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Joining sumo no easy task for foreign rikishi hopefuls

For young men with Japanese nationality, joining sumo can be as easy as knocking on a stable door, sending an email, or picking up the phone.

Sumo is very likely the only sport in the world where virtually anyone can try their hand at being a top-level professional without relevant background experience or knowledge.

It’s one of the reasons that the washout rate is so high.

The idea of being a star rikishi is very appealing, and many join with notions of fame and glory, only to have the harsh reality of sumo life come as a major shock.

This country’s national sport is a spartan and oftentimes brutal existence. Those who go into it blind to that fact often end up with careers measured in months or even weeks, rather than years.

Regardless, the Japan Sumo Association keeps the doors open — partly because it believes in the dream of small rikishi succeeding against the odds, but mostly because the nature of the sport’s organization requires a large number of unpaid wrestlers in the lower divisions.

For hopefuls without Japanese nationality, however, the path into professional sumo isn’t nearly as straightforward.

Minus a preexisting relationship with someone already inside sumo, or a massive amount of success at the underage level on the world stage, getting a stable to open its doors is an almost impossible task for young wrestlers from around the globe.

Even with either (or both) of those things, success is far from guaranteed.

I’ve personally played a role in the recruitment of a few foreign rikishi, and spent time with others as they tried (and failed) to find a slot.

Zaza Balashvili falls into the latter category.

The then 21-year-old Georgian spent most of the summer of 2012 in Japan, training at professional stables and amateur clubs in the hopes of landing a slot in ōzumō (professional sumo).

Despite an impressive physique (Balashvili stood 190 cm tall and weighed 150 kg) and podium finishes at the Junior World Championships in 2007 and 2008, the Tbilisi native was unable to find a stablemaster willing to give him a shot.

Age was one of the primary barriers. Just three months shy of his 22nd birthday and with his major successes having come five years earlier, Balashvili would most likely not have made it to the paid ranks until his mid-to-late twenties, but there was doubt about even that.

The biggest issue came with his demeanor in the practice ring.

No matter how physically big someone is, or how much international amateur success they have had, they will struggle the first time they step into a professional ring and take on makushita-level rikishi in training.

The first shock comes with the length and intensity of the warmup routines.

Long before the first bout takes place, newcomers will be drenched in sweat and gasping for air with their hands on their knees.

Then, when already exhausted, you have to fight men for whom grueling four- and five-hour early practices are as normal as a cup of coffee in the morning.

Balashvili had several training sessions in Otake stable, home to Egyptian wrestler Osunaarashi, but his inability to beat the man whom he had previously defeated in the gold medal match in the 2008 junior SWC, or any of his senior stablemates clearly rocked his confidence.

Stunned by how much further along his one-time rival was after 18 months in professional sumo and struggling to deal with the daily pace and intensity of ōzumō training, Balashvili became timid and unsure in practice.

Had he risen to meet the challenge and displayed fight and heart, then perhaps the Georgian might have found a slot, but despite constant assurances that results in training didn’t matter, and that stablemasters dropping in to watch him train were only concerned with how he practiced and the potential he displayed, Balashvili never regained his confidence and the chance slipped through his fingers.

Perhaps it was for the best. Sumo is a dog-eat-dog world and if the first setback has you retreating into your shell, then you probably aren’t suited for that life.

Osunaarashi, the man Balashvili trained with a lot that summer, conversely took every knock and defeat on his way to the top division as a personal affront.

The former bodybuilder’s reaction to being thrown around and defeated by much smaller men in his local gym in Egypt during sumo challenge matches, was to look up the sport on YouTube and then decide to move to the other side of the world and become a professional.

The 15-year-old, who had never left his own part of rural Africa before, knew so little about the country that he wanted to emigrate to, that when challenged to name something Japanese all he could come up with was “Bruce Lee.”

Osunaarashi was still a teenager when he first emailed me looking for help with joining a stable.

A few years later when stablemasters were telling him to his face that he was too old or too musclebound and inflexible to become a rikishi, he responded by going into their stables and destroying seasoned makushita veterans in training.

Of course years later it was that same “nothing can stop me doing what I want” attitude that ended his career, but before it all went south, Osunaarashi’s drive and passion got him all the way to the top of the maegashira ranks.

Foreign wrestlers rarely get a shot at becoming a professional rikishi and for some, when they did get that chance, inaction and hesitancy let it slip away.

Much like in the ring itself, the key is sometimes as simple as not overthinking things and just plowing ahead.

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