When the world's largest athlete rumbles into the North American
Amateur Sumo Wrestling Championships in Los Angeles this
weekend, he'll be almost naked. All Emanuel Yarbrough, a 6'7",
728-pound nightclub bouncer from Rahway, N.J., will wear is a
thin mawashi around his waist and under his crotch as he
launches himself forward, trying to crush opponents half his
size. How big is Yarbrough? This big: If two Shaquille O'Neals
climbed onto the dohyo against Yarbrough (dwarfing a 253-pound
opponent at right), the Shaqs would be outweighed by 100 pounds.
Yarbrough, 34, was the 1995 world amateur champ but has yet to
win the North American title. While his sport may appear to be,
in his words, "just two fat guys bumping bellies," sumo is a
complex duel of strength, will and even wits. "It's the ultimate
mano a mano confrontation," says Yarbrough, "a real-life drama
in which people are presented with challenges they have to solve
in a very short time." An ancient sport that predates baseball
by at least 1,000 years, sumo holds mythic status in Japan and
is making inroads in the U.S. (The North American Amateur will
be televised on ESPN and ESPN2.)
Sumo rules are simple. Traditionally the wrestler straps on a
mawashi, climbs onto the dohyo, throws salt to purify the ring,
holds out his hands to show that he's unarmed, claps them to
alert the gods, stamps his feet to drive away evil spirits,
squats and faces his opponent to show respect, and then crouches
in what looks like a nosetackle's stance. When both wrestlers'
hands touch the ground, it's showtime. One charges the other and
tries to bulldoze him out of the ring or onto his huge butt.
While almost anything goes except eye-gouging, genital-grabbing,
punching and head-slapping, skilled fighters opt for moves that
throw opponents off balance. When all is done--usually in less
than seven seconds--vanquisher and vanquishee bow to each other.
The soft-spoken Yarbrough played football at Morgan State at a
svelte 380 pounds. He wrestled there at 460 and competed in U.S.
judo tournaments at 500. "We all gain weight," he says. "Mine
just happens in different increments." After the North American
championships he might try a late-career return to the gridiron.
Yarbrough's agent, Rich McGuinness, says that NFL teams are
interested in Emanuel if he can get his weight under a quarter
of a ton. "I can picture him down in that stance on the football
field," says McGuinness. "Let's see them find a way to stop him."
June 27, 1999