Big In Japan: A History of MMA’s Amazing Sumo Super-Hulks
Grand Sumo is regarded as one of the most noble and cultured professional combat sports known to man; steeped in tradition and rich with ritual. Yet this is far from a gentle art; as with any venture involving 600lbs worth of testosterone-fuelled human beings charging, striking, thrusting and throwing for all they’re worth, Grand Sumo attracts its fair share of bad ass wrestlers or Rikishi, as they are professionally known. And yes, that does mean that the WWF Attitude Era’s dancing Samoan was essentially a wrestler called ‘Wrestler’, but I digress…
If you think a certain brash Irishman is out of control, the winner of the last Grand Sumo tournament is currently making headlines for getting blind drunk, smashing a beer bottle over a fellow wrestler’s head and fracturing his skull with that vintage Mark Kerr-level ground ‘n’ pound.
It should come as no surprise then that over the years a number of Sumo’s big bellied brosephs have tried their massive hands at the wacky world of Mixed Martial Arts. In no particular order, here are five of the most notable.
Emanuel ‘Tiny’ Yarborough (1-2 MMA, Unranked Amateur Sumo)
Emanuel Yarborough was not only the largest athlete ever to set foot in the UFC’s Octagon, he also holds the Guinness World Record for the heaviest athlete of all time. MMA fans will recognise the gargantuan grappler from UFC 3, where the 6’8, 600lb behemoth squared off against a 5’11, 190lb (soaking wet) Keith Hackney, later of Joe-Son ball-punching fame. This was the first mixed martial arts bout I ever saw and after a sketchy opening exchange where Hackney was pushed clean through the cage door, my fundamental understanding of how fights worked was shattered by an overhand palm strike and 30-plus unanswered hammer-fists.
Manny holds another distinction with regards to this list; he’s the only sumo here not to have held the title of professional Rikishi, never having competed in Grand (professional) Sumo. Instead he plied his trade as an amateur in the US and later Japan, a fact glossed over by the UFC broadcast team who simply dubbed him an “expert in Sumu and Judu”, for reasons which aren’t quite clear to this day.
Yarborough’s MMA career was short-lived; four years after the loss to Hackney he picked up his sole MMA victory by belly smother, making him the only man in history to win a professional fight via something I once paid a morbidly obese prostitute to do to me. Two months later he would grace the PRIDE ring for his final bout, dropping a TKO loss to Daiju Takase (Fun Fact: the first man to stop Anderson Silva) in what was the latter’s MMA debut.
Despite numerous attempts to get healthy, including a short-lived reality TV stint, Yarborough sadly died of a heart attack aged 51, following various issues related to over-eating that saw his weight balloon to more than 800lbs.
Henry ‘Sentoryu’ Miller (6-16-1 MMA, 1-2 KB, Maegashira 12 Sumo)
If PRIDE Fighting Championships and its legendary heavyweight division was your jam during the 00’s, then you’ll have no-doubt enjoyed the guilty pleasure of an infamous ‘freakshow’ fight or two. It’s fine, we’ve all been there. By extension you’ll probably be familiar with the name Sentoryū. The Japanese-American competed just five times under the PRIDE banner, but with fights against Giant Silva, James ‘Colossus’ Thompson and Zuluzinho on his ledger, Sentoryū played no small part in that glorious era of titanic train wrecks.
Billed as a sumo wrestler-come- streetfighter, the man born Henry Armstrong Miller (Fun Fact: he was named after the astronaut) put his fists to good use, earning five of his six career wins via KO. He even whooped fellow Sumo veteran Wakashoyo in a K-1-style bout back in 2010.
While Miller’s most infamous moment in the MMA ring involved him nearly removing Zuluzinho’s shorts and exposing the Saitama Super Arena to 400lbs of Brazilian ass (and not the good kind), as Sentoryū he would earn much more respect from fans of Grand Sumo, albeit for his fighting spirit rather than success.
Miller completed an incredible 15 year career, but one blighted by serious injuries that curtailed his every rise. Despite setbacks that would have embarrassed even the most shameless Rikishi into early retirement, Miller displayed true grit, even battling on for numerous years after demotion to Makushita; an unpaid rank. It was this determination, coupled with the record for enduring the longest rise for a foreigner from his pro debut to the top Makuuchi division (72 tournaments, or ‘bashos), that endeared him to the Japanese fans.
Kaido ‘Baruto Kaito’ Höövelson (3-1 MMA, Ōzeki Sumo)
One of the greatest things about the PRIDE era of JMMA was the incredible characters and unlikely heroes that emerged from the wreckage of each fight card. For every all-time great, there was a folk hero that we couldn’t help but get behind. Just when we thought that era was gone for good, along came the RIZIN 2016 Grand Prix, and with it came Baruto.
