Playing with the Big Boys

Can Kena Heffernan lead a new generation of Hawaii wrestlers to sumo glory?
Story by Brittany Lyte. Photos by Dana Edmunds.

United States middleweight sumo champion Kena Heffernan stands at the center of the fighting ring in Honolulu’s UFC Gym. He tugs off his t-shirt and crouches. He rolls his neck and pierces his 15-year-old opponent with a menacing glare.

The boy, in his second year of sumo training, squats down opposite Heffernan and slaps a fist on the canvas mat. Heffernan returns the gesture. The novice and the champ pitch their bodies forward. Then they charge, pummeling one another with hundreds of pounds of flesh and muscle. It takes only three seconds for Heffernan to knock his opponent out of the ring with a forceful shove to the jaw.

“One of the hardest parts about sumo is the finality of it,” says Heffernan once the match is over. “When you step into the ring, years of training come down to three or four seconds. That’s all you get. There’s no second chance.”

In the 1990s, Hawai‘i wrestlers became the first foreigners to dominate sumo, the national sport of Japan. Gifted with immense strength and heft, wrestlers of Polynesian heritage burst onto the professional sumo scene, outperforming the greats in the sport’s country of origin. Then, just as quickly, Hawai‘i’s lightning bolt ascent fizzled. These days a Hawai‘i-born sumo wrestler is hard to come by. But Heffernan, who was born to a German mother and a Native Hawaiian father and grew up in Hau‘ula, is trying to spark a renaissance.

One of the longest-competing sumo wrestlers on the amateur circuit, Heffernan has a fighting style that’s fast and flashy, a blast of explosive motions. What you see in the ring: a disorienting head-slap or a thrust to the throat, each administered unsparingly. What you don’t see: Heffernan’s consistent use of sumo’s building blocks—balance, body control and strength. His wins rely on his mastery of the sport’s fundamentals. “It’s not just smash, smash, smash,” says Heffernan, who, at 5’11” and 253 pounds, has knocked out wrestlers nearly twice his weight.

Heffernan has been successful outside of the ring, too. He recently undertook a successful bid to bring the 2019 Sumo World Championships to Hawai‘i: Never before has the top amateur sumo competition been hosted in the United States. The biggest, longest-running annual sumo competition outside of Japan, the Sumo World Championships gather together hundreds of amateur wrestlers from more than two dozen nations, including Tajikistan, India, Norway, Sri Lanka and Sweden. The inaugural contest was held in 1992, with a women’s division beginning in 2001. In the beginning Japan secured sweeping victories in every weight class, but now several nations jockey to take home the top prize. Japanese culture still dominates the day, with fans enjoying taiko drumming while sipping on sake and snacking on plates of yakisoba.

Then there’s the long work of recruiting sumo’s next generation of Hawai‘i wrestlers. On Sundays, Heffernan coaches the only youth sumo wrestling program in the Hawaiian Islands. He has twenty-five steady participants, ranging in age, weight and attention span. The leaders of the program are a cohort of teenagers who suit up in mawashi, the traditional sumo belt, and train every week. These more experienced students have come to treat their two-hour practice with respect, unfolding and tying their loincloth-style belts on bare skin or over spandex pants with notable precision.

Coach Kena Heffernan (above left) demonstrates the importance of body position. Heffernan, himself a champion sumo wrestler, opened a school for sumo in 2015. Among his students is ten-year-old Abel Kaikaina, who has learned to use the mass of his 230-pound frame well.

Up-and-comers in Heffernan’s two-year-old sumo school include a five-year-old girl who dances around the ring in pink leggings and boys who prattle on about Pokémon while practicing their shiko, the iconic sumo leg stomp. Some participants are sumo enthusiasts who hope to progress in the sport, while others are there primarily to soak up lessons in fortitude and discipline. Nearly all of Heffernan’s sumo students are Native Hawaiian.

Sunday sumo school is not only about the sport’s revival in the Islands. In the practice ring, Heffernan focuses on the larger life lessons that the sport offers (“If you’re going to lose, lose forward”; “Whether you win or lose, you shouldn’t be able to tell by the look on your face”). What these kids choose to do with their sumo practice, Heffernan says, is up to them. “When I was a kid, I had a lot of energy, and sumo gave me a place to put it. If that’s all this is for some of them, it’s worth it.”

According to Japanese mythology, sumo’s origin dates to an ancient battle between Takemikazuchi, the thunder god, and Takeminakata, the deity of wind and water. The imperial court later absorbed sumo into its rituals, introducing regulations in the eighth century that paved the way for the rise of sumo as sport. In the seventeenth century, sumo matches emerged as great sources of entertainment for a growing Japanese middle class. Over the next century sumo’s popularity soared as the general populace became enthralled with the sport’s striking show of physical strength and agility.

Modern sumo retains some religious overtones. Before a match, wrestlers drink sacred water, throw purifying salt and clap their hands to signal the gods. But it was the spectacle of two several-hundred-pound men grappling with one another that eventually solidified sumo’s place on the fringes of American popular culture.

“The first lesson they learn is respect for the dohyo (ring), for their opponents and for themselves,” says Heffernan of his students. Here, Heffernan corrects the position of Moeava’s body by constantly shifting it, forcing the student to adjust.

Sumo’s brief hold in the United States began in the 1960s, when Japanese sumo wrestlers descended on Hawai‘i, entertaining sold-out crowds and scouting new talent. Within a few decades Hawaiians were dominating professional sumo. The pioneer was Takamiyama (Jesse Kuhaulua), who in 1972 reached sumo’s third-highest rank, sekiwake, and that year won the Emperor’s Cup. He was followed by Konishiki (Saleva‘a Atisano‘e), who in 1987 reached sumo’s second-highest rank, ōzeki. In 1993 Akebono Taro (Chad Rowan), a son of Waimānalo, became the first wrestler born outside of Japan to attain sumo’s highest rank of yokozuna, rising to sumo’s upper echelons faster than any other wrestler in history. In 1993 Musashimaru (Fiamalu Penitani) reached the rank of ōzeki, and in 1999 he became the second foreign-born wrestler in history to reach the rank of yokozuna.

