Fitness, serf-defense, discipline and confidence is the motto for the Cranford Judo Karate Club in New Jersey where Manny Yarborough and Alex Vega work on improving their skills in sumo wrestling--an ancient art of the Japanese.
"It's not just two fat guys bumping bellies," said Yarborough, who is Black, in defense of the venerable sport that he has been mastering over the past seven years.
Although that is exactly what it looks like to the average viewer, sumo is the traditional national sport of Japan. It is a way of life as well as a sport. All involved wear distinctive clothing and are considered role models year-round. The object of the game is to force your opponent out of the ring (dohyo) or to make any part of his body (except the soles of the feet) touch the playing surface (4.55 meters across).
Yarborough, who considers sumo a hobby as well as an occupation, has become a top sumo wrestler since he was introduced to the sport by a fellow football player. He is the first Black man to win numerous championships. In the Judo World Championship competition, Yarborough won second place in 1992, third place in 1993, second place in 1994, and first place in 1995. In the German European Sumo Championship, he won third place in 1995 and in 1997, and second place in 1996. Also in 1996, he placed third in the European Sumo Championship. And in June of this year he won the Dutch open. Not bad for the 6-foot-8, 700-pound club bouncer who was an All-American wrestler in college at Morgan State and comes from a family where large sizes are hereditary. Yarborough's maternal uncles are all over 300 pounds, and his paternal uncles are tall. So he says his size runs in the genes, and he was given a combination of the two-big and tall.
"I still haven't stopped growing," said Yarborough who was 5 feet 11 inches, 263 pounds in the 6th grade; 6 feet 4 inches, 320 pounds in ninth grade, and 6 feet 6 inches, 390 pounds when he graduated from high school. "Now I am growing wider instead of taller."
Vega, a Nicaraguan who's no small guy weighing in at 400 pounds and standing 6 feet 8 inches tall, was hesitant about coming into the sumo circle when Yarborough invited him to the club.
"We started talking [at a club where both are bouncers], and he told me that he was the world champ in 1995," said Vega, who just started sumo two months ago. "And he said, `Why don't you come down to the gym?' At first I was kind of skeptical. I was like, sumo, Naahh. But it's a nice workout. When I came to the club and started working out, I enjoyed the competition. And that's how I just started coming more and more."
Wide and tall are two very good things in the field of sumo, according to Yarborough and Vega's trainer, Yoshisada Yonezuka, U.S. Olympic coach and owner of the Cranford Judo Karate Club. He said, "[Yarborough and Vega] are the best you can find," particularly because of their size.
"They are big, and in sumo, heavyweight is unlimited, no matter how big you are," said Yonezuka. "Actually if you're bigger and you learn to move and master the technique [of the sport], it's better than the small guy learning."
Vega trains five days a week for the sport-three days working on cardiovascular activity (bike riding and running on the treadmill) and two days in the club.
Vega, who has played football (offensive tackle) at Merced Junior College, Gardener Webb College, and Jersey City College, placed fourth in the North American Sumo Championship in June-his first competition.
He says he can see a bright future in sumo. "They're trying to make sumo an Olympic sport, so if it becomes an Olympic sport, I would definitely participate as long as I can," said Vega.
The 25-year-old wrestler has more of a promising career in sumo at this point because of his age than Yarborough, who is 35.
According to Yarborough, the prime age bracket for the sport is 21 to 35. However, he wants to stay in sumo at least until the end of 2000 in order to compete in the world championship in Brazil.
"I would probably be an administrator [in the Olympics]," said Yarborough. "By the time it comes around, it will be a little bit too late for me."
While Yarborough is winding down his career in sumo, Vega will be in his prime. Both Yonezuka and Yarborough agree that Vega has a great chance at becoming a several-time world championship winner and Olympian.
While sumo is neither an "American sport," nor is it very popular among inner-city or Black youths, Vega and Yarborough say it is a sport they think more Blacks and minorities should take into consideration.
"This is still like a grassroots level-type of deal that we have here," said Yarborough. "But I think if more people see the demonstrations and see the beauty and the spirituality of the sport, they would become more interested."
Yarborough, who has traveled to New Zealand, Australia, India, Japan, Germany, Austria, Italy, Holland, England, France, Switzerland and Martinique for sumo competitions and demonstrations, added, "Sumo has given me the opportunity to see and experience a lot of different cultures in this world, and it goes to show if you dedicate yourself to something, you can reach for wants that aren't necessarily monetary. Under normal circumstances I probably would not have been able to do these things that sumo has provided for me."
Vega said even though he is a sumo rookie, he often hears the others talk about "the love of the sport." And he especially enjoys the friendly sportsmanship.
"If you watch a Japanese competition, you'll never be able to tell who wins or loses," said Vega. "Normally when you fight, you don't want to see your opponent, whether you won or you lost; you just want to do your thing and leave. But in [sumo] we're all like friends, it doesn't matter whether you win or lose. We hang out together and we eat together. That's what I really, really enjoy about it."
Yonezuka says that multiculturalism is welcome in the world of sumo. All that matters in the sport are good athletes and good competition.
"Athletes usually don't think about [race]," said Yonezuka, who has trained athletes of many different cultures for Olympic games, world championships and Pan American Games. "When you go to the world championship, the athletes are treated equally. We have people from South America, South Africa, Niger, East Germany, and European countries. The only thing they think about is, who is training and how? And, why are they so successful?"
And if Yonezuka has his way, the competition will be asking those questions about his 15-member team who trains in sumo, karate, and judo. Out of the 15 regular club members, seven are Black and eight are White. And keeping in line with the positive gamesmanship sumo promotes, all are family.
BATES, BRYNA L. "Sumo Wrestlers Cross Racial Lines And Win Big In Competitions." Jet 9 Aug. 1999: 46. General OneFile. Web. 4 Nov. 2009.
United States Judo Association - USJA
(Album / Profile) hhref="http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=10023&id=1661531726&l=792eaa11b1">http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=10023&id=1661531726&l=792eaa11b1