The Roscommon man who became a sumo wrestler in Japan
John Gunning has retired from sumo-wrestling and become an English-language commentator
John Gunning during his fighting days at the 18th Sumo World Championships in Hong Kong in 2012. Photograph: Richard A Brooks/AFP/Getty
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?”
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.
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.”
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’.”