'Disabled' Sumo Wrestler Slimming Down to Improve Health

Even sumo wrestlers can weigh too much, as Emanuel "Tiny" Yarbrough can testify.

Yarbrough, a former sumo wrestling champion and nationally ranked judo competitor, is trying to lose more than 200 pounds in an effort to improve his health and possibly take to the ring again in competitive sports.

"I was sick and tired of being sick and tired," said Yarbrough, 42, describing why he decided to lose the weight. "I want to just get back to my life."

Under a doctor's supervision, he's trying to drop from a starting weight of 752 pounds to about 550 pounds, and hopefully take part next year in the U.S. Olympic judo qualifying match as well as the Sumo World Championships.

The giant, deep-voiced Yarbrough, is in some ways an oddity — a black man in a predominantly Japanese sport where he outweighs even the other heavyweights.

But his battle with the bulge reflects that of many other Americans.

Yarbrough said he didn't intentionally gain the weight for sumo. He put on the pounds the same way most people do: not enough exercise and too much eating.

His already poor eating habits didn't help. Raised in New Jersey by two parents from the South, he grew up eating a lot of fried foods. By the time he was 14, he already weighed 320 pounds.

As an adult, meals often meant fast food in bulk: a trip to McDonald's meant two Big Macs, a Filet-O-Fish, large fries and a drink; going to Wendy's usually meant ordering two burgers, a bacon cheeseburger, fries and a shake.

"It's always got to be two of something," Yarbrough said.

He said that with his weight, life is daily a challenge. Before going to a restaurant, he has to call to make sure they have chairs that can fit and hold him. His Suburban was specially modified so the seat moves back an additional few inches to accommodate his height and girth. Short walks tire him out.

"Seven hundred pound people probably weren't built for walking around," Yarbrough said.

His weight also led to a host of health problems including hypertension, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure.

Yarbrough didn't want to undergo surgery to lose the weight because a friend of his died after undergoing surgery. Also, said his doctor Leah Solomon, to even be a candidate, patients need to be at about 500 pounds.

Solomon, a specialist in obesity issues who is treating him at her Morristown office, has had three meetings with him so far. She's recommended a combination of pre-made shakes and nutrition bars during the day and a meal consisting of half vegetables, a quarter starch and quarter protein in the evening. And he's drinking a lot of water.

Solomon said she's trying not to take away all of his pleasures at once. If he wants an occasional slice of pizza, that's fine. She gives him tips on how to deal with situations such as eating out — decide what he wants to eat without opening the menu so he won't be tempted.

Yarbrough said he's lifting weights a few times a week, but Solomon said she's not forcing him to exercise unless he feels like it.

During their weekly meetings, the doctor weighs him, checks his blood pressure, listens to his breathing and talks with him about how he's feeling and eating.

One week into changing his eating habits, he's already lost about 26 pounds. Solomon gives him a 25-pound stack of weights she keeps in her office to give him an idea of the weight loss.

"I think you've had a great first week," Solomon told him. "I think the first 100 pounds are going to come off quickly."

Though Yarbrough said a reality television show featuring him is in works, his size has made it almost impossible to find a traditional full-time job, so he's on disability. The doctor's appointments are paid for by Medicare, and the company that makes his shakes and nutrition bars, Nutrimed, is donating them.

Despite his weight, Yarbrough was always very active and involved in sports, including playing football and wrestling during college and becoming a brown belt in judo.

As a college freshman playing offensive tackle at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md. he was jokingly given the nickname "Tiny," because he was so clearly not.

It was an invitation to the World Sumo Championships in 1992, an amateur event in Japan, that introduced him to a sport seemingly custom-made for his ample body and powerful legs.

"I thought sumo was two fat guys bumping bellies," Yarbrough said.

But he became fascinated by the rituals and culture associated with the sport. He placed second, and his sumo career took off. He captured the world amateur title in 1995, and landed guest spots on Late Night with Conan O'Brien and a profile on Nightline, to name a few.

Yarbrough's former trainer, Yoshisada Yonezuka, who owns the Judo & Karate Center in Cranford, said Yarbrough was always bigger than the average sumo wrestler who usually weigh in at 450-500 pounds, but carried his weight well.

"When he was 650, he could move fast," said Yonezuka. "The biggest problem was that he gained too much weight."

Sitting in his doctor's office, Yarbrough said he knows that the odds are stacked against him competing again, but he wants to give it a try.

"I feel that at least I have a fighting chance," he said.