Gargantuan sumo star sets sights on running a stable

KONISHIKI, the mammoth Hawaiian-born sumo wrestler, who has begun to literally buckle at the knees, was yesterday granted Japanese citizenship, enabling him to retire from the ring and become a sumo stable manager. The 40-stone wrestler has been struggling in the last six months with persistent knee injuries, and in the tournament in Tokyo last month he won only two of his 15 bouts.

But despite his poor performances in the twilight of his wrestling career, Konishiki has been a trailblazer for foreigners in one of Japan's traditional sports. His gentle, smiling manner and jumbo proportions have also helped to pop ularise sumo overseas.

And although he was involved in controversy two years ago when he claimed he was not given the title of yokozuna (grand champion) because of racial discrimination, the wheel has come full circle now that he will receive a Japanese passport.

In the interim the Japanese Sumo Association has got over its resistance to foreigners reaching the pinnacle of the sport: last year, Chad Rowan, 24 - another Hawaiian, who fights under the name of Akebono - was named as sumo's first foreign yokozuna.

Konishiki, who was born Salevaa Atisanoe, is now 30 - relatively old for a sumo wrestler. He reached the second-highest sumo ranking of ozeki in 1987, but did not achieve his ambition of becoming a yokozuna. Had he been Japanese, he would have retired earlier in order not to lose face before his form began its rapid deterioration. But with few career opportunities open to him, Konishiki was determined to be a manager of a sumo stable. This is only possible for Japanese citizens.

As he lost bout after bout in January, the man they used to call 'Dump Truck' was not recogni sable as the formidable fighter he had once been. Again and again, he was forced out of the ring, grimacing with pain at the strain on his knees that can no longer carry his enormous bulk.

The speculation among sumo stables is that now he has been granted Japanese citizenship, Konishiki will fight one more tournament in March before announcing his retirement and going through the ritual dampatsu-shiki, when his top- knot is cut off. This is a symbolic and emotional moment - most wrestlers weep as it happens.

Konishiki - who once said 'I've been big ever since I was small' - is married to a Japanese model, Su mika Shioda. He is six times as heavy as his wife. But his weight, which is maintained on a gargantuan diet of beer and chicken, vegetable and tofu stew - called chanko nabe - will reduce quickly once he retires. Unlike professional body builders, much of sumo wrestlers' bulk is fat, which is relatively easier to shed than swollen muscles.

(Photograph omitted)