Sumo | SUMO SCRIBBLINGS

Will SMS be the undoing of sumo’s latest foreign ‘star’?

by Mark Buckton

Special to The Japan Times

Sumo has a new superstar. Or at least that is what the individual in question appears to be thinking at the moment!

Brodik Henderson is his name. He is Canadian. And if the hype he is largely generating himself on Facebook is to be believed, he is the next big thing.

He has already made a huge name for himself in amateur circles in the U.S.

However, for the moment at least, those more aware of the demands of professional sumo, on and off the ring, are failing to fall into line with all things “Brodi” – or “Bull” as he has labelled himself online.

To date in the amateur game he has done well. But with no real background even in the amateur sport, questions must be raised as to how far he can make it as a pro.

The highpoint of his amateur career was his defeat of former Mongolian rikishi Ulambayaryn Byambajav in the U.S. Open last year.

Byamba made it to makushita 15 in the sport’s third division a decade ago, and would have been lost to the pages of pro-sumo history by now had a highly effective marketing campaign not promoted him to almost god-like status in amateur sumo circles in the states.

As part of a sumo show more geared to entertainment than to the serious pursuit of the sport he has been without equal for the past few years. Movie appearances and TV show appearances have only added to his status as a sumo superstar.

And until last year he had little real competition when entering the U.S. Sumo Open or other U.S.-based amateur tourneys.

That was until 19-year-old Canadian Brodik Henderson turned up and put in a hugely impressive performance to claim the Men’s Openweight title.

Not long afterward talk turned to Henderson possibly throwing his hat into the professional ring, and a few months later he was unveiled as a Nishikido Beya rikishi.

But is he ready?

Is he aware that the fist bumps, “you can do it” shouts and athletes gesticulating whilst emitting victorious screams seen in much of north American sporting culture – oftentimes seen in amateur sumo stateside too – are not the way to succeed in Japan?

In a sport known for the its fans admiring humility in its competitors, once Henderson reaches the dohyo for real, and has hopefully passed through the lower divisions, the powerful court of public opinion will be brought to session.

One individual who famously fell foul of said “court” was the former ozeki Konishiki. Active between 1982 and 1997, the giant Hawaiian is still talked about by older fans as being too showy, a man too fond of the limelight.

Controversy still reigns when talk turns to just why he was denied a shot at promotion to yokozuna back in the early ‘90s, talk of his lifestyle not being in sync with that demanded of a grand champion.

Since Konishiki was the biggest name involved in the behind-the-scenes negotiations to bring Henderson to Japan, there is concern that the youngster will follow Konishiki’s lead “off the dohyo” as well.

As a rikishi, Konishiki was one of the very best at times. As a man who still divides opinion on whether or not he had the dignity required of a senior ranked rikishi, he still divides fans.

Brodik ‘the Bull’ Henderson being non-Japanese, and so closely linked to Konishiki could also increase the focus on any and all future misdeeds of a teen far from home off the dohyo. It is likely his first few outings will be broadcast on the nightly news. Result? More pressure!

In the coming months the novelty factor of his hair color and the fact he is the first Canadian in three decades to try his hand in the pro ring will wear off.

When the 2-meter, 150-kg giant loses to smaller Japanese rikishi it may well be seen as him lacking in spirit, when a lack of skills learned and an over-reliance on brute strength is more likely to be his undoing.

Of course he will still retain the support of an adoring public back in the U.S. But when push comes to shove, and when the brute force and braun that he has by the bucket load doesn’t win every fight, will he be able to knuckle down and beat the locals at their own game as have so many Mongolian and eastern European rikishi in recent years?

Maybe he will, but the sooner he stops believing all the hype, much of it self-generated, the better.

Already established in the upper echelons of the sport, and perhaps a man he should consult for advice on coping with the fame and attention in the SMS-era is Osunaarashi, sumo’s first professional Egyptian rikishi.

A sensation himself when he first appeared in 2012, the Otake-beya man has seen it all before – and then some! Media were all over him. Crowds flocked to see his practice sessions. Public appearances and requests for photos were commonplace.

Some of it made its way onto Facebook, but in comparison to sumo’s latest foreign sensation, Osunaarashi in the early days was a Facebook minnow, almost a non-entity as he learned his trade.

Just over a year after joining the sport he was in the second division. Two tournaments later and he was in makunouchi. He then hit a wall he has yet to find a way past, over or through.

Strength alone no longer does it for the Giant Sandstorm. And with legs looking weaker by the basho, and knees strapped into ominous-looking supports, there is concern about how long he can continue.

None of this was helped by his venting of frustrations on Facebook, and sources close to him indicate that homesickness is becoming a major worry.

But this is a man already at the top of the sport. He has earned the right to brag or be miserable online.

Henderson has earned nothing so far.

Hopefully he will learn quickly, and stop believing the hype that has thus far enveloped his presence in sumo. Hopefully he will stop being the source of some of that hype!

If he doesn’t, I’d put money on him gone within a year!

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