In a sport steeped in ancient rituals and Japanese tradition, one young foreigner faces the weighty issue of how to keep faithful to his religious observances and be competitive in one of the biggest sumo arenas.
Wrestling under the name Osunaarashi, which translates as “Great Sandstorm,” 21-year-old Abdelrahman Ahmed Shalan is the first professional sumo wrestler from the African continent.
Being an outsider has had its challenges, but while he has slowly been getting to grips with life in the elite sumo ranks, the young Egyptian does have a unique problem at the 15-day Nagoya tournament where his rivals rely on every part of their preparation being in sync: The event coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. For Shalan, that means strict fasting — not something usually associated with the larger-than-life image of sumo wrestling.
“I love sumo. Sumo means everything to me,” he said in an interview as the Nagoya tournament was commencing. “I’ve sacrificed being with my friends, being with my family, being in university. I’ve put all my cards on the table and now we’ll see what happens. I believe in myself and believe in my dream.”
Shalan arrived in Japan less than two years ago and has quickly risen up the ranks after only eight tournaments. He made his debut in the elite juryo division on Sunday with a win over Mongolian Oniarashi.
He weighs 143kg and is 1.89m tall. While his size is a great advantage, his win over Oniarashi proved he relies on more than just brute force, as he calmly got a grip of his opponent’s belt after the faceoff and deftly forced him out of the ring.
Since arriving in Japan, the wrestler now known as Osunaarashi has done remarkably well, compiling a 45-7 record and winning two titles in the junior divisions. Only two other non-Japanese wrestlers have reached the juryo division from eight tournaments: Hawaiian Konishiki and Estonian Baruto.
“He will get to the top division, I have no doubt about that,” sumo columnist Mark Buckton said. “He has a very strong upper body, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to success in sumo.”
As much as he likes the attention, Osunaarashi said there are pressures that go with being the first African and Arab wrestler.
It “has many good points and some bad points,” he said. “I feel a lot of stress because I am the first African sumo wrestler so the whole world is watching to see what the first African in sumo will do.”
Due to the Nagoya tournament — held from Sunday to July 21 — coinciding with Ramadan, Osunaarashi cannot eat or drink during daylight and must find time for prayer. It is something he learned to cope with at last year’s Nagoya tournament, but he said the toughest part is not being able to drink water in the stifling summer heat.
“For me [Ramadan] is not a big problem,” Osunaarashi said. “I got used to it last year in Nagoya. The biggest problem is water. I can’t drink water during the day. I eat after midnight then sleep, but it’s not a big problem, I am used to it.”
On some occasions, a main meal consists of little more than a rice ball at 3am during the fast. That is not much to go on when your bout is at 3pm. Just how well Osunaarashi will be able to cope in the full 15-day tournament remains to be seen. Until now, his tournaments have been only seven days.
Now that he is in the elite division, Osunaarashi knows things will be a lot tougher. Through the first four days of the tournament he had three wins against one loss and will be hoping for at least a winning record of 8-7 at the end of the tournament. If he puts together two solid tournaments, Osunaarashi could be promoted to the top division for the season-ending tournament in November.
“People have told me to be careful now that I’m in juryo,” Osunaarashi said. “People say the wrestlers are tougher and the wrestlers are great, but I feel I am tough and great too.”
Osunaarashi was introduced to sumo at the age of 14. A sumo coach in Egypt suggested he give it a shot because of his size. He weighed 120kg at the time, but lost seven out of seven bouts to a wrestler half his weight and realized there was something more to the sport than he had first assumed.
So he studied videos of former grand champion Takanohana to get a better understanding of the sport. It obviously helped and in 2008, he won a bronze medal at the World Junior Sumo Championships and moved to Japan in 2011 to pursue his career full-time.
For now, Japan is home for Osunaarashi, who studied accounting and management at university. He has followed developments in Egypt, but said he is too focused on sumo to get caught up in it.
“I follow what’s going on, but I don’t like the political stuff,” Osunaarashi said. “I’m just trying to do my best for my country and forget about politics... To make something good for my country I have to do well in sumo.”
“I believe one day I will be the first Arab grand champion,” the Egyptian added.