The Russian crumples himself into the driver's seat of a metallic gray 2005 BMW 745, his left knee pressed against the steering wheel as he backs out of his driveway. Soslan Gagloev, all 6'4, 290 pounds of him, is covered in Nike apparel, a black long-sleeve polyester workout shirt with charcoal Dri-FIT pants and light gray tennis shoes. It's not yet 9 a.m. in Orlando, Fla., but already the July humidity is wreaking its havoc as Soslan dabs the beads of sweat off his forehead.
The license plate on his car reads "OSETIYA," for the Russian Republic (Ossetia) where Soslan grew up.
"Do a lot of people ask about your license plate?" I ask.
"Not as much as they ask why I'm driving a BMW," he says.
"I want to make history. I want to be the first person to go from professional sumo wrestler to the NFL."
Brand new, the BMW would have been one in a collection of high-end luxury automobiles Soslan owned when he was an elite sumo wrestler, before he blew through $600,000 to pursue a life in America. Known as "Wakanoho Toshinori" in Japan, he was one of the youngest foreign-born wrestlers to advance to makuuchi, the highest of sumo's six divisions. There, he was revered as a celebrity until he was banned for alleged marijuana possession and retaliated by unloading everything he knew about the sport's rampant match fixing.
This car, with its near flawless body, meticulously maintained leather interior and a sound system that's blaring Lil Wayne's "Lollipop," was a gift from a friend and connects Soslan's old world and the new one he's determined to create. "I want to make history," he explains. "I want to be the first person to go from professional sumo wrestler to the NFL."
Four years ago, Soslan Gagloev, a sumo champion now 26 years old, had never played a down of football.
We're headed to ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex located at the Walt Disney World Resort, but before we get there, Soslan stops at an office to handle an immigration matter. "I have to make sure I give them everything," he tells me. Five days earlier, he was in Verona, N.Y., competing in an all-star sumo event. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has to know where Soslan is at all times and what he is doing. This is part of the deal, and it isn't without complications.
Up until recently, he was in the U.S. on an O-1 visa for "alien of extraordinary ability" as a sumo wrestler and was required to compete in American sumo events, as few of them as there may be. Sumo in the U.S. is a curiosity spearheaded by Andrew Freund, the founder and director of USA Sumo who has been instrumental in finding Soslan work in the sport since he came to the United States. But a few months ago, Immigration revoked Soslan's visa, and his current status is in the hands of his attorneys. Regardless, he stills competes in events because it's his only way of making any money.
Soslan gets back into the car after a few minutes in the office and yawns repeatedly as we drive toward the complex. "My back didn't let me sleep well last night," he says. He tweaked it in his first match in New York trying to lift a 400-pound wrestler by his mawashi (loincloth), a standard maneuver in sumo and one that Soslan performed countless times in Japan with little difficulty. But in Japan, Soslan weighed over 400 pounds and was conditioned to carry out such feats of strength. Now when he competes at less than 300 pounds, he looks like a pale, bearded stick compared to the other wrestlers. Although the tactic and technique are still second nature to him, his body fails him in the ring far more than it ever did when he wrestled as Wakanoho in Japan.
We pull up to the sprawling 220-acre Wide World of Sports Complex and walk by a cluster of softball fields, all being used at the moment for a competitive girls' softball tournament. Soslan shakes his head and laughs when he hears a teenage girl tell one of her friends that she needs a beer. He remembers what it was like to be young and naïve, wanting to grow up too fast.
Soslan has always been an athlete of extraordinary ability. At age 12, he made Russia's Junior Olympic wrestling team in the freestyle division. By 15, he was a monster in competition and in appearance, beating older wrestlers for gold medals and measuring 6'3, 300 pounds. Soslan's Olympic wrestling career essentially ended, though, the moment the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles (FILA) lowered his weight class to 264 pounds. Soslan tried everything to keep his weight down, and on more than one occasion, passed out during practice after skipping meals.
Japan lured Soslan with the desires that run wild through the impressionable mind of a teenage boy: money, fame and girls. Soslan as a professional sumo wrestler in Japan.
At his father's request, Soslan visited a few Japanese sumo clubs that had been keeping tabs on both his success and weight predicament. Japan lured Soslan with the desires that run wild through the impressionable mind of a teenage boy: money, fame and girls. He received $15,000 from a club after his first tryout, and he knew two other Russians in the top division who owned brand new Hummers, Mercedes and Maseratis. He saw them partying with beautiful women and wanted what they had as soon as possible.
