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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.
He is believed to be the biggest wrestler in the 1,500-year history of this sport of gargantuan men. Even Raiden, the "Superman" of the Edo Period, in the 18th century, was 100 pounds lighter. Atisnoe has already defeated some of Japan's finest wrestlers, and while no foreigner has ever ascended to sumo's summit, yokozuna, grand champion—there have been only 57 grand champions in the past 300 years—Atisnoe is expected to join them one day.
At home in Hawaii Atisnoe is usually called Sally, and no one makes a fuss about him when he visits. In Japan, where he is on magazine covers, where mothers hold up their children to be photographed next to him, and where he has replaced Goliath as a metaphor, he is called Konishiki, after a great champion of the Meiji Period (1868-1912), a rare honor for a young wrestler.
For months, he says, "I thought I was dreaming. I finally found out what I was doing was real." He speaks in a lilting voice deceptive in its suggestion of innocence. Japan, he says, is a good place, a peaceful place. But it is not always forgiving of outsiders who intrude upon the existing order.
Atisnoe first heard of sumo one afternoon on Waikiki Beach. It was during his final week of high school, a time to cut class. A man who had noticed his considerable heft—he then weighed 375—approached and inquired whether he might be interested in sumo. Atisnoe told him, "Not really. I don't know anything about sumo."
The stranger persisted. He was, Atisnoe was to learn, a friend of Jesse Kuhaulua's, a man who had left Hawaii 20 years before and had become a reasonably successful sumo wrestler. Atisnoe, the man had suggested, should talk to Kuhaulua. Atisnoe agreed. When the two met, Kuhaulua asked the youth to return to Japan with him. Atisnoe had college aspirations at the time but not the means. He was the seventh of eight children of a Navy maintenance worker and his wife, both Samoan by birth.
With little to hold him, and with little that otherwise compelled him—"I was just a big old bum," he says—Atisnoe accompanied Kuhaulua to Japan, where he joined the sumo "stable of the former grand champion Tagasako. He began to study Japanese while Kuhaulua helped him learn sumo moves and tactics, as well as the rules for proper behavior in this gesture-absorbed society.
With the other apprentice wrestlers, Atisnoe woke at five in the morning and practiced, sometimes outside in the rain. When the older wrestlers arrived, the young men would stand aside and wipe the dirt from their elders' shoulders and the sweat from the backs of their necks, or wash the older men's feet and make their lunches. The fledgling wrestlers would show their eagerness by rushing to the winner of each training bout and pleading to be chosen as his next opponent. Atisnoe readily accepted the discipline and the dictates of status. He found in the wrestling stable a kinship that approached family. During their schooling, the wrestlers live in a cloistered state. The younger ones are dissuaded from marriage until they are well along in their careers. They dine together on heavy wrestler's stew. And when they go out together for an evening, they stand apart, not only because they are so big, but also because their appearance suggests a different time: They dress in robes, and their hair is waxed, combed and tied in the long knots that are the wrestler's mark. (Atisnoe's hair is kinky, and he had to wait until it grew long before the attendant could fashion it into the appropriate knot.)
By last September Atisnoe started winning. He rose to the third-highest rank, Sekiwake, after only 15 tournaments. Even some of the best wrestlers in sumo seemed no match for him. He was runner-up in the first fall tournament in Tokyo and came close to winning, finishing with a 12-3 record. Defenders of the sport decried his size and strength, accusing him of winning without skill and with brutishness alone.
As an important November tournament approached, there was talk of an ad hoc "Stop Konishiki" campaign. Newspapers even speculated about strategies that might be devised to beat him—whether a practice injury might be inflicted intentionally, or whether foes might go so far as to lace his stew with sugar so that he might develop the overfed wrestler's curse, diabetes. Meanwhile, others speculated as to how soon he might become a grand champion.