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Big Love 

Look out, sumo fans, Konishiki gonna sing

Wednesday, Jun 7 2000
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The first thing I see, on the hotel-room floor by a little table, is a pair of Nikes, each one as big as a birch-bark canoe. Nobody’s come out of the bedroom yet, so, what the hell, I peek inside a shoe. Size 18.

Then arrives the footgear’s owner. Still hovering — well, maybe hovering is not the word — around his fighting weight of 600 pounds, Konishiki (ko-NEESH-kee), the most controversial sumo wrestler of all time, now turned professional musician, walks gracefully into the room, shakes hands and sits down. With crystal foresight, I have left the couch vacant.

Konishiki is wearing a floral-patterned midriff wrap, kind of like shorts, in the mode of his native Hawaii. He’s not wearing anything else. His head and chest are damp from the shower. His right knee bears a nasty surgical scar from an injury that contributed to ending his career in sumo, from which he retired in 1997 at the age of 33 after dominating the sport for much of the previous 12 years. His bare feet are archless, as flat as anvils.

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I hope Konishiki doesn’t mind my dwelling here on his physical presence — after all, you don’t deliberately get that big without inviting comment. And he definitely knows it’s a hook. Now that he’s stepping up with his debut as a singer-rapper, KMS (Konishiki Master Sumo) on 125th Street Records, he’s throwing all his weight behind the music, the same way he overcame all obstacles to attain the pinnacle of sumo fame in Japan.

KMS is no jock one-off. Konishiki began singing in church at the age of 3, and music has always been an obsession with him — he’s played sax, trombone, trumpet and other instruments, he formed a harmony singing group among his football pals in high school, and he showed enough promise that he was offered music scholarships to Syracuse U. and the University of Puget Sound. He declined the offers because he didn’t feel his parents could afford the peripheral expenses — he’s one of nine children. So when a Japanese sumo coach discovered the young Salevaa Atisanoe in Honolulu and asked him if he’d like to take an all-expense-paid shot at the tradition-bound foreign sport, he packed his Bible and jammed.

Devotion to sumo meant Konishiki pretty much had to lay aside his sheet music along with his birth name. But now that he’s returned to his art (if not his patronymic), you can feel a glow of satisfaction emanating from both the man and his groove. Polished by a team of five producers (Darren Vegas, Homicide, J. Varner, A.K. Campbell and Shitamachi-Kyoudai), with lyrics fleshed out from Konishiki’s ideas by a staff of ace wordsmiths, KMS synthesizes funk, soul and hip-hop into a cohesive blend that sways to relaxed beats and sensual arrangements. Over it all, Konishiki brags, romances, and croons the praises of Hawaiian days and nights, his versatile voice dripping with high Philly-soul honey (“Under the Moonlight”) or echoing the deep seductiveness of another “overweight lover,” Barry White (“Sumo Funk,” “Big Big Love”). The tune selected for Konishiki’s slick, color-saturated video, featuring the Big Lover frolicking with island cuties, is the catchily moderne rap number “Livin’ Like Kings.” Fail to dig it and be lame.

“I wanted a sound where you didn’t have that dat-dat-dat — it’s not so aggressive,” says Konishiki, exhaling his words in a string of short off-the-cuff phrases. “It’s easy for anybody to relate to.”

Yet he wasn’t always so willing to please. When Konishiki hit sumo’s top ranks in the ’80s, he stirred hysteria in the fans who wished to defend the purity of Japan’s national sport. These sticklers insisted that importing fat gaijin to push around more sophisticated native athletes took the finesse out of the competition.

To some extent, they were correct. But the slow trickle of big Hawaiians, Samoans, and even guys from the mainland USA and Argentina injected fresh vitamins into the bloodstream of a sport whose vigor had ebbed in Japan’s postwar internationalized, multimedia culture. This was little comfort to the traditionalists, who were shocked to behold their great yokozuna (grand champion) Chiyonofuji falling before Konishiki’s unprecedented combination of bulk and skill.

“I’m one of the guys who really put Chiyonofuji on his butt, man,” says the Sumo Gangsta. “Not too many people did that.”

In 1992, the time came when Konishiki had piled up tournament performances that qualified him, many felt, for the rank of yokozuna himself. When the honor was denied him, he was not shy about raising accusations of racism.

So after physical afflictions had reduced his ring maneuverability to near zero and he was forced to retire, Konishiki faced an iffy future — Japan’s Sumo Association at first wouldn’t even let him use the ring name (meaning, uh, “small brocade”) with which his fame was associated. But he got his own talk show. He clowned on TV commercials, cannonballing down a mountain, perching in a tree or donning a bunny suit. And the people couldn’t get enough of him. Today he’s considered one of Japan’s most popular entertainers.

Now that Konishiki has a new CD and has ventured out for some gigs, his enthusiasm is almost a drawback. “I really get into it,” he says. “But I’m big. I’d be giving all my everything, dancing my head off at the first song. Then I’d be all, like, tired. I’ve slowly learned how to control myself.”

The messages Konishiki wants to communicate include personal pride, determination, and encouragement to island-bound Hawaiian musicians — but especially the value of family. The last reads a little strange, considering the way he describes his upbringing: poverty and rigidity, with parents who’d thrash him and his brothers with a belt when the boys would get caught up watching football and arrive late for church. “They used to beat the shit out of us,” he says. But he’s grateful for the discipline. When he goes home, he still attends church with his dad.

Does he want kids of his own? On behalf of himself and his wife, former fashion model Sumika Shioda, he says, yeah, “at least three,” but not yet. “In this business, it’s gonna kill me, man.”

Konishiki may find that the music business is an even more cutthroat game than sumo. But he’s prepared, because he feels he was in the sport when it was at its toughest.

“The sumotori now try to find a way to win easy. I don’t see that full contact, boom-boom, y’know? The killer instinct is just slowly getting away from the younger guys. In my time, everybody was out there to kill you.”

Konishiki denies that the covert give-and-take practice of fixing individual bouts, which a former wrestler has recently claimed to be pandemic in recent years, prevailed in his time.

“That wasn’t even part of sumo,” he says flatly. “Everything was intense.”

With foreign-born wrestlers Akebono and Musashimaru having attained the rank of yokozuna in the ’90s, it seems that the xenophobic battles of Konishiki’s day are over. But the taunts, insults and hazings he endured have hardened his resolve for the Lost Highway ahead.

He’s tough, but even tough guys take a break now and then. The few days he’s in L.A., between interviews and filming TV clips for CNN and National Enquirer TV, Konishiki gets to kick back occasionally, hanging out or singing karaoke at a local nightspot. When I ask if he plans to hit the sand at all, I discover there’s one specter capable of flooding this warrior-poet’s heart with dread.

“I’m afraid,” says the 600-pound slammer, “of California beaches.”

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