At 16, Soslan started wrestling for the Magaki stable in the Japan Sumo Association (JSA), and within 20 months he had advanced to the highest division, quickly graduating past the hazing rituals forced upon lower-level wrestlers. Soslan hated everything about the hazing — waking up first and eating last, cleaning the restroom, washing the backs of upper-level wrestlers, and wearing wooden shoes that gave him blisters. He felt he was already stronger than most of the wrestlers he was serving, so he rebelled. One time, when they asked him to buy Marlboros from the store, Soslan purposely came back with another cigarette brand. "They just give up on me and say, ‘He's a stupid Russian,'" he says, laughing hysterically.
When he first came to Japan he also attended a local college to learn the Japanese culture and language. There, he met a Russian girl and fell in love. By 17, Soslan was married and living the life of an elite sumo wrestler, earning over $40,000 a month and receiving lavish gifts from sponsors for top performances, including cars. He started collecting high-end automobiles as if they were articles of clothing, an AMG S65 Mercedes, a BMW M3, a Hummer, a Porsche Cayenne, and more. He bought his wife expensive jewelry and his mother a house. He bought both his sister and father a Mercedes. "Nobody can control me anymore because I'm Division 1, I'm famous wrestler," he reminisces. "I have five guys from my club who cleaning my stuff, taking care of me. I'm on the television all the time and front page of the magazines. I have money."
Walking down the winding path through the Wide World of Sports Complex, Soslan talks about how comfortable it is living in America and how he dreamed of coming here, to what he calls "the free country," ever since he was a young boy. He was fortunate growing up because his father owned a trucking company and Soslan was never without basic necessities like food and shelter, but compared to the United States, he describes Russia as a third-world country. "Like living in the past," he says.
In June 2008, Soslan visited America for the first time when all the makuuchi wrestlers traveled to Los Angeles for a sumo tournament. While in Los Angeles, Soslan took pictures with celebrities and hung out with the rapper and actor Xzibit, who invited him and a few other wrestlers to his house. "When we were in America, the paparazzi took our pictures together," Soslan says. "And the Japanese newspapers were like, ‘Wakanoho and Xzibit, what are they doing together? Were they using some drugs, were they doing something bad?'"
About a month prior to the Los Angeles trip, Soslan filed a police report because his wallet, containing $500 cash, was stolen from a sumo stable while he was practicing. Shortly after returning to Japan, Soslan's wallet turned up at a police station. The money was gone, but the wallet contained about a quarter-gram of marijuana. The police tested him for drugs and the results came back negative. He told them the marijuana wasn't his and someone must have put it in his wallet. He said the police told him they didn't care and he could spend five years in jail if he didn't say it was his.
Three days later, the Japan Sumo Association banned Soslan for life. Ten days after the incident, the police dropped the charges. Soslan met with the chairman of the JSA and asked him to reduce the ban to a two-year suspension and levy a $2 million fine. According to Soslan, the chairman responded, "Listen, you fucking Russian, you came here to make money, go back home. If you cut the head, you can't put him back. We already cut your head. You're not alive anymore."
"They dirty as fuck. They do prostitutes and smoking drugs, the cocaine parties. I told everything I know."
Feeling betrayed, Soslan got his revenge. "So I made a press conference and blow shit up," spilling sumo's dirty little secrets to the Japanese media. "This motherfucker, the coaches, everybody know about fake matches. They're selling the matches for $10,000. They dirty as fuck. They do prostitutes and smoking drugs, the cocaine parties. I told everything I know."
In his tirade, he also implicated himself in the match-fixing scandal, something which, understandably, did not help his situation. Afterwards, he spent most of his time isolated in his home to avoid the paparazzi. It was then that he came across American football on television and noticed the linemen looked like sumo wrestlers, slamming into each other in short explosive intervals. He knew NFL players made a lot of money and he thought given his size and ability, he could do the same.
Five months after his dismissal, Soslan and his wife, who was pregnant, moved back to Russia. Through a Russian friend, he connected with boxing and MMA agent Leo Khorolinsky, who introduced Soslan to Bob Schuldt, a sports performance trainer who had worked with former Chicago Bear linebacker Mike Singletary. Schuldt convinced Singletary, then the head coach for the San Francisco 49ers, to take a look at Soslan.
