The U.S. Sumo Open is the premier sumo event of North America. Started in the year 2001, it has now grown to a spectacle that gathers 4,300 sumo fans in attendance. While most of the competitors are indeed American, recent years have also seen an vast increase in the number of international rikishi (sumo wrestlers). Today, only the best of the best can be seen on the winner’s podium. Its growing popularity has allowed the U.S. Sumo Open to develop a deep history – one that is unknown by many and sometimes difficult to track. For these reasons, it is necessary to follow the transitions and changes in the U.S. Sumo Open to understand the past, present, and future of North American sumo.
Perhaps the easiest way to understand the history of the U.S. Sumo Open (and know who’s who in North American Sumo) is to track the medalists of the U.S. Sumo Open (e.g. who finished first, second, and third each year).
To achieve this goal, I present eight charts that detail the medalists of the U.S. Sumo Open, each representing a different division. The charts are divided among weight-class (heavyweight, middleweight, lightweight, & openweight) as well as sex (male & female). For each chart, the x-axis represents the year, starting with the year 2001 and ending with the year 2018. The y-axis represents the medal placement; the top indicates the gold medal winner, the middle indicates the silver medal winner, and the bottom represents the bronze medal winner.
Also, in the charts below, the same competitor’s placements are linked together with a line. If a rikishi finished first in 2015 and third in 2016, for example, there would be a line connecting these two placements. If a line drops down off the chart, that indicates that the competitor did not receive a medal in those years, but the competitor eventually returned to finish in the top three of a future year. If a competitor’s line suddenly stops, then they never finished in the top three again. Likewise, the sudden appearance of a line indicates the year that the rikishi first finished with a medal, and a single marker without a line indicates that the competitor won a medal for that year but never before or after. It all may sound confusing, but it makes more sense once you look at the charts!
Click on the headers to open a full-resolution image of these charts. These charts are almost impossible to read without the full-resolution images!
Lastly, I make some brief notes about each chart below. Although there is no such thing as a “Yokozuna of America”, I informally use the term to identify those that have won the U.S. Sumo Open for a particular weight-class in two consecutive years. While it is unofficial, I think it is a good distinction to identify those that may be substantially better than others in that weight-class. If you have any comments, concerns, corrections or anything else you’d like to note about this post, please email me at NorthAmericanSumo@Gmail.com.
The face of sumo is always the heavyweights, which is why I begin with the heavyweight weight-class.
In the first four years of the U.S. Sumo Open, no one was truly dominant in the men’s heavyweight division. Kelly Gneiting, Peter Stoyanov, and Barnabas Toth showed good skill, but none of them finished multiple years in first place. This started to change when Koichi Kato came to America. He won the heavyweight and openweight (as seen below) divisions two years in a row (2005 & 2006), becoming the first heavyweight and openweight yokozuna of America. Then, the trend of dominance in heavyweight completely changed with the arrival of Byambajav Ulambayar, who has now won the U.S. Sumo Open heavyweight division in 10 of the past 12 years. As mentioned in a previous post, I don’t think anyone will ever match his dominance in American sumo, and he should be considered a heavyweight and openweight yokozuna of America by any possible metric.
Despite Byamba’s dominance, some heavyweights have also made a name for themselves. Kelly Gneiting and Peter Stoyanov continued to place well in following years. Bayanbat Davaadalai and Siosifa I’sama’u have also done very well, finishing in second and/or third multiple times. In recent years, however, Ramy Elgazar and Roy Sims have made the biggest splashes in the heavyweight scene. Ramy drew headlines by being the first to finish ahead of Byamba in eight years, winning the U.S. Sumo Open in 2015. Likewise, Roy Sims has steadily made his own run at being a yokozuna of America, by finishing third in 2014, third in 2015, second in 2016, and finally winning in 2018. The most exciting match of the 2019 U.S. Sumo Open will certainly be Roy’s showdown with Byamba to become the third heavyweight yokozuna of America.
The men’s middleweight division also started with some uncertainty, but quickly developed order with Kena Heffernan and Troy Collins sharing first, second, and third place finishes. In this time, Kena became the first middleweight yokozuna of America. After Kena and Troy stopped competing as regularly, Erdenebileg Alagdaa became the second middleweight yokozuna of America, winning the U.S. Sumo Open three years in a row (2008, 2009, and 2010). This was followed by a repeat performance of Kena, two wins by Remy Belal, and a repeat performance of Erdenebileg. In recent years, Altankhuyag Altangerel became the third middleweight yokozuna of America, and Konstantin Abdula-Zade has started to show some real fight, finishing in second and first.
The men’s lightweight division produced the first ever yokozuna of America of any weight-class, which was Joe Davis winning in 2003 and 2004. The second lightweight yokozuna of America was Munkhjargal Ulzibayar, winning in 2007 and 2008. Afterwards, Boldsukh Adyakhuu showed real superiority, finishing second in 2010, first in 2011, and first in 2013. It was Nyambayar Lkhanaa, however, that became the third lightweight yokozuna of America, winning in 2014 and 2015. Most recently, Batyr Altyev has been the most dominant lightweight, winning in 2016 and 2018.
