Outside magazine, April 1997
Another Herbal Wrap, O Immortal One?
Should fortune, fame, and flabby acolytes be your heart’s desire, the first American sumo champion suggests thinking really, really big
By Brad Wetzler
When he speaks, Chadwick Rowan sounds surprisingly like Tennessee Ernie Ford warbling “Sixteen Tons.” Everything’s in the lower register, as if the six-foot-eight, 475-pound Hawaiian were one massive, vibrating vocal chord. But there’s more to him than that. Just ask the 800 or so 400-pounders–mere minnows!–whom Rowan has flattened,
hurled, pretzeled, and otherwise pummeled with his massive belly. He’s the Sultan of Sumo. And every time he tosses a lesser being out of the 15-foot rice-straw ring, the people cheer louder–“Akebono! Akebono!”–which is Rowan’s official sumo name, bestowed upon him by the elders of this 2,000-year-old sport. Translation: “The Break of Dawn.”
Indeed, in Japan, the 27-year-old is as big as the sun. Born and raised on Oahu, he moved to Tokyo in 1988; three years ago he became the first gaijin, or foreigner, to earn the coveted status of yokozuna. The word roughly means “grand champion” of sumo, but really there’s no comparable honorific in
American sport. A yokozuna is a demigod, an immortal. Whenever he ventures downtown, Akebono is mobbed. “It can be irritating, but I try to smile and be pleasant,” he says. “Without the fans, I am just a big guy doing a childish game.”
Humble in public, Akebono is absolute ruler of his heya, a frat-house-like arrangement in which he and a group of lesser wrestlers live, train, and eat. His room is littered with CDs, American videos, piles of unopened fan mail (he’ll get to them later), and postcards from home. The other 18 wrestlers share the second bedroom and jockey
for the honor of fetching Akebono’s water, dabbing sweat from his brow, or letting him win at mah-jongg.
During his training for next month’s prestigious tournament, known as the Natsu Basho, we reached Akebono by phone at his Tokyo heya. He had just finished lunch–a half-gallon of chanko, a fatty stew made of beef, fish, chicken, and vegetables–but he seemed a little annoyed at something; perhaps he’d
missed dessert. Bellowing orders to his underlings, he slowly approached the phone, bare feet slapping the tile floor with increasingly loud thwacks. It seemed wise to lob a softball.
So, what are you doing at the moment?
What am I doing? I just finished lunch, and I’m getting ready to go out.
Out for a walk? Out on the town? What do you mean, “out”?
I mean for work. For sumo. Calisthenics, weight lifting, then 60 to 90 practice sumo bouts.
Sixty to 90 bouts?
Sometimes even 100. It doesn’t take more than ten seconds to push somebody out of a 15-foot ring.
Do you win all those bouts?
Being a yokozuna, I’m expected to win.
It’s often said that sumo is like no other major sport in that it encompasses religion, tradition, war, and art–in addition to being a brutal test of physical prowess. Can you, for the layman, tell us what sumo means to you?
It’s pretty simple. The basic object of sumo is to get your opponent out of the circular ring or make him touch the ground first. You can push, throw, grab–everything except pulling hair, hitting with a closed fist, poking the eyes, kicking to the head, stuff like that.
How would you describe the sensation of your 475 pounds colliding at full speed with another round mound of sumo?
To tell you the truth, I can never remember. It’s completely of the moment. If you stop to think, you’ll quickly be on your back. That’s why we do so many practice bouts–so your body knows exactly what to do on its own. It’s just a flurry of loud slapping sounds. Then it’s over.
How about the other, more mystical aspects…the dignity, the Shinto prayers, the tossing of sea salt into the ring before a match, the long hair worn in the traditional topknot, and those–what do you call them, mawashi?–those diaper-like shorts?
Well, you can grab onto those shorts. It’s an effective move. Just lift–then toss.
So the bigger you are, the better?
Not necessarily. Yes, us guys from Hawaii–like Konishiki, who no longer does sumo–depend on our size and power. But some of these Japanese kids, who are quite a bit smaller, have been doing sumo for a long time, sort of like Little League baseball back home. The moves are second nature for them. Size won’t always win out over that kind of experience.
You mention Konishiki, your 358-pound Hawaiian predecessor. He didn’t make it to the rank of yokozuna, but he became famous both for his nickname–Meat Bomb–and for the Babe Ruthian way he moved through the sumo world. Legend has it that he once downed 120 bottles of beer, ten quarts of tequila, and ten shots
of whiskey. Are you as discerning a gourmand?
I don’t drink much alcohol. But I do like a good meal. At dinner, in addition to the chanko, I’ll sometimes have a couple dozen chicken nuggets, a few hamburgers, fries, a pound of rice, pickles, four or five eggs, a couple packages of hot dogs, a gallon of ice tea, and occasionally four or five beers. Then I’ll just hang out on the
couch with the boys.
How many of you and your boys can you get on that couch?
I don’t know. But there’s plenty of chairs around, too.
As you know, people in the States are obsessed with being skinny and fit. What’s your argument for being, well, full-size?
I always tell people that we might be big, but we can still move quick. You’d be surprised at the flexibility and stamina we have.
And romance? Is there room for affaires d’amour in the sport of sumo?
You’d have to ask the girls about that.
What’s your favorite type of music?
I like all kinds. Hawaiian music. Classical. Rap. I suppose my current favorites are Mariah Carey and Boys II Men.
How can you possibly get psyched up for a tournament on Mariah Carey?
Oh, for that we have rap. Right before we go into the stadium, we crank the Snoop Doggy Dogg.
I take it you’re slapping high fives in the locker room, feeding on each other’s frenzied, pregame energy?
No. We stand alone.
Everybody behaves with such dignity in sumo. Do you ever have the urge to perform the sumo equivalent of dancing in the end zone?
What would happen if you did?
I’d probably get yelled at.
How did you ever learn about sumo?
As a kid, I used to read Sumo Digest and watch sumo on TV. Then, when I was 18, I was offered a free trip to come to Japan and check things out. I guess it worked out.
If you weren’t a yokozuna, would you be playing another professional sport? I heard you were once quite a basketball player.
I was pretty good in school, but that was 200 pounds ago. Now I’m so big I can hardly put my arms together to shoot the ball.
Here in the states there’s a fad in which students at college parties don flesh-colored pneumatic suits and then go at it sumo-style in a plastic ring. Do you think there could be a talented young Akebono toiling in obscurity in Illinois or Alabama?
Are you serious? [Laughs.] I don’t know. I guess we’ll have to come scout them.
Brad Wetzler is a former senior editor of Outside.