Vegas braced for the ultimate heavyweights

With 45 wrestlers taking part, the Grand Sumo Tournament, hosted by the Mandalay Bay Resort, has been hailed as the first such high-level, officially-sanctioned sumo contest to be held in the United States for more than two decades. Organisers are hoping that it will spur its popularity in North America.

"I hope people fall in love with the sport," said Musashimaru, a retired grand champion, or yokozuana. Installed in Las Vegas for the long holiday weekend, Musashimaru is famed for moving from Samoa to Japan to become the first-ever non-Japanese to attain the rank of champion.

It remains to be seen what visitors to Las Vegas make of sumo wrestling, best known for the bulk of its participants, who can weigh 300lbs or more, for their hair tied in top-knots and, most of all, for the immodesty of their outfits in the ring. They grapple with swaddling that is both a belt and loincloth. At least keeping their weight up shouldn't be a challenge in a city famous for all-you-can-eat buffets in virtually every casino resort up and down the Strip, and for the most part open 24 hours a day. Serious wrestlers normally spend their mornings training before stopping to eat considerable lunches. They then sleep during the afternoons in order to bulk up. "We need rice, we need to keep healthy," said Musashimaru.

The Mandalay, with its oriental theme, will not have a problem serving the fighters all the rice they need. Otherwise, the Asian cuisine is a highlight of the buffet at the Aladdin Casino, just a few blocks down the Strip.

Dating back more than 1,500 years, sumo wrestling is a highly revered and carefully supervised sport in Japan. First-timers in the audience may wonder where its intricacies lie, however. A bout can sometimes last only a few seconds, where the aim of each wrestler is either to shove his opponent out of the ring - the Dohyo - or lift him from his feet and make another part of his body touch the floor.

The Mandalay, which is a favourite venue for the big boxing bouts in Las Vegas, had to rebuild its ring for the three-day sumo tournament. Once that was done, the ring received a blessing in a traditional Shinto ceremony last Tuesday, ahead of the opening bouts of the competition last night.

A spokesman for the Grand Sumo Association of Japan was non-committal about Las Vegas as a future regular stop on the sumo wrestling calendar. But he did not rule it out. "If this is a very successful event, there is a chance of us coming back to Las Vegas," he said.