INAZAWA Japan (Reuters) - Sumo wrestler Osunaarashi was a large, muscular Egyptian teenager with a passion for body building when a friend recommended he try the ancient Japanese sport of sumo. But it was a hard sell.
“This sport is about two elephants pushing each other,” he recalls thinking. “I’m a body builder, man. It’s so ugly for me, I will never do it.”
Now Osunaarashi, 22, is the first Egyptian, first African, first Arab and first Muslim to muscle his way into sumo’s professional ranks, so proud of his heritage that he observed the Ramadan fast during a just-ended tournament.
This meant neither eating nor drinking from 3 a.m to 7 p.m. despite grappling with wrestlers whose weight averaged 150 kg (330 lbs) in temperatures up to 33 C (91 F)
“The food was not a problem, but water was. It was the hardest part,” Osunaarashi told Reuters in an extremely rare interview at his lively sumo “stable”, as the wrestlers’ gym and residence is called, just outside the central city of Nagoya.
“Without Ramadan, I just have a small headache after the fight. But in Ramadan, in this tournament, every day I have a really strong headache that I never had before.”
Bulking up is one of the principles of sumo, which pits two giant, glowering wrestlers, clad in loincloths, against each other. Bouts take place on a raised sand ring and the first wrestler forced out loses, with the outcome decided in seconds.
Slapping is permitted, punching and hair-pulling are not.
Sumo tournaments are broadcast daily, but fight for audience with sports like soccer. It has trouble attracting new wrestlers within Japan as the rigors of daily life scare off enthusiasts.
Wrestlers down mammoth, protein-laden meals, often followed by naps. But Osunaarashi, whose sumo name means “Giant Sandstorm,” forewent this during Ramadan, trimming some 5 kg from his 156-kg, 1.88-metre (6 ft 2 inch) frame.
“You just have to do it,” he said as younger wrestlers made lunch and sang along to a television. As is customary while relaxing, many wore only underwear - patterned boxer shorts - though Osunaarashi wore a green yukata, an informal kimono.
He shrugged off the fast as another challenge in adapting to the tradition-bound, 1,500 year-old sport.
“It’s part of life,” he said.
Born Abdelrahman Shalan near Cairo, he began body building at 11 and was 14 when he saw a fellow enthusiast do an unusual high, straight leg lift followed by a stomp. He asked if the man needed help, only to be told it was an iconic sumo move.
Persuaded to try “that ugly sport”, the teen eyed potential opponents at the sumo gym and expected to win.
“Then they made me fight the lightest weight. I was 120 kg, he was 60 kg. He kicked my arse seven times,” he said.
“When I went back home, even before taking a shower I opened my computer to know the meaning of sumo ... at 11 or 12 at night. I finished at eight in the morning.”
He sought ways of getting to Japan while training and studying accounting. He finally made it in 2011 after winning several international amateur tournaments.
Although half the top division wrestlers are foreign, mainly Mongolian, he was rejected by six stables before the Otake stable took him on.
There followed months of grueling training and adapting to the language and traditions of communal life, including chores like cleaning toilets and preparing meals. Even Japan’s ubiquitous bows seemed odd.
“In Egypt, when you greet somebody, you don’t really bow your head. We always said you just do this for God, you don’t do this for other men,” Osunaarashi said.
Within two years, he made it to the top “makuuchi” division. By the most recent tournament, he was aiming for promotion to the fourth of nine ranks, an achievement that would improve his earnings and lifestyle.
His ultimate goal is to become a yokozuna grand champion, and he dreams of lifting the Emperor’s Cup for winning a tournament. He beat two yokozuna this tournament.
Osunaarashi fell one match short of a winning record, but remains determined to make history.
“I have to make my parents, my family, my country proud of me,” he said. “I have to prove (myself) to the people who said, ‘We don’t need you.’”
Editing by Ron Popeski