Midvale resident is ranked in the top five amateur sumo wrestlers in the countryJan 05, 2023 02:11PM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart
George Ferris (right) tried sumo on a whim in 2019 and won gold in the Beginner’s Open category and the Men’s Team Competition. (Photo courtesy George Ferris)
Two men crouch, facing each other in a 15-foot circle. At the signal, they explode into movement, pushing and dodging until one of them steps out of the ring. The bout is over in a matter of seconds. This is sumo, and one of America’s top amateur wrestlers lives right here in Midvale.
“Shin-deshi:” A new recruit into sumo
George Ferris never seriously considered sumo wrestling until he saw a billboard for a tournament while driving down I-15.
“I thought, ‘I’m a big guy. I’m relatively athletic,’” Ferris said. “When am I ever going to have a chance to do sumo?”
The Fitcon 2019 Sumo Cup was organized to give the best amateur sumo wrestlers in America a chance to gather and compete between the U.S. Sumo Open and the World Sumo Championships. According to a blogger on northamericansumo.com, many of the top American competitors and even wrestlers from Mongolia and England competed.
“So I showed up, they gave me a free T-shirt, and I went undefeated in two tournaments,” Ferris said.
Amateur sumo consists of bouts between nonprofessional and ex-professional wrestlers, as well as women and minors, who are ineligible to compete as professional sumo wrestlers.
“The guy who hosted the two tournaments came to me and said, ‘Look, you’re going to keep doing this. You’re too good not to,’” Ferris said. “So, I went to Nationals the next year and I got third place. That happened to be the Saturday before the Monday when everything got shut down with COVID.”
“After COVID took place, you know…I got bigger, like a lot of people,” Ferris continued with a laugh. “They had another Nationals in Salt Lake, I came back, and I got fourth place.”
“Shingitai:” Heart, technique and body, the three qualities of a wrestler
Ferris is definitely athletic.
“I did football, wrestling and track in high school,” Ferris said. “Then professional wrestling. I did rugby for a month. I’ve always been the pretty athletic guy who’s deceptively fast for his size.”
Ferris was around 340 pounds when he first competed and is now closer to 400.
“The guy who is No. 1 in the country was pushing 600 pounds,” Ferris said. “It’s rare for me to look at someone and think I’ve got a 250 pound weight disadvantage.”
Competitors of all sizes are welcome. There can be an advantage in weighing more than your competitor, but there is much more to the sport. To excel in sumo, a wrestler needs both strength and flexibility.
“My strength is phenomenal,” Ferris said. “But the flexibility is not there. You see these sumo wrestlers in Japan, who are heavier than me, doing the splits. And I’m over here struggling to get anywhere close to that.”
“The cool thing about sumo is you’re going against the other person, but your real opponent is yourself,” Ferris said. “I had a match where I hit a guy early. As soon as I touched him I knew that I got in his head enough that he defeated himself. I love that it’s really more mental than anything. It’s making sure that I’m mentally in the place to win. And when I don’t win, it’s on me.”
“I love football. I really love football so much,” Ferris said. “But there would be games where I can look at the score and say I had one of the best games of my life, but we lost or the refs caused the outcome. In sumo it’s so pure that that just doesn’t happen.”
Sumo does have a referee to moderate each bout, but the outcome is usually obvious.
“Very rarely does it come down to a ref’s decision,” Ferris said. “A lot of times what happens if it’s too close it’s like this match took seven seconds, let’s just do it again.”
“Kokakuka:” A person who loves sumo
Rob McConkie, the wrestler who came in third place at the 2020 Nationals, happens to live nearby in West Jordan. McConkie graduated from Jordan High School and works in software at Fidelity Investments.
Together, Ferris and McConkie are working on starting a sumo club that currently has around five members. Some of them went to the 2019 Fitcon and became interested when Ferris did. Others saw him on the news and reached out. The club meets in Ferris’ garage to spar.
“We’re just guys in Utah who love sumo,” Ferris said.
“I bought some mats from an old children’s gym, like for toddlers, and we train on those,” he said with a laugh. “We’re coming from the point of view of judo, wrestling, football, as opposed to how sumo is actually done. ”
They have an unofficial coach who trained in Japan and visits Utah occasionally.
“I’ve had a couple practices with the coach and we haven’t hit anyone yet, it’s just here’s how you do this, here’s how you do that,” Ferris said. “I was coming from the point of view of I’m just going to hit people as hard as I can. That’ll work for 65, 70% of people I can get a win on. But if I really want to get to that level and stay there….I haven't gotten above third place at nationals.”
“If I went against a professional from Japan I’d get my butt kicked,” Ferris said. “Those guys have been doing it since they were four. But I think I could go to the international level of amateur sumo and do pretty well. I just have to train a bit harder to get to that point.”
Ferris has been invited to compete internationally, but hasn’t had the funds to make it happen.
“Shusshin:” Place of origin
“I’m one of the 40% of Utahns who’ve moved here from California in the past 15 years,” Ferris said. “I’ve been here since 2009, that’s 13 years of my life. I don’t know how long it takes for me to be considered a Utahn, but I hope I’m getting close!”
Ferris first moved to Utah to attend Utah State University, where he earned a bachelor’s in political science. Ferris then earned a Master of Business Administration (MBA) from Western Governors University. He lived in South Salt Lake and Millcreek before buying a house in Midvale.
“I love the Midvale community,” Ferris said. “I love how invested people are. It’s a mix of people who’ve lived here forever and people who have just moved here. It’s such a great community.”
Aside from working to improve his sumo technique, Ferris has two day jobs. He’s an equity consultant and stock plan administrator for an accounting firm and also writes public policy about economic empowerment for a think tank based in Washington, D.C. Ferris used to be heavily involved in politics.
“I don’t do as much (politics) now,” Ferris said. “I’m mostly writing about how to get people from one economic class to the next.”
“I grew up in Section 8 Housing, a single mom situation,” Ferris said. “In my family line, I was the first person to graduate from college, the first person to get a master’s degree. I started a small business and did a bunch of stuff no one else in my family has done just because of our economic situation. I was able to use that to kind of explain how did I do that and what things can be done to help people in a similar situation going forward.”
Ferris and his wife have two children: a 22-month-old girl and a one-month-old son who was born early and recently came home after spending time in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
Even with so much to keep him busy, Ferris joined the Harvest Days Festival Committee in 2022.
“I love working with George on the Harvest Days Festival Committee,” said committee member Rebecca Pipkin. “He is super dedicated, even showing up to meetings when his son was in the NICU. He has great ideas for activities and was super fun as the bingo caller.”
Ferris acknowledged that moving bingo from Thursday to Saturday was a big change.
“You just don’t mess with bingo,” Ferris said with a laugh. “People have their traditions, and I really wanted to have it be something that was so fun people forgot it wasn’t on Thursday. I don’t know if I succeeded or not, but I tried.”
“Jonokuchi:” This is only the beginning
Meanwhile, Ferris keeps training. He wants to rise through the ranks and eventually compete at the world level. He’s continuing to improve his sumo technique with the help of his coach.
“He’s really had to kind of break me down from the beginning,” Ferris said. “We’ll start all over and go from there.”