Byambajav “Byamba” Ulambayar didn’t speak the language. He didn’t know the culture. He had never even tasted the food.
He didn’t know how challenging it would be.
Byamba also didn’t know that leaving his family in Mongolia when he was 16 years old to move to Japan and become a sumo wrestler would be the most important decision of his life.
“My parents told me it was my life, it was my choice,” Byamba said. “ … I don’t think I could send my boy to Japan when he’s 16.”
Byamba grew up in Ulan-Bator, Mongolia. He was first introduced to Mongolian wrestling (Bokh) when he was 9 years old. He quickly lost interest, favoring basketball instead, but eventually returned to wrestling to improve his balance.
Byamba rocketed up the ranks in Bokh, judo, and samba, winning various national junior titles. His success garnered the attention of Onokuni, a former Japanese Grand Sumo Champion, who was in Mongolia scouting talent.
After a series of tests and exercises, Onokuni asked one athlete to accompany him back to Japan to begin training as a sumo wrestler.
Barely a teenager, Byamba left his parents and two sisters behind. He was thrust into the military-esque sumo lifestyle immediately. Every morning at the sumo stable, Byamba and the other wrestlers (rikishi) would wake up at 5 a.m. and begin rigorous training on an empty stomach. Training included calisthenics, warm-up exercises, sparring, and other activities. The morning routine also included hundreds of agonizingly slow leg lifts (shiko) non-stop for an hour. Following the morning training, the wrestlers would eat a hearty sumo stew (chankonabe) before taking an afternoon nap. They’d wake up for chores, some individual training/workouts, eat dinner, relax then go to sleep early.
“It’s not just about sumo, it’s a lifestyle,” Byamba said. “You have to learn how to clean, how to cook, and of course, how to wrestle. You’re going to learn a lot of things.”
Byamba won his first sumo tournament later that year. He continued to improve and climb the sumo structure as time passed. Byamba competed professionally in Japan for five years — seeing his family just once — retiring at 20 due to a combination of injuries and a desire to see the world.
He returned to Mongolia when he was 21, eager for his next move in life. As luck would have it, Byamba met a businessman who was working with the California Sumo Association looking for talent to be in a sumo scene in Oceans 13 (2007). While most of the footage was edited from the movie, it gave Byamba a new thirst and goal in the entertainment industry.
During this time in Los Angeles, Byamba also met Andrew Freund, the producer of the U.S. Sumo Open and various other amateur sumo events. The two would begin touring the world in the name of sumo, and continue to do so today, having recently conducted a Sumo+Sushi event in New York City on March 3-4.
Despite retiring from Japanese professional sumo, Byamba still competes in international tournaments as an amateur. He has won four world championships and has dominated at the U.S. Sumo Open, going a combined 104-5 in 11 years with 10 men’s heavyweight gold medals (and seven openweight gold medals) heading into the event’s 2018 edition.
“Sumo is growing really fast right now, especially in the United States,” Byamba said. “The U.S. Sumo Open has around 5,000 people coming to watch each year. We do the Sumo+Sushi shows in some of the bigger cities and that’s helping the sport grow, too.”
Just as he found success in Mongolian wrestling and sumo, Byamba has thrived in the entertainment industry. The 6-foot-1, 365-pounder has appeared in more than 500 TV shows, movies, commercials — yes, that’s him on ice skates doing the baby bird in a GEICO spot — print ads, and news clips. Byamba has also been part of more than 800 live sumo events in more than 30 countries across the world.
Byamba sits on a chair set up in the second-floor gym at Hotel Mela in Times Square. His eyes look tired.
Byamba was getting acclimated to the time zone, having recently landed from a red-eye flight. He hasn’t had much time to relax. He filmed another episode of Impractical Jokers, visited The Players’ Tribune for a photoshoot, and is in the midst of another on-camera interview.
He yawns. Then apologizes.
In a few hours, Byamba, 33, will be in his mawashi on stage at the Playstation Theater showcasing his sumo talents against fellow rikishi Yama, a 600-pounder from Japan, and Ramy Elgazar of Egypt, who weighs in close to 500 pounds. The Sumo+Sushi show has four sessions divided between Saturday and Sunday. Immediately after, Byamba will hit the road for more appearances, photoshoots, interviews, and sumo exhibitions.
It’s a different kind of non-stop lifestyle than he was used to at the sumo stable in Japan. Nevertheless, Byamba is still having fun.