Sumo wrestling isn’t the biggest sport (pardon the pun here) in the United States. Sure, they are amateur style competitions around the country, but on the big level, it’s just considered that thing where two large guys try to shove each other around.
In Japan, however, it is a totally different story. Sumo originated there and for thousands of year these men have been pushing and pulling people around to not only entertain fans but also to honor the gods. Everything has meaning. And in one of the most ancient of sports that is still competed today, these men are trained at a young age to do just that. Be sumo wrestlers.
But the part of sumo wrestling that a lot of people don’t realize is that it is not a spot to grow old in. There is no senior circuit of these guys pushing each other out of the ring. Ideally, if you do well enough in sumo wrestling you pretty much are taken care of by the governing sumo association. Once you retire from active competition you become a ringside judge or even a sumo stable master so that you can pass your knowledge on to a new round of grapplers and make your living well into your old age.
But that isn’t always the case.
Take for example the case of Akebono. Akebono became the first nonjapanese man to ever become a Yokozuna or grand sumo champion back in 1993. He had a lot of interest from people all over the world as this large man from Hawaii (his given name was Chad) who went on the be one of the top men in a sport that is very Japanese. He had an incredible run of winning matches and sumo tournaments all the way until 2001 when he left Sumo after an injury. Since then he’s dabbled in mixed martial arts (at over 550 pounds he was a hard target to fight), and a professional wrestler all over Japan, even making a guest appearance at Wrestlemania 21 for the WWE in America back in 2005. And not only was he good at the athletic part of Pro Wrestling being a former grand sumo champion, but also the entertainment side as well. For two years he portrayed a toddler that had hatched out of a giant egg for the Hustle wrestling promotion. If that idea sounds insane even by Pro Wrestling standards, you don’t know Hustle and how much Akebono got into it.
But here we are in 2018. Akebono hasn’t wrestled in a match for nearly a year. He’s been in the hospital since last April. Although his family had said he was being treated for an infection in his right leg, it turns out it was much more series and he was actually being treated for serious heart issues. He was suffering from heart failure. Needless to say no matter how healthy he might have been back in the day, at this point nearly 20 years later carrying that weight around was not good for him. There is a reason why you don’t see old sumo wrestlers competing.
When he finally emerged he was not the big hulking man that had dominated Sumo, MMA, or pro wrestling.. He had lost over 132 pounds and confined to a wheelchair. Despite first going to the hospital in April of 2017, he was in such rough shape he wasn’t even able to start rehabilitation until October. And now in 2018, looking like a different person, he now hopes to be able to regain his strength enough to even walk and be able to go home after nearly a year in a Japanese hospital. All the while he has his wife and two sons and his side.
So the next time you think of sumo as just the big fat guys who push each other around, remember that these are also real people and many of them face real problems in life be it health, skills, jobs, whatever. Think of this once mighty champion now hoping to just go home and be able to walk.
So there is another side to the Japanese sport of the gods. The human side.