Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Hawai'i sumo champion still a big hit

Hawai'i's 6-foot-3, 500-pound Musashimaru dwarfs 5-foot, 94-pound Lyubov Denisova, the 2006 Honolulu Marathon winner.

Even now, more than two years into his retirement from the ring, Fiamalu Penitani said he sometimes has to remind himself that when young sumotori shout "oyakata" he is the sumo elder they are addressing.

He is the one they are bowing to and who they come to offer a ladle of water in a show of traditional training room deference.

"At first, I didn't pay attention because I didn't think they were talking to me," said the former Wai'anae High football player. "It doesn't seem like I'm that that old."

At age 36 the time has, indeed, gone fast for the man who competed for 18 years under the ring name Musashimaru and is back home this week helping to promote the 2007 Grand Sumo Tournament in Hawai'i June 9 to 10 at Blaisdell Center Arena.

Musashimaru was the last in a 40-year line of more then two dozen sumotori from Hawai'i to compete in Japan's national sport when he retired in 2004. From a raw aspirant fresh out of high school he achieved one of the fastest climbs up the sumo rankings, eventually becoming the 67th yokozuna and winner of 12 Emperor's Cups in the centuries-old sport.

Now he coaches at the Musashigawa stable in Tokyo, where he once apprenticed and lived in communal space. He helps direct predawn practices, showing young sumotori the time-honored, bruising fundamentals of the sport. He lives within walking distance of the stable in a low-rise Nippori neighborhood where he is treated as a deity, passersby bowing in his presence. His is one of the sport's most recognized faces in part thanks to something of a resemblance with the revered historic figure Saigo Takamori

Yet even as Musashimaru helps prepare wannabe champions - some just out of junior high school - for their futures, his own is in the back of his mind. He said he hasn't made a commitment yet on whether he will stay in the only profession he has ever known, though decision day is approaching.

As a former grand champion, Musashimaru was given a five-year dispensation at ring retirement, allowing him to stay in the sport and draw an elder's salary. But when 2009 rolls around he will either have to purchase stock in the ruling Japan Sumo Association, where the stock would allow him to remain until the mandatory retirement age of 65, or he must leave the sport.

The stock - when available - can be expensive, as much as "$2 million" according to Musashimaru. And while he has saved well, Musashimaru said he will talk to the stable and its booster club about support.

Whether he remains in the sport or moves on, Musashimaru said sumo has allowed him to grow in ways beyond his imposing 6-foot-3, and nearly 500-pound frame. It gave him an opportunity to "make my own way" and showed the way. Without the demands of sumo and its discipline, Musashimaru said, "I don't know where I'd be. Probably a bad boy."

Friday, February 9, 2007

Sumo has bigger problems than bribery to worry about

Accusations of bribery are as old as the ancient sport of sumo itself, though in the past proponents were much more open about bouts being fixed, according to Shukan Asahi (2/16).

In the Taisho Era (1912-1925), there used to be an inspector who would accuse grapplers of fixing matches and make them re-fight seriously on the spot.

But the claims by Shukan Gendai that Yokozuna Asashoryu paid 11 of his 15 opponents to lose in the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament last year rocked the sumo world. Asashoryu and the other wrestlers questioned over the claims have all denied any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, the struggling sport copped another blow it didn't really need.

"Before the Japan Sumo Association made a decision that there has not been any bout-fixing, it should be posting inspectors at the shitakubeya preparation room and getting them to keep an eye out on any wrestler acting suspiciously. They already knew what the result of the probe would be before they even started carrying it out this time," a veteran JSA member tells Shukan Asahi. "Unless they solve this, sumo runs the risk of losing even more of its popularity."

Sumo journalist Shigeru Nakazawa says there are problems other than the fixing allegations.

"Regardless of whether there was any fixing going on or not, what can't be denied is that a yokozuna who barely practices still manages to win tournaments while barely raising a sweat. The four ozeki who are supposed to beat the yokozuna never looked like doing so," Nakazawa says. "Sumo is trying to give across this message that everybody is always practicing really hard, but when you look at the results that are coming up, it shows you that nothing much is going on at all."

People in Tokyo may not have given up on sumo yet, but the next tournament is in March in Osaka, a city known for its citizens' parsimoniousness.

"There are some stalls complaining that customers are already demanding their money back. But there won't be any payments coming out of a place that's worth nothing," Nakazawa tells Shukan Asahi. "Osakans are a lot more outspoken than people from Tokyo, who'll put up with stuff it is makes them look good. Osakans won't put up with wrestlers not giving it their all." (By Ryann Connell)

February 6, 2007 ?

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Local rugby players set for annual memorial game

Rich Freeman / Daily Yomiuri Sportswriter

As coach of the Top League's newest team, Mitsubishi Juko, Scott Pierce is not going to get too many more opportunities to play himself.

So the chance to turn out for the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club against the Tokyo Crusaders on Saturday was one he was not going to turn down.

Even if it did mean earning the wrath of his wife, who wants the former All Blacks trialist and Japan sevens player to return home to New Zealand after a long season.

But hopefully Mrs. Pierce will understand given the circumstances.

The 41-year-old center is the biggest name taking part in the MacFadyen Cup, played in memory of Gareth MacFadyen, who played for both the YC&AC and the Crusaders from 1996-2000.

MacFadyen was tragically killed in December 2000, after a prank at a Christmas party in Auckland went horribly wrong and the grass skirt he was wearing was engulfed in flames. Since then the two teams have played every year in his honor.

MacFadyen's parents Ian and Sue are being flown to Japan by Air New Zealand and will present the winning captain with the cup, which was designed in Brisbane, Australia, and made in Christchurch, New Zealand.

"It's great to see Air New Zealand, which has a long history as a sponsor of international and provincial rugby in New Zealand, support such a significant club event in Japan," said Simon Ryan, president of the YC&AC rugby club.

Both teams have won the trophy three times and this year's edition was designated a two-legged affair.

The Cru' are the current holders but they go into Saturday's game at the YC&AC having to make up a three-point deficit, after losing November's first leg 22-19.

In the past top referees from New Zealand have been flown out to officiate and there were hopes that Paddy O'Brien would be in charge of this year's game.

However,the Kiwi's role as the International Rugby Board's referees' manager has prevented him from making the trip.

Ryota Yashima, a Japanese referee with experience of handling games in the Sydney club competition, will blow the whistle instead on what is always a hard-fought encounter.

The 2nd XV game gets underway at 2.00 p.m. at the YC&AC ground in Yamate, with the 1st XV match kicking off at 3.15 p.m.

(Feb. 2, 2007)