Salt and Sensibility: Breaking Down Technique and Heart in the Greatest Small Man Sumo Match of All Time

Salt and Sensibility: Breaking Down Technique and Heart in the Greatest Small Man Sumo Match of All Time

Two immense masses of muscle and bone crash together like two continents colliding. Hands flash out, slapping at faces and grabbing at heavy canvas belts as the two titans pull and push with all their might. The spectacle of sumo typically consists of men of great girth and strength engaging in a contest of will and power in the center of a clay ring, but for many fans the spectacle of small men fighting against all odds brings out the loudest cheers and the highest degrees of loyalty. As great as a David vs Goliath tilt can be, when the true nerds of sumo gather to speak in hushed tones they speak of the pure joy of a battle between equally matched technicians, the greatest of which happened at the Aki basho in September 1991 between Mainoumi, the storied Giant Killer, and Terao, sumo’s resident Iron Man.

Mainoumi: The Department Store of Technique

Mainoumi was an amateur champion at Nihon University who competed in sumo while studying to be a teacher. After winning an amateur championship, he figured his days in sumo were done, but when a close friend who wanted to go pro passed away before realizing his ambition, the young man stepped up to the plate. One problem: he was too short. One painful silicone injection into his scalp to gain the required inches and he was cleared, but the Japan Sumo Association soon changed their rules so no amateur champion would ever have to do it again.

Competing at a paltry 5’7” and 216 pounds, the small man knew he had to shake things up if he was to have any success. He decided on two strategies: belt throws and the wackiest tachiai this side of Roppongi.

Here we see Mainoumi literally jumping past Kitakachidoki with a hassu tobi, almost turning him inside out before he throws him with a simple twist of his waist. Simply sublime.

Here vs Mitoizumi we see one trick and one standard part of his game. Typically he was fighting against men much larger than himself. As any good wrestler will tell you, the best way to get a man down is to get to his hips. How best to do this? Mainoumi generally started his matches by standing almost straight up, encouraging his opponents to do the same to reach his collar bones or face with their hands. As soon as they would reach, he would duck under and onto the belt or legs and start his attack. Here we see him pair this with the ol nekodamashi, the cat clap that Hakuho made famous a few years ago, befuddling his man before dumping him flat on his ass.

Against future yokozuna Akebono (the first foreign born yokozuna in history), Mainoumi hits what became his most famous attack, a mitokorozeme triple attack consisting of an inside trip, a leg grab and driving forward into the big man’s chest. This attack, the rarest win condition in sumo history, wouldn’t be seen again until Ishiura hit it in November 2019 against Nishikigi.

Fighting against a determined slapper like Kyokudozan, Mainoumi hops backwards at the tachiai to encourage his opponent to rush forward into a throw. 

I love tachiai that isn’t just “charge in” or “sidestep.” Former yokozuna Harumafuji perfected the “henka-no-henka” style, where he would meet the charge low and turn them on a pivot before attacking the belt. The issue with most modern technicians (notably my two favorite rikishi, Enho and Ishiura) is that they’ve forgotten that doing the unorthodox every chance they get turns the unorthodox back into orthodox. You must shock your opponent with the looks you give them and attack while they reform and reconsider. Mainoumi was a master of this, reaching the rank of Komusubi before being forced to retire in November of 1999.

The Eternal Typhoon

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Terao, a smaller man (not so small, 6’1” and almost 260) with a long sumo pedigree and some of the best coaching in the sport. His father was a sekiwake (the third highest rank in sumo) in his time, and his two brothers were both sekitori, with older brother Sakohoko preceding him to the sekiwake rank after entering the sumo world as teenagers. These two were the first brothers to win special prizes together as well as the first to serve as sekiwake at the same time. He was one of the longest serving rikishi ever, debuting in 1979 and not retiring until 2002 at the age of 39. This and his whirlwind fighting style led to his very on the nose nickname, the Eternal Typhoon.

