The cheers of thousands filled the Walter Pyramid as Jose Galindo faced off with Makini Manu in the heavyweight division semifinals during the 2022 U.S. Sumo Open.

The referee signals the start of the match and the two behemoths—each weighing in at over 400 pounds—charge. The bout is over in seconds.

The wrestler’s wife, Yaleidy Galindo, screams as the crowd erupts after Jose forced his opponent out of the ring to claim the victory.

Jose, who was the defending heavyweight champion, went on to win silver in the division, as well as bronze in the openweight division. One of the opponents who bested him is ranked fourth in the world.

“I only lost to two guys the whole day,” Jose said. “Like, two mistakes cost me two gold medals.”

But Jose’s two medals only accounted for two-thirds of the sumo power couple’s winnings at the tournament. Earlier that day, Yaleidy won bronze in the women’s heavyweight division.

Finding each other—and sumo

Jose, 32, was born and raised in Norwalk until his family moved to Utah when he was 12. During middle school, high school and college, he played football, basketball and track and field, but no wrestling.

Yaleidy’s athletic background also does not include wrestling, but rather volleyball and basketball. Now a 38-year-old optometric technician, she is from Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, where she lived until she was 21. She moved around a bit, including a stint in Australia, before moving to Utah where she would meet Jose in 2010.

“We met online,” Yaleidy said. “We hung out a couple of times and we just hit it off.”

The couple moved to Whittier in 2015.

The Galindos’ introduction to sumo was purely coincidental—and swift. A few years ago, Jose—a massage therapist by trade—recalled an off-hand comment by a Japanese chiropractor at his Yorba Linda office that he is the size of a sumo and should give the sport a try.

Jose said he didn’t realize it was so popular, but the chiropractor pulled up some webpages on his phone.

“‘This is pretty interesting,’” Jose recalled thinking. “So I went home and I was just down the YouTube rabbit hole. And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I think I can do this.’”

Through his scrolling, Jose came across the name Andrew Freund, who founded the U.S. Sumo Open in 2001. Jose reached out to Freund, who told him about a competition taking place in two weeks. At Freund’s request, Jose attended several practices ahead of the tournament to learn the rituals and to get a cursory feel for the sport.

“The whole time I was thinking it was like some weekend warrior, high-school gymnasium kind of stuff,” Jose said. “I was wrong.”

Jose walked into the Walter Pyramid for his first tournament, the 2019 U.S. Sumo Open, to find thousands of people eagerly awaiting the spectacle.

“I weighed in with the heavyweights—really intimidating guys that really fit the mold and I’m just some random guy,” Jose said.

Despite being a novice, Jose went on to win silver in the men’s heavyweight division, beating a former professional and a few world athletes. In the openweight division, however, Jose said his rookie mistakes caught up to him as he was going up against even more seasoned sumo.

From the beginning, Jose wanted Yaleidy to step into the ring as part of the circuit’s blossoming women’s division. She was reluctant, however, and opted to stick to offering moral support and documenting his efforts through photo and video.

After over a year of pestering, Yaleidy finally caved—weeks before the 2020 U.S. Sumo Open in October, which was held in a small Los Angeles gym with no live audience due to the pandemic, with 33 athletes from six countries—a little more than half the number from 2019 due to travel restrictions.

While smaller and in a more intimate setting, the competition was still fierce—but the couple persevered, sweeping the heavyweight and openweight divisions with two gold medals apiece.

Yaleidy did not place the following year, while Jose won gold in both his categories once again.

Heavyweight sumo wrestler Jose Galindo does his chiri-chozu after a sumo workout with his wife at Uptown Gym as they prepare for the 2022 US Sumo Open at The Walter Pyramid at Cal State Long Beach in Whittier Thursday, September 8, 2022. The US Sumo Open in Long Beach is the biggest sumo event in the world outside of Japan. Video screen grab by Thomas R. Cordova.

The event did not return to Long Beach in 2021 once again because of coronavirus mandates. A small crowd of about 1,000 gathered at the Terasaki Budokan gym in LA.

In July, Yaleidy represented the U.S. at the 2022 World Games in Birmingham. She did not place in the event, which was dominated by Japan and Ukraine, but she did have one of only five U.S. wins out of about 65 matches.

“American sumo still has a ways to go to keep up with the rest of the world,” Jose said. “Those guys are no joke.”

Yaleidy suffered an eye injury during her second match and then lost to a Mongolian athlete in her third match, knocking her out of the tournament.

“But I’m still very proud that I got in there,” she said.

Jose was a coach for the U.S. women’s team but did not compete in the World Games as an athlete.

