Sumo and Pacific Island Traditional Wrestling


As an Australian sporting tradition, it is helpful for coreeda practitioners to understand the nature of wrestling in neighbouring regions, to compare and contrast events in Australia and this is what this page is about. 


The Pacific Ocean is the largest of the world's divisions and was named 'the Peaceful Sea" by Magellan. Extending from the Arctic to the Antarctic, bounded in the west by Asia/ Australasia and in the east by the Americas, at nearly 180,000 squared km it covers 32% of the Earths surface and about 46% of all the Earths water making it larger than all the land area combined. With more than 20,000 islands and over 50 nations having a coastline in its waters, innumerable cultures have developed in this region since human habitation first began over a million years ago. Divided into five cultural segments of Asia, Australasia (i.e. south of Asia), Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia, a large number wrestling styles have developed within the Pacific Islands. The Pacific Games have been running like a mini version of the Olympics since 1963 and a whole range of sports including wrestling and judo have been a part of this. It is hoped that the organisers of this event come to recognise the importance of Pacific Island Traditional Wrestling and one day include it within these Games.



The most famous Pacific Island style is sumo from the 'Land of the Rising Sun' Japan. With over 3,000 islands, the largest being Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, the Japanese archipelago has been occupied by humans for over 40,000 years and the current population is about 128 million people. The Jomon Culture is the oldest identifiable civilisation extending from 14,000BC to 400BC and pottery from this era has depictions of what some call the sumo motif. Sumo has been a popular entertainment for the nobility for over 2,000 years but in 1684 a samurai by the name of Ikazuchi Gondaiyu started a tournament at the most important temple to the Shinto god of war, the Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in Tokyo, that became very popular to the general public. Limiting the fighting boundary to a 4.5m diameter circle of the clay dohyo mound, defining about 48 acceptable techniques mostly around utilising the mawashi wrestling belt and incorporating many of the rituals of the Shinto Religion into the performance, this style of Ozumo soon developed a large following, with its own stables of professional rikishi (wrestlers) as it still does today.


The sport has been governed by the Nihon Sumo Kyokai since 1925 but in 1992 a world body was created to promote amasumo (i.e. amateur sumo), the International Sumo FederationSumo has been practiced outside of Japan, including Australia, since the 1880s and in the half century of the Japanese Empire, 1895 to 1945, it was spread across a wide domain but really only became popular in the Pacific region with the formation of the ISF; in many ways sumo has become the defacto style of traditional wrestling in many of the island nations. Of course sumo is not the only style of wrestling native to Japan and judo has likewise developed a global following but in the Okinawan Islands in the south another style of traditional wrestling is beginning its rebirth. Outside of the Japanese cultural sphere until occupied by samurai forces in 1609, Okinawa didn't become a prefecture until 1879 and was occupied by the Americans from 1945 until 1972. Therefore the Okinawan people often consider themselves very different to the rest of the Japanese population and their style of belt wrestling called Naha tegumi, shima or muto is beginning to grow as an essential part of the training within the curriculum of the diverse karate schools in the islands. 



The island of Taiwan is also known as Formosa which means beautiful in Portuguese and has a human occupation as old as Japan. The Aboriginal people of the island have a culture closely related to the Malayo-Polynesians and it is thought the Austronesian language family originated there; therefore Taiwan is considered the ancestral homeland for people as diverse as Indonesians, Madagascans, Filipinos, Micronesians and Polynesians. The styles of wrestling practiced by the Formosan Indigenous people, called mariworiwos in the Puyuma language or mapaparfu in Bunun, has many similarities to sumo but is probably more closely related to Naha tegumi. Taiwan was part of the Japanese Empire for hald a century between 1895 and 1945 and sumo was introduced to the Formosan Aboriginal people to acculturate them more closely with Japan. Wearing a wrestling belt and fighting within a large circular sandpit, Aboriginal wrestling has been an important component of the Aboriginal Games since their inception in 2003. Also with strong developments in judo and shuai chiao (Chinese traditional wrestling) many Taiwanese have also competed in international sumo tournaments with great success. The Republic of China has a strong presence in the Pacific and are effectively using their Aboriginal people to build cultural ties with Pacific Islanders. It probably won't be long before we see a Pan-Pacific traditional wrestling meet of some sorts.


