Sumo Style

The Wrestlers

Meet the American sumo wrestlers featured in SUMO EAST AND WEST.

Wearing a standard American haircut and trimmed goatee, Wayne Vierra talks into an ESPN microphone.

Wayne Vierra
A two-time North American amateur sumo champion in both heavyweight and open weight divisions and a former professional sumo wrestler in Japan, Vierra now lives back home in Hawaii. A star high school football player and wrestler from the small town of Hau‘ula, Vierra was recruited into professional sumo at the age of 18. Like almost all of his predecessors, he went to Japan without any knowledge of Japanese language or culture and joined Azumazeki-beya, the sumo stable owned by Jesse Kuhaulua, the trailblazing American sumo wrestler who was the first foreigner to win a professional sumo tournament in the 1970s.

During his two years in the world of pro sumo, Vierra rose rapidly through the ranks until—while on the cusp of entering the top divisions of the sport—his career was abruptly ended by a ruptured pancreas that required emergency surgery. Returning to Hawaii, he endured an understandable bout of depression before eventually rejoining the sport on the amateur circuit. Vierra has since established himself as one of the dominant amateurs in the world, aiming someday to lead the first U.S. sumo team to the Olympics.

A shirtless Akebono looks menacingly from under his heavy brow.

Born Chad Rowan in Waimanalo, Hawaii, Akebono is the first non-Japanese yokozuna, or grand champion, in the two thousand year history of sumo. An honor student in high school in Hawaii, Rowan was first spotted as a teenager by sumo recruiter Larry Aweau, who was impressed by the natural grace of the 6'8" future yokozuna while he was serving as a pallbearer at a family funeral. Shipped off to Japan, he became the protégé of Jesse Kuhaulua and was given the name Akebono, which means dawn or rising sun. In a sport where a low center of gravity is considered crucial, sumo cognoscenti scoffed at the prospects for so tall a wrestler. (Rowan had been a basketball player as well as a wrestler in high school.) But Akebono quickly proved his doubters wrong, and in 1993, he donned the ceremonial white cloth belt of the grand champion. Hampered over the past few years by a chronic knee injury, Akebono rebounded in late 2000, winning two out of three straight tournaments before announcing his retirement in 2001 at the age of 31. More recently, he has stepped out of retirement to enter the popular new combat sport of K-1.

A middle aged Jesse Kuhaulua smiling wearing numerous flower leis.

Jesse Kuhaulua
Born in Maui, Hawaii, Kuhaulua—also known as Takamiyama and Azumazkei Oyakata—was the first American during the post-World War II years to become a professional sumo wrestler in Japan. In 1972, ten years after his arrival, he became the first non-Japanese wrestler to win a professional tournament. When he was awarded the Emperor's Cup, a telegram from then-President Nixon was read in the sumo arena, the first time English had ever been officially spoken there. A ferocious and hugely popular wrestler, Kuhaulua enjoyed an unusually long 21-year career in the ring. Following his retirement, he made the difficult decision to become a Japanese citizen in order to open his own sumo stable. He was the first American to do so. As a coach, he began actively recruiting young wrestlers from Hawaii. The success of these Hawaiians eventually led the Nihon Sumo Kyokai to impose a limit of three foreign sumo wrestlers in any given stable.

Looking like a rap artist, sporting a leopard print fedora-style hat and goatee, a bespectacled Konishiki addresses the camera.

Born Salevaa Atisanoe and raised in the small O‘ahu town of Nanakuli, Konishiki was the first true American superstar in professional sumo. Discovered while bodysurfing in Waikiki, he joined pro sumo in the early 80s, shortly after graduating from high school, where he was an accomplished football player and power lifter. Within two years he had rocketed to the top ranks of the sport, challenging the top sumotori for the Emperor's Cup and provoking a storm of controversy in Japan with both his rapid ascent and his blunt and outspoken manner. Konishiki's sheer size (he fought at more than 600 pounds) prompted charges that he and other Hawaii-born sumotori were damaging the sport by emphasizing size over technique. Critics invoked Commodore Perry's "black ships," a common reference when Japan feels threatened by the outside (and especially by the United States), but one that carried specific racial overtones because of Konishiki's Polynesian heritage and dark coloring. Years later, countercharges of discrimination were leveled when Konishiki was denied promotion to yokozuna under the somewhat ad hoc rules governing such matters, an act viewed by many as a transparently xenophobic attempt to keep an outsider from attaining this exalted status. (He was forced to settle for ozeki, the second highest rank in sumo.) Ironically, it was near the end of his career, when he was dropping down the ranks and had become an underdog for perhaps the first time, that Konishiki truly won over the Japanese public. Now retired, the quick-witted and engaging American remains a popular celebrity throughout Japan, a ubiquitous presence with his many television appearances, rap records and commercial endorsements.

A slightly bald Sentoryu clenches his jaw as he prepares for a match.

Henry Miller, or Sentoryu, is a native of St. Louis, Missouri and at the time of the filming was the only American in pro sumo who was not from Hawaii. As Miller explains in the film, the name Sentoryu is said to rhyme with St. Louis, at least to Japanese ears. The son of a Japanese mother and an African American father, Henry spent 16 years in professional sumo, achieving promotion to the top division of the sport in May of 2000, making him one of only two such high-ranking wrestlers in his stable.

Emmanuel “Manny” Yarbrough rests his folded arms across his expansive chest as he sits for an interview.

Emmanuel "Manny" Yarbrough
A 6'8" 757-pound former college football player, Yarbrough is arguably the world’s most famous amateur sumo wrestler. He is a seven-time member of the U.S. national sumo team and the 1995 amateur world champion in the open weight division. Yarbrough was recruited into sumo by his judo instructor, Yoshisada Yonezuka, the Japanese-born coach of the 1988 and 1992 U.S. Olympic judo teams, who now runs a martial arts studio in Cranford, New Jersey where Yarbrough continues to train. Articulate and witty, he has appeared in numerous television programs and print periodicals including Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, The Tonight Show and The Late Show, as well as on MTV and music videos for artists such as Ice-T.


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