Byamba, enjoying chano-nabe, or sumo stew, at an L.A. restaurant. Photo courtesy USA SUMO

Byambajav Ulambayar: How A Mongolian Sumo Star Came To Los Angeles

KCET Departures asks, "What's your or your family's Los Angeles arrival story?"

Today, we hear from Byambajav "Byamba" Ulambayar, sumo wrestler and actor.


INTRODUCTION

"I am a man with three worlds, three different cultures. Though I have traveled to about 30 countries in the past few years, I have spent almost all my life since childhood mainly in three very different countries.

CHAPTER ONE: MONGOLIA
I was born in Mongolia, which is considered a Third World nation. The population is under 3 million people, but with a land area about the size of Western Europe. Despite the small population, Mongolia has an incredible history and culture, and Mongolians are known for their amazing skills in certain areas, including sports, arts, music and more.

In terms of sports, the most important and famous athletic activity in Mongolia is Bokh, or Mongolian wrestling.. All young men in my country have some experience with Mongolian wrestling, and the national festivals and celebrations all include significant wrestling tournaments.

The extent to which Mongolians engage in wrestling is probably one of the reasons why almost every single Japanese professional sumo tournament in recent years has been won by Mongolian-born sumo wrestlers. The last time a Japanese wrestler won was in 2006; since then, Mongolians have won 29 of 31 pro sumo tournaments (Europeans won the other two).

Story Continues Below
Support KCET

My involvement in wrestling has a funny beginning. When I was 9 years old, my father brought me to a Mongolian wrestling practice for kids, where I was introduced to the sport. At the time, though, I was not too keen on it, and soon stopped going to practices.

For the next year or so, I mostly played basketball. I remember in one basketball game, I lost my balance, slipped, and fell to the ground. Suddenly, at that moment, I decided that I had better practice Mongolian wrestling seriously, to improve my balance! So, I went back to wrestling and began to train regularly.

By the age of 15, I had already won National Junior Champion titles in Mongolian wrestling, in judo, and in sambo. Thanks to this background, I was brought to special tryouts held by a visiting Japanese Grand Champion sumo wrestler and coach.

This legendary figure, Shibatayama Oyakata (formerly Grand Champion "Onokuni") was an enormous and impressive figure. After a series of tests, he picked one young athlete -- me -- to join his professional sumo team in Japan.

I had grown up in Mongolia, with my parents, one older sister and one younger sister. I had a close circle of family, friends, and fellow wrestlers. I worked hard, learned respect from my family, and enjoyed a simple but happy existence. That was the only world I knew when I was invited at such a young age to become a professional sumo wrestler.

CHAPTER TWO: JAPAN

When I arrived in Japan at age 16, I didn't know anything about sumo, Japanese culture or the Japanese language and I had never even tried Japanese food.

I was thrown directly into the training, and was expected to learn everything, hands-on, including speaking Japanese. Needless to say, it was a challenging process, but I actually enjoyed it, because I excelled in sumo wrestling and was excited to find myself getting stronger and stronger.

I'll never forget the first day I was brought to the heya, or professional sumo team. On that first morning, I was simply there to observe, before my own training would begin a few days later. I was impressed by how strenuous the training was.

After a while, the young athletes started sparring. In one of the matches, the two opponents slammed into each other with all their power. When they recoiled, I looked at the forehead of one wrestler in shock - the tooth of his opponent was embedded above his eye! They had apparently collided skull-to-jaw. Gruesome as this was, it moved me to start training right away the next day. I wanted to become tough enough, as quickly as possible, to overcome any adversary.

Photo courtesy USA SUMO

Every morning, we would wake up at around 5:00am. We started training hard at around sunrise, on an empty stomach. Training would last all morning long, with no break! During the course of the rigorous calisthenics, warm-up exercise, sparring practice and other activities, it was not unusual for me to lose ten or 12 pounds of sweat.

This grueling morning regimen included tasks like doing hundreds of painstakingly-slow shiko, or sumo leg lifts, for up to an hour, non-stop. We also all had to perform full leg splits (like ballerinas) do, with our faces flat on the earth, while legs would be at 180-degrees. The matches during the practice were intense. Senior wrestlers would beat the lower-rankers mercilessly - a kind of hazing.

