Four time world champion and Sumo showman Byamba has been in the sumo ring longer than most fighters. Following his shocking departure from Japan’s exclusive Pro Sumo leagues at the young age of 20, Byamba was challenged to reinvent his career and seek glory beyond Japan’s shores. Now the former World Champion, the titan of Sumo wrestling shares in an exclusive interview, reflects on the real cost of glory.
At the young age of 15, native Mongolian wrestler Byamba was handpicked for the rigorous life of a professional sumo-in- training in Japan. Born Byambajav “Byamba” Ulambayar, the novice wrestler left his birth country of Mongolia for Japan; a country whose language and culture was altogether foreign. Despite the challenges that confronted him, Byamba quickly ascended up the hierarchy of Japanese sumo wrestling, competing in the Pro Leagues and set to reach revered Yokozuna status. Yet, despite his success in the cloistered world of Japanese Sumo wrestling, Byamba controversially quit the elite Japanese Pro Sumo leagues at the age of 20 due to a fall out with his coach. Since his departure from the Japanese league, the Mongolian wrestler has shaped and adapted his career for the world stage, and is even credited with importing sumo to the US. Now at 33 Byamba the sumo world champion reflects on his journey to glory and what he left along the way.
INTO THE RING
The Bod Edit: What drew you to sumo?
Byamba: At that time, I was about 16, I was living in Mongolia. They held a tryout for young athletes where I lived, so I thought I would go and check it out. Basically, the guy who was holding the tryouts was a Japanese former Grand Champion. He had scouted dozens of young Mongolian top wrestlers and grapplers, and from that tryouts he picked one person, me, to go to Japan and join his team.
I guess it was quite by chance. It was something I had never planned or expected. I had no idea whatsoever about Japanese sumo and had no plans to go there.I went to the tryouts because I thought I might get into Mongolian wrestling.
I flew straight to Japan and spent 4 – 5 years in pro sumo training. The training is intense. Every day, all day; nearly everyday of the entire year. I think it’s my background in Japan, that kind of intensity and discipline that has helped my practice and my career.
I think it’s my background in Japan, that kind of intensity and discipline that has helped my practice and my career.
So do you believe your professional training in Japan has given you that edge internationally?
Firstly I should explain that there is Pro Sumo and International Sumo. Japanese pro sumo is incredibly rigorous and traditional, whereas internationally sumo is practiced as a sport. Japanese Pro sumo is only within Japan and a strict hierarchy of competitors to the top rank of Yokozuna.
I left Japan when I was about 20, and some of my contemporaries, other Mongolian nationals who had joined, they ended up becoming top rank. I can’t say for sure what rank I would have reached in Japan but I think it’s my training that helped me with the world champion titles.
At the time I didn’t think so much about the future I just, made a decision based on the situation then. I didn’t have the experience or think what I was doing.
Was it a hard decision to leave Japan and your pro training there? Especially when you were doing so well?
Yeah definitely a very tough decision. I’d even call it a mistake. At the time I didn’t think so much about the future I just made a decision based on the situation then. I didn’t have the experience, or think what I was doing.
But I had a falling out with my coach, I had injury issues at the time, so I just decided to go. It was a tough decision at the time, but looking back on it, if I hadn’t left, even at this age now I would probably still be in pro sumo.
But Japan is very rigid, if I had stayed there I probably would have had much more of a regimented life, but in a way that’s secure and stable. I wouldn’t have the freedom I do now.
For sumo to develop worldwide, people need to see sumo as a sport.
People have a stereotypical view of it and a misconception that it’s just a couple of big fat guys stumbling through the ring.
With sumo being so traditional, how do you feel it could develop worldwide?
In Japanese pro sumo there are cultural trappings that have been around for centuries and so joining the pros is a full time, year- round job. You’re never going to be able to transfer or convey everything from that lifestyle and culture when you bring it to different countries. Sumo isn’t just a sport, it’s a lifestyle. It’s almost like a historical, cultural transmission of lots of things from ancient Japan that will otherwise become lost.
So for sumo to develop worldwide, people need to see sumo as a sport.
What do you think surprises people the most about sumo?
I think when people see sumo for the first time, they’re really amazed by how interesting it is. They have a stereotypical view of it and a misconception that it’s just a couple of big fat guys stumbling through the ring. But really, most people are really impressed, pleasantly amazed by the level of athleticism and dynamism. I see that everytime because people are cheering, they’re so excited, they want to ask questions. Everyone is so fascinated by so many aspects of it. It’s not something they’re familiar with and they didn’t expect it to be that interesting.
Do Your Sumo
Do your sumo” is about win or lose you’ve got to do what you can do best and execute it as best as you can.
How do you prepare for a match mentally and physically?
Well the most important thing is keiko, sumo practice; practising to the point where the body moves naturally during the match, where I don’t have to think about it. It’s trained to do its job. Mentally it’s more about just getting myself concentrating so I can do my own “sumo”. “Do your sumo” is a phrase that is used alot, its about win or lose you’ve got to do what you can do best and execute it as best as you can.
What’s been the hardest part of your career?
When I reflect back over all these years, probably the hardest thing is being far away from my family. There have been a lot of cool projects, but I was hardly able to see my parents during all of these many years.
I left Mongolia when I was just 16, and I didn’t go back until I was 20, then I went to the states when I was 21. During all that time, probably the last 18 years, I’ve barely seen my parents. My mum was able to get a visa a couple of times, but my father hasn’t been able to. I couldn’t leave training in Japan to go back to Mongolia, and now with travelling so much, I can hardly get back. So that’s been one of the hardest things.
More than winning any of those world championships and more than winning any titles…the thing I’m proudest of is that I’ve reached so many different people with all my work.
What has been the proudest moment of your career?
More than winning any of those world championships and more than winning any titles, when I think back over the last years, the thing I’m proudest of is that I’ve reached so many different people with all my work. I’ve been doing this a long time, longer than anyone else., I’ve actually been travelling the world, doing hundreds of events, being filmed and doing sumo everywhere.
In terms of my international appearances and work, I’ve done more than anyone else. So when I think back, that’s probably what I’m proudest of; all the outreach, all the impact I’ve made for sumo. When I talk about the events and being filmed, I don’t mean as an entertainer, a circus act or a joke. It is as a genuine athlete and sumo trainer. I’m showing people things about culture and educating people through the medium of sumo. In Japan, obviously the top guys are very famous. But they’re not necessarily bringing all of their background and experience to everyone around the world like I’ve been able to by not being in pro Sumo.
Byambajav “Byamba” Ulambayar was handpicked from his native Mongolia at the age of 16 by a Japanese Sumo league coach. Byamba then entered the training stables of the Japanese Pro League. Byamba left Japan and the Japanese Pro League age 20, he then was scouted by USA Sumo to bring sumo to the states, where he swiftly won the Sumo World Championships. Now four time winner he is arguably the most successful international sumo wrestler. Byamba has also appeared in films, appearances and performances worldwide.
Images from The Players Tribune.