THE first professional sumo wrestler from the Arab world is hoping to use his meteoric rise up the ranks of the sport he once called ‘ugly’ to spread it throughout Africa and the Middle East.
“Day by day, my fans in the Middle East are growing more and more,” said Abdelrahman Ahmed Shaalan, often called the first Muslim to enter the ring.
“At the beginning, they said ‘what’s sumo’’ and ‘why did you choose sumo?’” the 22-year-old Egyptian, who goes by the name of ‘Osunaarashi’ (Great Sandstorm), said today.
“They say, ‘why you choose the sport in which you have to be naked.’ It’s strange for us as Arab people,” he told the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.
“I want to make sumo famous in my country. So I have to succeed here in Japan,” he said, adding his family and friends talk about his ‘super-star’ status back home.
Osunaarashi, who stands 189 centimetres (6 feet 2 inches) tall and weighs 146 kilogrammes (322 pounds), was promoted in October to sumo’s elite division of 42 wrestlers, including two grand champions (yokozuna), both of whom are Mongolians.
Nearly 40 foreign-born wrestlers have reached the top division but Osunaarashi, who made his debut in March 2012, was the quickest to do so – after just 10 bi-monthly tournaments.
As a youngster, Osunaarashi wanted to be a body-builder, but was invited to try sumo at the age of 14 by a local enthusiast.
“I told him I would never do this ugly sport. I don’t want to be fat,” Osunaarashi said, adding in Egypt, the sport was often described as a battle between ‘two elephants’.
But when he tried his hand against a wrestler half his weight, he repeatedly came off worse.
“He beat me seven (straight) times. I had a big shock,” he said, but added: “I fell in love with sumo.”
Osunaarashi has twice observed Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, since becoming a professional wrestler.
“Food is not a problem but water is hard for me,” he said. On normal days, wrestlers give all they have in the first hour of training.
“During Ramadan, if I did that I would die in the evening.”