Sumo Cum Laude
Once again, Mr. Tattoo is the bad guy, flailing a folding chair and trash-talking an opponent in some East Texas Elks Lodge. Sure, it's fake, but try telling that to your bones after a 600-pound, dreadlocked monstrosity named the Rasta Savage falls on you. And you can take a chair over the noggin from guys like Big John Murder and the Necro Butcher only so long before you start thinking about a new hobby.
Three years into his moonlighting gig, Mr. Tattoo, a.k.a. Bart Harris, forged a new persona: Loving Husband and Doting Daddy. The five-11, 250-pound Harris and wife Jamie raised two children while Harris picked up extra scratch kicking ass and getting his kicked in flea markets and convention halls throughout the Piney Woods region. He once wrestled in a Centerville rodeo with an audience of only nine people.
But as more wrestlers with murderous monikers began jumping into the ring, the $50 nightly pot dwindled. Soon, the boyish, blond-haired Harris was coming home sore and bruised with only $20 to show for it. Plus, the whole artifice of the so-called sport got to him. He wanted something real, something to be proud of.
The epiphany came about two years ago, in the form of two diapered freaks bashing their naked, morbidly obese bellies against each other on ESPN. Then Harris realized they weren't really freaks. It was the North American sumo championships, and these were bona fide athletes, torchbearers of a noble Japanese tradition with roots in the Shinto religion. This was more than slamming Hot Stuff Hernandez upside the head with a folding chair. This was real.
Although Harris continued as Mr. Tattoo, he never forgot about that sumo match, and he tried to catch as many televised competitions as he could. Finally, sitting next to his wife when a match came on the screen, he confided his wish to her.
"I thought he was crazy," Jamie Harris recalls.
And how could she not? What are you supposed to think when the man you married, the father of your children, turns to you and says he wants to slap on a gigantic jockstrap and wrestle another man in a gigantic jockstrap? Had he taken too many folding chairs to the head? Had the Rasta Savage knocked something loose?
Jamie quickly went from being suspicious to supportive, acquiescing to her husband's pleas for a sparring partner. He built a ring in his La Marque backyard, digging a shallow circular trench and lining it with plastic piping. Although Jamie refused to wear them, Harris donned his sumo skivvies (mawashi) and threw his weight at his wife, who appears to weigh more than he does. She managed to avoid injury, but she has yet to dominate him.
Realizing he couldn't wrestle with his wife forever, Harris did whatever he could to scare up fresh meat: "Begging, bribing, anything I could do to get anyone to practice with me at all," he laughs.
He went online and found an amateur sumo club in California. They introduced him to the New Jersey-based United States Sumo Federation, run by a 66-year-old Japanese judo master named Yoshisada Yonezuka. The federation is small -- only 114 members nationwide -- but fervent. Yonezuka is the only Japanese member.
Harris had found his home.
About the same time, Round Rock sumo enthusiast John Hidalgo was trying to put together a Texas contingent of the USSF. Through the same California club, and through the USSF, Hidalgo found Harris, and the Lone Star Sumo Association was born. They launched two chapters: the Round Rock Ronin and the Houston Samurai. And they're looking for a few good men -- and women.
And you don't even have to be fat.
Last Sunday, the turnout proves to be low for the first Lone Star Sumo Mini-Championship, which is held in the back of a children's gym off FM 1960. Hidalgo, who does tech support for Dell, and Harris are the only two competing wrestlers. A handful of friends gathers, as does a three-woman crew of grad-school film students from UT-Austin, who are developing a documentary on Texas sumo.
Hidalgo and Harris had been hoping for more participants and spectators, but they still use the event to run through their itinerary, which includes a video on the history of sumo and a demonstration on how to don a 21-foot mawashi. The latter involves Harris putting the fabric over his jeans-shorts and thrusting downward as Hidalgo uses his five-11, 295-pound frame to execute a wedgie that most certainly violates the Geneva Convention.
The real fun begins when Hidalgo and Harris disappear into a tiny restroom marked BOYS, strip to their birthday suits and help each other with their mawashis. Their combined weight of 500-plus pounds makes for a tight fit. Stripped nearly naked in all his sunburned glory, it's finally apparent why Harris is called Mr. Tattoo: His body is illustrated with the likes of lizards, panthers, hawks and bulls. Even Tom, Jerry and Woody Woodpecker make an appearance.
One of the grad students eases her way into the tiny restroom, holding the camera above her head to get a bird's-eye view as Harris assists Hidalgo with his mawashi. Hidalgo explains about the importance of tying a tight knot. He's never become unraveled during a match, and it's certainly nothing he looks forward to. Besides the obvious embarrassment, any wrestler who bursts his britches automatically forfeits.
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.
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."