GLASGOW ― Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan. The ancient martial art may look mysterious to those not familiar with its history and significance in Japanese culture. But to some, the sport is intriguing.
Sumo has crossed the oceans, with much of the interest in it coming from the United Kingdom and mainland Europe.
With the only professional circuit existing in Japan, it is practiced in many other countries around the globe as an amateur sport. There are tournaments and championships. And interestingly, there is a movement to get sumo into the Olympic Games.
There are nearly 30 national sumo associations in Europe with the head of each country's organization known as the president. Worldwide there are 84 countries registered to the International Sumo Federation.
Steve Pateman, the current president of the UK Sumo Association (British Sumo), informed me of these facts during a recent interview for SportsLook. He also spoke with passion about the sport that captured his heart in the late 1980s.
"I began with karate and judo and I used to go to a wrestling club called the Valhalla in southeast London," Steve began as I asked about his sumo background.
"Then I heard there was a place doing sumo in London. I went down, spoke with them, and at that time a young lad from the gym went over to Japan to train in professional sumo. That was back in 1989. I decided to give it a shot ― I trained hard and in 1992 won a big competition and I got to go to Japan to compete in the World Amateur Championships."
A Background in Boxing and Judo
I was impressed with the early success Steve had in the sport. Was it easy? Did it come naturally? I needed to know more.
"I was a black belt in judo," he informed me before adding, "I was a silver medalist in the English Wrestling Championships and I had quite an extensive amateur boxing career."
He continued by saying: "I was a good fighter, with a good fighting brain. For someone with a fighting brain, sumo is not a difficult sport. If you have that, a sense of balance and lots of determination, you can do well."
With Pateman's abilities seemingly suited to sumo, we discussed the early coaching he received.
"I did 10 days training under a Japanese coach ― a man called Kiseki. He was a top Japanese coach at the time. It was the hardest training I have ever done in my life. I was also instructed by Mr Syd Hoare. He was the first fighter to be invited to go to train in Japan from Europe," Pateman recalled.
"I did adapt to sumo quite quickly and was trained by some top coaches. Subsequently, I now pass on their knowledge to my students."
TV Influenced Sumo Development
Around this time, one of the terrestrial broadcasters in the UK, Channel 4, began showing sumo wrestling on a weekly basis. For Steve, this had an important influence on his sumo development.
"The sumo wrestling was one of the most popular shows on Channel 4," Pateman pointed out. "I think it was broadcast every Friday night around six o'clock. It was great being able to watch the likes of Chiyonofuji ― The Wolf ― wrestle. I think he is probably the greatest yokozuna of all time. He had a superb throwing technique and was just such a presence on the dohyo. Most of his opponents were beaten before the start. That helped me appreciate the psychological side of the sport."
While sumo is no longer shown on television in the UK, it is available via the internet. The six annual bashos can be watched live ― something which keeps sumo fans on these shores engaged with the sport.
"All the bashos can be watched live in the UK on numerous YouTube channels," Steve told SportsLook.
"Aficionados of sumo really look forward to watching the bashos. A lot of people from the UK follow them religiously and they have a good, in-depth knowledge of the stars of the current era.
"My knowledge of the professional circuit is more focused on the yokozunas of the past. Now my main interests lie with the Amateur World Championships and the movement to get sumo into the Olympic Games."
Amateur Sumo's Goals in the UK
That moved the conversation on nicely to current participation and longer-term aims of the sport in its amateur form in the UK.
"People come from all over the country to the UK Sumo headquarters in Derby, England," Pateman noted.
"There are probably about 100 people training seriously at sumo in the UK currently. When we do demonstrations, for example we do the Comic Con in London and Birmingham, we get hundreds of people coming to have a go. They line up to have a go against our champions."
This offered a glimpse into Pateman's workload with the association. "As well as being the president of the UK Association, I am also the head coach. I do many things ― I hold three or four competitions a year here in Derby. We're sending a team off to the World Amateur Championships in Tokyo in October. Also, we're going to the European Championships at the end of April in Poland. Next year we have trips planned to Estonia and Germany."
Europeans at the Pro Level in Japan
Could this lead to some elite European amateurs being good enough to make it to the professional level in Japan?
"Some amateurs from Europe have gone on to the pro circuit in Japan previously," Pateman advised. "The UK had the first European to compete in Japan ― Nathan Strange, who is from Kent, England.
"We have three or four youngsters training at the moment who hope to become sumo wrestlers in Japan," Steve said with some pride.
"It will take years, though. For example our British champion ― his son is 8 years of age. He's enjoying sumo at the moment. When he's 18, he's hoping to go to Japan to be a professional wrestler. That's how it works.
"So yes, we do have designs on sending a wrestler to train and compete in professional sumo wrestling."
Pateman's Favorite Sumo Memory
It was almost time to wrap things up. Steve was awaiting two students arriving for a training session. I asked him for his favorite memory from his days on the dohyo and what he tells anyone interested in getting involved in sumo wrestling.
"Going back to my wrestling days, I beat the world amateur champion who was over 300 kg. That's much bigger than any professional wrestler in the history of sumo. I weighed 115 kg, but I overcame him with fighting spirit, good technique and a will to win basically," Steve said, laughing.
"For anyone coming into the sport today I tell them there's a lot of psychology involved. You can't have any negative thoughts at all. I liken it a bit to lifting a really, really heavy weight. If you've got any doubts about lifting that weight, you're never going to lift it. And if you've got any doubts about beating your opponent, you'll never beat that opponent."
Ending our conversation on this note left me pondering. Although it seems like the odds would be against it, there is a chance that with people like Steve Pateman involved, the coming decades may see several sumo wrestlers from these shores performing at the six annual bashos.
With the positive mindset outlined above being used to grow the sport at the amateur level, we may be enjoying sumo wrestling as part of the Olympic Games long before that.
The British Sumo website can be found at sumo.org.uk.
Author: Colin Morrison
Morrison is a freelance sportswriter. Writing since 2016, his byline appears on boxing website NYFights.com and multi-sports platform Spitballingpod.com. His main areas of interest are boxing, soccer, golf and rugby union. Find his stories on SportsLook. Morrison is from Scotland and can be found on Twitter @Morrie1981.