in Japan.The event also features the participation of USA Sumo’s head coach and primary sumo ambassador, Yama, a former competitor in the top pro division in Japan.
“Yama is not only a sumo coach, former pro sumo star, and entertainer, but he’s somewhat of an institution in the Little Tokyo community,” Freund said, noting the former wrestler’s years of volunteer work with local seniors, at Koyasan Temple and at the Koban.
“We have an iconic sumo champion and ambassador as the head judge at the largest international sumo competition in the world outside of Japan, being held in the brand new, iconic Terasaki Budokan, in, of course, Little Tokyo, Los Angeles.”
The 2021 U.S. Sumo Open begins at 12 noon this Saturday, Oct. 2, inside the Terasaki Budokan, 249 S. Los Angeles St. in Little Tokyo. For tickets and more information, visit www.usasumo.com.