Now I’ve done a lot of stupid shit in my life. But squaring off with world champion Sumo wrestlers in the parking lot of a Russian hotel is among the stupidest.
I’m lying facedown in a hotel bathroom in Saint Petersburg, Russia. The cheap vinyl of the bathroom sticks to my forehead, and every part of my body aches worse than it has ever ached before. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see a puddle of my own piss, cartoon yellow, slowly creeping toward my chin. I try to get up, but my legs give out from under me. I fall into the bathtub and throw up. An attempt to shower is cut short when I discover that water on my skin feels like needles being stuck underneath my fingernails. Today I am going to stink, and that’s fine. I pick the cleanest dirty shirt from my luggage, and then start to venture toward the hotel lobby, hoping to find some hair of the dog or—at the very least—some carbohydrates to soak up the shame. I leave my room, and the fluorescent light of the hallway hits my eyes. My headache instantly intensifies, an arrhythmic drum solo on the inside of my skull. The pain is so bad that when I first see the body I don’t know if it’s real or not.
Spread out on the hallway floor is the largest human being I have ever seen in real life. The man is easily 400 pounds. He’s lying on his back, with his limbs askew and his oversize belly sneaking out of his shirt. The man is unconscious and letting out these little half breaths between thunderous snores. I’m about to check on humongous—maybe poke his gut to make sure he’s not a hallucination—when toward the elevator I see another body even bigger than my buddy at my feet. This man is flailing in an awkward sleep. He rolls to his side to reveal two (slightly) smaller dudes draped out beside him, like a super-size variation on the Russian doll. Head pounding, I piece together what’s going on.
The four men on the floor are Sumo wrestlers. The day before was the last day of a Sumo competition at the World Combat Games. At the afterparty, many of the Sumos drank heroic amounts of liquor. The guys in front of me must have passed out trying to get to their rooms. No one was strong enough to move their dead weight.
Somebody in the hallway lets out a fart. While trying to escape the smell, I start to remember the night before. I attempted to out-drink men literally twice my size, I ate more food than I thought I was physically capable of, and I attacked parked cars like a postmodern Don Quixote. When I get to the end of the hall, my headache intensifies—again—and I spew. I had partied with Sumo wrestlers, and it almost killed me.
My adventure with Sumo wrestlers actually started as a trip for work. I had been hired through a cable company I worked for to commentate the World Combat Games. It was one of my first paid gigs as a martial arts analyst, and I was determined to prove my worth. For the months leading up to the event, my life was consumed with studying the beauty of competitive conflict. I spent hours learning the proper pronunciation of athletes’ names. There were days glued to the computer watching hundreds of technique videos. I read books debating the arcane origins of belt wrestling, tried out high-kick strategies in my living room, and bored my wife half to death geeking out on jiu jitsu statistics. Still, there was nothing that could have prepared me for the sheer spectacle of Sumo.
On a conceptual level, I knew that Sumo wrestlers were big. But until you’ve seen a Rikishi (professional sumo wrestlers) in person, you have no idea just how gigantic, and how strong, these athletes actually are. Underneath the layers of fat, each competitor has built his body for power and speed. When a match begins, Sumos burst forth like bullets from a gun. Their intense grappling would be enough to crush a normal human, but the behemoths go at one another with precision and strategy in the most violent of dances. The aura of the Sumo matches was electric. The arena was buzzing with excitement, shifting from anticipatory silence to deafening cheers as the competition got underway. The Sumos were treated like rock stars, and no one was a bigger star than Byamba.
Byamba was a two-time world Sumo champion. He was featured in Ocean’s 13.He appeared on America’s Got Talent. VICE profiled him in the documentary10,000 Calories a Day. In fact, if you’ve seen a Sumo on television in the past decade, it was probably Byamba. That day, the champion was dominant in his performance. His bouts were over in seconds, opponents thrown from the ring with ease. Watching while doing commentary, I sounded like a little kid, giddy with excitement, witnessing this master perform his aggressive art. By the time he was awarded his medal, all the people in attendance were on their feet. That evening the afterparty was held at our hotel. My plan was simple: I was going to shake Byamba’s hand, congratulate him on a job well done, and leave the man alone for a well-deserved celebration. Byamba had other plans.
