Gun­ning happy to be big in Ja­pan

‘Sumo has been the dom­i­nant fea­ture of my adult life’ claims Roscom­mon na­tive

The Irish Times - Monday - Sport - - Sports - J J O’Donoghue

John Gun­ning sleeps like a baby. A baby, that is, that only sleeps about two or three hours a night.

For the rest of the day Gun­ning, now 45, is up and wired, criss­cross­ing Tokyo, his jour­ney through the megac­ity punc­tu­ated by stopovers at train­ing grounds, sta­di­ums, gyms, bas­ket­ball courts, TV stu­dios, and es­pe­cially sumo stables.

It’s in th­ese tightly-knit, rule-bound, pun­ish­ing en­camp­ments that Gun­ning is about as close to home as to the one he left decades ago in Castlerea, Co Roscom­mon.

At the age of 30, as pro­fes­sional sumo wrestlers are wind­ing down, Gun­ning em­barked on his am­a­teur sumo wrestling ca­reer. He shared

chanko nabe – a pro­tein-rich stew – with his band of broth­ers, broke bones and took beat­ings that side­lined him for months on end, and dou­bled his weight from 60kg to 120kg as he set out to learn the sport from the inside.

Along the way he rep­re­sented Ire­land three times at the Sumo World Cham­pi­onships, an am­a­teur com­pe­ti­tion staged an­nu­ally. One of a se­lect few sumo wrestlers to rep­re­sent Ire­land, now re­tired from the ring he’s the first sumo-wrestler turned English-lan­guage com­men­ta­tor.

Fans of the sport across the globe tune into NHK, Ja­pan’s pub­lic broad­caster, where Gun­ning is a reg­u­lar com­men­ta­tor. Gun­ning also writes a weekly column for The Ja­pan Times that aims to bridge the in­for­ma­tion gap be­tween those inside the sport, and those out­side look­ing in.

As Gun­ning says, the sumo world can re­sem­ble a soap opera. This year has not been short on in­trigue and head­lines: a bust-up in a karaoke bar be­tween two wrestlers re­sulted in one be­ing carted off to hos­pi­tal; his as­sailant, a fel­low-Mon­go­lian and a sumo grand cham­pion, re­tired shortly af­ter it be­came pub­lic.

At a tour­ing event in Ky­oto in May, when the lo­cal mayor col­lapsed inside the sumo ring, a sumo of­fi­cial went for the rule book warn­ing a fe­male nurse who had stepped in to help to get out, in ac­cor­dance with the an­cient pre­cept bar­ring women from the ring.

Gun­ning didn’t hold any punches in his column for the Ja­pan Times: “For bet­ter or worse, sumo rep­re­sents Ja­pan in a way that even wildly pop­u­lar sports like base­ball or soc­cer never can. So what does it say about our coun­try when the na­tional sport clearly doesn’t value women as equals?

“Is that the image we are happy to por­tray when the planet’s at­ten­tion will be fo­cused on us for the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and 2020 Olympic Games?” Con­tent di­rec­tor Gun­ning’s day job is con­tent di­rec­tor at Inside Sport Ja­pan, a sports me­dia agency he set up in 2017 which cov­ers ev­ery­thing from sumo to Amer­i­can foot­ball, rugby and bas­ket­ball.

With Ja­pan gear­ing up to host two huge sport­ing events – the Rugby World Cup kicks off in just un­der a year, the first time it will be staged in Asia, fol­lowed by the 2020 Olympics and Par­a­lympics in Tokyo – it’s un­likely Gun­ning will be adding much in the way of sleep to his lim­ited regime for the next cou­ple of years.

Gun­ning first ar­rived in Ja­pan on a two-week hol­i­day in 2000, which co­in­cided with cherry blos­som season.

“I did not want to leave. I was Googling ‘how to stay in Ja­pan on a tourist visa’”, he says. “As soon as I ar­rived back [in Ire­land], I quit my job and I was back nine months later liv­ing and work­ing in Osaka.”

Like many newly ar­rived English-speak­ing im­mi­grants to Ja­pan he taught English. But Gun­ning knew he was there for the long haul. He was in his late 20s, had a de­gree in me­dia and com­mu­ni­ca­tions from Mary Im­mac­u­late Col­lege in Lim­er­ick, and had lived in the US and Italy. He’d been around, and now he was ready to set­tle down.

In Osaka, his way to learn Ja­panese and make friends was through sports. This led him to join a lo­cal team, the Red Flags, which turned out to be the lo­cal com­mu­nist party team.

“I had no idea at the start, al­though in ret­ro­spect the name of the team was a bit of a give­away.”

The club’s po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies didn’t bother Gun­ning in the least. Some of those team­mates are still his clos­est friends.

