The Value of Strength

Chiyonofuji, on the right, charges forward at the opening of the match with his trademark low left hand. He famously practiced his initial charge against a tree in his backyard.

Every great while comes a person who absolutely transcends the boundaries of their sport.  Through their skill, personality, ability, success, innovation, and absolute dominance of their sport, these athletes bear the unmistakable mark of immortality. Pele, Magic, Karelin, DiMaggio.  Each of these names forced their sport, their very galaxy, to revolve around them, and years later, decades even, these names are still spoken with reverence.

The Japanese sumo wrestler Chiyonfuji was such an athlete, such a man.  Beyond his ability in the wrestling ring, Chiyonofuji had the looks, the talent, the skill, that irresistible combination of charm and dangerous air, that made him adored by millions.  And even when he kept on winning and winning and winning, he was never easy to hate, Yankees style, for his success.

Chiyonofuji was not always a winner, however.  He may have been blessed with an innate fighter’s instinct, but he was not born an invincible athlete.  In a sport where athletes are known for their size, success was often based on it, he was skinny, weak, and injury prone. Wrestling in the salaried ranks, he repeatedly dislocated his left shoulder. His favorite move, an arm throw with a low left grip, required his left shoulder to take the brunt of men literally twice his size. Injuries happened so often that many thought he would give up and retire from wrestling.

But Chiyo had had enough.  Already possessed with a demonic will, he just needed a key, something outside traditional sumo training to turn to.  He found what he was looking for in weight training and calisthenics, and he started with grim determination. While his seniors and stablemates enjoyed their afternoon naps, he lifted heavy as well as did calisthenics such as 500 daily pushups or squats with a stablemate on his back.  And he grew and got stronger, and stronger and terrifyingly powerful. Chiyo packed on muscle, so that he went from 160 pounds at his professional debut to around 270-280 at his peak as a Grand Champion.

In a sport where mounds of fat obscures any evident muscle, Chiyonofuji was solid and muscular, massively so. Here is a description from Benjamin’s The Joy of Sumo:

For one thing, he looked different. He had, f’rinstance, no boobs–just a smooth, granite slab of pectoral muscle. No jellied blankets of suet rippled beneath his skin. His belly, a small hard bulge above his belt, did not bounce like a cantaloupe in a nylon bag. His arms were not the elbowless sausages with baby-fists that seem obligatory among sumo wrestlers. His arms, really, were the striking feature of Chiyonofuji’s aspect…a paradox of mass and dexterity. Such arms are not huge and distended like those on the denizens of Gold’s Gym. But they are heavy–too heavy, certainly, to lift with a normal human shoulder–with bulges at forearm and bicep that never seem to relax, as though they’ve been artfully packed with riverbed stones. Yet, such arms…swing and flex with feathery lightness. Chiyonofuji carried truncheons, but moved them like wings.

Sumo is steeped in tradition, and like a lot of things steeped in tradition, it can get stagnant.  In the years since Chiyonofuji retired (in 1991), surprisingly few wrestlers have taken up his training methods, mostly because ‘its just not the way things are done’. Most stables have some barbells and other ‘Western’ style equipment, but few give them any priority.  Chiyonofuji also possessed superb technique, so good that a judo Olympian once told me that should he choose to enter the judo world when he retired from sumo, Chiyo would easily dominate without any formal judo training.  During his sumo career, Chiyonofuji won with 41 different techniques, including some very rarely seen ones.  That is a huge number.  That his technique was so good was probably one reason why he was able to devote so much time to lifting.

Another striking aspect of Chiyonofuji’s career was its longevity.  Chiyo retired less than a month shy of his 36th birthday, at least 5 years later than most sumo wrestlers.  That he was able to compete, and win, while so much older than his contemporaries certainly has much to do with his Spartan lifestyle (he didn’t smoke and rarely drank, for example), but also must be attributed to his training regimen.

So, besides a hopefully interesting post, what is the moral to Chiyonofuji’s story?  Having more strength and power will help you in any physical endeavor.  Yes, any one.  There is not a sport you can play where you could have too much strength.  Too much size, yes. But, as Chiyonofuji proved, size and strength are not the same thing.  Simply put, hard, heavy, and smart weight training will greatly improve your ability to dominate on the playing field.

There is just no way around that fact.

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Overhead Squat

8×2 @ 85% 1RM


5 Rounds

5 Jerks 165/110#

5 Kettlebell Cleans 2 x 73/45#