They've Got Rockefeller Center, but We've Got Konishiki, the World's Best Sumo Wrestler

updated 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/11/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

The tremors started on the island of Kyushu and reverberated throughout Japan like a massive earthquake. To many Japanese, 490-lb. Yasokichi Konishiki's victory on Kyushu last week in the Emperor's Cup—the Super Bowl of sumo wrestling—seemed much like a natural disaster. With a flick of one huge arm, the 25-year-old Hawaiian Gargantua had sent one of Japan's top stars, 270-lb. Chiyonofuji, reeling out of the 15-foot-diameter clay ring, or doyu, thereby becoming the second foreigner in history to win the national title. Holding the outsize trophy, even the 6'2" Konishiki was overcome. "It took so long to get here," he whispered to the crowd in perfect Japanese, dabbing his eyes with a tiny pink towel. "My dream has come true."

Konishiki is one of Japan's biggest celebrities and the country's best-known American athlete: He earns more than $250,000 a year and travels with attendants who rush to help him into his size 60 jackets. That life-style must still seem as dreamlike as his victory. He was born Salevaa Fuauli Atisanoe, one of nine children of Lautoa, a Navy maintenance worker, and Talafaaiva, who are of Samoan descent and live outside Honolulu. When he was 18 and a mere 375 lbs., he was discovered by Jesse Kuhaulua, a fellow Hawaiian who won the Emperor's Cup in 1972. Kuhaulua took the boy to Japan and tutored him in shin-gi-tai, the umbrella term for the spirit, skill and power demanded by the 70 pushing, slapping and grappling techniques used to heave a foe out of the ring. He also renamed Atisanoe after a 19th-century champion of the 1,500-year-old sport rooted in Shinto ritual.

Konishiki's early victories angered some xenophobic Japanese, who derided him as a "Hawaiian monster" and "meat bomb" and even suggested he be banned because his bulk made him at least 70 lbs. heavier than any competitor. But times have changed somewhat, and he is now being hailed as the next sumo yokozuna, the ultimate grand champion. After Konishiki's Cup win, Japanese TV replayed his moment of victory over and over, accompanied by the sort of hushed narration reserved for describing the rising sun of a brand-new age.

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