Sumo wrestling took center stage on Friday night at Earl Warren Showgrounds. The big boys were accompanied onstage earlier in the evening by jiu-jitsu wrestling, Taiko drummers, and full-submission wrestling displays.
Chris Meagher

Note to self: Never mess with any Japanese-style fighters. After hearing knees pop, seeing tongues sliced in half, watching concrete blocks smashed on the groin of a man lying on a bed of nails, and witnessing 450-pound men pick up other men of similar stature by their belts and toss them out of the ring, I don’t think I’ll need a reminder anytime soon.

The intensity was all part of Tsunami Extreme Fight Productions’ display of martial arts and sumo wrestling last Friday night at Earl Warren Showgrounds. More than 200 people, from young children to old retired folk, packed around the hexagon to take in the action, and they certainly didn’t leave disappointed.

After a rousing and eardrum-rattling taiko drumming performance, it was on to jiu-jitsu, which, according to the event program, translates to “gentle martial art.” It was anything but gentle, with the competitors picking up and throwing each other down all evening long. The “warm-up” exhibitions featured various fighters from the Paragon and Rodrigo Clark Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu programs, which both have studios in Santa Barbara. Jiu-jitsu is similar to Americanized wrestling, but the participants wore robes known as “gi,” which proved handy for grabbing as well as for wedgies. There’s no such thing as a pin in jiu-jitsu, so by the end of the six-minute long match, competitors were lucky to still have their gi-and their breath-with them.

Nor would pinning someone on his back do the trick in the full submission wrestling that followed. Rather, a tap-out from your opponent-induced via chokes, locks, strangulation, and all-around body bending-is necessary to win. I wouldn’t be surprised if the “blood, sweat, and tears” phrase originated from full-submission wrestling, despite the fact that these guys are too tough to cry. One winner in the 180-pound division had a gash on his head, while another match was halted when one fighter said he heard something in his knee pop (and he protested when the referee tried to end to the fight). Then there was the fighter who had to be taken to the hospital because he bit almost all the way through his tongue, leaving his mouth full of blood.

The night’s organizer Jack Sabat, who has a striking resemblance to Chuck Norris, could’ve passed for a badass action star Friday when he lay on a bed of 540 nails and had four stacks of three cement blocks placed on his legs, groin, abs, and chest. Each stack was then smashed by a sledge hammer. Earlier in the evening, Sabat participated in a Japanese stick fighting competition known as shinai, where he battled a woman equipped with the Japanese tonfa, which are shield-like weapons worn on the forearms that block stick slashes. As if that wasn’t enough, Sabat also joined fellow martial artists in punching and kicking their way through sheets of wood.

But the marquee event of the evening was the sumo wrestling. More than 2,000 years old, sumo is one of the most well-known sports in the world, and certainly the most famous type of wrestling. The goal is to force your opponent out of the ring or onto the ground first. There’s no punching with a closed fist, no eye-gouging allowed, and no grabbing in the crotch or rear areas of the belt, known as the mawashi. The large men wrestle only wearing their mawashi, which is just large enough to cover where it counts. The five participants went through a series of stretching exercises, which left little to the imagination, but also showed the large men’s flexibility and strength.

Friday night featured some of the best in the business, including the current world champion Byambajav “Byamba” Ulambayar, a 6ʹ1Ê°, 340-pound Mongolian. The five wrestlers squared off in a round-robin tournament, with everyone taking each other on once. The first match featured current and three-time U.S. champion Kelly Gneiting, who tips the scales at 420 pounds, and Dirk Sommers, who is 6ʹ4Ê° and checks in at 430 pounds-that’s right, 850 pounds of wrestler faced off in the first match! Ulambayar, who hasn’t lost in international competition, continued his undefeated streak Friday, rolling through the contest. Ulambayar then took on the other four one after another, and his quickness and experience won out, as he again went undefeated.

After the competition, Steven Golis, a sensei in training who had participated earlier in the evening, challenged Ulambayar to a sumo match. After a few seconds of avoiding the Mongol, Golis was picked up and thrown down hard by Ulambayar, ending any hope of an upset of the world champ.


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