SI Vault
Michael Shapiro
February 11, 1985
Who goes by the nicknames Meat Bomb and Earthquake, weighs 491 pounds and has chauvinistic Japanese quaking in their geta? A 21-year-old Hawaiian named Salevaa Atisnoe, that's who. Never before has a foreigner advanced so far so fast in Japan's national sport, sumo wrestling, and patriots are panicking.
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February 11, 1985

A Foreigner Threatens The Insular World Of Japanese Sumo Wrestling

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"It doesn't show very much," he said one morning as the tournament neared, "but sometimes it hurts." A few nights before, he and some of the other wrestlers had gone to a disco, where a Japanese man approached and wished him well. This had heartened him, but he had grown irritable with the incessant questions about the most mundane aspects of his life and the resentment he caused in ways that, to him, seemed innocent.

He had, for instance, learned enough Japanese to answer for himself in interviews but not enough to learn that the language is filled with shaded meanings. So he told an interviewer that he regarded sumo as a fight, which, in appearance, it is. But aficionados lashed out at him, wondering how someone could regard their sport as mere combat. His answers became terse, and there were fewer attempts at pleasantries.

His first opponent in November was the aging grand champion Kitanoumi. No one had won more titles, but at 31 he was said to be fading. Still, the crowd adored Kitanoumi. The first bouts of the tournament had begun at 10 in the morning. Tournaments last for 15 days, and each wrestler must compete once a day—the better wrestlers going on last. Atisnoe appeared at the entrance to the packed arena just before six o'clock. He was naked but for his thick wrestler's strap. His shoulders were thrust back to support his great belly. His walk was a labored waddle. His fleshy, dimpled thighs kept his knees two feet apart.

Then Atisnoe and Kitanoumi stepped onto the raised clay ring, under the vaulted wooden roof that hung high above to create the atmosphere of a Shinto shrine. They went to their corners and began the preparation that precedes the quick bouts. First they stood on one leg and brought the raised leg down hard to stamp evil into the ground. They smacked their haunches and flanks and then squatted, facing each other, as they began the ceremonial clapping of hands to signal the gods. They leaned down and forward, balancing themselves on their fists, looking into each other's eyes. Kitanoumi rose, then Atisnoe.

They returned to their corners, took big handfuls of salt, the agent of purification, and cast them down. They purified themselves further by rinsing out their mouths and by wiping all sweat from their armpits. They repeated the posing and then did the ritual again. Each time Kitanoumi rose, Atisnoe glared, and the crowd roared as the anticipation built.

Atisnoe's glare was so purposely penetrating, so obvious, that it set him that much more apart from the Japanese wrestlers, who tend to regard each other with empty eyes.

The preparation period is limited to four minutes; when it ended, the wrestlers were poised, facing off a yard apart inside the 15'2" clay circle. Kitanoumi was first off the mark and hit the rising Atisnoe squarely. And though Kitanoumi weighs 375 pounds, it was as if he had run into a massive tree.

Atisnoe did not budge. Years ago Kitanoumi might have barreled over him, but now his charge was blunted, and Atisnoe countered. He could have tried to grab his opponent's strap and force him down with any number of techniques—but all he did was push. He extended his arms and shoved the older man back, his hands grabbing at Kitanoumi's neck and shoulders. Within five seconds the grand champion stood outside the straw boundary, defeated.

Under the stands, young girls waited with cameras. When Atisnoe appeared a thick crowd pressed around him, and he began his awkward trot to escape them. He could barely pass. Mostly it was younger people who reached out and patted him on the back.

In succeeding matches he faced only the best wrestlers, and some of them—using Atisnoe's own size and strength against him—beat him. Then, on the 11th day, with his record at 5 and 5, he was thrown. He landed so hard on his right shoulder that he had to be hospitalized. But though he had to withdraw from the tournament, attention remained on him. He was still a force to be reckoned with, an outlander threatening to become king of Japan's national sport. Atisnoe will soon be ready to fight again. No one is suggesting that the Meat Bomb has been defused.

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