The regulars at Lee Haney's Animal Kingdom are used to seeing celebrities working out in their gym. Bruce Springsteen builds his born-again body at this weight-training center in downtown Atlanta when he's in town, and it was here that Joe Piscopo pumped himself up beyond recognition. Photos of Haney with such luminaries as Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young hang on the cinder-block walls of the place. But on a Saturday morning last fall even the regulars dropped their dumbbells and stared as Haney, just home from Italy, where he had won his sixth consecutive Mr. Olympia title, explained the finer points of the bench press to one of the biggest athletes ever to lumber into his gym.
Sumo wrestlers are not, after all, an everyday sight in Atlanta.
And rarer still is the appearance of a yokozuna, or sumo grand champion. In the history of this centuries-old, quasireligious Japanese sport, there have been only 62 yokozuna. The baby-faced giant who loomed over Haney on this October morning was one of them.
His name is Koji Kitao—accent on the last syllable, as in kapow. He stands 6'6" and weighs 330 pounds—down almost 30 pounds from what he weighed in 1986 when, at the age of 22, he became one of the youngest yokozuna ever. A year and a half after winning that title, Kitao scored another first: He became the only grand champion ever forced to retire from the sport.
It was a temper tantrum that did him in. In the tradition-bound world of sumo, where the virtues of honor and harmony are law, there is no room for a man who, in a pique, sidekicks his 88-year-old stable master and shoves the master's wife into a sliding door.
News of that December 1987 outburst hit Japan like a tsunami. Kitao was forced to retire by the ruling body of his sport, the Japan Sumo Association. In a private ceremony, he endured the danpatsu shiki—the cutting of a sumo wrestler's sacred topknot. The ritual is usually performed to honor a retiring sumo wrestler. Kitao's ceremony was meant to shame him. He had lost face. He was an outcast.
But he was not finished.
Since then, Kitao and ARMS Inc., the Tokyo-based publishing and talent agency that now bankrolls him, have launched an unprecedented effort to reestablish his reputation. If their plans work, Kitao will be back—not as a sumo wrestler, but as a pro wrestler. You know: Hulk Hogan, that sort of wrestler.
There have been a few sumo wrestlers who have quit their circle of clay for the rubber mat of the wrestling ring. Most were dropouts from the lower rungs of the six-stage ladder to grand champion. Only two yokozuna, though, have made the move. One was an aging sumo wrestler named Azumafuji, who had a brief fling as a pro wrestler in Japan more than 30 years ago. The other was a retired grand champion named Wajima, who had a handful of matches in the U.S. in 1987 before returning to Japan.
But no sumotori with Kitao's credentials has ever left the sport, and none has been watched as closely as this 26-year-old behemoth. In the two years since his banishment, his every thundering footstep has been shadowed by teams of writers and photographers dispatched by Japanese newspapers, magazines and television networks. When Kitao arrived in Norfolk, Va., in June to begin three months of training at a wrestling school there, Japanese reporters trailed in his wake.