While a striking specialist, with his lightning fast tachiai and his powerful tsuppari strikes working to keep his much larger opponents off of his belt, he was also surprisingly good on the belt as well, typically finishing off his foes with a quick slapdown or a throw after softening them up with strikes.

Here we see him against future yokozuna Takahohana (known at this time as Takanahada). He stands him up and works him off balance with slaps to the face and chest before grabbing the belt and preventing Tak’s preferred right hand inside grip until he could finish him off on the edge of the dohyo. Not just a slapper for sure, any Olympic wrestler will tell you hand fighting is the key to victory.

Here we see him against one of the largest of all time-Konishiki, The Dump Truck. Once again watch as he aggressively attacks right out of his charge to get the big man to push back, then snaps him down with ease. It’s not easy for a smaller wrestler to win head to head against one of the biggest ever, but this was definitely the blueprint.

Probably Terao’s greatest win, against one of the most beloved yokozuna of all time. Chiyonofuji, the Lone Wolf, was one of the hardest men in all of sumo history, especially once he got his right hand inside and on the belt. Once again Terao, the slapper and thruster, gets his opponent off balance before diving on the belt and hand fighting the foe’s preferred grip off of his belt until he can perform a finish. Here he hooks the leg on the outside and rides him down. You can see Fuji’s shock after he loses at how adept Terao was on the belt.

The Main Event

All of this sets the stage for one of the greatest technical matches of all time, between two men who were told they were too small for the big time. Both men came into this match at Maegashira, both on their way to a kachi koshi score (a winning record of at least 8-7), and both were angling for a Special Prize. 

The match starts out hot and heavy, with Mainoumi not jumping straight up as he usually would while still preparing to receive the charge. Terao keeps him back with heavy slaps but takes a step too far and lets himself get off balance. He defends on the belt extremely well, preventing both an shitatenage underarm throw and an ashitori leg grab before falling victim to a kirikaeshi. Both wrestlers got to demonstrate what made them special in this match and put on a hell of a show for the crowd.

Terao had already peaked at this point, but as mentioned above would hang around in the top division for another 11 years, with one last two-tournament stint at komusubi in the summer of 1994 before slowly declining and retiring in September of 2002. Mainoumi was just coming into his own, winning his first prestigious Technique prize in this tournament before winning it another four times. He too would spend a short time at komusubi in September 1995 before breaking his leg when man mountain Konishiki fell on it in July 1996. He never fully regained his speed and without it his antics were easier to spot, and he faded away far too soon in November of 1999. His retirement caused considerable disquiet in the august halls of the Japan Sumo Association as he eschewed the world of coaching for a job as a television personality. You can hear him commenting on sumo matches to this day .

Old Man Yells At Clouds

If you can’t tell, I love technicians, and I especially love small man technicians. Seeing David beat Goliath always brings me out of my seat, but there’s been a problem. A strange flip in skill set and temperament changed the sumo landscape and it isn’t finished yet. When I first started watching in the late 90s, the majority of the smaller guys were slappers and thrusters, dependent on keeping the bigger hosses off of their belts. Even a real technician like Terao started his matches violently and worked as hard as they could to make the match into a brawl and not a contest of strength. Recent admissions into the little guy club of sumo (the aforementioned Enho and Ishiura, Czech rikishi Takanoyama, even chunky Ura) have all started with a decent amount of success, playing their little guy tricks and making short work of some of the giants of the sport. Yet once their one or two tricks are discovered, they have nothing to fall back on. They zombie out, throwing out the same tired tachiai day in and day out, typically having trouble even getting out of their stances. I would encourage them and any other rikishi who wants to open up their attack to study these two legends of the sport, learn what made them tick, and diversify their techniques. Confuse them, THEN throw them.

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1 Comment

  1. The best line: “The wackiest tachiai this side of Roppongi.” Solid gold. This article definitely made me want to learn more about sumo.

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