Proving He Had the Stomach for It, American Jesse Kuhaulua Becomes the Biggest Name in Japanese Sumo
Sixteen years ago Jesse Kuhaulua was nothing but a stranger in a strange sport—a Hawaiian-born American football player attempting to break into the rigid hierarchy of Japanese sumo wrestling. Today he is a national hero in Japan, on a par with Sadaharu Oh, the just retired baseball player who hit more home runs than Hank Aaron.
At 36, Kuhaulua may no longer be the best of the 600 sumo wrestlers in Japan, but he is the most celebrated. He is also the tallest (6'4") and the heaviest (420 pounds), in keeping with his ring name of Takamiyama, which means Mountain of the Lofty View. Takamiyama is the first Westerner ever to be admitted to the maku-uchi ("inside the curtain"), the top 38 wrestlers on the professional circuit.
"Sumo is such a disciplined life," says Kuhaulua, "that you need a mountain of will to succeed." He could hardly imagine the rigors involved when, at 19, he was recruited by a sumo instructor passing through Maui. The son of a cattle ranch hand, Jesse had been a star tackle at Baldwin High in Wailuku. The training regimen in Tokyo for aspiring sumos was so punishing that Jesse was tempted to say aloha many times his first winter. "We got up at 4 a.m.," he recalls with a grimace, "and stripped to a loincloth in the bitter cold. I shivered all over the place and longed like hell for the sunshine of Maui." A sumo novice, he also discovered, is expected to double as cook, janitor and latrine cleaner for his stable (as a team is called).
Jesse persevered. "Something told me," he says, "that there was no reason I couldn't do as well as the Japanese, or even better." He hardened himself by butting his stomach, head and chest against a wooden pillar. "I put in three hours," he says proudly, "where my Japanese colleagues did but one." In his first professional tournament one month after his arrival, he won eight consecutive matches.
At first Takamiyama was a comparatively lithe 253 pounds, and his height made him easy to topple in the 15-foot ring. But countless bowls of chanko-nabe, the sumo's rich diet, changed that. As his belly grew, his center of gravity moved lower and lower in his body. He advanced to the maku-uchi in 1968 and four years later scored his greatest triumph, winning the Emperor's Cup, the top prize in sumo competition, at a 15-day tournament in Nagoya.
Takamiyama's prime is past, but he isn't retiring yet. His harite (open-hand slap), which earned him the name of "Champion Killer," is as effective as ever. He constantly adds to one remarkable record: He has wrestled in 1,170 consecutive scheduled bouts in a sport where injury is commonplace.
Takamiyama lives in a Japanese-style house in Tokyo with his wife, Kazue, 32, their 6-year-old son, Yumitaro, and 4-year-old daughter, Rie. Jesse trains at his stable's nearby camp but spends six months a year on the road, at tournaments and exhibitions.
As befits a superstar, Takamiyama is a frequent guest on TV talk shows (he speaks Japanese fluently), and he pitches everything from stomach medicine to pillows. He estimates his income from competition and endorsements at a very conservative $160,000 a year. A training injury to his vocal cords early in his sumo career left his voice hoarse and high-pitched, yet Jesse won't think of corrective surgery. "I can't change it," he reasons. "It's one of the best-known voices in the country."
Takamiyama became a naturalized Japanese last May. "I wanted to keep my American passport," he says, "but my heart belongs to my family in Japan and to sumo." Jesse also wants to become a sumo official when he retires, and such positions are open only to Japanese citizens.
Jesse may be a gaijin (foreigner), but he is also an institution. "Along with Ambassador Mike Mansfield," gushes a Tokyo news commentator, "Takamiyama is the finest envoy the U.S. has ever sent here."
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