After growing up on a cattle farm in his home nation and taking a job as a bouncer to support the family following his father’s death when he was just 16, Höövelson studied Judo and eventually amateur Sumo. One of only two Estonians ever to compete in Grand Sumo, Baruto became known for his rapid rise to the top Makuuchi division after just two years; a feat he may have accomplished even sooner but for a bout of appendicitis. He eventually achieved the second highest rank of Ōzeki and seven career awards, five of which were for fighting spirit.
A huge and powerful Rikishi competing at around 400lbs, Baruto was known for using his grip strength and Judo background to perform various lifting techniques and overarm throws rarely seen in modern Sumo due to the size of the combatants. Japanese fans loved him for his ‘gentle giant’ personality; in a usually somber sport (professional Rikishi are expected not to cheer or celebrate on the fighting platform or Dohyo), Baruto always had a smile on his face and was known to go out of his way to give opponents a soft landing where possible. What a guy!
Baruto is the only man on this list still active in MMA and its fair to say that his fan favorite status has stuck with him. The 33 year old embarked upon a legend killer tour that saw him scalp Peter Aerts, Kazuyuki ‘Iron Head’ Fujita and Tsuyoshi ‘TK’ Kohsaka, before coming up short against the resurgent Mirko Cro-Cop late last year. His popularity has also landed him a number of small Japanese TV roles in his post-Sumo career.
The sooner RIZIN gives fans the Baruto/Amir Aliakbari fight we want… nay, deserve… the better.
Teila ‘Takamikuni’ Tuli (0-1 MMA, Makushita Sumo)
Teila Tuli will go down in history as the man who gave the absolute least amount of fucks during the UFC 1 rules meeting. While grapplers argued with strikers over the technicalities of a limited rule set, Tuli signed his waiver and marched out of the meeting, declaring that he was simply there to fight. He was also there to eat; the Hawaiian-born Samoan allegedly racked up the largest room service bill in UFC history.
Ironically, Tuli’s MMA career started and ended with him eating a single, brutal kick to the face. Savate practitioner and unintentional racist Gerard Gordeau side stepped a slap-heavy charge (worthy of E. Honda himself) to deliver a sickening kick to the jaw that put paid to the first ever televised UFC bout in mere seconds. Some of Tuli’s teeth flew into the crowd, others lodged in Gordeau’s foot; bandaged up with them still inside in order that he might complete his obligations for the evening. It was the savage birth of a savage sport.
Post fighting, under the name Taylor Wily, Tuli is best known for his role in the reboot of classic TV cop show Hawaii 5-0, which he stars in to this day.
In the 1980’s, Tuli reached the third-highest Makushita division and was notable as the first foreign Rikishi to win a championship in that category. At 440lbs he was a ginormous competitor for the era, but his size was also his undoing; a series of knee injuries lead to his early retirement and eventual date with a shin sandwich of destiny in the Octagon. Still, his legacy would extend from one of Rikishi to that of a teacher; as head of the Azumazeki stable he would act as mentor to one of the best to ever do it…
Chad ‘Akebono Tarō’ Rowan (0-4 MMA, 1-9 K-1, Yokozuna Sumo)
Ake-fucking-bono. The freakiest of the freakshows at close to 600lbs, the Hawaiian-born brawler fought UFC legend Don Frye, PRIDE oddity Giant Silva, Japanese comedian Bobby Ologun and MMA godfather Royce Gracie during a thoroughly bizarre MMA career. In K-1 contests he suffered some of the organization’s most grimace-inducing knockout losses to the likes Bob Sapp and elite kickboxer Remy Bonjasky. His crushing defeats were often punctuated by images of his beautiful wife in floods of tears, juxtaposed with shots of his massive head thundering into the canvas, time after horrible time. The inevitable topplings of Akebono nonetheless drew television audiences in their millions.
So why did a large foreign brawler who – lets be honest – couldn’t fight sleep, command some of the highest TV ratings in the history of Japanese combat sports? Quite simply, Akebono – the first ever foreign-born Riskishi to reach the highest rank of Yokozuna – was a Sumo legend.
That’s not ‘legend’ by today’s watered down standards either; his tear through the sport’s top division is widely regarded as being responsible for one of the greatest boom periods in modern Sumo. He might even have gone down as one of the greatest Yokozuna ever, were it not for his 90’s rivalry with brothers Wakanohana and the legendary Takanohama; his feud with the latter has been called the best in Sumo history.
Winning a not-to-be-sniffed-at 11 top-flight tourneys, Akebono came second in a further 13, winning six special prizes for Fighting Spirit and Outstanding Performance; Sumo’s equivalent to a WWF Slammy. The one true ‘Bono also collected six Kinboshi, or Gold Stars, awarded to a lower ranked Rikishi who defeats a Yokozuna.
Despite his series of brutal drubbing in combat sports, Akebono (Rowan took Japanese citizenship and changed his name legally in 1996) now enjoys a career as a successful pro-wrestler, and has lost a significant amount of weight. He may have had one of the worst MMA careers of any Sumo, but he enjoyed – by far – the best Sumo career of anyone to compete in MMA.