The Philippines

The Philippine archipelago developed a diverse number of wrestling styles such as bultong in the Cordillera Mountains of Central Luzon, layug in Mindanao, buno in the vicinity of Manila, but probably the most highly refined was dumog from the Visayan Islands. Under the control of the maritime Sri Vijaya Empire of Sumatra from the 8th century in which aspects of the Hindu civilsation were introduced, Visayan dumog was a popular spectacle when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, with lavish tournaments organised by competing rajahs. Dumoguero wore colourful patterned bahag or wrestling loin cloths which defined what barangay or region they were from and victory was achieved when the opponent had to wipe sand off their back, being played only on beaches. Lucha Filipinos was outlawed by the conquistadors for its obvious show of strength, dumog today is only practiced in remote parts of Antique province on Panay Island at town saint festivals and sadly by all accounts is on the verge of extinction. In 2014 the island of Borocay will host the Asian Beach Games with beach wrestling one of the sports on the agenda and it is hoped this could inspire the regrowth of dumog in the region. Since 2008 the Wrestling Association of the Philippines has taken an active role in the revival of traditional Filipino wrestling and has encouraged the Ifugao people of the Banaue Rice Terraces fame to display the sport of bultong at  festive gatherings which tourists can attend, bringing an international awareness of this ancient belt wrestling custom. Ifugao bultong is the only remnant survivor of what once was a very ancient and widespread Filipino grappling tradition. 



The Kingdom of Hawaii was created in 1810 when King Kamehameha conquered the six other kingdoms of the islands politically unifying the archipelago, which have been occupied by humans since at least 300BC. As a young man Kamehameha met Captain Cook during the HMS Resolution's fateful visit to islands in 1778 and crew members witnessed many sports being performed by the Kanaka Maoli as part of the Makahiki New Year Festival. The pa'ani kahiko or ancient games included hundreds of sports such as he'e nalu (surfing), he'e holua (sledding) and kukini (running races). The combat sports included mokomoko (bareknuckle boxing), kula kula'i (chest pushing), kula'i wawae (foot pushing), pa uma (standing arm wrestling) and huki huki (tug'o'war). The most popular style of wrestling however was hakoko, a stand up grappling system in which the malo (loin cloth) was used for throws making it very similar to sumo.

The last elected monarch of the islands, King David Kalakua visited Japan in 1881 during his world tour and he witnessed sumo bouts with the Emperor of Japan. This inspired him to encourage Japanese migration to Hawaii; these migrant workers established sumo tournaments in which local Kanaka Maoli were invited, so instigating the sport in the archepelago. Before being elected, Kalakua led a popular movement to restore Native Hawaiian customs such as the hula dance and the lua martial arts, which has come to be known as the 1st Hawaiian Renaissance, earning him the title of the Merrie Monarch and he was attempting to establish a Polynesian Economic Zone in the Pacific by linking his dynasty with the royalty of Samoa, Tonga & Tahiti. The Kingdom was destroyed by American businessmen who declared the Republic of Hawaii in 1893, annexed by the USA in 1898 becoming a State in 1959. The indigenous Hawaiian customs suffered greatly in this period and it wasn't until the 2nd Hawaiian Renaissance in 1964 that many of the native sports were revived. The techniques of the combat sports were incorporated into a formalised version of the Hawaiian martial art of lua and since the visit of the great Yokozuna Hitachiyama in 1910, sumo has steadily become a popular sport. Jessie Kuhaulua who wrestled under the name of Takamiyama was a Kanaka Maoli and the first foreigner to win a major tournament in Ozumo (professional sumo) in 1972. He inspired many other indigenous Hawaiians to try the sport and 1993 Chad Rowan became Yokozuna Akebono, the first foreign born grand champion. With a continued resurgence in the growth of traditional culture, the Makahiki Festival is again being popularly celebrated in the Hawaiian Islands and the sumo like game of hakoko is once again being played in front of large audiences just as it was in past. 


