If you’ve never watched two titanic sumo wrestlers crouch down in front of each other, lock eyes and then collide in an explosion of heaving muscle, blubber and samurai topknots, you’re missing something quintessentially Japanese. As Japan’s national sport, sumo wrestling has a history that stretches back some 1,500 years and is deeply imbued with ritual, spirituality and bone-crushing physical struggle. The rules are as simple as Thunderdome – two rikishi wrestlers enter the sacred dohyo ring, and whoever gets pushed out – or touches the ground with anything other than his feet – loses. Bouts are over in seconds.
Sumo recently got a big shot in the arm when Kisenosato became the first Japanese yokozuna, or grand champion, in 19 years. Foreign grapplers such as the legendary Mongolian Hakuho had dominated amid waning popularity in Japan. Another of these foreign hopefuls is Osunaarashi, a 25-year-old Egyptian, born Abdelrahman Ahmed Shaalan, whose ring name means “great sandstorm” in Japanese. At six foot, two and a half inches tall, tipping the scales at 335 pounds and having defeated two yokozuna in 2014, he has lived up to that moniker.
“As the first professional sumo wrestler from Africa, I feel a lot of responsibility in everything I do and say,” said Osunaarashi from Osaka, where he was training for the March basho grand tournament and managing a leg injury. “Everyone is watching you closely.”
Rikishi live in stables headed by an oyakata retired wrestler. For a year as a junior wrestler, Osunaarashi lived like a servant, waking up at 6, readying the 30-foot-long mawashi loincloths for his seniors, cleaning the training room, preparing lunch for everyone and then cleaning the entire stable. As a salaried sekitori-grade wrestler now, he has it a bit easier but still trains over four hours a day and lives under strict rules. He must be courteous in public, dress only in traditional attire, and abstain from making controversial statements as well as driving; his stable imposes a 10 p.m. curfew. (Also, Osunaarashi is the only Muslim in pro sumo and sometimes tournaments coincide with his Ramadan fasts). Despite all that, Osunaarashi acknowledged that some wrestlers live up to the popular image of superhuman rikishi who down gallons of sake and party with adoring female fans.
“How much time wrestlers spent on that is all up to the individual – it depends how badly you want to succeed at sumo,” he said. “I’m focused on how to survive and manage my body. I have my own technique and my own style, and I want to pursue my dream of becoming yokozuna.”