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Leaving college after his third year, Manny briefly considered the pro-wrestling circuit, but had no stomach for the WWF's ultraviolent, theatrical antics. Abandoning his dreams of a sporting career, he got a job driving a delivery van and as a bouncer. ("Usually, one look at me was enough, but I had to deal with my fair share of problems. The way I mark it, I was 11-0 in velvet-rope competition.")
And then a friend introduced him to Yoshisada Yonezuka, the sensei at Cranford, New Jersey's Judo and Karate Center. Yone, as he likes to be called, was looking for big men bigger than life to compete in judo at the Olympic level. Manny's size, strength, and wrestling experience fit the bill. "Yone likes size," laughs Manny. "He's a size freak. Somehow, after less than a year of training, I ended up placing third in the nationals. I was still a white belt, [but] I was the fifth-ranked judo player in the country at the heavyweight division." Still, when a slow-to-heal knee injury nearly got him fired from his day job, he decided to quit competition for good.
Two years later, in 1992, the then infant International Sumo Federation was looking for competitors. Yone, who'd been an amateur sumotori in high school in Japan, thought of Manny. Promised an all-expenses-paid trip to Japan, Manny agreed and after just three days training, he found himself competing in the first Sumo World Championships. Despite never having fought in a match outside of practice, Manny reached the finals. He became a celebrity; he was pestered for autographs, and fans begged for the opportunity to rub his sizable belly for luck. Although he was already nearly 30 years old, he'd found a new avocation, and a new mission in life.
"Manny is an ambassador," says Kevin Carter, a feature writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and an aspiring amateur sumotori himself. "Right now, he's the most important face in sumo, outside of Japan. When you think of international sumo, you think of him."
Because of Manny's prominence, sumo in the U.S. is bringing in participants from communities with a diversity that Japanese sumo couldn't hope to match. "You go to Hawaii, most of the guys in sumo are Polynesian," says Carter. "But here on the East Coast, they're mostly black or Latino. A lot of that has to do with Manny. People know him and identify with him. A guy in Africa, this 300-pound pro wrestler, saw Manny win the Worlds and decided to put on another 200 and jump over to sumo. He ranked third in the Worlds last year. Strangely, you just don't have too many straight-up white Americans doing this art." Carter believes that part of the reason why black athletes are dominating the American amateur sumo circuit is cultural, citing grappling traditions in Africa. "And of course, we all watched martial arts flicks and samurai movies as kids," he says. "We grew up thinking, 'Bruce Lee, now he has juice.' "
At the "Night of the Giants," a contingent of black fans watches the bouts with intense focus, giving props to black rikishi like James Perry, Michael Munford, and when he makes his monolithic entrance Manny Yarbrough. When Manny is thrown to the ground with an earth-rattling crash, they let out a choral gasp. He loses his bout quickly, and walks back to the lockers, rubbing his bum knee. "You're still beautiful, Manny!" shouts a female fan. "You're beautiful!"
Carter, who's providing commentary for the ESPN broadcast of the tournament (which will be shown January 2), takes note. "Women find him sexy, they do. Size is power, man; some of your greatest African chiefs were overweight. The asanteheni, the sultans of North Africa. The top potentate in Ghana. It's an atavistic thing you're that big, it means you're handling your business, because you can really feed yourself and your family."
And Manny, with a laugh, agrees. "Of course I'm sexy," he says. "I'm the sexiest man in the world, over 600 pounds."