Sumo's heaviest ever wrestler urges others to keep eating habits in check

Justin McCurry in Tokyo

Japan’s sumo wrestlers should rein in their enormous appetites and take better care of their health. The advice comes not from doctors or nutritionists, but from a former wrestler who weighed more than any other man in the sport’s long history.

“It’s never easy to stay healthy as long as you’re living the life of a sumo wrestler,” Ōrora, a retired professional wrestler, or rikishi, said in a recent interview with the Asahi Shimbun, soon after a young wrestler died after contracting coronavirus. “You are the only person that can take care of yourself. Nobody in your sumo stable cares about you.”

The Russian wrestler, who now uses his “civilian” name, Anatoly Mikhakhanov, said the sumo route to gaining weight – two gargantuan meals a day separated by an afternoon nap – was putting wrestlers’ health at risk.

The dangers of a lifestyle that combines intense physicality and bulk-building food intake were underlined last month when Shobushi, a wrestler in one of the lower professional ranks, died from Covid-19. Doctors who treated the 28-year-old said he had several chronic health conditions.

The sumo diet staple chanko nabe – a stew packed with meat, fish and vegetables – is high in protein and low in fat. But Mikhakhanov, who retired in 2018, knows to his cost how pressure to pile on the pounds can tempt wrestlers into consuming more than the 4,000 calories they need to refuel after gruelling early-morning training sessions.

Weighing an already hefty 190kg when he turned professional, Mikhakhanov saw his weight increase to 292.6kg shortly before he retired. In 2017, he became the heaviest professional rikishi ever at 288kg, beating the record previously held by the Hawaii-born Konishiki, who tipped the scales at 285kg.

Mikhakhanov would routinely polish off 200 pieces of sushi and a crate of beer, and found it impossible to refuse offers of extra bowls of rice from senior stablemates. As a result, he suffered from hypertension and struggled to fight off fatigue.

“I would lie down right after eating, which wasn’t good,” he told the newspaper. “Just walking or moving was really troublesome.”

The 37-year-old has since swapped his two huge meals a day for five smaller meals, and regular walks and gym sessions have helped him shed more than 100kg. “Of course, you can’t train unless you eat, but there’s no point in making yourself ill,” he said.

Mikhakhanov was not alone in struggling to keep his eating habits in check. “Wrestlers in the highest makuuchi division weigh and average of 160.2kg – 15kg heavier than three decades ago, and have an average body mass index of more than 47, while medical professionals warn that a BMI of 30 or higher indicates obesity.

With hundreds of wrestlers divided into 45 stables, some are bound to let temptation get the better of them, according to John Gunning, a former amateur sumo wrestler who now commentates and writes about the sport in Japan.

“Some are extremely diligent about what they eat; some aren’t,” says Gunning, whose weight doubled to 120kg within two years of making his debut in 2004. “The bigger and heavier you are the better you’ll be. This is not an aerobic sport. If you want to be good you have to get big, and that can come at the expense of your health.”

While other intense contact sports such as rugby and American football have adopted new approaches to training and nutrition, Japan’s de facto national sport is anchored to tradition.

“There is pressure on wrestlers to get bigger and stronger, but there has been no significant change in training methods or nutrition,” says Gunning, who represented Ireland three times at the sumo world championships. “They’re doing the same exercise routines, eating the same things and living the same lifestyle as 20 years ago … or 200 years ago.”

The Japan Sumo Association has published 10 health guidelines that include eating fish and vegetables, in addition to meat, chewing food properly and avoiding crisps, cakes and other snacks. The association conducts regular health checks on wrestlers, but enforcing good eating habits is practically impossible among stables with contrasting attitudes towards nutrition and health.

“Most wrestlers are in their late teens and early 20s in a testosterone-fuelled support. They’re fighting every day and they don’t have much freedom,” says Gunning. “The pressure builds but there’s no way to release it. Overeating relieves stress and gets you big. I did it myself.”