NAKAMA, Japan >> Nearly , Fiamalu "Mamu" Penitani still vividly recalls the disbelief in the college recruiter’s voice.
"When I told him I was going to Japan for sumo instead of the mainland to play football," he didn’t believe me, Mamo said. "He said, ‘Are you sure you’re not just chickening out?’"
"He thought I was making it up about sumo," Mamu said. "I don’t think anybody had ever brought up sumo before."
These days, his hair long, oiled and pulled tight in the sumo style, Mamu, a 2012 graduate of Waianae High, ponders his career choice, overlooking a traditional Japanese rock garden and the trappings of a sumo stable. "I still feel it was the right choice for me. It was something I felt I had to try."
You could call it something of the family business for the 20-year-old nephew and namesake of former grand champion Fiamalu Penitani, who won the Emperor’s Cup 12 times as Musashimaru in a career that ended in 2003.
When a tearful Musashimaru stepped out of the ring for the last time in Tokyo, it ended a nearly 40-year continuous run of sumotori from Hawaii that included Jesse (Takamiyama) Kuhaulua, Salevaa (Konishiki) Atisanoe, Chad (Akebono) Rowan, Musashimaru and George (Yamato) Kalima that competed in the top division of Japan’s national sport.
Not until Mamu’s debut in 2013, under the ring name "Musashikuni," had another prospect from Hawaii wrapped himself in the traditional mawashi and stepped into the hard-packed clay circle like the one he competes in in the Summer Tournament in Tokyo.
In a sport where Hawaii exports once held a prominent place, Mamu tries to find success amid the Mongolians and eastern Europeans who have come to dominate.
There is a saying in sumo that treasure is buried in the dohyo (ring) for those strong, persistent and accomplished enough to find it. And the former Seariders defensive tackle, now a 6-foot-1 318-pounder, is determined to unearth his share.
His uncle, Musashimaru, did well enough that when he retired after a 15-year career he opened his own sumo stable, Musashigawa, and a group of restaurants. "It is impossible to follow in his footsteps," Mamu said. "But with his push and instruction, I’d like to be successful."
Mamu is one of eight trainees in the stable and among 656 sumotori currently active in the sport. He climbed well up in sandanme division, the third of sumo’s six divisions, with a 41-28 record, before suffering a foot injury that forced his withdrawal after two matches in the last tournament in March.
"He’s healed up and ready to go in Tokyo," Musashimaru said. "He’s looking strong."
As a youngster he glimpsed Musashimaru in a match on TV and wondered what all the fuss was about.
"My grandma told me that was my uncle and I was amazed," Mamu said. "When I was about 7, I visited him at his stable. Then, in high school, I started to think about sumo, but my uncle wanted me to finish school first."
Mamu said, "After I got to Japan and had my first matches, I knew it was right for me. It was the right decision. I love football, but sumo is where it is at for me."
Reach Ferd Lewis at email@example.com or 529-4820.