Atlantic City— Without a doubt, the Trump Taj Mahal Casino is one of the Eastern Seaboard’s most breathtakingly vulgar edifices: a tatty, spangled eyesore bearing the name of one of the world’s great architectural treasures. The original was built by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a love gift for his deceased queen; this garish mockery is a love gift from Donald Trump to his own penis, or, perhaps, to his god Mammon. nnnAsian tradition tarted up and harnessed to the service of American greed, the Taj might seem an appropriate venue for an event like “Night of the Giants,” billed as the first-ever all-world “super-heavyweight” amateur sumo tournament. To the eye of the purist, anyway— and, for millennia, one couldn’t be a sumo fan and not be a purist. In Japan, o-zumo, or “grand sumo,” is an ancient and sacred tradition, the pastime of gods and emperors; it’s as much a spiritual ritual as it is a sport. The Kojiki, Japan’s oldest surviving written text, relates a legend about how the god Takemikazuchi defeated his brother Takeminakata in an epic sumo match for control over the Japanese archipelago.
Even today, sumo is revered as a ritual upon which the prosperity of Japanese society depends. Sumo wrestlers— rikishi, or “strong men”— are vessels for the Yamato spirit, the soul of the nation. They aren’t just sportsmen. And they certainly aren’t just obese guys in absurdly scanty thongs, beating the crap out of each other.
But to a crowd that came for a dinner buffet fit for a sultan plus the loosest slots in town, the Divine Contest of Strong Men is not much more than a novelty act: fat-ass vs. super fat-ass in a fight to the finish, or at least until one has fallen and he can’t get up.
“Get a load of that butt,” shouts one drunken, heavily moussed patron, waving a pimp roll the size of a cylinder of toilet paper. “C’mere, I got a dollar bill for ya!”
Two gigantic men, desperately trying to concentrate above the din, face off and crash like runaway locomotives. A straining knot of fabric gives way, and the smaller of the two men abandons his grip on his opponent to prevent his mawashi from unraveling and revealing his worldly assets.
“God damn,” mutters another audience member, throwing an arm over her eyes. “That is just too much man, and too little clothing.”
It doesn’t take much imagination to envision the Spirit of Yamato staring down on this spectacle and getting desperately plastered; regardless of the promotional hype, this event has little to do with o-zumo as it is practiced and revered in its place of origin. This is Sumo, American Style: louder, brasher, and stripped of refinement and ritual. What is missing in decorum is made up for by democracy— virtually anyone of a certain size can come and compete. “We had Ultimate Fighters,” says Harry Krebs of Corporate Entertainment, the promoter of the event. “We had power lifters, and competitors from ESPN’s World’s Strongest Man.” A dozen countries were represented, from Brazil to South Africa to Mongolia, by men at every level of ability. The only common thread between these stout-hearted (and -bodied) fighters? A will to compete, and a minimum weight of 300 pounds or more.
“We wanted to strip this sport down to the basics,” says Krebs. “Very large men, battling against one another. Very, very large men. Take a look at football. It’s basically big men hitting into one another. Basketball— big men, banging it up. Look at virtually any popular sport in the U.S., and why do people watch it? Because they want to see big men going at it. Bigger than life.”
And, as every sport has its icon— its Junior, its Michael, its Tiger— so too does this embryonic martial competition: The biggest man of all, Emanuel “Manny” Yarbrough. At 6 feet, 7 inches, and 720 pounds, Manny is the world’s heaviest competing athlete.
Manny is a legend in his own time. As a three-time All-American wrestler in college, he was an unstoppable force, crushing the competition, both figuratively and literally. In his brief career as an Ultimate Fighter, he was a quarter-ton warrior whose strength, surprising agility, and sheer mass made a mockery out of smaller opponents; one 200-pound karate champion shattered his wrist attempting to knock him over. Manny still bears scars from that match; he won, but not without deciding that he had no future in blood sports.
“I’m not afraid to say that I’m afraid,” he says. “When I was in junior high, the coach and the principal said they wanted me to play football— by sixth grade, I was already 5 feet 11 inches and 260 pounds. I told them, no way. Even if I was the biggest kid in the school, I would have been the youngest on the team. Yeah, I was afraid.”
Manny ended up joining the varsity football squad his senior year in high school, helping them to the state finals as a starting tackle. He went on to play for two more years in college, where he discovered a sport that gave him an even greater chance to excel: wrestling. At 400 pounds, he beat all comers in his weight class— until the NCAA decided to impose a maximum-weight restriction on competition. He petitioned to be grandfathered in, but was denied. “To this day, I still have a beef with the NCAA,” he says.
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.”