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JapanFriday, September 9

Artful Champion

The September Grand Sumo Tournament starts this Sunday in Tokyo and powerhouse wrestler Harumafuji is aiming for his second title in a row -- the first time in 4 years he'll have done this.

"I keep training -- physically and mentally -- and I'll be in top form," he says.

Harumafuji is Japan's 70th yokozuna, or grand champion. He's one of the most dominant competitors in the top makunouchi division. He's also one of the lightest -- weighing some 30 kilograms less than the average.

His wrestling style could be called "head-on fighting." He thrusts explosively from a low position, often ejecting his larger opponents directly out of the ring. His technique won him 13 bouts last tournament, and ultimately the championship.

"Well, no one knew who the winner was going to be -- until the very end. And that helped me focus on every match, and fight with all my might," Harumafuji says.

He started wrestling as a child, encouraged by his father, a Mongolian-style wrestler. In 2000, a Japanese scout in Mongolia saw him fighting at a tournament. He was just 16.

On arriving in Tokyo, he weighed just 70 kilograms. But his speed and tenacity propelled him up the ranks. He entered the highest makunouchi division in 2005.

In the September 2012 tournament, he defeated yokozuna Hakuho to win his second consecutive championship without a single loss. There was media fanfare when he was selected as yokozuna -- he was sumo's first grand champion in almost 5-and-a-half years.

Harumafuji says he never imagined he would be a yokozuna.

"I was completely focused just on surviving each day. I was intimidated, living in a foreign culture, where I didn't speak the language, surrounded by such massive men," he says.

The sumo association requires yokozuna to maintain an exceptional winning record. There's no demotion from this highest rank -- the only way out is to retire. So the pressure is intense.

Meanwhile, the heavy clashes with his huge opponents took a toll on Harumafuji's body. Injuries plagued his knees and his right elbow, and he was unable to fight consistently. His confidence took a blow.

He says that being forced to skip a tournament gave him a new appreciation of the sport.

"It made me realize some things I'd never grasped before. Like, how lucky I was, to be able to compete, and how my fans loved and supported me. I learned and came to appreciate so many things during that period," Harumafuji says.

But there's more to him than his powerful sumo. He studied art in Mongolia and turns to painting at times of stress. His bold brush strokes are well regarded and he holds his own exhibitions.

"I don't paint much when I'm happy with myself. When I lose a match, I express those feelings through colors while having a good drink and listening to music. That's what gives my paintings their distinctive look, and why I tend to use a melancholy color palette," Harumafuji says.

We asked him to apply his brush to a simple message for us, and he chose to write "continue."

"Sumo is the only thing I’m thinking about right now," he explains. "This message shows my determination to keep at it. I want to cherish each day and work hard."

Harumafuji is back to his winning ways. And he's continuing his fight in the best way he knows -- "head-on."