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Once a Mean Fighting Machine, Now He Wants to Be Lean

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Move over, Fergie. Konishiki--the biggest sumo wrestler on Earth, a man who once tipped the scales at 625 pounds and was capable of consuming 100 beers and 70 pieces of sushi in a single sitting--has retired from the sumo ring and is trying to shed 220 pounds.

It is a Herculean task, one that throws the dieting woes of ordinary mortals into new perspective. But Konishiki’s life story is already as oversized as his extra-long mawashi loincloth. One of 10 children of a poor Samoan family in Hawaii, he became, through grit and charm, the largest champion ever to shove his way to glory in Japan’s ancient national sport.

Other Americans have since outshone Konishiki in the ring, but the behemoth remains one of Japan’s best-liked celebrities. Few who have seen the ferocious glare with which Konishiki fixed his opponents before barreling them out of the ring would bet against his meeting his new goal: getting thin enough to be allowed on a roller coaster.

“I’m not on a diet. It’s a change of lifestyle,” the 34-year-old wrestler said as he lounged on a bench outside the Takasago sumo stable, where he is now a junior coach known by the post-retirement name of Sanoyama. “When you say ‘diet,’ it just kills the ears.”

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Nonetheless, he has bid sayonara to the two gargantuan meals that sumo wrestlers eat every day. The meals, ritualistically called chanko, are what everyone else eats--but three or four times the amount. His lunch and dinner once typically ended with three or four serving-bowl-sized portions of rice; now he has one ordinary-sized bowl per meal.

His busy schedule as a coach, sumo commentator and budding television talent leaves no time for the long, obligatory after-lunch nap that helps sumo wrestlers maintain their bulk.

And his drinking days, when he could down those 100 cans of beer in an evening--"Oh, easy"--are a thing of the past.

“I’m not that much a liquor guy, anyway. I just drink when I get together with the boys and we punch each other in the head and that kind of thing,” Konishiki said.

Although he is now hawking Suntory whiskey in Japanese television commercials, his limit is one beer--sipped, not guzzled. And recently, when taken to a sushi bar, he ate nothing near his record of 70 pieces. (The usual Japanese serving is 10 to 12 pieces.) Nor did he finish the small bowl of ice cream for dessert.

“I got full real quick,” he said. “I just wasn’t hungry, I guess.”

His non-dieting strategy is too sensible to make for bestseller material: First, he has begun eating breakfast, which sumo wrestlers never touch before their dawn training sessions.

“Breakfast really helps your metabolism,” he has found. “I’m not as hungry as I used to be.”

Second, he drinks only water and green tea, with an occasional beer.

“Water, man. H20. Natural,” he said, repeating, “It’s a lifestyle, not a diet.”

He eats three meals a day, nothing in between, and tries to eat dinner no later than 7 p.m. He never goes hungry. He does not have a diet doctor and doesn’t want one.

As of last week, he was down from his November retirement weight of 605 pounds to 572 pounds, but his goal is to lose 220 pounds more, allowing himself three years to shed the weight slowly.

“I’d like to be skinny for once, just to see how it feels,” he said. “But not too skinny. I was always big.”

Back when he was a high school student named Salevaa Atisanoe, his prowess on the football field, as well as his 6-foot, 1-inch, 308-pound size was what first drew the attention of Jesse Kuhaulua, or Takamiyama, the first non-Japanese sumo champion, who recruited him.

“But I could run then, play basketball and do everything...I miss that so much. But gotta work on it, huh?”

He aspires to be able to play basketball, walk easily in the park and fit into one seat on an airplane or bullet train--like most sumo stars, he now occupies a seat-and-a-half in first class.

“I try not to fly when I’m paying,” he cracked.

He hasn’t been on a roller coaster since a visit to Tokyo Disneyland in eighth or ninth grade: He had finally reached the head of a long line--only to be told that he was too big to ride.

“That kind of thing, it’s embarrassing, huh?” he said, his deep voice rising in a Pacific lilt. “But you just gotta take it like it is. I’m big--I know I’m big. . . .”

Konishiki is well-practiced in dealing with adversity. In a newly published Japanese-language memoir, “Konishiki Exposed,” he writes about his impoverished childhood.

“I was raised on canned goods, almost,” he said recently.

He also wrote about the bullying he experienced by senior wrestlers who would slam his head with beer bottles and then expect him to respond with “thank you” and about the beatings he has taken from the media over the years.

Arriving in Japan at 18, Konishiki rose through the sumo ranks in record time--delighting in defeating those who had tormented him.

“Hard feelings, that’s what made me good at sumo,” he said. “Go out there . . . and bang those guys, man. Hit ‘em as hard as you can ‘cause it’s a legal hit.”

He was quickly promoted to Ozeki, the second-highest rank in sumo, but even after winning three tournaments, he was not elevated to the top rank of Yokozuna, as other wrestlers with similar track records had been. Detractors dismissed Konishiki as big on bulk but lacking finesse, and one Sumo Assn. judge thought that no foreigner could have the requisite “dignity” to hold the highest rank in Japan’s national sport.

Konishiki made headlines for crying after losing a match--an unthinkable display in Japan. Although he has taken Japanese citizenship, he is very American in showing his emotions as, in his book, he writes frankly about his enduring love for his wife, a Japanese former fashion model.

And Konishiki’s travails with the sumo establishment have forced Japan to examine some of its attitudes--and paved the way for another American, Akebono, to be promoted to Yokozuna.

*

Perhaps because Konishiki has shown the courage of his emotions, he has conquered hearts. On his Internet home page, which features a life-sized print of his huge hand, fans post affectionate mail from Japan and all over the world. Konishiki answers it himself, signing his e-mails “Koni da man” or “Big guy in Japan.”

Even in retirement, he remains “a more regular fixture on the media circuit than the current U.S. ambassador, Thomas Foley,” critic Sakuya Fujiwara wrote in a review of Konishiki’s book.

In addition to the Suntory commercials, Konishiki has made ads for the American firm Uniden. But unlike the Duchess of York and other weight-watching pitchmen, he has passed up offers to endorse diet products--just as he has tossed out the flood of vitamins, herbal remedies and other weight-loss concoctions sent by well-wishers.

He’s also hosting a wildlife documentary, appearing regularly on TV as a sumo commentator and making frequent appearances on entertainment programs, where he sings, dances and cracks wise.

“I’m a clown anyway, so if they want me to make people laugh, I can make people laugh,” he said.

But an extremely successful diet could jeopardize all that, argues sumo critic Teiji Kojima.

“Konishiki’s size is his selling point. If he loses too much weight, he won’t be worth as much. But, of course, from the standpoint of his health, he should lose weight.”

Most sumo wrestlers manage to lose 30 or 40 pounds after retirement, but none has ever been as big as Konishiki. Although there are no statistics, records kept by the Sumo Museum in downtown Tokyo indicate that the champion heavyweights do tend to be short-lived. While the life expectancy of the Japanese male has climbed from 59 to 77 since 1950, the average life span of those who became Ozeki or Yokozuna after 1925 is only 56.

On Saturday, Konishiki will have his final retirement ceremony, in which his topknot will get the chop. He says he enjoys coaching youngsters and plans to stay in the Sumo Assn. “for now,” although the group has the final say on--and takes a cut from--all of his commercial activities.

And as his waistline shrinks, he sees other possibilities opening up. He’d like to land a recording contract, star in more commercials or even try Hollywood--"if,” he said, “it comes my way.”

* Researcher Etsuko Kawase in The Times’ Tokyo bureau contributed to this report.


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