Sumo Mixed Martial Arts

Sumo for Mixed Martial Arts (my copy oddly omits the “for” on the cover…) presents an approach to sumo as a potential base grappling art for practitioners of mixed martial arts. It is a bare-bones look at sumo and some of its techniques in the mixed martial arts context, that could bear fruit for practitioners of other grappling styles as well.

The book is an expansion of an earlier article by author Andrew Zerling that appeared in Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Volume 21, #1, that has luckily been reproduced here at Stephan Kesting’s Grapplearts.   That article has been in my stack for some time.

Confession time: I have a soft spot for sumo – no pun intended. As classical martial arts writer Dave Lowry, quoted by Zerling, once wrote : “Sumo is the primogenitor of all martial arts and ways that came later in Japan.”( p. 151 ) That there is a link between sumo, and it’s ancient form sumai, and jujutsu is generally accepted and makes common sense: Japanese warriors were raised with their own cultural form of wrestling and its conditioning exercises, then relied on the physical and mental attributes said wrestling developed when in close combat, even armored and with weapons. Eventually jujutsu methods developed for fighting with different weapons, in different circumstances, fighting for survival on the ground, arresting and restraining enemies and criminals, and the like – all practiced in more formal ways due to their inherent danger – but all of it overlaid upon a foundation developed through an extremely demanding wrestling practice.

Sumo for Mixed Martial Arts doesn’t go into all that, but does give a brief overview of sumo history.  The history section will not satisfy purists in the classical martial traditions – it is spare and largely drawn from popular, not scholarly, sources. However, the aim of the book is specifically related to how elements of sumo can augment a mixed martial arts practitioner’s fight game.

Sumo’s rules are brief – only the following are prohibited:

  • striking the opponent with a closed fist
  • bending back one or more of the opponent’s fingers
  • grabbing the opponent’s hair
  • grabbing the opponent’s throat
  • jabbing at the opponent’s eyes or solar plexus
  • palm striking both of the opponent’s ears at the same time
  • grabbing or pulling at the opponent’s groin area
  • kicking the opponent’s chest or waist

Nearly everything else is permitted, including striking the throat. However, no part of the wrestler’s body other than the soles of the feet can touch the ground before the opponent’s, or can step out of the ring in any way.

This creates a very dynamic, explosive style that has evolved distinctive strategies: One, favored by strong, heavy wrestlers, is repeated striking and pushing of the opponent to knock him down or out of the ring, the strongly favored and most visible approach to sumo; And two, to use angle shifts and entries to get hold of the opponent – clinching or grabbing the mawashi or “belt,” and then performing a more technical throw or takedown, which is the preferred strategy of smaller, more agile, more technically savvy sumo grapplers. The former are more successful, but the latter have been effective enough to last, some for many years, in a sport with no weight classes. There have been “small” sumo wrestlers at 220 or 250 beating men who literally weigh twice their own weight!

Zerling offers several case studies which highlight some of these men, as well as the huge guys who overwhelm and overpower others by knocking them back, knocking them down, or knocking them out with strikes and thrusts and pushes.

Zerling covers these, and points out the advantages sumo would offer to a practitioner of mixed martial arts. He is, however, balanced in noting the disadvantages or differences that the markedly different rulesets present. He is not advocating sumo wrestlers enter MMA (that has already occurred and has not been successful), but rather that people with a sumo background integrated with other training could find much benefit. Lyoto Machida, a very successful Japanese-Brazilian MMA fighter with extensive karate and sumo experience, as well as a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-jitsu and training in Muay Thai, is a case study emphasizing this point.

Then he goes to techniques. Unlike pure sumo, Zerling shows MMA style ground controls finishing the throws and takedowns, with the practitioner taking some kind of top control or turtle-position attacking posture. Note these are not of the pulling guard or entangled armbar or choke variety, but top control positions which could be used in self defense to disengage, or in self defense and MMA to begin striking the opponent on the ground, or in MMA and submission grappling to establish a submission move. Though for the sumo purist this may be off putting, it does blend approaches well and establishes that sumo has a place in the pantheon of grappling arts that MMA draws upon, not to mention self defense.

Not unusual, perhaps: many of the throws shown look like “no-gi” judo (an art which drew on sumo and classical jujutsu), and Zerling notes that Maeda Mitsuyo was a practitioner of sumo himself, learned from his father (I am curious as to the source on this, but would not be surprised).

 I have advocated a serious look at sumo in terms of tactical and self defense applications for some time, and there are a number of throws  here that are regular part of the repertoire in the dojo where I train. Zerling’s book adds to the arguments in favor of that.

More to this point, a while back I wrote a review of Thomas Zabel’s Sumo Skills at Amazon – it was short so I’ll re-post it here:

“Sumo Skills fills a void in the English language world as the first book of which I am aware that is instructional as opposed to simply descriptive. It starts from the ground up with the background of sumo (I would have liked to have seen more of this, actually…), the basis, and then immediately onto the basics. Some interesting details are provided as well as a wide variety of techniques that many are probably not even aware exist in sumo.

As a practitioner of martial grappling arts, one of my main interests was for the details of sumo techniques. My own teacher has a deep background in Chinese arts, which in turn were based in Chinese wrestling – in an early term called xiang pu, which is written with the same kanji as sumo. I was pleasantly surprised to find a number of throws that he teaches to his MMA and Jiujitsu students contained in this book! In particular are several techniques not in the repertoire of BJJ or arts like Judo or Western wrestling.

I for one actually often prefer drawings over photographs in technical manuals as I feel they give a better sense of what each performer is doing. The descriptions are also concise and clear – not too dense as some instructional manuals are wont to be.

In short, if you are interested in sumo either as a fan or as a practitioner this is a must-have book. It will shed light on what is happening and teach you how to do it yourself!”


Zabel’s book makes an excellent companion piece to Zerling’s work. Zerling’s photo progressions are easily followed, which will shed light on Zabel’s line drawings. Zabel’s book addresses more classical sumo and competition, with foundational exercises and competition aspects, and in turn shed light on areas that Zerling mentions but does not go into depth with. Zabel also addresses some of the fundamental physical exercises of sumo, a number of which my dojo actually uses as warm ups, and when considering that sumo practitioners do these exercises in the hundreds of repetitions makes one realize whence their explosiveness and “base” derive.

Lastly, I would encourage practitioners of classical jujutsu, and the art of aikido, whose founder and founder’s teacher were sumo men,  to take a look here. Again, much in the koryu jujutsu and its descendant traditions comes from sumo, and there are various throws here that would be familiar. Moreover, they are presented in t-shirts and shorts, and with those positions of control more akin to  MMA or BJJ. This could expand an understanding of the grappling methodologies the classical practitioner studies as well, linking it with an evolutionary continuum that Japanese grappling has brought to the world through these various cognate arts.


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