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Kena Heffernan ’96 of Hawaii is America’s best amateur sumo wrestler. At 250 pounds, he regularly beats wrestlers almost twice his weight at events like the World Sumo Championship and the U.S. Sumo Open, where he took first place this year. His expertise went unnoticed at Yale; he was a standout tailback for the football team but didn’t wrestle competitively at the time. His rise in competitive sumo has coincided with a growing interest in the sport, and Heffernan, who was recently profiled in a PBS documentary, is quickly becoming the face of sumo in America. Joshua Davis, a contributing editor of Wired magazine and an amateur sumo wrestler himself, talked to Heffernan about his sport.
Y: In high school, as a pole vaulter, you won the state championship. It’s probably the only case of a sumo wrestler excelling in pole vaulting. Did people think it was a strange combination?
H: I do what I do for myself. Maybe people think it’s strange, but I don’t care. And anyway, I started with sumo before I vaulted. When I was 12, my dad got tired of me and my younger brother fighting in the house. We had a family friend who was the head of the Oahu Sumo Federation, so Dad brought us to his backyard sumo ring. He wanted us to get our rowdiness out in a constructive way. Plus it was like family time for us. My dad wrestled with us—he loved the hugs outside the ring but in the ring he loved the hits.
Y: He hit you?
H: No, no, no. In sumo, you can’t hit the opponent. The hit I’m talking about is the charge at the beginning, when you slam into each other at the tachiai [start]. After that, you either have to push your opponent out of the ring or make him touch the ground with anything other than his feet. That’s how you win. You can’t pull their hair, poke 'em in the eyes, hit 'em in the balls, or punch them. In pro sumo, you can slap the other guy anywhere but the face, but that’s not allowed in amateur sumo. But I’ve had some of the collegiate all-stars from Japan come across to Hawaii and they’ll try a full-force slap on me just to try to throw me off my game.
Y: How do you defend against a big man who wants to slap you?
H: You eat the slap. Because if they’re swinging their arms away from their body to crack me in the face, they’re actually opening themselves up, which is an opportunity to take them by the mawashi [sumo belt] and drive them out. Taking the slap didn’t matter. We got lickings from my father in the ring much worse than any of those slaps.
Y: You were only 12 years old. Didn’t he go easy on you?
H: No way. He never let us win. If we were going to win, we had to earn it. I was 18 when I beat him for the first time, and to be honest, it was a very sad day for me. I look up to my dad and always will, so beating him wasn’t a good feeling. But we’ve all competed against each other, my dad, my brother, and me. In 1999, I had to beat my brother to win the North American championship. But all three of us know that when we step inside the ring, it’s business and we’re going to give each other the best that we got.
Y: But back when you were 12, it must have been a little intimidating to wrestle adults.
H: Well, first of all, I definitely didn’t want to wear the mawashi and run around with a bare butt. But when my dad said to do something, we just did it. And when you get in the ring with a 400-pound man, your bare ass is the least of your concerns. Plus, it taught me a lot about humility, because I was always wrestling bigger guys. Sumo is not really just a sport. It’s a lifestyle. It’s about how to accept victory and defeat graciously no matter what. At the end of a match, nobody should be able to tell whether you’ve won or lost by looking at your face. You can’t be throwing dirt or tantrums or swearing at your opponent. It’s not like the NBA.
Y: You started to have a lot of success, and there’s a clear precedent for Hawaiians like Akebono turning pro in Japan. Even though you’re much smaller than the pros, were you ever recruited for the professional ranks?
H: In 1993, the summer after my freshman year at Yale, the professional sumo wrestlers from Japan came through Hawaii on a world tour. Our amateur club arranged a meet against the Juryo (lower-level professionals). I won eight in a row against them, and those guys don’t let you win. It was an honor for me.
Y: And they talked to you about coming to Japan?
H: No, they wouldn’t talk to me. They talked to my dad. Everything in sumo is about honor and respect, particularly of your elders. So they talked to my dad and he said, “He’s already at Yale; he went there to get an education so he’s going to stay there.”
Y: Did your dad consult you?
H: No. He made the decision. I was over 18, but I’ll always be my dad’s boy and whatever he says goes. And I don’t regret it at all. Sumo is always making my life better. Like when football came around, for me it was easy. I mean, heck, you’ve got pads on now, and the guys are half as big.
Y: Did you sumo at Yale?
H: Only behind closed doors. I tried to get some of the guys on the football team to sumo with me, because I always knew it helped me with my blocking. It gave me a better sense of my center of gravity. But the guys never really took to it.
Y: Now that sumo is your sole sport, how do you train?
H: Sumo is all about your legs, so I do a lot of shiko [sumo squats]. You lift your legs into the air, and traditionally you’re supposed to slam them down, but I’ve trained myself not to do that anymore, because I’ve lived in apartments where people live below and it isn’t so nice for them.
Y: Why not go outside?
H: I’ve tried that too, but the average lawn isn’t firm enough. I’ll start digging holes in the ground with my feet. There are times I’ve gone up to a thousand shiko in a session. That’s two hours of stomping in place. Usually the gym is the best place.
Y: Do people ever look at you funny when you’re stomping at the gym?
H: I’m sure they do, but I don’t care. Some people treat the gym like a nightclub; they come in with their gold chains. I’m just there to get the job done.
Y: Do you do other sumo-specific exercises?
H: There are some, but I like to keep them to myself. It’s my secret sumo workout recipe.
Y: But you’re doing them at the gym. It can’t be that secret.
H: Okay. Here’s one. In Japan, wrestlers train by slamming into a teppo, a thick wooden pole. I never had one, so I’d go out and hit streetlights at the local park and make them shake. You could hear it ring: ping, ping, ping. Sometimes I’ll also get a friend to steer my Chevy Blazer while it’s in neutral, and I’ll push it around to build leg strength. He’ll step on the brakes if I’m going too fast or steer me up a hill if it’s getting too easy. It’s pretty good training but it’s not the greatest thing, because in sumo, you need to be dragging your feet, and I don’t want to be dragging my feet on the pavement.
H: Because I’ll tear open my feet.
Y: You’re barefoot?
Y: Does it seem dangerous to be pushing a Chevy Blazer barefoot up a hill?
H: Facing off a 500-pound guy isn’t the smartest thing either for a guy my weight.
Y: Why do you do it, then?
H: After wrestling sumo for a while, you kind of yearn for the contact. You yearn for that collision in the middle of the ring. There’s always that nice, sweet feeling when you bonk heads coming off the charge.
Y: It’s called a concussion.
H: Maybe. But when you get in the ring with someone, with no pads, no clothes, just a mawashi and nowhere to run, it frees you. The first few times, you’re afraid but you know you’ve got to do it anyway. That’s a real test of courage and it always makes you stronger, calmer, and more humble.
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