French Polynesia

With a human habitation as old as Hawaii, the Kindom of Tahiti was created in 1788 by King Pomare when he conquered several other islands in the Society and Tuamotu groups establishing a dynasty that continues to this day but in 1842 the French invaded and a protectorate was declared, incorporating the Kingdom of Tahiti with the Marquesas group into a colony in 1880; Papeete has been the regional capital since this time. Porinetia Farana as Polynesie Francaise is known in the Ma'ohi language, just like Hawaii produced a number of indigenous games such as motor'a (bareknuckle boxing), teka (javelin throwing), te'a (archery), apai (a type of hockey), amoraa ofae (lifting heavy stones) and the style of wrestling called moana, again with many similarities to sumo. Over the last century the French colonial government has tried to emphasise the Francophone nature of Tahiti but were unable to completely eradicate the sense of nationality amongst the indigenous people. This came to a head in 1996 after the French had again used Muraroa Atoll in the Tuamotu group to test its nuclear weapons program (193 nuclear bombs were exploded over three decades between 1966 and 1996). The protests that followed in the islands were close to creating civil war in French Polynesia, empowering the independence movement like never before and even though Tahiti is still part of France, it was certainly enough to bring an end to the French nuclear weapons testing program in the Pacific. In 2006 the Hevea i Tahiti (Tahitian Sports Championships) was inaugurated each June by the Tahitian Traditional Sports Federation, bringing a revival in awareness for these ancient games and alongside traditional tatooing, canoe navigation, ote'a dance, moana wrestling tournaments will again be seen in Tahiti.


Cook Islands & Nuie

This resurgence of traditional culture in Tahiti has inspired a similar movement in the neighbouring Kuki Airani (Cook Islands) with the development of the Te Maeva Nui Festival in which many traditional sports are again being played in the capital Raratonga. In Pukapuka Island, which is linguistically connected to the Marquesas group, the native people have kept an ancient tradition alive in the form of popoko wrestling. Wearing a thick belt made of natural plant fibres, the boys of the island are taught this sport as a central part of their ethnic identity and wherever they travel to in the world, Pukapukan people hold tournaments in this ancient sport. In Nuie, an island known as "the Rock of Polynesia" because of its central location in the Pacific, a government department has been established, Taoga Nuie, just to develop the traditional sports of the country and being in free association with New Zealand like the Cook Islands, many of these sports are now being played in other parts of the Pacific. Having so much in common with the Hawaiian, Tahitian and Cook Island versions of wrestling, it probably won't be too much longer that a regional championship is declared. 


The Kingdom of Tonga

Occupied for over 6000 years, Tonga has been central to the dispersal of people throughout Polynesia. By the 12th century, the Tongan Kings or Tui Tonga, controlled a vast confederacy that stretched from Fiji, Wallis & Futuna and the Solomon Islands in the west to the Marquesas in the east to Kiribati in the north; this 'Tongan Empire' lasted for over 400 years. Captain Cook anchored the HMS Resolution in Tongatapu in 1773 and the ship's artist John Webber did sketches of the wrestling performances done for the entertainment of the visitors. The British found it remarkable that Tongan women also participated in this combat sport which also included striking the opponent with blows from the wrist. Pi'i'tauva'a wrestling has subsequently died out in the islands but when this happened is hard to ascertain. Unified as a single polity since 1845 under King George Tupou I, Tonga was a British Protectorate with a constitutional monarchy from 1900 till full independence in 1970. The much beloved former King of Tonga, George Tupou IV was a big supporter of sumo and sent six Tongan men to Japan in 1974 to become professional rikishi, including Fukunoshima (Tonga Uli'uli Fafita) and Sachinoshima (Sione Havea Vailahi) who later became famous as the professional wrestlers 'King Tonga' and 'the Barbarian' in the World Wrestling Federation. Other professional rikishi from Tonga include Hisanoumi (Tebita Rato Taufa) and Minaminoshima (Isamu Falavei) who is now residing in Australia; Tonga was considered one of the strongest sumo nations from Oceania to compete in the ISF World Championships. 


