The Atlantic City area has hosted a plethora of sports competitions in the last 50 years or so.  Almost every sport has been featured.

It has run the gamut, with leagues, franchises, tournaments, and events featuring baseball, basketball, beach volleyball, bowling, boxing, cycling, deep-sea fishing, football, golf, horse racing, lifeguard racing, mixed martial arts, powerboat racing, swimming, tennis and triathlon, among others.

Some of the greatest athletes in their respective sports swam, punched, dunked, and pitched on or near the Boardwalk.

*Paul Asmuth won the 22.5-mile Around the Island Swim a record eight times in the 1980s.

*Mike Tyson knocked out Michael Spinks in 90 seconds in 1988 at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.

*Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. J played one-on-one at the former Trump Taj Mal in 1992.

*Tennis star Monica Seles’ first tennis match after being stabbed by a fan was against Martina Navratilova at Boardwalk Hall in 1995.

*Annika Sorenstam won three ShopRite LPGA Classic titles in 1998, 2002 and 2005 at Seaview in Galloway Township.

Now, thanks in part to some of the former casino executives who helped bring those events and athletes to town, you can add sumo wrestling to the list.

A roaring, cheering crowd of approximately 2,000 saw some of the sport’s heaviest hitters – both in terms of weight and ability  - stage a thrilling tournament at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino last Saturday as part of the International Sumo League’s World Championship Sumo.

Sumo Wrestling in Atlantic City
Photo courtesy of Dave Weinberg

“Getting a chance to compete in Atlantic City and at Hard Rock was a big step for us,” said Egypt’s Oosuna Arashi, who placed second to Russia’s Soslan Gagloev in Saturday’s final. “The crowd was great and I’m hoping we’ll be back.”

The International Sumo League was created by New York’s Noah Goldman, who became enthralled with the tradition, beauty, and respect associated with Sumo during a visit to Japan 45 years ago.

When he sought to bring the sport to the U.S., he enlisted the help of Bernie Dillon, Rich Rose, and Mark Taffet.

Dillon, a Mainland Regional High School graduate and Port Republic resident, started the boxing programs at both Taj Mahal and Hard Rock while also working for the UFC.

Rose, who now lives in Florida and serves as a consultant, brought many big fights and the Caesars International Handicap horse race to town for Caesars before leaving for Las Vegas.

Taffet was ringside for a slew of big fights in Atlantic City while working for HBO Sports and also serves as co-manager for women’s boxing standout Claressa Shields in addition to working with Goldman.

“I had never seen or heard of Sumo until about three years ago,” Dillon said. “A friend of a friend recommended me to Noah. We spent a lot of time working on it and we started in January of this year with two shows at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City.

“We like to call this Sumo 2.0. When you look at traditional Sumo, it’s very staid, respectful, quiet. It’s a different vibe. We’ve tried to make it a lot of fun for the fans.”

Sumo Wrestler in Atlantic City
Photo courtesy of Dave Weinberg

Saturday’s event was filled with energy.

Each of the 12 fighters emerged from backstage through a fog machine while a D.J. played high-energy tunes such as Gap Band’s “You Dropped a Bomb on Me,” and Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.”

Pictures and bios appeared on giant screens, along with betting odds for each match. Gambling on the ISL is permitted in Nevada, Colorado, Iowa, Illinois and Florida and is pending in New Jersey.

The wrestlers played to the crowd before stepping into the circular ring, called a dohyo for their bouts. Each round was a best-of-three with the winner advancing. Every bout was pure action and lasted from 10 to 30 seconds.

Wrestlers, called Rikishi, settled into four-point stances similar to an NFL nose tackle in a goal-line defense and launched themselves toward their opponents. Bouts were won by throwing or shoving the opponent out of the ring or to the ground under the watchful eye of referee (Gyoji) Oscar Dolan.

Dolan, who was dressed in white (including gloves), quickly became a fan favorite. Chants of “Oscar Dolan! Oscar Dolan” were heard before every match, which is apparently the case in every venue.

“I’m not sure who started it,” said Dolan, who is also a top-rated lightweight Sumo wrestler. “It wasn’t any of my friends. Most likely it was some drunk frat guys.”

Goodman’s ISL has over 25 wrestlers that rotate among the tournaments, though Arashi and Gagloev are considered the top competitors and usually meet in the finals.

Gagloev, a 353-pound giant nicknamed “Big Bear,” also spent a season with the University of South Florida in 2012 as a defensive lineman before returning to Sumo. Arashi, a 340-pounder nicknamed “Sandstorm,” was the first African wrestler to succeed as a professional in Japan. He now lives in Clifton with his wife and three children.

Gagloev won the first match by deftly sidestepping Arashi’s charge, prompting Arashi’s momentum to carry him over the boundary. Arashi evened the fight by flipping Gagloev out of the circle before Gagloev clinched the win.

Gagloev celebrated while the fans cheered and said it was a great birthday gift for his mother. Arashi smiled as he walked backstage, pausing to kiss one of his three sons on the forehead.

Although they are rivals, they are also good friends, who shared hugs and laughs in the locker room after Saturday’s duel.

“Once again, he did that dirty move as he was about to be slapped,” Arashi said with a grin. “But I’m happy that my friend won … This time.”

Next time will be later this month at the Prudential Center in Newark. Hopefully, they will be back in Atlantic City in the near future.

“The crowd seemed to really enjoy it,” Dillon said. “We’d love to come back.”

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