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Reasons that rikishi quit sumo are manifold.

Injury, advancing age, the desire to have a family or declining prospects of success are among the most common grounds given for leaving the sport.

Telling the stablemaster that you want to go to America to hunt down and kill the man’s son because he has been fooling around with your stepmom — not so much.

That’s exactly what happened with Cal Martin in the early 1970s, however.

Cal Martin (left) had a very eventful career in sumo.  | COURTESY OF CAL MARTIN
Cal Martin (left) had a very eventful career in sumo. | COURTESY OF CAL MARTIN

The target of first-ever Caucasian sumo wrestler’s anger was a fellow rikishi who, ironically, had only met the woman in question while in the United States attempting to persuade the teenage American to return to pro sumo.

Thankfully, the Hanakago stablemaster kept Martin’s passport under lock and key until he calmed down, while Betty (his stepmom) eventually ended up marrying the former stablemate.

That soap opera-esque storyline was just par for the course in the short, but extremely eventful, sumo life of Araiwa (Martin).

Details on the now 71-year-old’s career had been lost to the mists of time until the California native resurfaced in sumo circles online in recent months, with a succession of tales that evoked comparisons with the “Most Interesting Man in the World” series of commercials and shined a light on a sumo world that was very different than it is now.

Betty, it turns out, was also responsible for him becoming a rikishi in the first place.

Indignant at the high schooler’s dismissive attitude towards sumo while watching the sport on TV with his father during a trip to Japan, she challenged him to put up or shut up.

“It was her dare that got me in,” Martin explained in a recent phone conversation with The Japan Times. “I was just a cocky kid of 18 and thought I could whip the world. I have never even heard the word ‘sumo’ before I got to Japan.” Despite his lack of familiarity with Japan’s national sport, Martin’s athletic background and powerful frame helped him find success right off the bat. But just as he was approaching the paid ranks, another romantic entanglement convinced him his future lay elsewhere.

“Hanakago — he had different plans for me — let’s put it that way,” Martin explained.

It was made clear to the young American that once he reached the sport’s upper reaches, he would be expected to marry the oyakata’s daughter with an eye on taking over the stable when the older man retired.

“I loved Japan, but I didn’t plan on staying there … and that was part of the reason I said, ‘Y’know I think I’ve gone far enough,’” he said.

Life after sumo was no less exciting. After leaving Japan, Martin went on to have an eventful 40-year motorsport career in drag racing and crackerbox boat competitions.

Unsurprisingly, for a cocky kid who had joined sumo on a dare, trouble was never far away. Martin chuckles about not remembering much about the area of Tokyo in which he lived apart from the local police station as “they had to bring me home a time or two.” Luckily, though, his stablemaster was, according to Martin, also ”kind of a rebel,” and shielded his young foreigner from the more serious consequences of some of his actions.

Hanakago knew the value of his asset and, in a move reminiscent of what European soccer teams would do decades later, leveraged the novelty of his foreign recruit into column inches and publicity.

“When he had me come over and try out, he made sure he had a reporter there that leaked it everywhere,” Martin said.

The increase in attention helped Hanakago land future yokozuna Wajima at a time when virtually every stable in the sport was trying to recruit the college star.

In a time before social media or omnipresent cameras, Martin was able to enjoy a measure of freedom no current lower-ranking rikishi possibly could.

“I had a little pickup truck that I’d won in a bet with Hanakago,” he said. “When we had our two weeks off after a tournament, I used to take off with my hair down and go up into the mountains and rent a cabin. I would say I was a student and I’d stay there for a week and have a ball with the lumberjacks, arm-wrestling and everything. On the last day I’d tell them who I was. It was a fun time back then.” Although not suited to the rigidity of sumo, Martin did make one lifelong friend while in the sport — fellow rikishi Teruyuki Nishimori.

Roughly 18 months older than his American stablemate, Nishimori would go on to reach ozeki and win two championships under the ring name Kaiketsu, and later became chairman of the Japan Sumo Association.

Martin has fond memories of his old sparring partner.

“He was my only friend in Hanakago stable,” he said. “We kept in touch and he came over to the United States a time or two. He was great. We were like Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. We were just best buddies and made each other better. He used to tell people ‘if it wasn’t for that damn American, I wouldn’t have gotten into jūryō.” Martin’s own career almost ended as soon as it began. Soon after joining the sport he got called up for a military draft exam and while back in the U.S. took up a job working for Ford.

Repeated efforts by Hanakago to get him to return failed before negative press changed his mind.

“I actually came back (to Japan) again because of some articles written in the Japanese newspapers,” he said. “They said I just made it to the lowest division, and they said I was kind of a (expletive) — I didn’t show up for the rest. I said OK I’m coming back and by God this time we’ll get serious.” How serious the subsequent 13-month career actually was is debatable, but Martin certainly made a run at being the Most Interesting Rikishi in the World.

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