The fighting sports are more interlinked and related than most people realize, and sumo has given us some of the biggest names that we know today in professional wrestling.
The History of Sumo and Its Connection with Professional Wrestling
Silence falls across the Ryogoku Kokugikan arena as two behemoths of men slowly press their knuckles into the clay of the dohyo; their eyes never leaving the gaze of the other. Throngs of fans sit poised in anticipation for… HAKKEYOI!
The referee’s sound announcing the bout’s start is like that of a human starting gun, releasing their unhinged rage. They crash together like massive waves against step oceanside cliffs. The late Gorilla Monsoon would genuinely call it the irresistible force meeting the immovable object.
The smacking reverberance of the collision echoes through the hall and seemingly into the very air of Tokyo itself. With a surprisingly deceptive quick series of movements, the bout is over as quickly as it began as one rikishi is forced off the edge of the raised platform.
While Puroresu is the version of Japanese wrestling most fans are familiar with, the roots of Sumo are steeped in tradition and interlinked with the history of the nation going back to 23 B.C.
It was first used to settle disputes and appease the whims of the Emperor. It also became ingrained with the harvest, as all the heads of the clans would come together at that time of the year and have tournaments of matches to determine who was the best. There were no participation awards either, as matches could end in the death of the opponent.
Its popularity even led to riots and fighting in the streets during the fifteenth century, and it was banned from public competition for two hundred and fifty years. This puts all too well the historical significance of the sport in the limelight, as a mere ban in its lifetime is longer than we in America have been a nation.
During this time, however, sanctioned matches were allowed at certain Shinto shrines, and it was there that the rules for the modern Sumo we have today were put into place and built upon over the next hundred years.
Nowadays, Sumo is the national sport for Japan. It spread throughout Asia and Polynesia, attracting fans and aspiring competitors alike. It also began to show up in the middle and high school level as an organized sport in schools. This is where we see the first sparks of competition that would give us some of the biggest names that we know today in professional wrestling.
1. Tonga Fifita (a.k.a. Meng and Haku)
The boy who would grow into one of the most feared men in and out of the professional wrestling ring had his roots in sumo!
Tonga Fifita, better known as Haku or the maniacal Meng, began his sumo training in his teenage years. In 1974, he was sent to Japan with a few of his peers by the King of Tonga to learn the sport from its homeland and its masters.
Coincidentally, his future Powers of Pain teammate, Barbarian, was also in this class of hopefuls.
He made his debut under the name Fukinoshima in November of that year, but it was short-lived, and the Tongans returned home a year later.
Meng would go on to train for his professional wrestling career at AJPW in Japan after he was scouted during his stay there. His legacy and reputation in the business are well earned, and few to this day would try him.
While it may seem more of an easier transition to make a move from Sumo to the American marketplace and its style of wrestling, there have been instances when the reverse has not only been confirmed but proven to allow for great success in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Chadwick Rowan (Akebono) was born in Waimanalo, on the island of Oahu, just outside of Honolulu in May of 1969. Though he got his first taste of organized sports as the center for his high school and college basketball team, it was his love and passion for the Sumo matches he watched growing up on the television that drew him to the competition.
After introducing his fellow Hawaiian and Sumo stable master, Takamiyama Daigorō, he pushed to join and start his training. With some apprehension that his height may hold him back, Takamiyama agreed to train the young man.
Rowan moved to Japan in 1988 and took the name Akebono, which means "new dawn" in Japanese, and began the life of a rikishi.
Daigorō himself was the first foreign-born rikishi to win a top division championship, doing so in 1972. He also set several records over his illustrious career before retiring on to the rank of stable master, which is a path that many successful former wrestlers choose to follow.
Akebono listened, learned, and undoubtedly suffered under the learning tree there, but it had apparent winning results as he skyrocketed through the ranks.
In the span of just five years, he went from his debut to the highest rank Sumo has to offer, that of yokozuna.
Watch Akebono in Sumo Action:
After his sumo career ended in 2000, he went on to mentor and work with young talent at his alma mater stable under Takamiyama, and eventually made a move to MMA and then professional wrestling.
Many of you may remember his brief run in the WWE when he faced Big Show in sumo themed matches on Smackdown and later that year at WrestleMania 21 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Following that run, he moved back over to AJPW and, with the Great Muta guiding him, had a successful career in the squared circle there as well.
He retired from all active competitions in 2017 after heart complications and has yet to make any type of return. Word on his health condition is sparse, but we wish him well and, hopefully, a speedy recovery.
For the majority of professional wrestling fans, without a doubt, the two men that represent the sumo culture more than any others were two Samoans that knew how to make their presence felt and left a lasting impression on the industry, as well as their opponents.
Born Solofa Fatu Jr., the man some may know as the Sultan, grew to the height of his popularity as the hip-hop loving, dancing and grooving, sumo-styled Rikishi. The name itself is a direct nod to the sport as rikishi means wrestler and is pronounced with the middle "i" being silent in Japan; rik-shi.
Trained by Afa and Sika, he is one of many of the Anoa’i clan to not only represent the world of sumo but also are major foundation blocks in the aforementioned Samoan Dynasty.
He cut into the business in Canada for Lutte Internationale but really got his first big push after he and his cousin came up with the SST, Samoan Swat Team, idea.
I loved that team and the havoc that came with them, and while it was conceived in Puerto Rico at the World Wrestling Council promotion, it was when they took it to Von Erich’s WCCW, and then WCW, that things picked up for the pair.
Having the established bloodline and family name behind them was also a big plus to success.