Another rikishi should be highlighted due to his large gaps in medal placements. Trent Sabo finished third in the second ever U.S. Sumo Open in 2002. He then finished first in 2005, third in 2011, and first in 2017. This is a 15 year span between his first medal and his most recent medal. It is extremely impressive to remain a top-tier competitor for so long, and it is similar to the career histories of Kelly Gneiting (heavyweight) and Kena Heffernan (middleweight).
The last men’s division is the openweight weight-class. It is often believed that the openweight division requires more luck to win than the other divisions, but, if true, some people seem to be “luckier” than others.
As mentioned above, Koichi Kato and Byambajav Ulambayar both became openweight yokozunas of America, and they are still the only openweight yokozunas of America. At the same time, other rikishi have also shown their own skillfulness in the openweight division. Early on, Troy Collins seemed to be a shoe-in to finish second and third in the openweight. Likewise, Kena Heffernan and Kelly Gneiting have repeatedly finished second and third throughout the years, and the efforts of Petar Stoyanov and Erdenbileg Alagdaa should not be overlooked. More recently, the openweight division has been a little more up to grabs, with less commanding performances appearing throughout the years. Both Roy Sims and Konstantin Abdula-Zade have grabbed first and second place finishes in the past four years, and we’ll see if either of them can become the third openweight yokozunas of America.
The women’s divisions have clearly been a lesser focus of the U.S. Sumo Open until very recently, but I foresee women’s sumo becoming a much bigger deal in the very near future. No one placed multiple times in the heavyweight division until 2016, when Natalie Burns finished first in 2014 and 2016. Last year, the skillful Danna Engelberg finished first, so perhaps she can be the first female heavyweight yokozuna of America.
Like the women’s heavyweight, little consistency could be seen in the women’s middleweight until very recently. Natasha Ikejiri became the first middleweight women to win twice (2012 & 2015), and Tiffany Tran finished second three times in a row (2012, 2013, & 2014). We’ll see if the women’s middleweight division can keep going strong.
The first repeat woman in the women’s lightweight division was Michelle Pike, finishing second twice and first once. Jenelle Hamilton became the first, and still only, female yokozuna of America, finishing first in 2014 and 2015. More recently, no one has emerged as a clearly superior competitor, and no one has finished in the top three more than once of the past three years.
Lastly, the women’s openweight division has been the true proving ground of female rikishi in the U.S. Sumo Open. Mahshid Tarazi showed early competitiveness, finishing third in 2001, second in 2003, and finally first in 2005. Natalie Burns accomplished the same feat, finishing first in 2008, third in 2010, and second in 2014. Natasha Ikejiri has likewise medaled three times in the openweight division: second in 2010, first in 2012, and second in 2012.
More recently, the women’s openweight has begun to open up, with only two women medaling more than once in the past five years (Jenelle Hamilton & Undrakhzaya Nyamsuren). This is probably a good thing, however. I believe that the women’s divisions have clearly become more competitive in recent years, which may explain why such few women have repeatedly placed in the top three. We will probably have someone emerge as a dominant female rikishi sooner rather than later, largely due to the growing popularity of women’s sumo, and she will become dominant due to her own abilities rather than the lack of competition.
Many inferences can be taken from these eight charts, but I will highlight three to conclude:
1.) Byambajav Ulambayar is clearly the most dominant rikishi in North America, as he dominated the most competitive divisions (men’s heavyweight & men’s openweight).
2.) Other names should also be recognized, however, as others have shown their own forms of dominance – whether winning multiple U.S. Sumo Opens or also finishing second or third many times. These names include: Kelly Gneiting, Peter Stoyanov, Barnabas Toth, Koichi Kato, Bayanbat Davaadalai, Siosifa I’sama’u, Ramy Elgazar, Roy Sims (men’s heavyweight), Kena Heffernan, Troy Collins, Erdenebileg Alagdaa, Remy Belal, Altankhuyag Altangerel, Konstantin Abdula-Zade (men’s middleweight), Joe Davis, Munkhjargal Ulzibayar, Boldsukh Adyakhuu, Nyambayar Lkhanaa, Batyr Altyev, Trent Sabo (men’s lightweight), Natalie Burns, Danna Engelberg, Mahshid Tarazi (women’s heavyweight), Natasha Ikejiri, Tiffany Tran (women’s middleweight), Michelle Pike, Jenelle Hamilton, and Undrakhzaya Nyamsuren (women’s lightweight).
3.) While the women’s divisions were neglected for many years, the U.S. Sumo Open is starting to garner real competition for all women’s weight-classes. I hope that it will be sooner rather than later that we’ll see just as many women competing as men.