The results were underwhelming. Soslan, still more than 400 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in nine seconds. To put his time in perspective, an NFL team won't so much as sniff a lineman who doesn't run the 40 somewhere in much more than five seconds. "Big, fat, pretty slow for football," Soslan remembers Singletary telling him.
Soslan not only needed experience in organized football, he needed to get in football condition. Another Russian friend, a female tennis player who was training at The Etcheberry Experience, a Florida sports performance facility, set up a meeting with Pat Etcheberry, who is best known for training world-class tennis players such as Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. He asked Trevor Hypolite, a former collegiate tight end who spent a few years training some of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to evaluate Soslan and determine whether or not the giant Russian was worth the time.
Hypolite put Soslan in a three-point stance and ran him through some agility drills. "Obviously, right away he was just completely raw and he spoke about 10 percent English," Hypolite remembers. "But with his background in sumo, he was very disciplined and determined, so I said, ‘Let's give it a shot.'" Etcheberry looked at Hypolite like he was crazy, but gave his blessing.
"With his background in sumo, he was very disciplined and determined, so I said, 'Let's give it a shot.'" Soslan at Warner University, where he would eventually end up playing for one year.
Nearly every day for the next four months, Hypolite would pick Soslan up from an Extended Stay America hotel near Clermont, Fla., and spend all day with him training, communicating mostly through hand gestures at first. In addition to physical conditioning, Hypolite also worked on adjusting Soslan's psyche for football. As overpowering and determined as Soslan was, he was also naturally laid back. Hypolite would get frustrated because Soslan lacked an edge he felt was necessary to excel as a lineman. He tried testing Soslan's manhood, calling him out when he couldn't bench a certain number of reps and reminding him the Americans were every bit as hungry as he was to make it, if not more. "He would look at me with a smile on his face like, ‘You know I could crush you, right?'" Hypolite recalls. "But he would always say, ‘Yes, coach, yes, coach' and push harder." Eventually, a combination of Hypolite's training regimen and the Florida sun melted 70 pounds off of Soslan's frame and his 40-time dropped to 5.1 seconds.
Now that Soslan was in better shape, Hypolite called Kelly Scott, a coaching intern when he played at the University of South Carolina who had since become coach at Webber International University, a small NAIA school in Babson Park, Fla. Scott agreed to work Soslan out and gave him a scholarship. Soslan, having never played football before, was now a college football athlete. He secured a student visa and paid $50,000 to bring his wife and newborn daughter to Florida.
The first time Soslan put on his helmet, he felt like a gladiator smashing people into the ground, but the process was like learning yet another language. In his first game, he stood on the sidelines and still didn't understand why everybody was constantly running on and off the field. He knew little English, even less about the rules and found the coaches' incessant screaming bizarre. "Physically, he was so impressive," Scott recalls. "But at times it seemed like the game was too fast for him." He improved over time, but never managed to crack the starting lineup.
While he was at Webber, the Japanese government investigated the match-fixing scandal in sumo wrestling, following up on Soslan's allegations. In total, 25 coaches and wrestlers were expelled from the sport. The Japanese media flew to Florida to hear Soslan's side of the story again. "I don't want to do anymore interview, but they pay me $120,000 for one week," he explains. "I do it because my money was gone and they just want to listen to truth." Soslan claims the Japan Sumo Association then asked him to come back and compete, but after losing more than 100 pounds and investing a fortune on pursuing a football career, he declined.
Webber worked out well for Soslan, not only because he earned his first two years of playing experience, but also because he met Nodirbek Talipov, who would eventually become his manager and closest friend in America. Talipov is from Uzbekistan, formerly of the Soviet Union, and speaks Russian as his first language. He came to the United States in 1997 as a student at a private college in Iowa and fell in love with football. After college, he got a job as an accountant in Florida, and through a colleague, met an NFL agent. Over the past few years, Talipov has been accumulating contacts with the Arena Football League and NFL, and is currently working on securing his NFL agent license.
At Webber, Talipov helped Soslan learn English and committed to finding him as many connections to professional football as possible. He arranged for Soslan to spend time with the Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League, where he met Nick Hill. It was Hill, then the Predator's quarterback, who introduced Soslan to Tom Shaw.
His portfolio of clients includes 142 first-round draft picks, nine No. 1 picks and 10 Super Bowl MVPs.