The WWF soon came calling, as was the regular series of events on those days, and they moved up to the New York market and re-branded themselves The Headshrinkers.
After injuries to his cousin that led to a team change up and petered out storylines, the decision was made for Solofa to take on the Sultan persona and go into singles action.
This was soon also changed, and he re-emerged as the blond-haired, mawashi wearing Rikishi.
He went to the bank with the gimmick, became one of the most popular wrestlers of his era, and became part of the Too Cool faction. Rikishi also worked a major angle with Stone Cold Steve Austin, where he had run over Austin with a car, and facilitated a storyline based on the fact that he "did it for the Rock," who had received a strong push following the hit and run incident.
He has continued to be part of the wrestling business and maintained connections with the company, even after being released from his active contract in 2004.
The man that claimed the most accolades in professional wrestling with the sumo character was, without a doubt, Yokozuna.
Rodney "Yoko" Anoa’i was born in San Francisco in October of 1966, and as a result of being raised around one of the pre-imminent families in the business, began his training at a young age. Most certainly, it wasn’t long after he learned how to walk that he was in the mix, so to speak. When you live, eat, and breathe wrestling in that type of environment, the learning curve is propelled far forward by osmosis alone.
In his twenties, he worked the Japanese and Mexican circuits as the Great Kokina and added some of those skills to his repertoire.
Not long after that, he was brought into the WWF as a package deal with his cousins, the Samoan Swat Team.
As was regularly done, both were given new gimmicks for their new territory, and it wasn’t long before the Great Kokina was being led to the ring by Mr. Fuji and sporting the grimacing glare of the heel, but never speaking a word of English.
Yokozuna’s debut left fans jaws gaping at not only the size of this man but his agility for a man of five hundred and sixty pounds. He could work, and his connections to the business made him fast friends with the boys and a member of the infamous Bone Street Krew that hung fast together through the rigors of the road, partying their butts off the whole way down the line.
Watch Yokozuna in his WWE Debut:
With the absence of Andre the Giant as Vince’s "larger than life" attraction, he saw a renewed chance in Yoko to work as a foil to Hogan in his waning years at the company, as many had tried to do in the time since The Giant had left the company.
Coincidentally, during that time, the migration of stars from WWF to WCW was in full gear, and Hogan made his jump that summer of 1993. He had some matches against Bret Hart, as well as Lex Luger, after that but also a memorable run with his good friend and leader of the BSK, The Undertaker, that gave us that excellent casket match between the two at Royal Rumble the following year.
Watch Undertaker vs. Yokozuna Casket Match:
Yoko also had an actual sumo match against the last man we will talk about, and someone who many wrestling fans had no idea also came with a sumo background.
Sadly Yokozuna passed away in the fall of 2000 from complications of pulmonary edema. He was only thirty-four years old and was taken from us much too soon. Rest in peace, Kokina.
5. John Tenta (a.k.a. Earthquake)
The man that met Yokozuna in the ring that night was none other than John Tenta, the man better known as Earthquake.
Born in 1963, British Columbia, Canada, he nearly left his mother a cripple when he entered the world at a whopping eleven pounds and change. Always bigger than the other kids, he naturally took to wrestling at the very young age of six and quickly took a liking to the fighting sports.
He followed these to his college career at LSU, where he wrestled and played rugby, before a chance meeting in Vancouver with a former yokozuna, that he decided to try his hand at sumo.
Soon after arriving in Japan in the fall of ’85, he joined a stable and took the name Kototenta.
The gaijin foreigner turned the heads of many naysayers of Americans in the sport with his matches’ performance.
The toil on his body was more than he had bargained for, and the clay dohyo was even more unforgiving than the wrestling mats he was used to, and he decided to move on after only two years of competition.
The large tiger tattoo from his LSU days was also posing a problem for him achieving the higher ranks because, in Japan, public display of tattoos is outlawed.
Big John left and set his sights on the professional wrestling scene and got his training at NJPW before settling in the WWF in 1989.
He, too, left during the WCW vacuum years and competed with Kevin Sullivan’s Faces of Fear, before returning to WWF once again under the mask and sporting the Eric Cartman t-shirt as the goofy but memorable Golga character in the Oddities faction.
Tenta retired from wrestling in 2004 when he learned he had bladder cancer. He died only two years later at the young age of forty-two. Another legend plucked away before his time.
You can learn more about John Tenta’s sumo career in this fantastic article here.
Sumo in Western Culture
The majority of Western culture never really caught the fever for the sport of sumo. Whatever the case, most of us are playing catch-up to the history of the sport.
The Grand Sumo Tournaments are held six times a year and last fifteen consecutive days. The tournaments can be seen on the NHK Network by downloading their app to any smart television or cellphone type device. I would strongly encourage all of you to take in some of the tournaments, as you will undoubtedly be surprised by what you find. Highlights are posted daily on the network and give you all the matches’ action in just thirty minutes, making it more enticing to watch.
What began as a way to honor the Shinto gods and settle inter-tribal feuds evolved into the sport of not only a nation but an international one that continues to thrive hundreds of years after its inception. Take the time to not only learn about the legacy of this vibrant part of Japan but open yourselves up to one of the most beautiful cultures in the world. Until next time brothers and sisters, arigato, and sayonara.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure not to miss the following articles on our site:
- Yokozuna – Untold Stories on a Man Larger Than Life
- Meng: 15 Tales on Wrestling’s Toughest S.O.B.
- Big Van Vader and Antonio Inoki Incite a Riot in Sumo Hall