His tim­ing was for­tu­nate, in that he was in Ja­pan for the 2002 World Cup, the first time the event was staged in Asia. Over a mem­o­rable few weeks in the sum­mer of 2002, the coun­try’s Ir­ish pop­u­la­tion in­creased ten-fold. One of his best mem­o­ries was Rob­bie Keane’s equaliser against Ger­many deep in extra time.

“Ev­ery­one was so over the moon that we were still in the com­pe­ti­tion,” Gun­ning re­called. “The Ir­ish fans re­fused to leave the sta­dium, they were just singing and cheer­ing and laugh­ing. The an­nounc­ers were telling us to ‘get out it’s time to go home’.” But the fans were not for mov­ing. In the end they switched off the lights in the sta­dium, but most peo­ple had stayed so long af­ter the game they missed the last train back to Tokyo and con­verged on the lit­tle sta­tion at Kashima Sta­dium. The cel­e­bra­tions con­tin­ued into the next morn­ing as they waited for the trains to start up and haul the Green Army back to Tokyo. Osumo-san When Gun­ning left Osaka for Tokyo, he packed in foot­ball – owing to age and in­juries – and de­cided to throw him­self into sumo. In­stead of run­ning around af­ter a ball, he took to crash­ing into bul­warks of hu­man flesh.

He joined Ko­mat­suryu Dojo, one of Ja­pan’s old­est sumo clubs, which serves as a feed­ing fac­tory for young wrestlers who go on to join pro­fes­sional stables. Gun­ning said his new club were “be­yond wel­com­ing”, but that didn’t mean they went easy on him. But Gun­ning didn’t go easy on him­self ei­ther.

He ate his way up to 120kg in less than two years, which “was fun”, he ad­mits. But he was also in “Gold’s Gym ev­ery sin­gle day for a few hours lift­ing, lift­ing, lift­ing”.

The rea­son for putting on the extra weight, Gun­ning ex­plained, was that ev­ery kilo you put on gives you an ad­van­tage, to a cer­tain point.

He com­pares the piv­otal few sec­onds when a sumo wrestler charges for­ward to that of a hooker in rugby in the front row of a scrum: the big­ger you are, the harder you are to push back.

“With sumo the more mass you have, the more power you have be­hind you when you hit, and the harder you are to move.”

The other as­pects of sumo Gun­ning is well ac­quainted with are the hits: the mo­ment 100kg or more comes charg­ing at you. Over his decade in the ring he split the humerus in one arm, frac­tured his skull, broke nu­mer­ous teeth, and suf­fered con­cus­sions.

Af­ter break­ing his arm, Gun­ning re­turned to the dojo a few weeks later in a cast that went from his shoul­der to his wrist, with the bro­ken arm tied around his body. His face was still black and blue on one side from crash­ing into the floor of the sumo ring.

“I said to the coach, ‘I’ll be back next year if I’m still alive’.”.

“He looked me up and down and said ‘Are you go­ing to train?’”

Gun­ning re­calls an­swer­ing with some­thing to the ef­fect of “look at the state of me”.

To which his coach replied: “Sure what’s wrong with your legs? Go do a few squats over there.”

But that’s sumo, Gun­ning says.

“Sumo hasn’t changed in 350 years es­sen­tially. It’s a feu­dal life­style, a cross be­tween be­ing in the mil­i­tary or a monk in a monastery, and it’s a con­stant 24/7, vi­o­lent, tax­ing, strain­ing world, phys­i­cally, men­tally, emo­tion­ally. It’s de­signed to ei­ther crush you, or else you suc­ceed. It’s the most Dar­winian ex­am­ple of any sport you could imag­ine.” Defin­ing De­spite ev­ery­thing, or be­cause of ev­ery­thing Gun­ning has wit­nessed and been through in sumo, it’s be­come a defin­ing part of his life, as much as Tokyo has be­come his home.

In be­com­ing a sumo wrestler turned writer and com­men­ta­tor, Gun­ning is the ul­ti­mate out­sider turned in­sider. His years of fight­ing and train­ing have made him one of the best con­nected for­eign­ers – cer­tainly the best con­nected Roscom­mon man – in the sumo world.

“Sumo has been the dom­i­nant fea­ture of my adult life,” he says.

“I’ve been a fan, an ath­lete, a coach and now am a com­men­ta­tor and writer. For me it’s hard to sep­a­rate my life in Ja­pan from my life in sumo. My re­la­tion­ship with that world hasn’t al­ways been smooth and we have given each other lumps both lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively but it’s my ‘home’.”

‘‘ I’ve been a fan, an ath­lete, a coach and now am a com­men­ta­tor and writer


John Gun­ning dur­ing his fight­ing days at the 18th Sumo World Cham­pi­onships in Hong Kong in 2012.

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