I should preface what I’m about to tell you by saying I was very, very, drunk that night. Possibly more messed up than I have ever been before, which is a lot considering I spent over a decade playing in a glam rock band and once got high with Nikki Sixx for three days. While I’m not sure the facts would hold up in a court of law, and things have grown or shrunk depending on when I’m recounting the event, I know in my heart that the general tone of what I’m about to say is true. We’ll call it drunken nonfiction, the blockbuster movie version of what went down.
When I got to the bar, Byamba was holding a link of sausages in one hand. In the other was a bottle of Russian Standard vodka. I approached the champ. The big man pointed in my direction. Another Sumo grabbed a “reserved” sign off the table (Russian reserved signs are shaped like dunce caps) and tore off the top to create a makeshift funnel. The next thing I know the funnel is in my mouth. Byamba laughs and pours a half liter of vodka directly down my throat. It was the beginning of the festivities, and I was already a wreck.
After that, as a group, we stumble into another part of the bar. Laid out before me is an enormous spread: pork knuckle, sauerkraut, hot pot soup, mountains of sausages, and bread. Byamba piled up his plate, and then motioned for me to do the same. Everyone took a seat. At the head of the table—on the night he won a medal—Byamba took the time to put over everyone else in the room. The champ was humble and funny. Instantly lovable. His message was that with the right team and the right training, we could all achieved greatness. When I asked the big guy to elaborate on that idea, he insisted I drink more vodka and finish my food. I mowed down a dozen sausages and had at least another half liter of drink. I ate sauerkraut until my pores were leaking vinegar. With the sheer volume of consumption, I started to believe that I could be a Sumo wrestler, too. We decided to test that theory in the parking lot.
Now, I’ve done a lot of stupid shit in my life. But I can safely say that squaring off to compete Sumo in the parking lot of a Russian hotel is among the stupidest. Byamba officiated the event. He explained that the man I’d be competing against was a mere 250 pounds. Two-fifty. That’s—what—100 pounds heavier than I am? I got this. What Byamba didn’t tell me was that my competition also happened to be the middleweight Sumo Champion of the world. Fueled by adrenaline and alcohol I squared off against my opponent, onlookers on every side. We put our hands on the ground to signify the beginning of the match, Byamba yelled something, and then I sprinted forward as fast as I could. Hitting the Sumo’s body was like hitting a boulder. I pushed. I grappled. I tried to sweep a leg. Nothing I did had any effect. After maybe 15 seconds of competing, the middleweight Sumo champion threw me to the ground with a jovial laugh. I hit the concrete hard and felt a sharp crack against my rib. To numb the pain, someone handed me more vodka.
Bayamba told me that for a first-timer, I had done pretty well. He asked if I wanted to see what Sumos could really do. Worried that I was signing myself up for another round, I shook my head, but by that point, no one was paying attention. The Sumos had slammed their drinks and were proceeding to push around the cars in the parking lot like a standard person pushes a shopping cart. I tried to take on a midsize sedan, but my ribs hurt too much. To compensate, I looked for more booze, but I was out. We were all out. Which is why the Sumos decided to ransack a nearby restaurant.
At the best of times, 30 people showing up to a restaurant unannounced is chaos. But when you take into account that the majority of the 30 people showing up to this restaurant were actual Sumo wrestlers, it turns into complete pandemonium. Food appeared out of nowhere and was consumed just as fast. We all started an impromptu grappling competition and fell into tables. When drinks couldn’t come fast enough, one of the Sumos walked behind the bar, picked up a keg, and walked out the front door. The last thing I remember before I blacked out was Byamba taking photos with the staff.
My hangover from that night lasted for about two weeks, it followed me all the way from Russia back to Canada, and if I cough too hard, my ribs still hurt. To this day the smell of Russian Standard simultaneously makes me want to smile and throw up. While the memory of the evening is burned into the back of my skull, all evidence of the event was lost, along with my cellphone, somewhere on a Saint Petersburg side street. But what I can tell you with certainty is this: After that night whenever I hear someone use the term “party like a rock star,” I laugh in their face. Partying like a rock star is nothing. Partying like a Sumo wrestler is more than you could ever imagine.