Jan. 29, 2008 — -- Most people associate sumo wrestling almost exclusively with Japan, where the sport originated and top athletes are treated like royalty. But now a group of American athletes wants to popularize the sport in the United States, hoping to make sumo more than a mere punch line here.
In America, the idea of large men pounding into each other is associated more with football and the gridiron than sumo — but that doesn't deter Dan Kalbfeisch from dreaming of winning the U.S. amateur sumo championship.
"To win and represent the United Sates, that's worth no amount of money to me," Kalbfeisch said.
A water deliveryman by profession, Kalbfeisch didn't have much exposure to the sport he loves today when he was a child.
"As a child I never was exposed to sumo in America. The only thing I saw was the TV and films where they made fun of sumo as a joke — big fat guys slapping bellies," he said.
To Kalbfeisch, sumo is not a joke but an art. At 300 pounds, he is much smaller than most people's conception of a sumo wrestler.
"When I first tell people that I am a sumo wrestler they don't believe me," he said. "They say I am too small to be a sumo wrestler or the first question is, 'Do you have to wear the diaper?'"
In Japan the most elite athletes can weigh more than 500 pounds and usually range between the ages of 20 and 35. Their training regimen is far different than that of their American counterparts.
"They train every day. They live in stables. We in America are lucky enough to get together maybe once a week," Kalbfeisch said.
The Japanese wrestlers live and train in special facilities and consume 10,000 calories a day to maintain their weights. To make sure the weight sticks, the athletes often nap after their meals.
Another American sumo wrestler, Carl Pappalardo, knows about packing on the pounds, "At 285 [pounds], I eat about 5,000 calories a day. When I was bigger, 350, 360 it was in excess of 8,000 calories a day," he said.
The upstate New York construction worker is like many other wrestlers who struggle for publicity for themselves and for their sport.
"They bring home a medal, they get a bonus. We bring home a medal, we're lucky if we get a write-up in the local paper," Pappalardo said.
In fact, sumo wrestlers can make big money in Japan. Asashoryu, the Mongolian champion with major star status, has seven personal assistants, including a personal driver and two hairstylists.
Americans have made a mark in the sumo world before.
Hawaiian Jesse Kuhaulua, known as Takamiyama, became the first American to compete in a Japanese sumo league, ultimately wrestling in the top-rated Makuuchi division during the 1970's.
While back home in 1981, Takamiyama spotted 18-year-old Salevaa Atisanoe, another native of Hawaii, and convinced him to come to Japan, where the teen would become a star. Competing under the name Konishiki, he became the first American to ever achieve the rank of Ozeki, the second-highest rating in the sport. At his peak he stood 6 feet tall and weighed more then 600 pounds. His success sparked debate among traditionalists in Japan over whether foreigners should be allowed to participate in the sport. Many worry that Western influences, such as baseball, in combination with the Japan's ultra-modern culture, are making sumo less popular with young people and threatening the sport's future.
But today, five of the top ten sumo wrestlers are not Japanese, an inspiration for the new breed of American wrestlers who hope to make Sumo wrestling an Olympic sport to help revitalize it.