Sumo: Four American Wrestlers in Japan
Sumo, with its history dating back perhaps 1,200 years, is one of the iconic symbols of Japan, and until relatively recently its governing body did not allow foreigners to compete in the sport.
Rikishi (wrestlers) these days come from many countries. As of January, 2017, top division (makuuchi) wrestlers come from Russia, Bulgaria, Mongolia, Georgia, Brazil and Egypt.
Mongolians now dominate the sport. Between January 2006 and January 2016, 56 of the 58 tournaments were won by Mongolians, despite restrictions on the number of foreigners who are allowed to participate in professional sumo. In January 2016, Kotoshogiku broke the 10-year Japanese winless streak. No Japan-born wrestler has earned the promotion to yokozuna, the highest rank, since Wakanohana in 1998.
There was a day not many years ago when the only foreigners to give the Japanese any competition were Americans. There have been four notable Americans to rise to makuuchi, the aforementioned highest division in sumo. All were from Hawaii and all won at least one basho (tournament).
Two, Akebono and Musashimaru, achieved the rank of yokozuna, the highest ranking of sumo. Konishiki fell just short, and in fact, many believe, did not become the first yokozuna mostly because he was a foreigner. Takamiyama won only one tournament, but reached the rank of sekiwaki (the third highest rank) and wrestled until just short of his 40th birthday.
Below are listed the four Americans in order of first appearance:
Takamiyama (born Jesse Kahaulua in Maui, Hawaii on June 16, 1944) was the first foreigner to reach the top-ranked makuuchi division (1968), the first to reach the rank of sekiwake (the third highest rank, which he achieved in 1972) and the first to win a tournament (January, 1972, when he went 13-2).
At 190 cm (6'3") and 204 kg (450 pounds), his accomplishments were due more to size and brute strength rather than to outstanding technique or strategy. He fought 1,579 bouts (including lower division bouts) in his career, but never won a Technique Award.
During his 20-year run he set the record for most tournaments ranked in the top makuuchi division. He won 812 bouts overall.
The gravelly-voiced Takamiyama (he suffered a damaging blow to the throat early in his career) was the first foreign-born rikishi to head a training stable or heya, founding the Azumazeki stable in 1986. The most notable wrestler he coached was Akebono.
Konishiki (born Salevaa Atisanoe in Honolulu, Hawaii on December 31, 1963) was the first foreigner (1987) to reach the rank of ozeki (the second highest) rank, and is still the heaviest wrestler in sumo history. Nicknamed "The Dump Truck," at his peak he weighed 287 kg (633 lbs) and once said in an interview that he could drink 22 bottles of beer before he felt even slightly drunk. He is 184 cm (6 feet) tall and is of Samoan descent.
From late 1991 to early 1992 he won two of three basho, and sported a 38-7 record in that time. Still, he was denied yokozuna status (the highest rank in sumo) by the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee. In retrospect, it could be argued that it was a good thing for him.
As a yokozuna he would have been forced to quit as his skills eroded due to his mounting injuries, caused in part by the pressure his huge bulk put on his knees. Instead, he held on for a few more years, yo-yoing up and down the maegashira ranks until he retired at the end of 1997.
Since retiring from sumo, he has transferred well into the entertainment industry. He has had an anime series made based on him, appeared in movies, hosted an NHK children's program, been a radio DJ and become a singer.
Akebono (born Chad Rowen in Waimanao, Hawaii, on May 8, 1969), was one of the tallest (203 cm, 6'8") and heaviest (250 kg, 550 pounds) sumo wrestlers in history. He is of Native Hawaiian, Irish and Cuban descent.
In January of 1993 he won his second consecutive basho, thereby becoming yokozuna and ending a very rare stretch, lasting eight-months, of there being no yokozuna. From the end of 1992 to the end of 1993, he won 90 of 105 matches.
His fierce rivalry with brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana is credited with bringing back the popularity of sumo after it had been waning. Akebono won 11 championships and finished second 13 times.
After retiring from the ring, Akebono ran into financial problems and tried his hand at other fighting sports, with little success. He was 1-9 as a kick boxer (he was knocked out five times) and 0-4 in his short mixed martial arts career (with three losses by submission).
Later, he took up professional wrestling with more success, and is still involved in the sport.
Musashimaru (born Fiamalu Penitani in American Samoa on May 2, 1971) was the second of two Americans to become a yokozuna. He is of Tongan, German, Samoan and Portuguese descent. He and his family moved to Hawaii when he was 10 years old.
In early 1999 Musashimaru (192 cm, 6'3" and 235 kg, 518 pounds) won consecutive tournaments, assuring his ascent to yokozuna. Overall, he won 12 tournaments (one more than Akebono) between July, 1994 and September, 2002.
From November 2001, to September, 2002 he won four of six basho. He injured his wrist in the sixth (last) basho that year, then sat out the next three tournaments before returning briefly. He dropped out of the July basho after six days, sat out the next tournament and then retired in the middle of the next tournament.
He won 700 top division bouts, the sixth highest number in sumo history. Had he not gotten injured, he would surely have moved up that list.
He is said to closely resemble Saigo Takamori, "The last true samurai of Japan."