The Tom Shaw Performance workout facility sits inside a massive yellow stucco building just past the softball fields at the Wide World of Sports Complex. Shaw is widely regarded as one of the best strength and conditioning coaches for current and potential NFL players. In the 2000s, he was the strength and conditioning coach for all three of the New England Patriots' Super Bowl-winning teams and his portfolio of clients includes 142 first-round draft picks, nine No. 1 picks and 10 Super Bowl MVPs. One of those Super Bowl MVPs, Santonio Holmes, is the first person to greet Soslan as he enters the facility. For more than two years, Soslan has been training with Shaw and his staff.
On a stationary bike inside the cardio room, a young blond woman introduces Soslan to a female athlete from Ukraine. Immediately, his face brightens as they both start speaking Russian to each other. Ever since he left Russia as a teenager, Soslan has been assimilating to other cultures, learning Japanese in one year and then English in the same amount of time. Still, he is more animated when he doesn't have to first process the nuances of a foreign vernacular.
Although Soslan learned Japanese and English in a relatively short amount of time, it took him roughly twice as long to develop a basic understanding of football. Once he did, Soslan realized facing NAIA competition wasn't going to get him to the NFL. Hypolite, having seen a couple of Soslan's games at Webber in person, agreed, and reached out to Kevin Patrick, defensive line coach for the University of South Florida. Patrick's prized pupil at USF was Jason Pierre-Paul, who began playing organized football in his junior year of high school and ended up a first-round pick of the New York Giants. Hypolite convinced him and head coach Skip Holtz to take on another project in Soslan, who transferred to USF as a walk-on in 2012 and sat out a year due to NCAA transfer rules. "Coach Patrick was like best coach I seen in my life," Soslan says. "He show me playbook, and [coming from Webber] it was like difference between Chevy and Ferrari, different speed, different everything."
Just practicing against D1 competition on a consistent basis was a huge step in the right direction for Soslan's NFL aspirations, but his personal life was caving in. His father died in 2011 and his savings of more than a half million dollars was nearly depleted. In order to pay for tuition at USF, he had to sell his S55 AMG Mercedes, the last of his car collection from his sumo days. Furthermore, Soslan and his wife had grown increasingly distant from each other since moving to America. They divorced in February of 2012, and she moved back to Russia with their 2-year-old daughter. Later that year, USF suffered an abysmal three-win season, and the entire coaching staff was replaced by a new staff who didn't keep Soslan on the team. "Like a flat tire," he describes himself at this point, having lost everything.
After USF, Soslan received a scholarship from Warner University, another NAIA school in Lake Wales, Fla., that was just launching its football program in 2013. He was reluctant to take a step back in competition, but had no other offers. At the recommendation of Talipov, who said some pro scouts told him Soslan was better suited for the offensive line, he made the switch from defense to offensive tackle. In his first game, a running back and four other players fell on the back of his leg, and Soslan missed the next five games. He returned, still injured, so he could build a video résumé for NFL scouts. While injured, he also competed in the 2013 US Sumo Open with a heavily-taped left ankle and placed second in the heavyweight division. He didn't get paid for the Open, but he had given Andrew Freund his word. "I always tell Andrew, ‘I got you' because he do so much for me here," he says.
At 25, he didn't think another year in NAIA outweighed growing a year older and decided to forego his final year of eligibility at Warner to pursue the NFL. "I just want to make my dream as soon as possible," he explains. Soslan attended USF's pro day as well as the NFL Regional Combine at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, and performed well enough to generate interest from some NFL teams, including the St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts. Emails from NFL scouts read: "pleasantly surprised" and "this kid isn't half bad" and "really like his strength and how he moves."
"Soslan does things athletically that he shouldn't be able to do, and as far as his flexibility and power, it's pretty crazy."
Soslan's personality is as large as his body, affable and approachable, and as he heads into the weight room, dimly lit with a mixture of free weights and hammer strength machines, all the regulars greet him. "SOS!" each one of them bellows at some point. Most of the football players know him as the sumo wrestler who is taking aim at the NFL. Nigel Carr, who spent one season with the Baltimore Ravens, calls him the "Million-dollar Man." Michael Parker, who played for the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL, jokes that Soslan learned how to speak English by listening to Tupac and mentions he's heard a few NFL teams are interested.
At the entrance of the weight room, Brian Stamper is helping the two female athletes who were chatting with Soslan in the cardio room earlier. Stamper, a former offensive tackle from Vanderbilt, is bigger than Soslan, but is cut like a linebacker. His bright blond beard matches the locks protruding out of the sides of his backwards baseball cap, and both of his arms are covered in tattoos of Jesus. He is the director of strength training at Tom Shaw Performance and will often run Soslan through footwork and speed drills. "Soslan does things athletically that he shouldn't be able to do, and as far as his flexibility and power, it's pretty crazy," Stamper says. "He almost has double the range of motion of the average lineman that we bring in here."
