Accordingly, sumo clubs have started to pop up all across the country: in Dallas, Salt Lake City, Colorado Springs, Atlanta, and New York. Its arrival in the Big Apple, at least in a club setting, can be credited to 23-year-old Oscar Dolan. In 2021, Dolan, an Asian and Asian-American Studies major at Binghamton University in New York, was tasked during a sophomore-year Japanese course with an assignment focusing on a famous cultural figure in Japan. After some deliberation, Dolan—who, at 172 pounds, competes as a lightweight—settled on Enho, a Japanese sumo wrestler known to succeed in spite of his diminutive stature.
“I started looking into it myself, [and] dispelling some of the myths that they’re all just big fat guys,” Dolan told me. “I was really intrigued to see that lighter people can be successful at it. It motivated me to want to do it myself.”
Dolan began regularly watching sumo tournaments in Japan, and, after unsuccessfully searching for a club in New York City, decided to create his own. And so, last March, after submitting an application to the United States Sumo Federation, Dolan posted advertisements for the New York Sumo Club on Instagram, Reddit, and Facebook. Eventually, as members slowly started to trickle in, Dolan started hosting practices on a homemade dohyo in Prospect Park.
“It took a little while to get acclimated to the high strangeness of having people see you do sumo in a pretty public place,” he said. “But once I did it for a few sessions, and became passionate about it, I didn’t give it a second thought.”
Among the first to join was Grammer. Sumo was not Grammer’s first foray into combat sports; as a child, he gave wrestling a shot, transitioned to powerlifting in high school, and even dabbled in MMA post-college. But during the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, when Grammer was working night shifts at a homeless shelter, he came across a sumo tournament being live-streamed on YouTube.
“I was surprised by how athletic and insanely strong they are,” he said. “And then after a while, I just started thinking I could do it myself. I always had athletic aims. I just felt like I never found my sport.”
Mike Saudino, the club’s technique coach, was one of its first regular members. A personal trainer with decades of experience in the martial arts, he found sumo via a rather circuitous route: Saudino had recruited a group of strangers via the Nextdoor app to participate in a free personal training session, where he was testing out a high-intensity boxing exercise he was developing. However, Saudino found that the techniques he was teaching—namely striking the punch shield with one’s forearm rather than punching it—were in fact similar to the practice of sumo. From there, he hopped onto Facebook, posted in a global sumo group asking if anyone in New York City wanted to practice, and received a message from Grammer inviting him to come to the park.
The club for that first summer mainly consisted of Grammer, Dolan, and Saudino, who honed their craft nearly every Saturday, regularly going for more than five hours a session. Nothing—not the sweltering heat, nor the frustration of being a beginner in a complicated sport, nor even being regularly gawked at, asked for photos, having passersby ask to participate, and even having their matches gambled on by spectators—could stop them.