The regulars at Lee Haney's Animal Kingdom are used to seeing celebrities working out in their gym. Bruce Springsteen builds his born-again body at this weight-training center in downtown Atlanta when he's in town, and it was here that Joe Piscopo pumped himself up beyond recognition. Photos of Haney with such luminaries as Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young hang on the cinder-block walls of the place. But on a Saturday morning last fall even the regulars dropped their dumbbells and stared as Haney, just home from Italy, where he had won his sixth consecutive Mr. Olympia title, explained the finer points of the bench press to one of the biggest athletes ever to lumber into his gym.
Sumo wrestlers are not, after all, an everyday sight in Atlanta.
And rarer still is the appearance of a yokozuna, or sumo grand champion. In the history of this centuries-old, quasireligious Japanese sport, there have been only 62 yokozuna. The baby-faced giant who loomed over Haney on this October morning was one of them.
His name is Koji Kitao—accent on the last syllable, as in kapow. He stands 6'6" and weighs 330 pounds—down almost 30 pounds from what he weighed in 1986 when, at the age of 22, he became one of the youngest yokozuna ever. A year and a half after winning that title, Kitao scored another first: He became the only grand champion ever forced to retire from the sport.
It was a temper tantrum that did him in. In the tradition-bound world of sumo, where the virtues of honor and harmony are law, there is no room for a man who, in a pique, sidekicks his 88-year-old stable master and shoves the master's wife into a sliding door.
News of that December 1987 outburst hit Japan like a tsunami. Kitao was forced to retire by the ruling body of his sport, the Japan Sumo Association. In a private ceremony, he endured the danpatsu shiki—the cutting of a sumo wrestler's sacred topknot. The ritual is usually performed to honor a retiring sumo wrestler. Kitao's ceremony was meant to shame him. He had lost face. He was an outcast.
But he was not finished.
Since then, Kitao and ARMS Inc., the Tokyo-based publishing and talent agency that now bankrolls him, have launched an unprecedented effort to reestablish his reputation. If their plans work, Kitao will be back—not as a sumo wrestler, but as a pro wrestler. You know: Hulk Hogan, that sort of wrestler.
There have been a few sumo wrestlers who have quit their circle of clay for the rubber mat of the wrestling ring. Most were dropouts from the lower rungs of the six-stage ladder to grand champion. Only two yokozuna, though, have made the move. One was an aging sumo wrestler named Azumafuji, who had a brief fling as a pro wrestler in Japan more than 30 years ago. The other was a retired grand champion named Wajima, who had a handful of matches in the U.S. in 1987 before returning to Japan.
But no sumotori with Kitao's credentials has ever left the sport, and none has been watched as closely as this 26-year-old behemoth. In the two years since his banishment, his every thundering footstep has been shadowed by teams of writers and photographers dispatched by Japanese newspapers, magazines and television networks. When Kitao arrived in Norfolk, Va., in June to begin three months of training at a wrestling school there, Japanese reporters trailed in his wake.
"Oh, this is top news all over Japan," said Akira Ogawa, a writer who was on his way to cover the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament for Tokyo Sports when he stopped off in Norfolk in July to file an update on Kitao.
"This was a big story when he had his problem," said Ogawa. "It was on the front pages for days. I would say 80 percent of public opinion was against him at first. But time has passed. Things have changed."
The man orchestrating those changes is a chain-smoking Japanese-American entrepreneur named Victor Higgins. His Atlanta-based video company, Higgins International, usually produces and distributes Japanese-language programs for audiences in the U.S., but Higgins's biggest project was a two-hour-long documentary on the life and times of Kitao that was shown last winter on Japanese television.
"Prime time," says Higgins, who was hired in June 1988 by ARMS. The company realized that it needed an expert to put a shine on its client's tarnished image. The video, says Higgins, was the first step of Kitao's climb back to respectability.
"What we needed to do first was to show he's not a hot-tempered guy," says Higgins. "The image we wanted to create is that it's O.K. to be free and focus your own life. So we thought the best place to show that was in America."
So last spring, Higgins brought Kitao here to shoot the documentary. They began filming in Madison Square Garden, where Kitao had last appeared in 1985 as one of a delegation of sumo wrestlers on a tour of the U.S.
They shot segments in Philadelphia, where Kitao horsed around with Joe Frazier, and in Columbus, Ga., where he spent a day at an Army boot camp. They put Kitao on a horse in Oklahoma, filmed him washing dishes in a Phoenix restaurant, and even filmed him hitchhiking at various locations.
