18 OCTOBER 1991, Page 44

ARTS

Sumo

The gentlest art

Had she been around last week, Queen Victoria would not have been amused. Her darling Albert's Hall was invaded by lots of fatties wearing very little and speaking a foreign tongue. Worse, the invaders ignored the royal box, bowing only to a gnome-like figure in a kimono and to each other. They also threw salt around as if it was going out of style.

Given the fact that sumo is a dream come true for prejudiced cartoonists, I was pleasantly surprised by the crowd's reaction to the ancient martial art. There was wild applause whenever a sumotori used the showpiece technique of tsuri-dashi — the lift-out', in which an opponent is lifted clear off the ground and thrown out of the ring — or utchari, the pivot throw, where a sumotori turns defeat into victory with a last-ditch effort. Needless to say, there was also great appreciation shown for the tsuki- dashi, the left-right thrusts used to blast an opponent off the ring. These thrusts with the open palm do not look lethal, but believe me, I'd rather be punched by a boxer any day. Sumotoris train by hitting telegraph poles full blast with open palms,

and the insides of their hands are like the proverbial rock.

Mind you, a Western audience needs to be emotionally involved in order to estab- lish a favourite, and last week the crowd went for looks. Terao, 6ft 3M tall and weighing only 251 pounds, was the people's choice throughout. Terao is a good-looking man, and I couldn't help thinking what a perfect consort he'd make for some of those puny Windsor royals. He did not dis- appoint, beating many a bigger man, only losing to Asahifuji, the Plum, in the semi- final. The Plum was then beaten by the Bulldog, Hokutoumi.

The ones who did not live up to their size were the Hawaiians. Both the Dumptruck and the Killer Whale lost more than they won, despite being the two biggest men by far. It goes to show that to be a yokozuna (grand champion) one needs much more than bulk (the winner and the finalist are both yokozunas).

Sumotoris may be built like bull ele- phants, but they're as agile as feather- weights, and yet hit with the force of a truck. When I asked Mr Matsumura, an eight-dan judoka, and Mr Enceda, eight dan in karate, which fighters are the strongest, they both laughed. No one, it seems, can even approach a sumotori in a real fight. Terry O'Neill, probably the greatest martial artist in the UK along with Frank Brennan, agrees. The punishment training is of such intensity that sumotoris turn into beasts. Their voice-boxes are occasionally ruptured by the blows, yet they remain impassive. They are as dignified and unemotional when badly injured as Italian footballers are phony and histrionic.

Which is what martial arts are all about. Karate, an art I've been studying for over 25 years, has unfortunately turned into a sport, with contestants jumping up and down waving a fist trying to influence the referee. Back in the good old days such behaviour would lead to immediate suspen- sion and probably a beating to boot. This will never happen to sumo. It is. a 2,000-year-old tradition, whose stern herit- age makes sumotoris very proud men. In the past, when warlords fell out, they would agree to send out a single sumo wrestler each to fight their cause. The dignity of the

ritual and the perfection of behaviour are the results of such a heritage. Hence the endless pre-contest practices and nuances.

On the night I attended the basho, Main- umi, the lightest sumotori in the top divi- sion, as well as Ozutsu, the oldest, won brilliantly. While sitting among the hacks, however, I noticed not a small amount of cynicism and boredom. It was par for the course. Nowadays we need actors to hurl one another around as in wrestling in order to be impressed. Or to watch two foul- mouthed brats dressed in pink Lycra underwear whacking a ball across a net to be entertained. Two honourable and brave men smashing into each other without bat- ting an eye is much too subtle. One hack went so far as to ask who won the war. Well, it wasn't the Brits, old boy. If any- thing, the Japanese won a moral victory.