The Japanese Sumo Association pushed back against this foreign domination, imposing new limits on the number of non-Japanese wrestlers permitted to participate at the professional level. Akebono relinquished his American citizenship and spent the latter half of his wrestling career as a naturalized citizen of Japan. Hawaiians have since fallen from the sport’s top ranks, deterred by sumo’s increasingly nationalistic stance as well as the absence of off time afforded to wrestlers who live and train in Japan’s professional stables. At the professional level, sumo is a lifestyle leaving little if any room for outside pursuits, including family.

In recent decades the millennia-old sport has also fallen from favor in its country of origin. Japanese youth have gravitated to Western imports like football and baseball and away from sumo, which is perceived as old-fashioned. And, despite restrictions on the number of foreign trainees permitted at the professional level, Japan has produced just one native-born grand champion in the last decade. The sport’s other three active yokozuna are Mongolian.

Two of the school’s youngest students, five-year-olds Nika (in black) and Kenzie Heffernan, square off.

Heffernan was one of eight siblings raised in the 1970s and ’80s in a modest home in Hau‘ula with a four-inch black-and-white antenna TV. Sumo at that time was gaining popularity, and it had already drawn in Heffernan’s father, a state wrestling champ whose former high school coach urged him to try it. He loved it and shot up the ranks of the amateur circuit, representing the United States in the first-ever Sumo World Championships.

The patriarch of the Heffernan clan brought his love of sumo home to the family. In sumo rings formed from beach sand, the younger Heffernan’s father presided over backyard matches, guiding his son’s development from rowdy kid to tactical wrestler. At age 12 the son was eighty pounds and wiry, but he was already wrestling grown men and learning to manipulate his opponent’s superior size and strength to his own advantage. In high school he was winning state titles.

“It started because my dad didn’t want my brother and me to get into mischief,” he says. “I was ultra-competitive, but I still needed to learn sportsmanship and how to lose and how to win. I had to learn how to control myself. I look back on those lessons now and I realize that more than anything he wanted sumo to be something that we did as a family.”

During his freshman year at a Honolulu prep school, sumo provided the younger Heffernan with the ultimate second chance when, during a traffic accident, his body shot out of a moving car, soaring thirty feet in the air before thudding down on pavement. Despite sustaining serious injury, Heffernan was able to stand up and walk to fetch his backpack. Later he was told by the doctors who treated him that his neck, abnormally strong from sumo wrestling, played a critical role in saving his life. “Do or die moments happen in the match, and they also happen in life,” Heffernan says. “Sumo prepares you for that.”

Twelve-year-old Brayden Gono (left) takes on Abel Kaikaina. What kids choose to do with their sumo practice, Heffernan says, is up to them. “When I was a kid, I had a lot of energy, and sumo gave me a place to put it,” he says. “If that’s all this is for some of them, it’s worth it.”

When Japan’s professional sumo wrestlers came to Hawai‘i on a world tour in 1993, the organizers sized up Heffernan. Impressed by his skill in the ring, the organizers approached his father, inquiring about the possibility of Heffernan joining the professional sumo stables in Japan. At the time, Heffernan was a freshman at Yale, where he was working toward a biology degree and playing tailback on the football team. An advocate for his son’s scholastic pursuits, the senior Heffernan declined the offer on behalf of his son. School before sumo. The opportunity for Heffernan to wrestle professionally never rose again. But at the amateur level, Heffernan’s career has soared. Brawny with bulging triceps and shoulders, the prep school math teacher and athletic director at Honolulu’s Pacific Buddhist Academy has traveled the world to compete in tournaments, a privilege he says has shaped his nuanced outlook on the world. In his thirty-two years of sumo wrestling, he has won nearly fifty national titles in the middleweight and openweight divisions. The biggest opponent he’s faced in the ring weighed almost 750 pounds, but it was Heffernan who walked away the victor. “Probably my explosiveness is what gets me the win,” he says. “A guy told me once, ‘When Kena hits you, it makes your soul hurt.’”

Heffernan’s own training has taken a backseat to coaching since he established his youth sumo school in 2015. His students include his son and two daughters, ages five, eight and ten. The equipment the kids use is either donated or bought by Heffernan. It’s an investment he believes will pay dividends. Last year sumo grand champion Yokozuna Hakuho footed the bill for six of Heffernan’s students to attend his seventh annual sumo tournament in Japan—the beginning of what Heffernan hopes will become an annual sponsorship with a visit to Hawai‘i and a coaching session. Before the tournament the students were honored with a coveted invitation to practice at one of Tokyo’s famed professional sumo stables.

Thirteen-year-old Akamu Moeava (in white) and brother Alema Moeava battle it out. Honolulu hosts the Sumo World Championships in 2019, and Heffernan is eager for his students to attend. “I hope they see what you can get when you stick to a commitment,” he says. “If they can do that the sky’s the limit for these kids.”

Heffernan’s wildest dream is to see Hawai‘i wrestlers rejoin those stables. But whether or not that happens, he is focused on cultivating confident and disciplined young wrestlers. Sumo isn’t just a physical sport, it’s an attitude. That’s something Heffernan is eager for his students to see when hundreds of the world’s greatest wrestlers descend on Honolulu next year for the Sumo World Championships.

“I hope they see what you can get when you stick to a commitment and you have the right mindset,” Heffernan says. “If they can do that, the sky’s the limit for these kids.” HH