At a cozy table at the Don Shula's Steak House inside the Troy Marriott sits a hulking, impressively muscled man with exceptional table manners. The collar on his oversized hot pink polo shirt is tipped rakishly northward, a la Tom Cruise in Risky Business. His name is Sidney "Dr. Love" Carty a 6-foot-5-inch, 331-pound juggernaut from Amsterdam and if you want to joke about his choice of shirt color go right ahead, it's your funeral. On either side of him are two equally burly gentlemen, Norway's Hans "Psycho Sumo" Borg (6 feet 4 inches and 343 pounds) and the Republic of Georgia's Levan "High Mountain Shock" Ashtunashvilli, who tops out at an imposing 6 feet 1 inch and 350 pounds. This peculiar international summit meeting is made even more unusual because all three of these Euro brutes are, in fact, sumo wrestlers, here to promote an upcoming event dubbed the Battle of the Giants.
The immediate task at hand for these chunky battlers is tackling Shula's famous 48-ounce club steak, an immense cut of juicy, certified Angus beef, just slightly smaller than a football and blood-rare in the center. Anyone who can successfully polish off this formidable slab of moo meat gets his name on the wall, an ever-growing roster that's beginning to rival the Stanley Cup in sheer number of tiny engraved names. Carty is the first of the sumos to join that elite fraternity, demanding his own plaque while gingerly scraping any lingering remnants off the carcass of the huge T-bone. Borg is the next to finish, having performed a similarly thorough surgical strike on the cow flesh, he tilts his empty bone upward on the plate, like a little monument to extreme eating.
Ashtunashvilli is trailing just a bit behind, struggling at the moment with the final few slices of steak that he's doused in a thick coat of pepper, and it's more than a bit funny to see such a massive man gently dab his lips with a napkin, push away from the dinner table and demurely pass on dessert. The other two in no way shy about dessert themselves are not having it. They goad him with peer pressure. Carty chows down on the seven-layer chocolate cake and Borg settles in on a lush crème brûlée roughly the size of a toddler's head.
Such a sublimely ridiculous display can only happen when an ancient Japanese sport steeped in tradition and honor collides head-on with good, old-fashioned American hucksterism. If the artfully staged eating display wasn't enough, the wrestlers made a less-than-dignified appearance later that night at the Palace of Auburn Hills during halftime at the Pistons playoff game. They were decked out in plus-size b-ball jerseys and accompanied by the leggy ladies of the home team's dance squad, Auto Motion. It was such a silly spectacle that even noted NBA goofball Charles Barkley felt the need to mock it during the TNT broadcast.
Though their current round of promotional hoopla may be undignified, these men have a serious passion for the sport, having come to it from different points of entry. Carty, for instance, comes from a judo background, and after finishing his career in that discipline, he saw sumo as a natural extension of the grappling skills he'd developed, as well as a fun new adventure.
He says, "It isn't just big guys rumbling in the ring, it's trained guys, top athletes coming into the ring."
The Detroit event will inaugurate a seven-week nationwide tournament of heavyweights that puts the "round" in round robin, to culminate in a championship match at Madison Square Garden.
The bouts can be quick, lasting between a few seconds and a few minutes. The object of the game is to dislodge your opponent from the small ring, or dohyo, or to nail him to the ground. The attendant pageantry is central to the sport, and the numerous pre-fight rituals remain largely unchanged from the 8th century; from the Japanese taiko drums to the handfuls of rice strewn as spiritual offerings to the belts (mawashi) the wrestlers wear it's all pomp and circumstance.
The flashy nicknames and goofy photo ops are the invention of American promoters Big Boy Productions, though Carty does not believe such antics detract from the competition. He's also unconcerned with how the notoriously nationalistic Japanese react to the globalization of one of their cherished cultural heirlooms. The Japanese style is more traditional, with more slapping, the European is a bit different with more throwing, but the basics are the same. Like any other sport, sumo is evolving.
In fact, more international participation can only help the sport, he says. "Everyone has a different method of training and an idea of how sumo should be; if the Japanese aren't happy about it, what can I do?"
The Battle of the Giants is at 7:30 p.m., Friday, May 26, at the Palace of Auburn Hills, 4 Championship Drive, Auburn Hills; 248-334-3324.Corey Hall is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org