Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Osunaarashi trying to navigate post-sumo life

by John Gunning

Disgraced former top-division wrestler Osunaarashi appeared on a late-night variety show this week. Head freshly shaven, the big Egyptian hammed it up, participating in sumo bouts with veteran TV personality Bobby Ologun and erstwhile UFC heavyweight champion Josh Barnett.

The appearance, coming barely three weeks after his forced retirement from the Sumo Association, raised eyebrows, with even the show’s host asking if it was OK for him to be on TV.

Generally speaking, entertainers or sports stars that have fallen from grace take a period out of the public eye before attempting to rehabilitate their image. Comebacks too, normally start with something low key and suitably contrite.

For those who know Osunaarashi well however, his over-the-top antics on such a gaudy show came as little surprise.

The man from Mansoura, Egypt, has always struggled with the “reserved” part of Japanese culture. Whether due to background or personality, his years in sumo have seen a roller coaster of almost endless drama behind the scenes.

Full disclosure: I have known Osunaarashi since he was a teenager and was one of the people responsible for putting him into professional sumo. Boody, as he is known to friends, is great company and has an exuberant, outgoing personality, but isn’t the best at long-term planning and tends to let his emotions rule his actions to a degree that isn’t productive.

Despite the fact that he had been considering leaving sumo for some time, Osunaarashi hadn’t made any solid post-retirement plans. His dismissal and its ramifications, though no surprise and widely anticipated, seemed to catch him completely unawares.

The sudden lack of income and uncertainty about the future have been hugely stressful and frustrating for the former Otake stable man. The fact that his wife is due to give birth a couple of months from now has only added to the pressure.

Dealing with difficulties has never been Osunaarashi’s strong point and since returning to Tokyo he has been in a funk, hidden away in his home watching old black-and-white movies until the early hours of every morning.

I spent a day there with him last week and it was quite clear he needed a break from both the apartment and his own thoughts.

So naturally when the opportunity arose to get out, even if it was for an ill-advised television appearance, it proved too much for him to resist.

Osunaarashi is not alone in his failure to deal well with a premature end to a career. Sumo is such an all-encompassing lifestyle that almost every wrestler that gets fired or forced out finds himself in an emotional state akin to someone dealing with the loss of a loved one.

That’s understandable because of the finality and totality of the separation. Unlike other sports where athletes can join a different team or league or even return after a suspension for doping or cheating, once someone is out of sumo they are gone forever.

Sokokurai’s successful two-year legal battle for reinstatement notwithstanding, there is no coming back once the retirement paperwork is complete. It’s no surprise, then, to see ex-wrestlers at a complete loss over to what to do and unwilling to deal with the reality of their situation.

That denial manifests itself in the seemingly random and wild out-of-character actions some wrestlers take after being ousted.

Young Russian Wakanoho was so desperate and flustered after being kicked out in 2008 that he made and retracted claims of match-fixing several times, naively believing advice that it would force the JSA to take him back.

For regular people it is hard to imagine the turmoil that must follow being told that your chosen professional career is over for good at the age of 20.

Wakanoho moved to the United States with hopes of becoming a professional football player but, despite some success at a lower-division college, making the NFL was never a realistic prospect. Sports success rarely translates, and while many former wrestlers have done reasonably well in their second lives, very few have had a good career in a second athletic pursuit.

Wakanoho ended up taking part in exhibition sumo events across the U.S. with a few other ex-pros. Whether on the amateur circuit, in commercials and movies or on TV shows, it’s easy to find former wrestlers unwilling to let go of the allure of the dohyo.

Even yokozuna Asashoryu needed to come back for one last televised “retirement sumo” event, seven years after being forced out of the sport, to achieve closure.

Osunaarashi is still relatively young and will try and continue to take advantage of his physical gifts. He is currently in negotiations with a well-known mixed martial arts promotion and that seems to be the road he will most likely follow.

Professional wrestling may be more suitable than MMA for former sumo wrestlers but there is no comparison when it comes to the money involved, with the latter providing much higher paydays for those who are successful.

Osunaarashi probably lacks the language skills needed to make it as an entertainer in Japan, so what shape his career will take after he is done climbing into rings to fight is anyone’s guess.

Knowing the man as I do, however, it will be a bridge that he won’t even think about crossing until he gets to it.