Former amateur yokozuna Hidetora Hanada shifts into high gear towards NFL dream


Hidetora Hanada, the amateur yokozuna of 2020, made headlines again this week, but not for his exploits in the sumo ring.

The Nippon Sport Science University sophomore took part in open tryouts for the X League, Japan’s premier American football competition, in Kawasaki on March 6.

Despite having a complete lack of experience on the grill and having to buy a helmet and pads just for the combine-style event, Hanada was the star of the show at Fujitsu Stadium.

The tries were broadcast live, and in the offensive line drills, the sumo wrestler could be seen dominating opponents who had been playing football for years.

Although official results have not been released, long-time football commentator Hiroaki Shishido reported that the former Japanese champion clocked a 40-meter run time of 5.23 seconds – an impressive performance for a newcomer working in front of scouts for the first time.

The Wakayama native’s performance drew audible gasps from coaches in the stands and his outing dominated both newspaper headlines and event-related social media feeds.

Hanada’s change of sport didn’t come out of nowhere, however.

In a pre-trial interview on the event’s official website, the NSSU student said he’s been watching American football and incorporating elements of it into his workouts since elementary school.

Hanada impressed observers with a 40-yard rush time of 5.23 seconds during Sunday’s event at Fujitsu Stadium. | KYODO

Hanada’s favorite NFL player is Aaron Donald – and with a height of 185cm and a weight of 135kg, the gridiron rookie has nearly identical body measurements to the Los Angeles Rams superstar.

By using the expression nitōryuwhich literally translates to “wielding double swords” and is often used to describe athletes like Shohei Otani who master two different skills, Hanada has stated his desire to become both an NFL player and a yokozuna in professional sumo.

If he realizes his first dream, he will be the first athlete to do so from these shores.

While several Japanese players have made NFL offseason rosters over the past few years and even taken part in preseason action, none to date have survived the final cuts or played. in a regular season game.

Hanada turned to one of those who came closest when preparing for his X League trial.

Takashi Kurihara, who spent time in camp with the Baltimore Ravens, helped Hanada refine his sprinting technique in the weeks leading up to last weekend’s event.

The impressive results achieved in a limited amount of time means the two will almost certainly work together again if Hanada changes sports. It’s something he now realizes he’ll have to do to hope to make the NFL.

Speaking to reporters after practice on March 6, Hanada revealed that he had changed his original plan and decided it was better to try forging a career in football before taking up sumo later on.

Former amateur yokozuna Hidetora Hanada has declared his intention to play American football before entering the world of professional sumo.  |  JOHN GUNNING
Former amateur yokozuna Hidetora Hanada has declared his intention to play American football before entering the world of professional sumo. | JOHN GUNNING

“An NFL player’s life is short and it’s absolutely better to do it when he’s younger,” Hanada said. “Wakanohana tried to get into American football after becoming a yokozuna and he said it wasn’t a sport you could play when you were older. Terunofuji became a yokozuna at 29 so it wouldn’t be too late for me either.

Even with youth and athletic prowess on his side, making the NFL is a long shot for Hanada.

Competition is fierce in America’s biggest sport, and there are far more NFL-level players with top-notch college experience than there are roster spots available.

The closest sumo wrestler to professional football remains the former maegashira Wakanoho’s brief stint in the University of South Florida’s Division I program.

However, six Japanese X League players were drafted into the Canadian Football League last season, and that league has a global schedule that makes Canada a more realistic long-term destination for Hanada.

Even if he doesn’t succeed in professional football overseas, Hanada can still experience the gridiron at a high level domestically.

Although little known, Japan is by far the most dominant power on the world stage in American football outside of the United States and Canada.

In the five world championships held to date, only Japan (twice) and the United States (three times) have won gold.

At senior club and international level, no Japanese team has ever lost a game against a team from outside the United States or Canada since football arrived on these shores in 1934.

The X League is also packed with Americans with NFL, CFL and NCAA experience, and the Tokyo Dome hosts a championship game that draws up to 35,000 people every January.

If Hanada became a yokozuna and then joined the X League, he would be the third major champion to do so.

The aforementioned Wakanohana spent time at Onward Skylarks after hanging up his mawashi belt, while Wajima was both a player and official for the Gakusei-Engokai Rocbull team.

The ties between the two sports remain strong, and in recent years former yokozuna Kisenosato has even served on NHK’s Rice Bowl commentary team.

Hanada was mentored by former IBM Big Blue wide receiver Takashi Kurihara, who spent time in training camp with the Baltimore Ravens before Sunday's combine.  |  JOHN GUNNING
Hanada was mentored by former IBM Big Blue wide receiver Takashi Kurihara, who spent time in training camp with the Baltimore Ravens before Sunday’s combine. | JOHN GUNNING

If Hanada is playing football domestically, the nine-time champion Obic Seagulls are the likeliest destination.

The Chiba-based team was the only team he mentioned playing for in post-training interviews, and sources within the organization said there had been contact between the two sides before.

At Obic, Hanada would have a chance to play alongside the greatest football player Japan has ever produced. Wide receiver Noriaki Kinoshita won multiple championships at Ritsumeikan University and was a star in NFL Europe.

Kinoshita helped the Amsterdam Admirals win back-to-back World Bowl titles in 2005 and 2006 before impressing with his time with the Atlanta Falcons.

If Hanada sticks to football, he could have the opportunity to become one of the few homegrown players capable of landing a professional contract at the national level.

The 20-year-old is a star, and his talent and headline-grabbing ability would be invaluable to a league that often struggles to market itself despite a high-quality product.

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