Sumo wrestler Hidetora Hanada catches on quick as he learns to be a defensive lineman for Colorado State

FORT COLLINS — The newest Colorado State defensive lineman was recently called upon to lead his teammates in a series of pre-practice stretches.

Hidetora Hanada showed off some flexibility-testing poses straight out of a sumo wrestling handbook, including deep squats that had some players grimacing.

Just a tiny glimpse into why he’s a sumo grand champion.

Back in Japan, the 6-foot-1, 280-pound Hanada rose to the highest amateur ranks of sumo wrestling by refusing to be pushed around in the ring. He’s taking that same approach to the football field as he learns the ropes of being a run stuffer/pass rusher for the Rams.

Swapping his mawashi — the traditional loincloth sumo wrestlers wear — for shoulder pads and a helmet, the 21-year-old has quickly adjusted to life in the foothills of Fort Collins, about an hour’s drive north of Denver. His English has come a long way (learned in eight months), he knows the basic rules of football (offsides is bad) and is picking up some valuable “kimarite” (finishing moves). He’s also discovered a love of lasagna.

“While competing sumo in Japan, I started thinking that I wanted to fight many strong athletes worldwide. Football is the most popular sport in the United States and I wanted to see how I can compete in that environment,” Hanada explained through a translator. “I wanted to see my limit. That’s why I decided to challenge football.”

In July, Hanada wrote on social media he was attending Colorado State to play football. The news made a splash in Japan, where sumo wrestling is largely viewed as the national sport. He was on track to possibly becoming a rare professional Yokozuna, which is the highest rank a sumo wrestler can achieve inside the dohyo (ring).

He already was an amateur Yokozuna, in addition to earning gold at the 2022 World Games in the heavyweight division.

“Changing my focus to football might have disappointed some but I’d like to prove to them that I’m challenging something new and (will be) successful at it on the global stage,” said Hanada, whose team opens the season at home against Washington State on Sept. 2. “I’m thinking of each one of them all the time while pushing myself to the new challenge every day.”

The object in sumo wrestling remains straight-forward: Win by either pushing an opponent out of the ring or by forcing them to the ground. The object in American football for a defensive lineman isn’t all that much different — keep low and bring the opponent to the turf.

Hanada was working out with a semi-pro football team in Japan called the IBM Big Blue, when he met Mike Phair, the defensive line coach for Ottawa of the Canadian Football League. Phair was asked by Big Blue team supervisor Shinzo Yamada last spring to venture over to Japan to work with Hanada and other defensive linemen.

It didn’t take Phair long to see his potential.

“Just the power and the leverage and strength,” Phair said. “His skillset, I was really impressed.”

Hanada attended a CFL combine in Edmonton, where his strength from sumo wrestling allowed him to stand out. He bench-pressed and bull-rushed his way into the minds of everyone watching. And while the CFL would have to wait, Phair helped find him a college home.

He already had the perfect person in mind — Buddha Williams, the defensive line coach at Colorado State. Phair grew tight with Williams from their days together at Illinois.

“Buddha’s a heck of a coach and a heck of a teacher,” Phair said. “I knew Buddha would spend time with him.”

Williams has, too.

“You see tremendous strides every day,” Williams said. “He continues to get better playing with unbelievable pad level, playing a lot faster. The game for him is starting to slow down.”

To learn some football moves, Hanada studies film of Los Angeles Rams standout Aaron Donald, a three-time defensive player of the year who, like Hanada, is listed at 6-1 and 280 pounds.

“I’m hoping if I aim at his techniques and his speed,” Hanada said, “I can improve myself to get to his level some day.”

His teammates have taken him under their wing as well.

“I’m very impressed with him,” defensive lineman James Mitchell said.

After a recent practice, Mitchell stayed late to work with the raw player from Wakayama, Japan. Mitchell watched as Hanada pounded a padded sled to work on staying low.

Staying low, that’s business as usual. Whether it’s the ring or the field, he can throw his weight around with the best of them.

“I’m still learning. With everything different here — different food, different water, different language and different environment — it’s not always been easy and there have been many hard times,” Hanada said. “But I’m starting to enjoy the new challenge (and have) so much support.”

AP video journalist Thomas Peipert and AP photo editor Kiichiro Sato contributed.

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