Sumo Habibi Sumo
How did the Middle East’s only professional sumo wrestler fall in love with Japan’s national sport?
Standing on a dohyō – an elevated stage made of clay, crowned by a ring of straw rice bags – Abdelrahman Ahmed Shaalan is detached from the national, social and religious contexts that, under normal circumstances, would classify him as a foreigner in Japan. Here, he is Osunaarashi, or Great Sandstorm, and all that matters is sumo.
A few years ago, Shaalan was a listless accounting student at university in Egypt, obsessively watching sumo wrestling matches on YouTube in his spare time instead of absorbing the principles of his field like a diligent scholar. Today, in a delightful twist of fate normally reserved for Disney characters, the 21 year old has joined his idols in the sidebar of uploaded videos he once religiously perused, as the world’s only professional sumo wrestler from the Middle East and Africa.
I used to be a bodybuilder, now I’m a belly-builder
‘In Egypt,’ he explains, ‘you don’t really decide what to study at university. It all depends on what happens in high school. I got 88 percent in math so I had to study accounting. I wasn’t in love with studying, but I am in love with my sport.’
Within the sumo ring, Osunaarashi certainly has the look of a man enamoured. He’s a little thinner than expected, his body more muscular than meaty. He’s fuzzier than his competitor, and a little darker. But these are negligible differences. He crouches down, supporting his hefty upper body with soles pressed into sand and thighs flexed and disciplined. Staring into his challenger’s eyes, he rubs his hands and claps once, signalling to the gods the imminence of battle. Palms up, he steadily extends his arms horizontally before placing hands on knees, proving that he is unarmed.
Harnessing what the Japanese believe to be the purifying abilities of salt, he tosses some in the air, cleansing the sacred space of confrontation. He stamps his body weight into the ring, crushing any lingering demonic spirits. Finally, fists to the ground, he awaits the referee’s ‘Hakkeyoi.’ Opponents collide. Maniacal slapping occurs as each tries to grab hold of the other’s flesh for support. Bodies are pressed tightly against one another. Osunaarashi digs his feet into the ground, grabs his competitor’s silk belt and flips him onto his back and defeat. It’s over in seconds.
‘There’s something holy about being in the ring,’ Shaalan exclaims. ‘You feel like your spirit is under the control of that place.’ His voice is animated by a fervour that appears immune to the tranquilising effect routine engagement in a given activity normally engenders. ‘Sumo is not a normal sport. It’s like magic. Once you try it you can never live without it.’ The Japanese revere sumo wrestlers as demi-gods, he tells me.
‘When you have this hairstyle, they see it as something holy, as something from the gods. People will randomly touch me, believing that somehow I will make them live longer. They see shaking hands as a transfer of power. So, I have to be humble. I should let everyone touch me, I should bow, and I should remember that when I started off as a lower-rank wrestler, I spent most of my time cleaning toilets.’
Osunaarashi has engaged in 77 fights since his debut in March 2012. He won 62 of them, and on October 28th last year the Japan Sumo Association promoted all 146 kilograms of him to ‘makuuchi’, the sport’s highest division. Of the 39 foreign-born wrestlers to ‘make it to the top’, he climbed the quickest. Faced with these impressive numbers, from height to weight, games won, techniques mastered, ranks scaled and so on, one might fairly assume Osunaarashi was a lifetime in the making – a meticulously crafted wrestling virtuoso. But, in truth, Shaalan’s athletic alter ego was the product of what he – to the likely chagrin of many an aspiring sportsman – calls ‘luck’.
Unsurprisingly, sumo wrestling is not a common athletic practice in Egypt. ‘We always make jokes about sumo in the Arab world,’ Shaalan says. ‘Have you heard the saying “sumo habibi sumo”?’ He laughs. ‘Look, it’s a strange sport to us. It’s a sport where two elephants push each other.’
