Sumo wrestling is making quite a name for itself in Southern California.
Practices are popping up weekly in Los Angeles, mostly at a small studio in the San Fernando Valley. And in September, LA will host sumo wrestlers from around the world for the U.S. Sumo Open.
One of the sport’s biggest names won’t have to travel too far to compete.
It’s hard to miss the half-naked 370 pound man grunting and grabbing at his opponent inside the Couprie Martial Arts Center in Van Nuys.
His name is Byamba Ulambayar. You might not have heard of him, but you may have seen him. His face has been splashed across hundreds of print and TV ads in the US and in Canada.
And in Japan, 27-year-old Ulambayar is a celebrated athlete. He’s been crowned the world champion of that country’s national sport — sumo — three times.
Sometimes, people recognize him when he’s in Little Tokyo, or they’ll see his wide frame and ask if he’s a football player. Other times, they just want to know what he eats.
“Dog …cat...what else," he said. "Just kidding!"
Don’t worry — Ulambayar is not going to eat your pets. He said he usually eats veggies and rice or cooks his
own Mongolian meals.
“A big misconception that Americans have is that we just eat and eat and get big like this. It’s not that at all," he said. "Sumo wrestlers in Japan, including me, really train hard to build up our strength and physique like this."
In Japan, Ulambayar said his team of 30 rikishis trained for six hours a day to be the best.
Ulambayar grew up in Mongolia. Japanese sumo scouts scooped him up when he was 15 to begin training to be a professional.
Five years ago, he left Japan for the bright lights of Hollywood.
“Originally I had no plan or dream to come to America, but because I was brought here to be in a movie, I had a little experience here and then I started appearing in commercials here and found a new way for myself," he said.
Ulambayar said in Japan or Mongolia, he’d be only a sumo athlete. Here, he can train and compete in sumo — as well as work in entertainment.
Remember the scene in "Ocean's 13" at a sumo tournament? Ulambayar was one of the rikishis.
Andrew Freund got him that job. He used to be an English teacher in Japan and now teaches at Santa Monica College and UCLA. About 15 years ago, he founded the California Sumo Association.
“I’m about 6-foot, 155 pounds. When people find out I do sumo they’re pretty surprised," Freund said. "They say, 'oh no, you’re just kidding' and I say, 'no, really!'”
Freund is fluent in Japanese so he often translates for Ulambayar and other sumo wrestlers that come to LA for matches or acting jobs.
Freund said the two often wrestle at weekly practices — despite their nearly 200 pound weight difference.
“Sumo involves two opponents going at each other without any kind of weapons and wearing nothing but the mawashi — the sumo belt — and you either want to force your opponent out of the ring or to the ground," he said.
Freund enters the dohyo — or sumo ring. This one isn’t made out of hard-packed clay like in Japan. It’s a thick canvas sheet packed with foam pieces secured to a mat. Ulambayar enters the ring and squats low. He lifts one leg at a time and then slaps his thighs. Once both of their fists touch the mat, they go. It doesn’t take long before the match ends…in laughter.
Byamba Ulambayar can put on a mean stare in his matches or in his acting gigs, but away from that, he’s all smiles.
He doesn’t have anyone at his level to compete against in LA. So now, he’s more of a teacher.
One day, 17-year old Jacob Ruark of Hawthorne came to sumo practice to give it a try.
“Ahhhhh, it's exhausting," he said, "But fun!"
Byamba Ulambayar said he hopes to continue sumo wrestling casually while he amps up his acting credits, spends time studying English and playing basketball with friends.
Any leftover time goes to his longtime girlfriend, Dawa. They live together in Koreatown.
“We met about five years ago in Washington D.C. At that time she was studying in Moscow in Russia, studying for her bachelor’s degree," he said. "And you know, it’s love. Yeah, my love.”
Although she's never tried sumo wrestling, Ulambayar said his girlfriend has been able to rope him into trying another activity he might be good at — yoga.