Exclusive interview: Sumo wrestling legend Konishiki

For Konishiki, the first foreign-born athlete to gain ōzeki status, sumo is an arduous path of dedication and sacrifice. "It's not two big guys, fat men, in diapers,' says Konishiki. "There's so much the Western world can learn from what sumo actually teaches us."

Konishiki, now 58, was born Saleva'a Fuauli Atisano'e, and post-Sumo he's made it his mission to enlighten fans, critics, and rookie practitioners about the psychological and spiritual depth of the discipline. When Naro.TV, a on-demand video service about the intricacies of Japanese professions launches on Sept .12, Konishiki will be its authority on all things sumo.

"It's harder to be in sumo than any other sport that I know of," insists Konishiki. "You can get knocked down in MMA or boxing, but you can shake it off and come back," he says. "[In sumo] there's only one chance. One match at a time is huge."

With the entire match hinging on the outcome of a single exchange, the mental fortitude required to push through adversity is one of the primary tenants of sumo Konishiki finds applicable to every walk of life. "The physical part wasn't a problem [for me]," he says, "it was learning everything else, and I talk a lot about that in this class."

While learning the rigors of the craft and dealing with the stress of competition during the late 80s, the Hawaiian-born Konishiki also had to adapt to the Japanese language and culture. "Being a foreigner…you have to find ways to balance everything out and find solutions," says Konishiki. "Even though [the class is] talking about sumo, people can relate to it," he says, "[it's about] fighting your emotions."

The famous girthy frame that sumo wrestlers possess belies the extensive training the athletes must undertake to remain competitive, as the practitioners aren't allowed an off-season. Whereas others may find the prospect of daily training off-putting, Konishiki views the process as a mental exercise of Sisyphean dedication. "You have to [practice] every day," says Konishiki, "[and] once you love the struggle, the pain, that you go through every day in practice, you have found your way in sumo."

After the grueling practice sessions are in the books, the real competition begins. "It's a 15-day tournament for the high-ranking guys like me," says Konishiki, "most of my career, I wrestled every day for 15 days."

As his memory drifts back to the brutal 15-day tournaments, Konishiki's placid demeanor cracks slightly to reveal the grizzled competitor that still lurks in his spirit. "You had to learn how to overcome," he says. "When you won, there was no time to celebrate. It was like, 'okay, we did what we're supposed to do.' And when you lose, you try to freaking sleep, and you'll be so pissed off at yourself."

One of Konishiki's most explosive brushes with defeat helped him discover to detach from the outcome. "In my third or fourth year in sumo…I lost a match that I thought I won, and I was so pissed off," he recalls. After arriving at his apartment on the third floor, Konishiki threw his television and stereo out the window. "But you know what happened the following day? Hard karma, the next day I busted my knee."

Despite the inherent pain of the sumo path, the profession isn't without its rewards. Konishiki's dominance in the sport penetrated pop culture and unintenionally popularized sumo around the globe. "We didn't have to do [pop culture]; the Americans did it for us," says Konishiki "You look at Street Fighter– the sumo character- they created the character around Konishiki."  

In addition to his likeness finding its way into video games, Konishiki helped famed WWE legend Yokozuna develop his Hall of Fame worthy character. "Yokozuna, he started off with my clothes. I gave him his outfit," says Konishiki. "[Yokozuna] asked me, 'they want to change my character. They're thinking about sumo. What do you think?'"

"I said, 'That's good. You have the body for it. They're gonna be amazed.'"

With an array of millennials indirectly influenced by his contribution to the sport of sumo, Konishiki hopes his lessons on Naro.TV can now directly shape people's distorted perceptions of sumo wrestling. "This year is the 40th anniversary of my entry into sumo, so I've been thinking a lot about my journey—what I've learned and how to best share it," he says. "My hope is to communicate to people (especially those outside Japan) why sumo is so special and how the mental strength and sumo mindset can help anybody become a stronger and calmer person."