Sumo Cum Laude

With their 21-foot loincloths, two big guys belly up to an ancient Eastern sport

A friend and Japanese martial arts instructor, Mark Harper, dons a stately judge's uniform, a sort of kimono-and-culottes couture that radiates an austere authority. Harper would wrestle, but he's wary after the open-heart surgery he endured last year. His daughter, 13-year-old Jessica, says to never mind if you hear her father tick like an alarm clock -- his pacemaker is just set a little too loud.

Mawashis affixed, the proud warriors stride to the dohyo behind the gym. Hidalgo and Harris spent five hours constructing the ring the day before, lining the perimeter with tightly rolled straw mats, which symbolize the harvest of the five grains. In Japan, pro sumos throw salt into the ring to appease the gods and scare the demons, but Hidalgo and Harris skip the salt and lunge right into the shiko, the archetypal sumo maneuver whereby the wrestlers lift their legs into the air and slam them down. This also ticks off the demons, who apparently live underground and can't perpetrate evil with two gargantuans stomping on their ceiling.

Hidalgo and Harris face off, hunching over and planting their knuckles on the dirt like a couple of gorillas vying for dominance of the pack.

Hidalgo shows that good sumo wrestlers don't turn the 
other cheek.
Daniel Kramer
Hidalgo shows that good sumo wrestlers don't turn the other cheek.
Harris (foreground) and Hidalgo hope the Lone Star 
Sumo Wrestling Association will soar.
Harris (foreground) and Hidalgo hope the Lone Star Sumo Wrestling Association will soar.

Harper makes sure the wrestlers are ready before waving his ironwood paddle and yelling, "Hakke-yoi!" That unleashes into motion the two freight trains of blubber and brawn. The ensuing match is a flurry of slapping skin and flying dust, a cacophony of grunts as the two men grip each other's mawashis and try to throw the other out of the ring.

Harris, whose face is already a tomatoey hue from five hours of building the ring, turns even redder as he struggles against the heavier Hidalgo. But he wins the first match, and one more in a best-of-five. Hidalgo, however, prevails.

After about ten minutes in the humid heat, both men are breathless and drenched in sweat. In Japan, pro sumos usually fight just one match a day, and that lasts only a few seconds. Hidalgo and Harris have displayed a Texas-sized competitiveness, and Harper is impressed by the endurance.

"They were using all their muscle," Harper says. "A minute to two minutes, and you're dead."

The wrestlers reconvene in the ring to receive their medals. Hidalgo also wins the Lone Star Sumo Fighting Spirit Award, a gold-colored aluminum trophy bestowed upon wrestlers who display, as one fan says, "that little extra."

Even though Harris lost, he still feels proud and happy about the day's fight. Unlike his days as Mr. Tattoo, this was an honest sport.

"I like to lose if I'm going to lose and win if I'm going to win," he says, trying to catch his breath. "Not because they told me."

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