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Sumo in Vegas: Aincent Japan meets all-night buffet

LAS VEGAS -- Aminishiki wraps his 300 pounds of flesh in a
black, silk kimono adorned with the characters of his sumo name. He
wraps his hair in a dramatic forward fold, a style believed to
provide protection should he fall in battle.
He then sets out to partake in another revered custom -- the Las
Vegas buffet.
Aminishiki is one of 38 rikishi -- or sumo wrestlers -- paying
homage to the rituals of Las Vegas this week. A cumulative 5 tons
of athletes, followed by 140 handlers and scores of Japanese media
have arrived for the Grand Sumo Championship.
The exhibition, which runs Friday through Sunday, is a sumo
showcase that has landed in the most unlikely of places.
Sumo is a 1,500-year-old sport steeped in spiritual origins. Las
Vegas is a city where ladies' night qualifies as tradition.
A parade of wrestlers dressed in a style common in Japan's 17th
century Edo period took in Cirque du Soleil's 'Zumanity,' a stage
production of people wearing almost nothing. Tourists gawked as the
athletes drank, smoked, played slots and held court at the Baccarat
tables.
The buffet at Mandalay Bay, the hotel-casino hosting the event,
added 2,500 pieces of sushi, pickled daikon and miso soup to its
spread, just feet away from a steaming heap of mashed potatoes.
Since Grand Sumo last appeared in the U.S. in 1985, the sport
has gone global, building a fan base throughout Europe and Asia.
Many of today's top wrestlers come from outside Japan. The
champion, or yokozuna, is Asashoryu of Mongolia.
Except in Hawaii, sumo is largely misunderstood and mocked in the
United States, said Dan Yoshida, the Las Vegas event's promoter. He
wants to present a new side of sumo.
"This is the entertainment capital of the world," he said.
"This is where it happens."
Yoshida is not afraid to depart from tradition to play to a
Vegas crowd, some of whom have paid nearly $350 for a ticket. The
tournament is an exhibition, with no titles on the line.
Yoshida told the wrestlers to put on a show.
"I told them, 'I want you to entertain the people.' I want
speed," he said. "In Japan, they would keep everything inside. I
told them, 'If you lose, I want to see it on your face."'
This is not what the rikishi have been taught in the sumo
stables where most have lived and trained since they were children.
The sport demands strong, tightly controlled movements. It's
considered undignified to gloat or celebrate victory.
A match is won by forcing an opponent out of a circle 15 feet in
diameter. Wrestlers use a series of techniques to push each other
out of the ring, including the full-frontal smash, a leg grab and
flip, and clasping an opponent's head and twisting him down.
Wrestlers who pull hair, claw, hit, choke or kick are
disqualified. Speed, strength and flexibility are crucial -- and so
is bulk.
Over a lunch of turkey, ham, onion rings, a pile of Japanese
rice, three rolls of sushi, a bowl of miso soup and a Coke,
Japanese wrestler Aminishiki said he struggled to put on weight
when he first started in the sport nine years ago.
"I'm naturally thin," said the 6-foot, 300-pounder said
through a translator. "My coach was watching me like a hawk to
make sure I ate enough. I was dying while I was eating. I felt like
I was going to barf."
Aminishiki says he'd still like to gain a few more pounds, but
has trouble keeping weight on.
"It take a lot of discipline," said retired Hawaiian-born sumo
star Konishiki, who in his wrestling days weighed 590 pounds. "Of
the 800 or so wrestlers out there, less than 70 can make it, less
than 70 are getting paid."
The yokozuna earns a base salary of about $315,000 a year, and
is awarded significant bonuses for winning tournaments. Lower ranks
earn $210,000 and less, according to Sumo Fan Magazine, which
tracks the sport closely.
Plenty of that money will be left in Las Vegas this weekend.
Yoshida said he warned the wrestlers about staying up late
gambling, but he knew his warnings would be ignored.
"These are competitive guys, they are athletes, I knew they'd
want to gamble," he said. "Many of them have never been to the
United States, they've been saving up for this."
Las Vegas sport books won't be setting odds on the Grand Sumo
matches, Mandalay Bay's chief operating officer Bill Hornbuckle
said. Officials from the Japan Sumo Association say gambling isn't
part of the sumo tradition.
When asked how he was faring at the tables, grand champion
Asashoryu said he's had better luck.
"I'm losing in gambling, but I want to win in sumo," he said.
"That's fine," Hornbuckle said.