This daily challenge instilled in me a desire to prove myself quickly and I became determined to rise up the ranks as quickly as possible. With a senior ranking, I would be subject to less hazing and more benefits, respect and salary.

The first meal of the day was lunch. The lower-ranked wrestlers had to cook for their seniors, who would eat first, often leaving nothing but sips of broth and plain rice as left-overs for the junior wrestlers. Eating is an important aspect to training, so it was even more motivation to gain higher ranks quickly, since that would lead to more and better food.

The daily fare, for both lunch and dinner, was generally centered around chanko-nabe or sumo stew. This is a hearty dish, with lots of meat, fish, and vegetables. We'd slurp bowl after bowl, chased down with several more bowls of rice or noodles.

The sumo diet is actually very healthy, protein-rich, and low in fat. This diet developed as the most efficient meal plan to help sumo wrestlers recover from intense workouts and gain muscle.

After lunch, there was usually an afternoon nap, followed by chores or a little free time later in the afternoon. My coach often pulled me aside, and forced me to do extra workouts for hours each afternoon. These included solo training, weight lifting, cardio and more. So, I frequently went through two really arduous sessions, covered in sweat, every day.

After dinner, we relaxed a little, and then went to bed early. This daily schedule was essentially year-round. We don't have a "season" in professional sumo, like in most conventional sports. There are tournaments all year-round, and training almost never stops.

In some ways, being a pro sumo wrestler is like being in the military. It was tough for me, but I felt better and more confident about myself as I got stronger.

The training paid off. In my very first professional sumo tournament, at age 16, I won the championship (albeit in the bottom division, since I was new). This was a huge honor for me. Less than two years later, I moved up several divisions, and was the top-ranked wrestler on my entire team.

I was approaching the higher ranks, but by age 20, I decided to leave the pro sumo life, before I even reached the top. Due to injuries and my personal desire to experience more in the world, I made a tough choice and retired.

I stayed in Japan a little longer and worked at various jobs, including as a chef, which is something I also really enjoy. By age 21, I went back to Mongolia. After five years in Japan, I had reached a high level in professional sumo, I had become fluent in Japanese, and I had learned so much about Japanese culture, cuisine and philosophy.

Having only seen my Mongolian family once during that entire time, it was almost as if the second half of my youth was as a Japanese.

CHAPTER THREE - U.S.A.

I returned to Mongolia in 2006 and it wasn't long before my life took another dramatic turn. I was approached by a Mongolian businessman, who told me he had been contacted by the California Sumo Association, which was producing a sumo scene for the movie "Oceans 13." They wanted me to appear as one of the principal sumo wrestlers. Still uncertain about my future, I readily agreed.

After flying into Los Angeles, I was met by Andrew Freund, producer of the US Sumo Open events. Little did I know, that I'd spend the next six years -- so far -- working with him on promoting sumo around the world. Being familiar with only Asian cultures, it was a new experience for me to interact with Westerners, but I soon got used to it.

Working on "Oceans 13" was a brief but very interesting experience. I performed various stunts and had several sumo matches but in the end, almost my entire appearance ended up on the editing room floor, which, I learned, is pretty commonplace in the film business.

Byamba with actor George Clooney, in 2006 on the Oceans 13

After that first taste, though, I knew I wanted to do more in the world of entertainment. Andrew and I consulted with attorneys and I applied for my work visa and green card, which I soon received, thanks in part to my first World Sumo Champion title, which I won in Japan just a month after coming to the United States.

In international sumo, amateur athletes from around the world can compete and they don't have to live the extreme pro sumo lifestyle that is found in Japan.

I have continued competing in sumo for these six years since coming to California, but the flexibility in my schedule allows me to pursue other interests, as well. I really enjoy this independent and flexible lifestyle.

After winning that first World Sumo Championships, I have subsequently won two more World Sumo Champion titles so far. I have also won a gold medal every year (for five years) at the US Sumo Open tournament. I strive to compete in overseas tournaments, too, at least a few times a year, when my schedule allows it.

Aside from practicing, coaching, and competing in sumo, I have had to learn many basics about life in Los Angeles. For example: renting an apartment, getting a license, buying a car, getting insurance, and more are all things I never had to worry about before.

