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The Slimmer Side of Sumo
The Secret City on latimes.com

Features column: A world champion Bulgarian and a scrawny American sumo activist hope to transform the ancient sport's gargantuan image. With the help of a Japanese league legend, they just might pull it off.

     Sunday afternoon, commencement day at UCLA. Outside the John Wooden Center, a small band of unlikely sumo wrestlers lounges near the glass entryway. One is a slight man of 150 pounds. He has a shaggy beard and wears his long hair in a ponytail. His name is Andrew Freund, and he's the founder and president of the 3-year-old California Sumo Association. He will turn out to have more energy than a Texas power provider.


     Another member of the group is baby-faced and soft-spoken. And he is strong. When he does five consecutive back-flips because someone challenges
him to, his muscles flex, revealing a physique that's more developed than a roll of film. He is Svetoslav Binev--Svet to his friends--a recent immigrant to Los Angeles from Bulgaria and among the baddest lightweight world champions contemporary sumo has known.


     Of course, to casual sumo enthusiasts, the words "lightweight" and "sumo" probably make as much sense as sake with a Diet Coke chaser. But since the 1991 founding of the International Sumo Federation and subsequent creation of three weight classes and two gender divisions, the ancient national sport of Japan is no longer exclusively for behemoths.


     "We have to change the mentality of the people about sumo," Binev says, not fully confident in his English. "We have to explain that it's a very attractive sport and [that there] should be weight classes so everybody [can] compete. Because now people [say] 'It's for fat guys. Why [should] I try?'"

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     That said, this is still Los Angeles. Celebrity equals currency. So Freund has pulled off something of a coup. The CSA's inaugural USA Sumo Open on Aug. 4 at UCLA will include an appearance by Konishiki, the most famous name in professional sumo; recently retired, he's the 628-pound American-born champion, who became the first foreigner to dominate the Japanese pro league.


     "It's amazing," Freund says. "I'm actually shocked Konishiki is coming. I've been talking to Japan night and day for weeks."


     Freund hopes the grappler's monumental presence will result in a crowd of 2,000 for the event. Binev will be there. And Freund will be there,hustling, promoting and exhorting his team members, but not competing as he often does. The CSA president has lost 20 pounds of muscle during the past 12 months, which he says is the result of trying to get Binev acclimated, helping him obtain a green card (it's still pending) and getting him permission to travel to Brazil for the most recent world championship event.


     "We sacrificed everything," Freund says. "I sacrificed all of my time (and) he spent all of his time training. No matter what money [either of them made], everything went toward getting ready."


     And it all went for naught. Freund says Binev's immigration lawyer failed to file some papers until after the deadline and therefore Binev didn't get to go for his third consecutive crown.


     "That's the tip of the iceberg. There were a million nightmares. I'm about to scream just thinking about it," Freund says.

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     Amidst the sumo world, Freund and Binev are a real odd couple. They met in Orange County last year, when Binev was at his wit's end and only a week away from giving up wrestling altogether and moving to the Midwest. Freund talks fast; Binev is far more deliberate. Freund is a bit spastic; he runs up a wall and scrapes his fingers off the ceiling. Then, before doing it again, he asks a photographer to get a shot of it. Binev moves as fast as lightning, but with the ease and efficiency of rain.


     Both men came to sumo in roundabout manners. Freund went to Japan in 1990 to teach English. He attended sumo matches and was enthralled. A few years after he returned to America, he wandered into a sumo demonstration. His friend challenged him to go up on stage, which he did, and he was hooked.


     Binev, on the other hand, was practically born to be a top athlete. His father was a professional soccer player; Binev was wrestling by age 7. He went on to win national championships in four sports: power-lifting, handball, freestyle wrestling and, as a youth, sprinting. He took up sumo in 1997, when an instructor at the National Sports Academy in Sofia offered him carte blanche to use his own training methods. Binev, who has little patience for things he finds ineffective, had clashed with some of the coaches in other sports. The sumo offer was one he couldn't refuse.


     According to Freund, in the four years that have followed, Binev has lost only three matches. Two were on questionable calls by the referees, the third, when Binev wrestled with a broken ankle.


     "Svet doesn't have any weaknesses," Freund says. "Because he's at least as fast as everyone, at least as strong as everyone (else), at least as balanced as everyone (else) with at least as many techniques as everyone (else). So there isn't anything you can do against him."


     Except maybe ignore him.


     When Konishiki arrives, he'll be the grand marshal of Los Angeles' Nisei Week Japanese Festival parade. Yet when Binev walks down the street near his
West Los Angeles home, nobody recognizes him, let alone applauds.


     "I'm trying [to get] an athlete like this recognition," Freund says. "It's hard to do something unless your sport is watched. So he was the national champion of Bulgarian freestyle wrestling. How many people watch freestyle wrestling?"


     For his part, Binev has adapted to life in the U.S. He has a beefcake head shot, he's had two roles in films and he's appeared on a made-for-television gladiator show. The Bulgarian expatriate says it's all thanks to his pal Freund.


     "I thank god I met him. Otherwise I don't know what I would have done," Binev says. "You know, maybe I would be in Chicago driving a truck or something."