10/13/2005 11:00PM

Sumo title event was big business


Considering all the over-the-top offerings available in Las Vegas, it's hard to find something happening here for the first time. Well that rarity occurred last week when Mandalay Bay hosted the Grand Sumo Championship.

Sumo, a revered 1,500-year-old sport in Japan, made its first showing in this desert city. The last matches staged in the U.S. before this were at Madison Square Garden in New York City back in 1985. Yet here were 38 rikishi, the Japanese name for sumo wrestlers, enjoying Las Vegas, as will 37 million tourists this year.

The rikishi is a superstar athlete in Japan. On our local news, a Japanese media person compared their popularity on a par with Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan.

Yet here were these 400-pound men mingling with other guests in local casinos, playing slot machines, table games, attending Strip shows, and eating heaping plates of food at the buffet. They were easy to spot. The rikishi in public must wear a traditional garb of kimono and long hair slicked back in a topknot.

The chef staff at Mandalay Bay supplemented their buffet with authentic Japanese cuisine, including chanko-nabe, a traditional meat stew served to rikishi to bulk up their weight. Nevertheless, they quickly found out the rikishi wanted to sample different fare and they found a home at the carving station, devouring huge slabs of steaks, chops, and ribs.

Eating takes up a big part of the rikishi's day. These men aren't born to be 350-450 pound behemoths. A typical diet ranges between 5,000 to 10,000 calories a day. For comparison, jockey Laffit Pincay, Jr. consumed a meager 600-800 calories a day during his riding career.

Sometimes necessity creates strange bedfellows, thus the reason sumo came to Las Vegas was for increased public relations.

As popular as sumo is in Japan, its attendance has been dropping. Promoters sought to take sumo on the road to grow the sport, and what better world stage than Las Vegas?

In turn, the Las Vegas tourism board is always looking for new, exciting product, and sumo is a magical sport with the highly sought Asian market.

This was the proverbial win-win situation. Nearly 25,000 attended the three-day event, and the national media was all over the story. All the network morning shows did live remotes. Jay Leno sent a Tonight Show crew to film a skit, and the print media covering it included the likes of USA Today, The New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. And that doesn't include a huge media throng from the Far East.

Needless to say, the Grand Sumo Championship was a big success. As for the winner, it was the tournament favorite Asashoryu, the reigning champion, or yokozuna.

Will sumo return to Las Vegas anytime soon? As with most things in this city, you can bet on it.

Richard Eng is the turf editor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and host of the Race Day Las Vegas Wrap Up radio show.