No One Like ‘Mount Fuji’

When Chiyonofuji, the `king’ of sumo wrestling, retired from the sport, several moons ago, he could not stop his heart to rule his mind.  For once, the huge man had tears in his eyes. His farewell was emotional. It revealed his human side – the human side of one of the game’s most feared and ruthless fighters.

When the amazing 35-year-old, 268-pound heavyweight won his 1,000th sumo victory, before his adieu from the sport, unprecedented as it was in the history of the traditional Japanese ‘fixation,’ it marked the beginning of Chiyonofuji’s [which literally means `eternal Mount Fuji’ in Japanese] mystical way to becoming the greatest sumo wrestler of all time.  Also, it was not for nothing that the man-mountain was known by the sobriquet, ‘The wolf.’ The nickname exemplified his great qualities and enterprising spirit.

Chiyonofuji was a rare jewel in the crown of sumo sport. The ultimate ‘Guy, the Gorilla’, to be precise, even though the wrestler may not have had a ghost of an idea about cricket and the man who carried that label, Ian Botham. The Japanese sport will have to live without him: its most graceful fighter ever.

Sumo wrestling is a wonderful sport, with its admission requirements being basically confined to the soma: minimum height, five-foot eight; and, weight, around 165lb at the minimum. This is a paradox, because any excess fat in any sport would be taboo.  Well, almost.  But, then, fat, in this oriental game, is indispensible. This isn’t all. The rules of this over 2,000-year-old activity have not changed much, which is also in sharp contrast to modern-day Japan’s short and smart populace, what with its high-performance economy.

The sumo tournament, basho, in Japanese, lasts for a fortnight. About half-a-dozen such meets take place every year, with the Emperor traditionally witnessing one of the three annual rounds. What’s more, sumo’s deep appeal results from its close rapport with Shintoism, the country’s culturally polytheistic religion – which gives the sport a blend of both ritualism and divinity. The links never transgress the intimately complex ceremonies that surround any sumo bout.

Clay is laid on straw bales to make the ring. An altar is set up and the ring is made holy by the referee in the attire of a Shinto priest, before the battle-royale begins. Legend has it that the sport began as a wrestling ritual in which a priest fought with the gods. Besides, there are some fixed norms. Leather items and women, for instance, cannot come in contact with the consecrated spot.

Every time, sumo wrestlers enter the ring, with their pigtails knotted at the crown of their heads and special costumes, they throw salt for cleansing and rinse their mouths, repeatedly, before they begin to grapple. Much before this spectacle, officials pour rice and wine at each of the four corners of the ring and bury seaweed, squid and chestnuts, in the centre.

Two heavy and fleshy men, fostered by a copious diet of fish, meat, rice, noodles and beer, wearing something more than a black belt, crouch aggressively, feet wide apart, with the singular urge and intention of forcing the other into submission.  The enormous twosome quickly touch their fists on the ground – and, in a matter of just ten seconds it is, perforce, all over with one giant of flesh having forced the opponent from the arena; or, brought him onto his knees. The best part: the victor has to throw to topple the contestant, if he is to win.  This is precisely the reason why weight becomes so important for either.

The super ‘tonnes’ of fat or flesh around the tummy, not to speak of the hips, make the sumo player a formidable proposition to be pushed around. Notwithstanding their phenomenal bulk, which may, sometimes, exceed 240lb, most sumo wrestlers display great flexibility and agility, juxtaposed by tremendous zest and strength. All the same, injuries are commonplace, especially of the limbs.

The winner yokozuna receives the prize money – a fabulous sum, of course. His qualification: going through 15 tough bouts of a tournament without a solitary defeat.

Chiyonofuji won innumerable such tournaments in his distinguished career. All victories that had in them the unique stamp of the great centuries of Sunil Gavaskar, the Wimbledon titles of Bjorn Borg and the limitlessness on the pole vault of Sergie Bubka.  With a telling difference.  Chiyonofuji was unlike other sportsmen. He was a sumo wrestler, who was too true to the sport. Mountainously tall, fact and gross.  Hardly the picture of lithesome, pure athleticism – and, yet, always in a league of his own.

There won’t be another like him again.


– Photo, Courtesy: Delphi Sportas

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