AP Sports Writer
POSTED: 10:16 p.m. HST, Jul 11, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 04:29 a.m. HST, Jul 12, 2013
NAGOYA, Japan » In a sport steeped in ancient rituals and Japanese tradition, one young foreigner faces the weighty issue of how to keep faithful to his religious observances and be competitive in one of the biggest sumo arenas.
Wrestling under the name Osunaarashi, which translates as 'Great Sandstorm,' the 21-year-old Abdelrahman Ahmed Shalan is the first professional sumo wrestler from the African continent.
Being an outsider has had its challenges. But while he's slowly been adjusting to life in the elite sumo ranks, the young Egyptian does have a unique problem at the 15-day Nagoya tournament where his rivals rely on every part of their preparation being in sync - the event coincides with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. And for Shalan, that means strict fasting - not something usually associated with the larger-than-life image of sumo wrestling.
"I love sumo. Sumo means everything to me," he told The Associated Press in an interview as the Nagoya tournament was commencing. "I've sacrificed being with my friends, being with my family, being in university. I've put all my cards on the table and now we'll see what happens. I believe in myself and believe in my dream."
Shalan arrived in Japan less than two years ago and has quickly risen up the ranks after only eight tournaments. He made his debut in the elite juryo division last Sunday with a win over Mongolian Oniarashi.
He weighs in at 315 pounds and stands 6-foot-2 tall. While his size is a great advantage, his win over Oniarashi proves he relies on more than just brute force as he calmly got a grip of his opponent's belt after the faceoff and deftly forced him out of the ring.
Since arriving in Japan, the wrestler now known as Osunaarashi has done remarkably well, compiling a 45-7 record and winning two titles in the junior divisions. Only two other non-Japanese wrestlers have reached the juryo division from eight tournaments - Hawaiian Konishiki and Estonian Baruto.
"He will get to the top division, I have no doubt about that," sumo columnist Mark Buckton said. "He has a very strong upper body, but that doesn't necessarily translate to success in sumo. Hopefully, he will be able to develop his lower body and learn to fight on the belt."
As much as he likes the attention, Osunaarashi said there are pressures that go with being the first African and Arab wrestler.
It "has many good points and some bad points," he said. "I feel a lot of stress because I am the first African sumo wrestler, so the whole world is watching to see what the first African in sumo will do."
Due to timing of the July 7-21 Nagoya tournament during Ramadan, Osunaarashi can't eat or drink during daylight and must find time for prayer. It's something he learned to cope with at last year's Nagoya tournament but he said the toughest part is not being able to drink water in the stifling summer heat. Even some spectators are struggling in temperatures topping 99 degrees with high humidity.
"For me (Ramadan) is not a big problem," Osunaarashi said. "I got used to it last year in Nagoya. The biggest problem is water. I can't drink water during the day. I eat after midnight, then sleep. But it's not a big problem, I am used to it."
On some occasions, a main meal consists of little more than a rice ball at 3 a.m. during the fast. That's not much to go on when your bout is at 3 p.m. Just how well Osunaarashi will be able to cope in the full 15-day tournament remains to be seen. Until now, his tournaments have been only seven days.
Now that he is in the elite division, Osunaarashi knows things will be a lot tougher. Through the first four days of the tournament, he had three wins against one loss and will be hoping for at least a winning record of 8-7 at the end of the tournament. If he puts together two solid tournaments, Osunaarashi could be promoted to the top division for the season-ending tournament in November.
"People have told me to be careful now that I'm in juryo," Osunaarashi said. "People say the wrestlers are tougher and the wrestlers are great, but I feel I am tough and great, too."
Osunaarashi was introduced to sumo at the age of 14. A sumo coach in Egypt suggested he give it a shot because of his size. He weighed 265 pounds at the time, but lost seven out of seven bouts to a wrestler half his weight and realized there was something more to the sport than he'd first assumed.
So he studied videos of former grand champion Takanohana to get a better understanding of the sport. That helped, obviously.
He won a bronze medal at the 2008 world junior sumo championships and moved to Japan in 2011 to pursue his career full time. Many in sumo were impressed that he came to Japan just after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crises that devastated the country's northeastern coast.
Then, as now, things haven't been entirely easy for him in Japan.
Sumo wrestlers live in communal training stables where all aspects of their daily lives from meals to what they wear are dictated by strict traditions. Like all the younger wrestlers in the lower ranks, Osunaarashi was required to perform a variety of menial tasks that included cleaning toilets and washing the clothes of senior wrestlers.
There are six divisions in sumo but there is a broad distinction between wrestlers in the top two divisions, which are called makuuchi and juryo. Wrestlers in the makuuchi and juryo divisions are known as sekitori and receive a regular monthly salary as well as other perks, while those in the lower four divisions are considered to be trainees and receive a small allowance instead of a salary.
All the top foreign wrestlers in sumo's elite division must master the Japanese language and that's something Osunaarashi is also grappling with.
Despite the hardships of the sumo world, not to mention homesickness, Osunaarashi has persevered. Now that he's a sekitori, his life has changed considerably. He has his own room and gets an assistant to perform the mundane tasks he once had to do for others.
"Everyone has to go through the difficult tasks, "Osunaarashi said. "Sumo is all about persevering. You have to be willing to sacrifice many things to achieve success."
Japan remains the only country where sumo is practiced professionally, yet the sport has had trouble attracting new local recruits - and that has opened up opportunities for the likes of Osunaarashi.
Mongolians have dominated in recent years - producing the sport's two current grand champions, Hakuho and Harumafuji. There are 24 foreign wrestlers in the top two divisions of sumo out of a total of 70.
It is part of a gradual shift in the sport. There hasn't been a Japanese grand champion since Takanohana retired in 2003 and a Japanese wrestler hasn't won a major tournament since ozeki Tochiazuma in 2006.
For now, Japan is home for Osunaarashi, who studied accounting and management in university. He has kept up with political developments in Egypt but says he's too focused on sumo to get too caught up in it.
"I follow what's going on, but I don't like the political stuff," Osunaarashi said. "I'm just trying to do my best for my country and forget about politics. I don't like to mix politics with what I am doing here. To make something good for my country, I have to do well in sumo."
Buckton also points out that many foreign wrestlers can be led astray by the temptations of nightlife in cities such as Osaka and Tokyo. Grand champion Asashoryu's career was derailed following a late-night brawl in Tokyo's Roppongi district.
For now, Osunaarashi seems to have his feet firmly on the ground.
"I believe one day I will be the first Arab grand champion," Osunaarashi said. "You have to make a lot of sacrifice to reach the top. You can't enjoy life like others, playing games and hanging out with friends."