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Pre-history/250 AD

"Sumo, Will of the Gods"

Sumo wrestling is an ancient Japanese form of ritual sport that is also an early example of professional sport play. Sumo traditions have roots in Shinto religion and many aspects of Sumo bring together ritual, cultural discipline, competitive play, and the conception of sport as a cultural institution. The documentary above explains various aspects of contemporary Sumo by exploring their history and cultural significance. It has evolved from a sacred Shinto ritual of divination to an international professional sport. One pre-historic version of the origin of Sumo tells of a match between the god Takemikazuchi no Kami with Takeminakata no Kami, the son of the ruler of the Yamato people, which was thought to establish the supremacy of the Yamato race in Japan (Cuyler 1985). Sumo is an example of an ancient form of agon or competitive play that was thought to reflect the will of the gods.

Wrestling in Ancient Egypt and Greece


Wrestling is one of the earliest documented forms of competitive play and functioned as both a ceremonial activity and popular spectacle (Decker 1992). The image above depicts a scene of Greek wrestlers in training. Wrestling is perhaps the purest form of agon having to do with the human body, and a good analog to many forms of play-fighting observable in animals.

Greek Pankration

History Channel: Pankration

The Greek form of sport fighting, pankration, literally meaning all (pan) powers (kratos), is the historical root of the modern sport of Mixed Martial Arts (see right). In pankration contests only eye gouging and biting were disallowed, and although the fights were not expressly to the death (perhaps the only aspect qualifying this as play and not combat) fighters would often opt to die rather than tap to submission holds or bodily incapacitation. This form of sport seems to mark an extreme limit of play.

Modern Pro-Wrestling

WWE Wrestlemania 28, Rock vs Cena

This video is an example of a contemporary pro-wrestling match in the World Wrestling Entertainment organization. More sport theatre than sport, match outcomes are scripted in order to develop wrestler personas and storylines and create mythic drama for the action. This is an instance of one of the oldest sport in which agon (competition) is subordinated to mimicry (simulation), and also reconnects these interrelated play forms to ritual and mythmaking.

Mixed-Martial Arts

UFC PPV Introduction: "Evolution"

After millennia of martial arts development, in which the trajectory has predominantly been to transition from religious or spiritual ritual to sport and spectacle, modern mixed-martial arts emerges as the synthesis of these traditions into a hybrid of sport-spectacle incorporating the most functional elements of the various combat arts and sports into one. This is pankration with the benefit of historical martial art traditions. The video above is a intro video for Ultimate Fighting Championship events dramatizing its own history and evolution.

Competitive Gaming

Fighting Game Tournament documentary

As an exemplary form agon focused on individual competition with ritual and mythic dimensions, sumo contributes to a human tradition of competitive play-fighting that has its origins in animal social play and its current endpoints in MMA and pro0wreslting (see right) as well as computer-mediated or virtual forms. The video above explores the culture of competitive fighting game tournaments.


  1. Cuyler, P.L. Sumo: From Rite to Sport. New York: Weatherhill, 1979.
  2. Decker, Wolfgang. Sports and Games of Ancient Egypt. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.
  3. Yamato Race
  4. National Geographic, "Inside Sumo" documentary
  5. Takemikazuchi
  6. World Wresting Entertainment
  7. Ultimate Fighting Championship