"This all shows freedom and searching," says Higgins, who makes no bones about having scripted the entire show. "Of course, I created all this. But he went along and did it. Normally, if I told a sumo wrestler to go wash dishes, he'd tell me to go to hell. They are accustomed to having everything done for them.
"What I wanted to do—what he wanted to do—was say, 'Hey, I'm a human, I want to come back to earth and be like everybody else.' "
The platform on which to stage Kitao's comeback, concluded Higgins and ARMS, is the professional wrestling ring. ARMS has spent more than $350,000 to finance three months of coaching for Kitao in Norfolk, three weeks of bodybuilding in Atlanta and three more months of training at a professional wrestling school in Minneapolis, where Kitao refined his airplane spins and sleeper holds. Kitao has been training in Japan since December, and his debut in an American ring probably will take place in the spring.
Higgins acknowledges the differences between the sport Kitao has left behind and the one he is hoping to enter. Sumo wrestling, which incorporates elements of the Shinto religion, is anything but hokey; professional wrestling, especially in the U.S., is, at best, athletic burlesque. The question of dignity, Higgins says, is one Kitao has struggled with—and resolved.
"Yes, this professional wrestling is different, it is all a show," says Higgins. "But Kitao cannot go back to sumo. So what else can he do to stay in wrestling, the only life he really knows?"
When Kitao answer questions on the subject, he depends on Higgins to translate for him. For all his size, he has the face of a child, as well as a soft voice and gentle manner. When he moved from Japan to an apartment in Norfolk and then to a motel room in Atlanta, he traveled lightly, his only encumbrance being the rice cooker he carried with him from Japan. Since he began bodybuilding with Haney, Kitao has watched his diet. But when he visits a sushi bar he lets himself go, downing the freshly sliced bits of raw fish as quickly as they hit his plate, chasing them with bottles of Kirin beer and pausing only to sign autographs for a steady stream of fans.
Most sumo wrestlers are born of sumo-wrestler fathers and large-bodied mothers, but Kitao was the son of an architect. By the time he was 12 he realized where his future lay. "His friends all wanted to be baseball players," translates Higgins, "but he wanted to wrestle sumo."
When a sumo scout spied him on a playground near his hometown of Osaka, Kitao was taken to sumo school in Tokyo. The world he entered, as traditional as it is, would hardly be recognized by its creators. During the 17th-century Tokugawa period, when sumo entered its modern era, wrestlers were paid in rice by their feudal patrons. Today, the slang for a sumo wrestler's pay is okome—the Japanese word for rice—though the sport is far more lucrative than in the past. Many of Japan's roughly 800 sumo wrestlers are funded by private businesses.
The outburst that ended Kitao's sumo career stemmed from a disagreement he had with his master over training methods. There had been earlier incidents involving Kitao and several younger sumo wrestlers, who traditionally serve as personal attendants to the champions. Some of Kitao's attendants had complained that he was too severe in sparring sessions, but, ultimately, Kitao's crime was setting himself apart.
"The sumo system," says Higgins, translating Kitao's carefully chosen words, "is that no matter how good you are, or who you are, the person above you controls you. When you become a grand champion, you have to teach the younger ones. He had his own way of teaching, his master had another way—the way they have done it for hundreds of years. It is the same conflict that you see in any system with strong traditions."
When Kitao's handlers decided to aim his career at the pro wrestling circuit, Kitao knew what they were talking about. He had watched the Hulkster and the rest of the menagerie on television. "He says it is very interesting," translates Higgins. "He would love to be one of them."
There are details to be worked out, deals to be made with American professional wrestling organizations like the World Wrestling Federation. And then there is the matter of a ring name. His handlers have played with names that trade on his sumo career, but Kitao has nixed them. His past is behind him, he says, but he must treat it with honor.
"He says sumo was his youth," translates Higgins. "He wants to treat his youth as what it was and move on. I asked him, did he just want to forget about it? He said he wants to cherish it."
And to understand it. While in Atlanta, Kitao went three times to a nearby mall to watch the film Black Rain. Set in Osaka, the movie's theme is the individual's struggle against the group. "There is a saying in Japan," says Higgins. "Deru kugi wa utareru: 'The nail that sticks out gets hammered.' " Higgins glances up at his towering protègè. They must hurry home. A full day is scheduled at the Animal Kingdom tomorrow.
Mike D'Orso writes for "The Virginian-Pilot" and "The Ledger-Star" in Norfolk, Va.