When the U.S. Open returned to Long Beach two months later, so did the crowd. Over 3,500 spectators filled the pyramid—the largest home crowd Yaleidy has ever competed in front of.

“I was a little bit nervous but I was like, ‘Hey, you already did Worlds, you can do this,’” Yaleidy recalled. “‘Just don’t fall off the stage.’”

Cultural immersion

While the couple enjoys the competition of the sport, what really keeps them hooked in the sumo world is the community they have found.

“I love that we can smack each other in the face, hit each other as hard as we can … and after practice we’re all meeting somewhere to eat,” Jose said.

Even at tournaments, Yaleidy said competitors are civil and respectful. Yaleidy said it’s interesting meeting wrestlers from around the world and learning their background and style.

Heavyweight sumo wrestler Jose Galindo high-fives spectators after winning a match at the 2022 US Sumo Open at The Walter Pyramid at Cal State Long Beach in Long Beach Saturday, September 10, 2022. The US Sumo Open in Long Beach is the biggest sumo event in the world outside of Japan. Video screen grab by Thomas R. Cordova.

“Everyone just brings something different to the table,” she said, adding that the community has become like an international family.

Until recently, the couple trained in Torrance at the Yamamoto Sumo Dojo under Ryuichi Yamamoto, 38. Coach Yamamoto was a professional sumo in Japan from 2007 to 2011, when he was forced to retire. At 6-foot-4 and about 600 pounds, he is the heaviest Japanese-born sumo wrestler—and possibly the heaviest Japanese person—in history.

Despite his size, Jose said he’s seen Yamamoto do a full split and put his head to the mat. Though intimidating at first, Yaleidy said Yamamoto is approachable and kind, even though sparring with him was “like hitting a wall.”

While the heavyweight competitors use their sheer mass in an attempt to overpower their opponent and force them out of the ring, lighter-weight sumos are faster and can utilize techniques to use opponent’s size against them, Jose explained. Because of this, experienced smaller wrestlers can win openweight divisions just as easily as their bulkier competition.

Practices consisted of a lot of stretching and exercises to improve balance, which is a key component of a successful sumo. After that, the group would pair off for sparring, oftentimes indiscriminate of weight class or gender. Yamamoto would then coach them through their sparring matches, rather than teach them techniques before.

“It’s very much more of a traditional Japanese setting,” Jose said. “We don’t have music playing, it’s very quiet. All you hear is people’s breath going.”

Outside of the dojo, Yaleidy said the occasional treadmill or weight lifting session is good for sumo but the sport, at least for the heavyweights, does not require a bustling exercise regimen.

“I do feel bad for some of our middle- and lightweight [people] who have to cut weight sometimes,” Jose said. “And the heavyweights are just chilling at the buffet.”

Bring sumo abroad

While the first mention of sumo can be traced back to a 712 AD Kojiki manuscript, women competing in the sport is new. In fact, women are still not allowed to compete in professional sumo. Because of these barriers, Yaleidy said she enjoys working to introduce the sport to as many women as possible.

“I’m really invested in getting women into the sport,” Yaleidy said.

Earlier this year, the couple decided to move to Puerto Rico, where Yaleidy still has family. They made the move in the fall—mostly for personal reasons. After Hurricane Fiona, Yaleidy said it’s more important than ever to be there for her parents, who “aren’t getting any younger.”

Even though it was necessary, the decision was hard, Yaleidy said. The community they found through sumo is hard to leave behind.

“When we told people that we were moving,” Jose said, “I was just as nervous to tell my sumo family as I was to tell my real family.”

But it’s only “goodbye for now,” as the Galindos plan to continue participating in tournaments stateside, including the U.S. Open in Long Beach.

The couple hopes to bring the sport with them and introduce new athletes to the spectacle. Yaleidy said she is looking into starting a Puerto Rican Sumo Federation under the international organization or, at the very least, a club to begin teaching others and building a new community that can compete within the U.S. Sumo Federation.

The long-term goal is to open a training facility on the island, which could serve as a hub for sumo throughout the Caribbean, Yaleidy said. But regardless of what happens, the pair fully intend to continue in the sport.

“I always told her I want to do this so when I’m old and fat I can tell my grandkids I used to be a sumo wrestler,” Jose said. “And make them Google it to see.”

Heavyweight sumo wrestlers Jose and his wife Yaleidy Galindo hold up their second and third place medals after completing in the 2022 US Sumo Open at The Walter Pyramid at Cal State Long Beach Saturday, September 10, 2022. The US Sumo Open in Long Beach is the biggest sumo event in the world outside of Japan. Video screen grab by Thomas R. Cordova.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the name of Ryuichi Yamamoto.

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.