When the world's largest athlete rumbles into the North American Amateur Sumo Wrestling Championships in Los Angeles this weekend, he'll be almost naked. All Emanuel Yarbrough, a 6'7", 728-pound nightclub bouncer from Railway, N.J., will wear is a thin mawashi around his waist and under his crotch as he launches himself forward, trying to crush opponents half his size. How big is Yarbrough? This big: If two Shaquille O'Neals climbed onto the dohyo against Yarbrough (dwarfing a 253-pound opponent at right), the Shaqs would be outweighed by 100 pounds.
Yarbrough, 34, was the 1995 world amateur champ but has yet to win the North American title. While his sport may appear to be, in his words, "just two fat guys bumping bellies," sumo is a complex duel of strength, will and even wits. "It's the ultimate mano a mano confrontation," says Yarbrough, "a real-life drama in which people are presented with challenges they have to solve in a very short time." An ancient sport that predates baseball by at least 1,000 years, sumo holds mythic status in Japan and is making inroads in the U.S. (The North American Amateur will be televised on ESPN and ESPN2.)
Sumo rules are simple. Traditionally the wrestler straps on a mawashi, climbs onto the dohyo, throws salt to purify the ring, holds out his hands to show that he's unarmed, claps them to alert the gods, stamps his feet to drive away evil spirits, squats and faces his opponent to show respect, and then crouches in what looks like a nosetackle's stance. When both wrestlers' hands touch the ground, it's showtime. One charges the other and tries to bulldoze him out of the ring or onto his huge butt. While almost anything goes except eye-gouging, genital-grabbing, punching and head-slapping, skilled fighters opt for moves that throw opponents off balance. When all is done—usually in less than seven seconds—vanquisher and vanquishee bow to each other.
The soft-spoken Yarbrough played football at Morgan State at a svelte 380 pounds. He wrestled there at 460 and competed in U.S. judo tournaments at 500. "We all gain weight," he says. "Mine just happens in different increments." After the North American championships he might try a late-career return to the gridiron. Yarbrough's agent, Rich McGuinness, says that NFL teams are interested in Emanuel if he can get his weight under a quarter of a ton. "I can picture him down in that stance on the football field," says McGuinness. "Let's see them find a way to stop him."