As a young boy growing up in Mansoura and Giza, Shaalan experimented with bodybuilding, but he wasn’t looking to become a professional athlete. He just wanted a sports body. In 2007 however, came that ‘luck’ he likes to mention, in the form of a member of Egypt’s national sumo team who happened to train in the same gym. He encouraged Shaalan to try his hand, or body, at the sport.
He still remembers the date – the last Tuesday of July. He walked into a studio, muscles and all, only to find a bunch of ‘normal’ bodies. With the characteristic arrogance of a 15 year old teenager, Shaalan mocked the pseudo-athletes surrounding him and challenged any who dared to face him, confident that his bodybuilder’s physique would instantly neutralise them. The coach offered him the fighter who weighed the least, and he lost.
Frustrated, Shaalan challenged wrestler after wrestler and was defeated round after round by different techniques. ‘I went upstairs afterwards and observed them while they trained. I was watching but not watching. I couldn’t stop thinking about why and how I lost. My body was bigger and stronger than theirs, so why did I lose? What was the secret?’
Shaalan’s defeat taught him that sumo was a technical, not power-based sport. Spurred on by failure, he became determined to master it in Japan, the only country where the professional version of the sport is practised. ‘“You’re nothing now,” the coach told me. “You’re not even an Egyptian champion. You have to become the world champion and then they might take you to Japan.”’ Only seven of Japan’s sumo clubs accept foreign wrestlers, with each reserving a spot for one. Shaalan trained vigorously, on his own and with the Egyptian team, determined to make it through one of their narrow doors. ‘I wasn’t perfect but I tried my best.’
What Shaalan modestly describes as ‘trying his best’ translated into winning the bronze medal at the 2008 Junior World Sumo Championships in Estonia in 2008. Despite his impressive advancement in the sport however, the aspiring pro had trouble being taken seriously. ‘People kept saying, “why would an Arab want to be a sumo wrestler? It’s not suitable for you.” But nothing is unsuitable for us; we can do anything. They were mixing nationality and religion with sports, which I don’t like.’
Not everyone was blinded by stereotypes. While watching him compete in Estonia, the head of the Dutch Sumo Fedaration, Stephen Gadd, recognised Shaalan’s resilient attitude of a champion, and decided to help him realise his ambitions. They arrived in Japan in 2011, with 10 days to convince one of only seven sumo clubs to adopt him. The first six refused, but the last club manager offered him a spot, snapping Shaalan out of the pit of defeat like a bungee cord.
‘He said to me, “look kid sumo is hell, so if you can’t live in hell go back to your country.” I told him I could live in hell. He said he didn’t care about my country, only about the rules of sumo. And, that was that. I flew back to Egypt to arrange my affairs and I was back in Japan by October to start my sumo career.’ He made sure to leave with his family’s approval. ‘It was really hard on them at the beginning. They called it an ugly sport. They couldn’t understand why I had to be naked all the time! But in the end they said “khalas, if this is your dream, we’re with you, just remember we don’t like that you’re naked.”’
Shaalan’s life is a communal and repetitive one. He shares his home with the other members of his club. They wake up at dawn every day and engage in a strict cycle of training, eating and napping, believed to most effectively facilitate the necessary expanding of their bodies. ‘Before I was a bodybuilder,’ he jokes, ‘now I’m a belly-builder.’
He participates in six competitions a year, each of which involves 15 fights. To maintain his rank, Shaalan has to win at least eight of those fights, and more if he wants to move up. He’s broken three records already, but that’s not enough. He has his eye firmly set on the grand championship – the ultimate honour. ‘I’m not in love with Japan; I’m in love with my sport. I’m here to achieve my dream.’ Will he be satisfied once he becomes a Yokozuna, the highest rank in sumo? It doesn’t look like it. Instead, he plans on introducing the sport he loves to his equally precious Middle East.
It’s hard to dismiss that nagging realisation that Shaalan’s story reads like a screenplay to one of Hollywood’s underdog films. But, faced with the bona fide account of a boy from Giza with real unachievable dreams and real insurmountable odds, and his astounding story of success, the cynical heart can’t but thaw.