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."

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