A Hawaiian Giant Called 'Sally' Sets Out to Show America Just How Big Sumo Really Is

updated 07/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Believe it, the man is big—whoppingly, colossally, hugely big. Forget puny terms like obese and fat. Think instead of a frightfully imposing 489-pound mass of roundish, brown flesh. He is almost 6'2" tall, a titanic figure spreading abruptly out at the neck, bulging blimplike to the shoulders and chest, then swelling to wide, sagging folds of breast and belly and finally, perhaps most startling, tapering to elephantine haunches and legs with bloomer-size bags of flab draped on the inner thighs.

Hulk Hogan he ain't. Yet he's as much a thoroughbred as any great athlete the world has ever seen. He is a 21-year-old Samoan, Yasokichi Konishiki (born Salevaa Fuauli Atisanoe), one of the fastest rising stars and the largest man ever to practice the tradition-steeped Japanese sport of sumo, granddaddy of the bare-handed martial arts.

Konishiki (pronounced ko-NISH-key) and 34 other top sumo wrestlers or rikishi recently made their U.S. debut at Madison Square Garden in a tournament with all the panoply of an ancient rite. To be sure, the three-day mix of ritual and colliding flesh was a commercial triumph. But it was more. Grand sumo gave the near-capacity New York crowds a glimpse of the heart and spirit of the Japanese people.

Take it from Konishiki, it's not easy to grasp, let alone practice, the essence of the Japanese way, which at its purest represents a spiritual submission to authority and Zen-like single-mindedness. Three years ago the Hawaii-born Konishiki (called "Sally" by his Japanese fans) topped 300 pounds and was just another beach-boy about to graduate from Honolulu's University High School. He was also his state's teenage bench press (550 lbs.) and squat powerlift (600 lbs.) champ, not to mention a pro-football prospect.

Konishiki was considering a career with the FBI when, through a Japanese wrestling scout, he met Jesse Takamiyama, a retired Hawaiian sumo champion still lionized in Japan. Jesse became his mentor. "He said if I worked hard I would be respected," says Konishiki, "but he was also honest when he said sumo wasn't going to be easy." Konishiki packed for Tokyo with the blessings of his parents and eight siblings and entered the jarringly painful routine of an apprentice rikishi.

"I didn't know what to expect," the baby-faced leviathan recalls. "I thought everyone wore kimonos and carried samurai swords. I didn't know the language or the meaning of what I was doing. The young wrestlers eat last, shower last, go to bed last and get up first, about 5 in the morning."

In sumo training, newcomers are assigned to older wrestlers (average age, 25) to fetch things, to scrub and scratch the backs of their seniors, to wash clothes and to perform other chores. Then there are hours of stamping, thrusting, grappling and, yes, being whacked with bamboo canes by eagle-eyed coaches eager to discipline their fleshy protégés. Even the midday gorging on rice and protein-rich fish-and-meat chanko stew isn't always a relief, since the juniors get only what's left at the bottom of the pot.

Like a true champ, Konishiki met the challenge. He taught himself Japanese, ate his chanko and kept up his power-lifting, expanding his bulk and developing a Herculean strength that today hides beneath his deceptively blubbery shape. In one of Japan's six major 15-day tournaments, Konishiki won 12 of 15 bouts. Last May he repeated this feat, which secured his position in the sumo Top 10.

Indeed, he adapted so well that his early entry into the sumo elite has ruffled some nationalistic feathers. He is a foreigner, and the sumo cognoscenti have branded him everything from "Hawaiian monster" to the "meat bomb" of the West. It's as if he casually strolled into the most sacred Shinto shrine without removing his shoes. But what does that mean for the future of Japanese tradition?

It probably means that at bottom sumo is still a sport of near-naked men where the best fellow wins. Never mind the splashy Shinto trappings, the waxed topknots, the silk loincloths, the salt throwing for purification, the interminable bowing and glaring—it's all just a tension builder for those few seconds when thunder-bodies collide.

In last week's New York exhibition, the foot-stomping fans watched Konishiki lunge into the semifinals twice in three days. His next tournament will take him to Nagoya, Japan. Sumo wrestlers perform year-round without a vacation. Konishiki earns $325 a week plus enough in guest appearances to send $1,000 to his family each month.

At home in Tokyo, notoriety has curtailed his disco and movie outings. Instead Konishiki prefers to lounge on his lavender futon, draped in a voluminous kimono. Here he is surrounded by his treasures: two tape decks, scores of cassettes (jazz, soul, rock and Sa-moan folk songs), an oversize TV, a photo of Miss Japan, a Navy cap from his father, an assortment of small stuffed animals and a poster of himself. Now an apprentice rikishi tends to Konishiki's needs. "I miss the beaches, the sunshine and the simple homemade food of Hawaii, but this opportunity comes only once," he says. "And I've got the heart, man, and the guts."

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