Independent Samoa and American Samoa

The 15 inhabited islands of the Samoan Archipelago are politically divided into the US Territory of American Samoa in the east (population 41,000, capital Pago Pago) and the independent nation of Western Samoa in the west (population 182,000, capital Apia) but are still united by language, culture and a unique code of conduct called Fa'a Samoa. Many more Samoans live in countries around the world than live in the Samoan Islands and the Samoan Way is still practiced in the USA, New Zealand and Australia. In 1899 before the political seperation of the islands, an American author named Llewella Pierce Churchill wrote a book titled 'Sports of the Samoans', describing wrestling as the most important sport of Fa'a Samoa. According to this account wrestlers would make their bodies slippery with generous applications of coconut oil and would strive to get a hold on the opponents malo loin cloth to throw him to the ground. Taupiga wrestlers only wrestled on behalf of their village, never for themselves, but the sport has died out with the introduction of rugby to the islands by Marist missionaries in the 1920s. Like in Tonga, sumo has become the traditional style of choice for the Samoans and notable rikishi include Konishiki Yasokichi (Saleva'a Fuauli Atisono'e) and Yokozuna Musashimaru Koyo (Fiamali Penitani) who in 1999 became the second foreign born Grand Champion. The Samoan Islands also have a very strong wrestling programs with American Samoa being so closely connected with the American Collegiate Folk Style and Western Samoa being amongst the strongest wrestling nations in Oceania. 


Aotearoa and Rekohu

Polynesian wrestling continued to be practiced by Australia's near neighbours in New Zealand and the Chatham Islands. Known as te mamau which means unarmed fighting or more appropriately by the Maori word for wrestling ringa ringa, it was taught as a form of combat training for Maori warriors but public performances were often also done during the Matariki New Year Festival in June. Colonial accounts record that warriors often practiced their throwing techniques in shallow water to prevent injury to their training partner, demonstrating that these throws were as forceful as those of modern judo. The Moriori people of Rekohu (Chatham Islands) used wrestling and stick fighting as peace keeping rituals since instigated by one of their founder chiefs Nunuku in the 15th century but without more developed martial arts they were powerless against the Maori invaders who came to the islands in 1835, killing and enslaving most of the indigenous population. Ringa ringa wrestling was still being taught in the 20th century and the national champion Herbert Maori Slade used these methods against many visiting champions such as William Miller of Australia and John L. Sullivan of the USA in the 1890s. In the 1950s te mamau wrestling was used as a competitive outlet for controlling aggression in the young men at some of the sacred Marae grounds in the northern parts of North Island but this tradition never became popular and had died out by the 1970s. Unlike the Maori martial art of te mau taiaha that uses a fighting staff, the native wrestling style has not been fully revived. Instead like in other parts of Polynesia, sumo has become the style adopted by many Maori people and the Chief Martin Stirling, who teaches from Lower Hutt in Wellington, has produced many national and Oceanic champions. 


New Guinea and Melanesia

New Guinea is the second largest island in the world and has the greatest level of linguistic diversity with over 890 languages dispersed amongst a population of less than 9 million people. Politically divided amongst the European powers in the 19th century with the western half claimed by the Dutch, the north-eastern quarter claimed by the Germans and what was left in the south-east claimed by the British but after WW1 the eastern provinces of Papua and New Guinea were made a territory of Australia, until independence was declared for Papua New Guniea in 1975. Australia still has strong cultural ties with PNG a political presence in Melanesia through the Australian Torres Strait Islands. The western part of New Guinea declared independence from the Netherlands in 1962 but the following year the also newly independent Indonesia invaded and incorporated the territory into the republic as the province of Irian Jaya. Continued oppression of indigenous people has caused more than 100,000 violent Papuan deaths but in the year 2000 a more benign approach was taken by the Indonesian Government and the region was split into two provinces, West Papua on the Birds Head Peninsula with the rest becoming the Province of Papua.

