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Sunday, Dec. 2, 2001

Hawaii's heavyweight hero is living his dream


By JULIAN RYALL
Staff writer

Musashimaru is one of only two top-ranked yokozuna currently in Japan's national sport of sumo (the other is Takanohana), and last weekend he won the autumn basho in Fukuoka -- a victory that will boost earnings already estimated at 60 million yen a year.

Weighing a shade over 225 kg and standing 191 cm tall, the 30-year-old Japanese national was born Furamalu Penitani in Samoa but mostly raised in Hawaii.

When he's not busy throwing salt onto the dohyo, performing shiko leg lifts or smashing into opponents in front of TV cameras, he lives at the Musashigawa stable in the Uguisudani district of Tokyo's Taito Ward with 30 junior wrestlers and the stablemaster and his wife.

Was your victory in Fukuoka a significant or satisfying one?

I was very happy, not only because I won but as it was my first in seven tournaments and I was under pressure fighting as the sole yokozuna. I'm relieved and happy.

In sumo life, is it true you're part of a special "family"?

Yes, it's a group, it's a family. It's a brother thing. We only have one lady in this house and one man. We call them mum and dad.

So you must have a pretty special lifestyle?

Well, I get up about 7 o'clock and by 8 I'm down here in the practice ring. They've got guys who come upstairs to wake me. They're like servants, tsukibito. But I always get up before they come in to get myself into a rhythm, so I'll watch some TV, listen to the radio and then it's warm-up for an hour.

What does your warm-up entail?

I always start the same way, the way I first did it when I came here as an 18-year-old. Shiko are the sideways leg lifts; you have to get your breathing right and lift each leg as high as possible in turn. Then I'll do matawari, sitting on the clay floor and spreading my legs as wide as possible, then leaning forward until my cheek is in the dirt. Then it's the wooden teppo pole, which you practice your hand moves against, slapping and pushing. My style is based heavily on pushing, so I'll give that pole a good workout. To end the warm-up, I'll work on my start, my dash across the ring. After that I'll watch the younger ones practice for a while, maybe until 9:30, and then I'll get in the ring with the other wrestlers.

That's a lot of physical work.

By the time training is done at about 10:30, you've really worked up a sweat, especially in the summer. I'll sweat off as much as 6 kg in the morning session alone. And I never eat breakfast. The morning workout is so tough that if you did it after eating anything you'd be sick; often you're sick anyway because it's so physically demanding. After training I'll stretch out some more, warming down, before hitting the showers and having lunch.

For lunch, we'll have chankonabe. That's a kind of stew with meat, fish and a whole load of vegetables that really bulks you up, though I have to watch what I eat nowadays. I have to stay in shape and I don't want to get any bigger. If anything, I'm a little too heavy -- but it's not my fault: They keep giving me food.

Do you get to put your feet up in the afternoon?

After lunch it's time for the afternoon nap. Often I can't sleep, so I'll just hang around, watch some TV or listen to music. Or I'll take a walk around the neighborhood. When I'm out, I wear my dress -- that's what I call it [my yukata] -- but around the house it's casual: jeans or shorts. People don't bother me on the street because I live here and they already know me; they'll just wave or say "Hi." Then at 3 o'clock, everyone helps clean the house. Apart from the stable mother, there are no women living here so the 30 of us have to share all the chores. Then sometimes I'll spend some time in the weight room, probably three times a week, but otherwise my day is done and I can do whatever I want.

What's a typical evening meal?

If you're home, everyone gets together for the evening meal at about 6 o'clock, but I'll usually go out. The problem is that restaurants think I'm going to eat a whole cow. They give me a slab of meat when all I want is a small piece -- 2 kg of meat? Give me a break! People think I'm going to eat everything on the menu.

Then how do you spend your evenings?

During a tournament, we usually eat later, around 7 o'clock, and after that the younger kids go out to sing karaoke or to the video-game arcade and I'll have a few beers, but there's a curfew so we can't go too far. I'm allowed to stay out until 11:30 p.m., but the younger ones have to be in by 10:30 p.m. Some of them are only 15. Even at 9 o'clock, the stable "father" is checking up on the kids to see if they're back.

And when it's finally time to hit the sack?

Up in my room I'll watch some TV or videos until around 1 a.m., but when I turn the light out I'm straight out. After all the exercise I do, I'm off.

Ever dream?

Sure, I'm human.

What about?

I dream about going out, having fun -- or beating somebody up.

So what about tournament days?

Everything is different on tournament days. It's all much faster-paced, more upbeat. The morning training session is lighter than usual and I have to make sure that I get a sleep after training, even though I don't want to. It's both mental and physical rest because the senior wrestlers always go on late at the basho, so if I didn't get a rest I'd end up falling asleep.

Do you find you have to rest mentally?

Two or three days before your first bout, you're trying to put your mind in the ring. Then you try to get your body to the point where it's there as well. Sometimes, when you're tired, the body's not there so when the tournament starts you've just got to work at it. When the body and mind are working together, you're in good shape -- but if a week goes by and you're still not there, you're in trouble. That's too late.

Does moving around the country for a tournament interfere with your preparations?

It's easier when the basho is here in Tokyo; I'm used to this house, I sleep in this room, but elsewhere [for the Nagoya, Osaka and Fukuoka tournaments] the feeling is totally different: the food, the air, the people, the water, everything. That's why we go two weeks in advance, to try to acclimatize.

You're a champion now, but how old were you when you entered the world of sumo?

I was recruited when I was 18. I guess I got my start in sumo thanks to the American football and Greco-Roman wrestling I was doing at school in Hawaii. When they talked to me I just knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. All I thought was that I had nothing to lose. I'd watched it on TV back home because [former yokozuna] Konishiki is Hawaiian too, so I knew a little about it, but I'd never tried it. I didn't even take any notice of the hardships involved; I was just willing to take on the challenge.

Do you have a fight strategy?

There are 70-something techniques in sumo, but when I first started they told me to stick to just one and that I didn't need the others. They told me to push. Shortly before I was promoted to yokozuna two years ago, I made a big effort to change my style and use more techniques, so now I go to grab the belt.

I don't have a prefight ritual, but I tell my assistant to make sure everyone keeps away from me. When I come out of the locker room and I'm going out toward the ring, I don't want anyone in front of me. I need to be single-minded, focused. I don't want to be getting ready to go in and see a girl and let my mind go wandering off. I want that hallway clean. And when I get in the ring, I'm just like the guy on the other side; I'm here for a reason, he's here for a reason. When I walk into the ring, it's business time.

Now you're top of the pile, what is your next aim?

I'm the top-ranked wrestler now, and there's nowhere else to go. Yokozuna don't get demoted to the lower ranks; you're just expected to retire if you do badly in a couple of tournaments. But I'm not ready to stop yet.

Have you ever thought of having your own stable one day?

I'd like to teach sumo to kids outside Japan, and I'd like to see this sport go worldwide. Not many countries know about sumo, although it's picking up in Australia, Germany, America and France. Look at [French President] Jacques Chirac -- he's a sumo freak. I've met him three or four times; every time he comes to Japan, he always goes to a basho.

I hear they're considering it for the Olympic Games.

They're talking about having it in the Olympics, but that will take time. Do you know some countries have even got girls doing it? It's not a sport for girls. It's a man's sport. If you want to get beaten up, you get beaten up like a man.

But women already compete in the boxing ring.

Yeah, but it doesn't look good. For sumo, you don't wear clothes, just a mawashi, but girls have to wear a shirt or tights. That doesn't look good. It's moving it a long way away from its traditions.



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