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The Road to Victory

On a cool, misty evening in the final days of April, a rowdy, but excitable crowd gathered to root their local favorites in competition. The tournament, The Sapporo Sumo Grand Championship of North America, was hosted by Harvard University for the first time, in its intimate venue, Soldier’s Field Park. Famous sumo Master Mike Kayamori negotiated the game, while seasoned ESPN commentator and comedian Mark – Matthau – Lodish narrated the event’s television coverage. Sumo documentary cinematographer Tomo Takkada was behind the camera.

With such big dollars on the line, the event lured some of the sport’s
most respected athletes. Competitive players such as Canadian sumo super star Mark MacTavish and US Air Force officer Matt Turner arrived weeks early to prepare – as did crowd pleasers, including Arkansas teen pop sensation, Jonathon Waggoner.

The event had several qualifying heats to narrow the playing field. For example, Pamela Weiss and Irene Chang had a particularly ferocious match. In her final blow, after she had been declared the winner, Irene surprised fans by body slamming her opponent. Because both women take the business so seriously, each travel with entourages that help them suit-up and even prop them up after difficult falls. Both have theme songs. While neither made it to the final round, the pair’s antics make them extraordinarily well-liked by the crowds.

The final round of the Championship was between Shoney Katz and Onay Payne. Shoney was raised in Arlington Heights, just outside of Chicago.

While his style is unconventional in the ring, his power and diesel endurance is unmatched in sumo wrestling. His local paper, the Daily Herald, reports that Katz is frequently known to play rugby to mentally prepare for his sumo matches. In contrast, Onay Payne is from the West Indies. Born in the warm arms of St. Andrew, Jamaica, she has trained exclusively for this career since birth. Her coach, confidant, and long-time bookie Cindy Wang moved Onay to the exclusive sumo training grounds at Hempstead, Long Island during Onay’s youth. It was here Payne perfected her sumo technique, including becoming fluent in Japanese. She now lives in the rolling hills of tranquil Fort Green, Brooklyn.

The meeting of Masseur Katz and Madam Payne lasted a brief 74 seconds. While Payne could not match her opponent in strength, she was nimble, calculating and almost buoyant on the thinly padded red floor. The first point was ceded to Katz, but the final two were collected quickly by Payne.

Cindy Wang always said that there should have been no doubt that Onay would win. She put her money behind the rhetoric and she took home the winnings.

May 5, 2003
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