The Solomon Islands are politically divided between PNG in the north through the Autonomous Region of Bougainville and the independent Solomon Islands in the south but all are united in the British Commonwealth. Vanauatu was created in 1980 after being a joint French and British protectorate of the New Hebrides while New Caledonia has remained part of France since 1853, although is slowly progressing towards political autonomy. Unfortunately not much is known about wrestling in the Melanesian regions because, like Australia's indigenous sports, not much was recorded in first contact literature. Vast areas of the region still remains unexplored and the central highlands of New Guinea were not penetrated by outsiders until the 1930s, when the Australian Leahy brothers went there looking for gold and filmed the surprisingly populous cultures to the amazement of anthropologists the world over; there is alot of ethnography still waiting to be done in this area.

Wrestling sports were essentially used as peace keeping rituals throughout New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia but little is understood about how these sports were conducted. It has been suggested that the revival of this custom could help to bring a cessation to many of the ethnic conflicts in the region. The island of Tikopia in the Solomon Islands has retained a traditional from of beach wrestling but the native people here are more closely related to their Polynesian ancestors from Samoa then they are to the Melanesian people from the rest of the country. In the Fly River Delta of the Western Province of PNG the colonial accounts of Gunnar Landjman from 1912 record a wrestling game called epoo korio played by the people on Kiwai Island. Apparently one wrestler had to defend a mound of sand that his opponent was trying to destroy. In the Kimaam District of the Merauke region of Papua Province, the southern part closest to PNG, a yam harvest festival called 'Dambu' includes traditional wrestling tournaments each August and it is said this sport has significantly reduced violent tribal warfare but again not much else is known beyond this. We would welcome anyone with further information about this subject to please contact us so this knowledge can be shared with the wider world community. 



With a human habitation of over 6000 years Fiji was united into a single polity in 1871 by Ratu Seru Epinisa Cakobau but under threat of an invasion from the USA he soon ceded his kingdom as a British Protectorate. Fijian warriors were famed throughout the Pacific for their martial prowess and this is primarily because of the development of Qito Vaka Viti or traditional combat games which included veitiqa or javelin throwing, veidre or tug'o'war and various styles of wrestling called veidia, veisovia, veividi and veibo, the latter being a stand up style that used the loin cloth to topple the opponent similar to the sports played across the Pacific. In the 1890s the British brought many Indians to Fiji to work as indentured labourers on the plantations and they introduced their own style of traditional wrestling, called kushti, to the island. Blended with the sport of veibo, this new sport that used the English name 'wrestling', developed a popular following until the 1960s. The most famous Fijian wrestler, Jimmy Superfly Snuka (James William Reiher) of WWF fame, was initially taught this style of wrestling before moving to the USA. With four miltary coups since 1987 and the most recent in 2006, political instability has impacted heavily on the Fijian economy, which in turn has reduced funding towards cultural programs. Although Fiji did have strong sumo, judo and wrestling programs, these are now struggling for existence and the country has gone from being one of the strongest grappling nations in Oceania to becoming one of the weakest. It is unknown if there is any insitu movement developing towards bringing a revival of traditional wrestling like there is in other parts of the Pacific. 



