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Big in Japan | The Roscommon man making it in sumo wrestling

Ciaran Bradley
Ciaran Bradley

11:46 17 Sep 2019

Sumo wrestling is an exclusive, semi-sacred venture in Japan, whose fans take it much more seriously than most sports. Roscommon man John Gunning has not only infiltrated the sport, but has become one of the most recognisable broadcasters in Japan in so doing.

John first visited Japan in 2000, and was intoxicated by Japanese culture that - just eight months later - he decided to sell all of his belongings and move to Japan.

"I'd say I'm kind of a big deal, to take that Ron Burgundy line," jokes John, who joined Eoin Sheahan for OTB AM.

"It's an unusual path, and if you had said to me 20 years ago that this is what I would end up doing, I would have laughed at you!"

But it was the accessibility of sumo, in a pre-broadband age, that helped connect John to the sport and further to Japanese culture.

"The only thing that I could understand on television was sumo. When you watch it on television, you are struck by the athleticism, because when I came out I had the image of fat, cuddly pandas belly-bouncing each other out of the ring.

"What it is is American football line-men, crashing into each other with huge power. That was fascinating. I went to a tournament, and when you go to a tournament, you are hooked immediately."

While John is light in his humour, comparing different styles to Street Fighter, sumo is no joke.

"There are slaps to the face, thrusts to the throat. I broke my humerus length-ways, I fractured my skull, broke teeth, and lost feeling in my left arm for four months. In fact, I couldn't move it for a year-and-a-half. It's incredibly violent as a sport.

"On the professional side of it, it is incredibly violent as a lifestyle. There is hazing - it is essentially an 18th-century activity that hasn't changed since the mid-1700s."

The hazing culture, of which there have been recent scandals over the treatment of those at the bottom end of a hierarchical sport, has attracted particular scrutiny.

"Guys break their finger, coaches say 'Tape it up and keep going.' I know a guy that tore an ACL, and half of the other ACL - he just put a brace on and kept fighting.

"When I broke my arm, I broke it length-ways in three places. It tore all the nerves in the arm, so I couldn't move my arm. I lost sight and hearing because I hit my head so hard on the ring.

"After a week or two out, I went into the club and told them I was alive, and that it would probably take a year-and-a-half before things get back to normal. And the coach said to me 'Are you not going to train?'"

The feudal system that was traditional in Japan still pervades today, and that exists to such an extent that only a handful of those that practice sumo actually make any money out of it.

'Physique, technique and heart' are the most important aspects of a remarkable sport, according to John. While he has these in abundance, he has also added Roscommon humour into the mix.

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