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Friday, Jan. 11, 2002

Konishiki making impact after sumo

Staff writer

Hollywood, home to some of the biggest stars on earth, soon may have to make room for the biggest star of all. Former sumo wrestler Konishiki on Thursday revealed his plans to make it big in Tinseltown.

"Probably this year I'll get into more TV dramas or something. Maybe next year I'll get into movies," the 38-year-old said at a luncheon at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan (FCCJ) in Tokyo. "I've been approached by a lot of people. Went to Hollywood, talked to a lot of people there. I'm just waiting for the right time and to make sure I make the right choices."

Konishiki hasn't left the public eye since retiring in 1997. He frequently appears in commercials and on television shows, cut a rap album and has joined the lecture circuit. More importantly, he is having a blast.

"Everything I've done ever since the retirement has been nothing but fun," he said. "I really don't call it work."

Konishiki, regarded as one of Japan's most popular personalities, rose to sumo's second highest rank of ozeki and amassed 733 career victories. Perhaps he is best known for his Titanic-like physique. He tipped the scales at 278 kg during his playing days and still has his clothes specially made.

Ever the showman, Konishiki often had the audience in stitches Thursday. However, he also spoke poignantly about his experiences growing up poor in Hawaii.

"Through high school, I was always given a dollar a day," said Konishiki, who first came to Japan 20 years ago and now holds a Japanese passport. "I used to spend a quarter to get on the bus to go to school and a quarter to get back, and 35 cents for lunch. So I was left with 15 cents. I used to borrow a quarter from 10 people every day because I was so hungry, I wanted more lunch. I made sure I never borrowed from the same person. By the time I graduated I probably owed $100 in quarters."

Through sumo, Konishiki was able to make a better life for himself. He learned to speak proper English (as opposed to a version of English spoken in Hawaii) and began to read books; growing up, he only read Sports Illustrated.

The big man often wonders what life would've been like had he not become such a big star.

"I'd probably be a beach bum because when I graduated high school, my parents didn't want me to leave the island," he said. "They wanted me to go to a nearby community college, if I wanted to go to school (at all). Knowing what I had at the time and knowing the environment I was in, I don't think I'd be in a good situation. Where I'm from, about eight out of 10 kids take the wrong path. All the kids I was raised with, a lot of them have been killed and a lot of them are in prison right now."

Konishiki knows how the other half lives and that's why he's giving back now. Every year, the Konishiki Kids Foundation brings 10-year-olds from Konishiki's old neighborhood to Japan. On Jan. 23, he will host 35 kids who will take classes in everything from flower arranging to Japanese.

"(The program) tries to get kids to understand that there's a lot of information out there, there's a lot of choices that you have to make," Konishiki said. "But this is the time to learn and understand that you have to make very crucial choices as you grow older. A lot of kids make the wrong decisions.

"People ask me, 'What was the best award that you got in your career?' I answer that question like this: There's no better prize than a prize that you know you can give back to someone who can be something in the future. If I can just help one kid out of 35 I bring to Japan every year, that would be better than anything I've achieved."

Konishiki frequently returns to Hawaii to visit his parents and his old neighborhood. In fact, that's one of the reasons why he is no longer a member of the Japan Sumo Association.

"I try to go home at least once a month, even for a few days," he said. "I try to go home and spend more time with my parents. And that's one of the biggest reasons I left the Sumo Association. I wanted the flexibility."

Whenever Konishiki goes home, he eats like a Roman.

"When I go home, that's when it kills me, man," he said. "Go to Hawaii, man, all you eat is rich food and everything's just good, period.

"In my house, we don't eat any vegetables, man. 'Vegetables' is like a bad word. My friends from Japan come over to my house and they all get fat. That's the biggest problem. I go home and I come back with weight."

Konishiki's weight is no laughing matter. Few men his age weigh so much. But he seems serious about shedding the extra pounds by the time he is 40. He routinely works out at the gym -- he can bench-press 475 pounds -- and in the pool.

"I'm dealing with (my weight) every day," said Konishiki, who can down 100 beers in one sitting. "Actually I do monthly checkups. I check on my blood pressure and cholesterol and stuff like that. Nothing's wrong with the blood pressure. I know my weight has to go down, no matter what. I've lost, naturally, 20 kilos. So that's like over 40 pounds since sumo. But I've been fluctuating. I can lose five kilos a day, and yet come back the next day and gain 10 kilos. So that's plus-five kilos. Just breathing makes me big.

"I've been working on that. Last year I spent a month in Florida just working out. Actually I lost almost 60 pounds in a month."

In addition to his weight problems, Konishiki addressed the problems facing sumo today. The sport has taken a hit popularity-wise in a country that seems more obsessed with baseball and soccer.

"The biggest problem is not getting enough athletes, enough young kids to join sumo," he said. "I think what the Sumo Association really has to do is work back with young boys and get out there to promote (the sport). I've heard that a lot of schools don't have sumo dohyos anymore.

"This past year has been really damaging to the association because we really haven't had a really consistent pair of ozeki. The only consistent ozeki has been Musoyama. Kaio goes up and down. We need a lot of consistency within the top ranks now."

Konishiki would also like to see the JSA portray sumo wrestlers more as human beings and less as robotic athletes who only speak monosyllabically.

"A lot of (sumo wrestlers) can sing, a lot of them are into cars," he said. "You'd be surprised, a lot of them like to ride motorbikes. But the media doesn't get to that because a part of the association tries to keep the image of a sumo wrestler. It's 2002 -- sumo wrestler or no sumo wrestler, you're a human being, period."

For those hoping for a Michael Jordan-like comeback, forget about it.

"I'm not ready to kill myself again. You have to be 200 percent mentally strong and 100 percent physically ready for the sport because it's every day. We don't have seasons off like all the other athletes. We don't have the glamour that a lot of athletes have. After leaving the sport in '97, everything's been good because I get to do everything I like."

Well, not everything.

Konishiki spoke at the FCCJ for about 45 minutes Thursday, but then had to leave for another speaking engagement. Had he had more time, he probably would have stuck around a little longer to see Janet Jackson, who was speaking at the FCCJ later in the day. He might have even asked for a few tips on his singing and potential acting careers.

"The lady's beautiful, man," he said of Jackson. "There's nothing you can say about her. She has it all, man. Is she single?"

Konishiki will have to wait for reports on Jackson's love life. But that's OK. Time is on his side and he claims he isn't aging one bit.

"I like to stay young," he said. "I don't think I'll ever change. I will be the way I am right now until the day it comes when I have to go. I don't intend to get old. I like to be around young people. I like to listen to what a lot of young people listen to. It's just the way I am."

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