A vast area covering numerous countries including the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Nauru, Tokelau, the French Territory of Wallis & Futuna, the Marianas Islands, the US Territory of Guam and Palau. Like Melanesia not much was recorded about the traditional wrestling styles of these culturally diverse islands but much of the region was occupied by Japan during the Pacific War and sumo was introduced to many of the islands in this period. Traditional wrestling is popular still in Nauru and Kiribati during their national day celebrations and many of the takedowns of te boumwane wrestling are incorporated into the traditional martial arts training on Tarawa Island in Kiribati.  The Chamorro people of Guam and the Marianas Islands are related to Filipino populations and once had a belt wrestling sport called afulo that was widely practiced across the archipelago, but sadly it is now apparently long gone. Palau on the other hand has a strong development program for wrestling and is one of the strongest nations for the sport in the Pacific, demonstrating what can be done with will power and committment. Yap Island in the western Caroline group once controlled an Oceanic empire that received tribute in the form of large stone rings that came from as far as Palau, the recognised currency of the region and it is thought this polity could reach back more than 2000 years until it was taken over by Germany in the 1890s and Japan after WW1. In 1986 it joined with the other islands of the Caroline group, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae to create the Federated States of Micronesia. The islands of Pohnpei and Kosrae have massive megalthic contructions at the Nan Madol and Leluh sites, demonstrating that powerful polities ruled here as well and these were encounted by the Spanish in 1595 who were prevented from landing by large fleets of war canoes, but these kingdoms had been destroyed by 1628 due to internal dissent. By 1886 the Spanish did lay claim to Pohnpei, ruling it from the Philippines but in 1899 sold it to Germany who in turn conceded it and Kosrae to Japan after WW1, which after WW2 were administered by the USA until independence. There are a few colonial accounts of traditional wrestling in the Caroline Islands and one painting was done by a French visitor, Jacque Arago, in 1819 showing two men dressed in loincloths squaring up for unarmed battle. 



In referring to Indonesia here, this is not so much about the country but rather a region often referred to as Insular South East Asia, including countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and even Madagascar as well as Indonesia itself.  The most well studied traditional style of wrestling, or Gulat Tradisional as it is called in the Bahasa Indonesia language, is benjang gulat from Bandung Province in Western Java. It is similar to sumo in some ways in that each wrestler must force his opponent out of a circular boundary but unlike sumo the wrestlers don't wear belts and they are only allowed to push against each other with their shoulders. Bouts in this style of wrestling have been recorded in literature since the 17th century but oral lore shows that the sport is actually very ancient in this region. The island of Madura off the coast of Eastern Java also has its own form of Gulat Tradisional called okol. A wrestling belt is used but this time the emphasis is on throws as there is no defined boundary, except the one formed by spectators ringing the fighters. Okol is an important part of the rain making rites, which are essential for an agricultural rice producing society and is closely associated with the bull racing held on the island. In the Rembang region of East Java a similar style of popular belt wrestling called pathol is played on sandy beaches while in Lombok Island the style is called paluru. Bali too has its own form of wrestling called mepantigan, this time done as part of a dramatic story telling cycle during traditional Hindu theatre. Mepantigan is most often performed in the muddy fields of a wet rice paddy and is designed to bring fun to the village, with children participating while laughter abounds. In Aceh in northern Sumatra the people play a territorial game game called gedou gedou, which has one opponent facing two others as he tries to tag them before returning to his own area, while they try to restrain him in theirs. The Dayak people of Borneo practice a belt wrestling style called either puyuq or baguling during the Dangai Rice Harvest Festival that sees a crowd of singing and foot stomping women forming circle around a ring made of banana leaves and spoiled rice. The Malagasy language used on the Island of Madagascar shows that the first inhabitants of this land were from Borneo, who later mixed with immigrants coming from East Africa to create the modern Malagasy people. In the Androy Province in the southern part of the island, the Antodroy people have practiced a style of wrestling called ringa since earliest times. Once again this is closely associated with rice harvest festivals, wrestlers wear special wrestling belts and it also has its own musical tradition called tsinjaka rodoringal. Coincidently or not, this is the same word used by New Zealand Maori people to describe wrestling. 


For more about the potential of Pacific Island Traditional Wrestling;

see this PDF Attachment

To read more On Bullfighting & Belt Wrestling;

see this PDF attachment


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