In Mongolia, my family took care of me. In Japan, the pro sumo team took care of me. Here in California, I have learned to live on my own and manage my own life. This hasn't always been easy, but it has given me a greater sense of responsibility and knowledge.

At first, I was somewhat lonely. My acting appearances were great, but I had to find things to do in my free time. Without any friends or a car, I would take a bus to English lessons or to work as a sushi chef (as a kind of hobby, really).

I recall those first few months, often sitting alone at the bus stop, nostalgically singing Mongolian songs at the top of my lungs. It must have been quite a sight for passers-by!

The entertainment projects that I have worked on with Andrew have been extensive. I have appeared in over 30 commercials, five movies, and 20 TV shows. There have been articles about me in over 50 publications, including three pages in ESPN The Magazine's "Bodies" issue, where two full pages were devoted to my photos and bio. I have also competed on "America's Got Talent" and spent over a week on "Gran Hermano, the Spanish version of the TV show "Big Brother."

I usually travel overseas ten or 15 times a year, for TV projects, films, sumo demonstrations, competitions and more. In fact, I am already on my third passport during this short period of time. It's been quite exciting, visiting about 30 different countries and I try to learn something everywhere I go. I really feel that I am a citizen of the world.

Leaving professional sumo early was definitely a big decision for me at the time. Of course, I miss the daily sumo training, the camaraderie, and the fame in Japan, but I think, in retrospect, I made the right decision. Pro sumo wrestlers do not have much freedom to travel, and so I am pretty unique in that I have so many opportunities to be involved in the sport I love, all over the planet.

I am still learning how the entertainment business here works, and I continue to take English classes and acting classes, to improve my abilities.

I am also happy to have the luxury of seeing my Mongolian family at least once a year. Usually, I fly there, but some of my family have also visited me here. I look forward to a time when all of them can meet me here in Los Angeles, for a reunion together. I know my parents are very proud of me, but I do miss seeing them for such long periods of time.

In the future, I want to continue to develop myself. I'd like to continue competing in sumo for years to come, and I definitely expect to win more championships, including additional World Sumo Champion titles. I also want to increase my fame and recognition as an actor. Long-term, I want to establish a business of some sort, connecting Mongolia and the United States.

Mongolia is such a beautiful country, with vast expanses of incredible landscapes, and some really amazing cultural traditions that have remained intact for centuries. I'd like to share these with the world and at the same time, I'd like to share what I've learned in the U.S. with my people back in Mongolia.

For now, I feel happy to be in Los Angeles. There are so many fascinating and diverse people and cultures here, and I learn something new every day. This place is kind of a crossroads for people from all over the world.

I enjoy the weather and all the opportunities to be involved in sports and entertainment. In particular, I like the freedom and flexibility of my life now, something that was not so easy during pro sumo days in Tokyo.

All in all, it's been an incredible journey so far, through three very different worlds - Mongolia, Japan, and the U.S.A. I know there's more to come and I'm excited to be here in Los Angeles. I hope everyone will see more of me soon on the big screen.

-- Byambajav Ulambayar
(as told to Andrew Freund)
(as emailed to Jeremy Rosenberg)

For more information on Byamba, visit this page. For more information on sumo in Los Angeles and the US Sumo Open events, visit this page.


    Departures References:
  • Departures: Community -- Zed Null on a now-closed Mongolian BBQ restaurant in Chinatown
  • KCET Cinema Series -- Yosuke Kitazawa intervews the 'Jiro Dreams of Sushi' filmmaker
  • Arrival Story: RIchie Arakelian -- world-record weightlifter who, like Byamba, works with Andrew Freund
  • Departures: Land of Sunshine -- Departures Decathalon, on various athletic activities
  • Departures: Chinatown -- Brian Kito and Fugetsu-Do Confectionery, Japanese candy in Little Toyko

Top Photo: Byamba, enjoying chano-nabe, or sumo stew, at an L.A. restaurant. Photo courtesy USA SUMO


Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
RSS icon

Previous

Exclusionary Laws and the Chinese-American Experience

Next

Cardboard Street Art Documents the Undocumented [UPDATED]

LEAVE A COMMENT Leave Comment