Because of his sore back, Soslan is only lifting light weights today. After a circuit of chest and bicep exercises, he crouches down with his right leg extended straight out to his side and his bottom resting an inch off the floor. Such flexibility is rare for a man of his size, yet he does it effortlessly, holding both his thumbs up as if he is performing. From there, he transitions to shiko, the sumo exercise in which a wrestler lifts one leg high in the air, brings it down forcefully, and then repeats with the other leg. In a little more than a month, Soslan will be competing in the US Sumo Open in Southern California. Right now, he is both a fringe NFL prospect and still a sumo wrestler.
Elliott Mealer, a former offensive lineman at the University of Michigan who spent time with the New Orleans Saints, trained with Soslan at Tom Shaw Performance. Mealer, who is currently playing for the San Jose SaberCats in the Arena Football League, remembers Soslan always asking him and the staff questions, always trying to improve. "He's raw, trying to learn a new sport, and he's at a disadvantage in terms of experience," Mealer says. "But, coaches like guys they can get their hands on and mold into the player they want them to be. So on one hand, maybe the fact that Soslan hasn't played a lot of football in his career, a coach doesn't have to worry about breaking old habits."
For one of Soslan's last stretches before leaving the facility, he lies flat on his back and rotates his lower body at his hips, bending his right leg and pulling it across his left one with his arm so that the inside of his knee is touching the ground, contorting his body like a gymnast.
"Athletically, he is ahead of the curve," Stamper says. "And, coaches will usually bring a guy in with a base like that because they believe they can coach him up to what they want as long as he has a basic knowledge of blocking."
However, it's the mental aspect of the offensive line — being able to make reads and adjusting to formations changing on the defense — that Stamper says could hold Soslan back. Not because he is incapable of learning, but he has such little time to catch up to other linemen, who have been playing since grade school.
One NFL scout, who saw Soslan's tape, said he was intrigued because he moved really well for a big man, but his lack of experience would be a lot to overcome. "I'm sure Tom Shaw is doing a great job with him," the scout says. "But, he needs actual football against high-level competition." Scouts and coaches, as both Stamper and Mealer attest, pride themselves on finding hidden gems. And, this particular scout said he might keep Soslan on his radar to work him out in the middle of the season — if his immigration issues are resolved.
Last April, Soslan spent four weeks at the Baker County Detention Facility in Macclenny, Fla., based on the pretense that he violated his athlete visa by working in a non sumo-related position. He describes the place as a hellhole where he sat in his cell all day and never saw the sun. The guards called him "Drago" after the fictional boxer in the film "Rocky IV" and peppered him with questions about his sumo career.
The timing couldn't have been worse. Soslan says he missed a workout with the Jacksonville Jaguars and lost his agent, who chose not to invest more time in someone who might be forced to leave the country. Soslan knew he wasn't going to be drafted, but was hoping to sign a rookie free-agent contract and land on a practice squad where he could continue to develop. According to one of Soslan's immigration attorneys, Catherine Henin-Clark, the arrest was made erroneously because Soslan had a general work authorization. She is confident he won't be sent back to Russia, but sorting out his immigration status could still take months, and NFL teams are not eager to waste time on a player who they are not 100 percent certain can remain in the country.
Soslan's marriage to a U.S. citizen bodes well for his chance to secure a green card and pursue a football career.
On the drive back home from Tom Shaw Performance, Soslan answers a call and quickly his demeanor softens. Two years ago, shortly after his divorce, Soslan was at a dance club in Tampa with some friends where he met Dakota Springfields. Soon, they went on their first date to a Japanese sushi restaurant, and two years later, in May 2014, they married on a Florida beach. Dakota is in New York right now preparing for her bar exam, so she can practice immigration law. The two recently started house shopping and Dakota attended the New York sumo event, catching a glimpse of her husband as Wakanoho.
Logistically, Soslan's marriage to a U.S. citizen bodes well for his chance to secure a green card and pursue a football career, as long as Dakota and Soslan can prove to authorities they've entered into a legitimate relationship. Henin-Clark recently prepared Dakota's petition for alien relative and Soslan's application for permanent residence. His other attorney, David Stoller, will handle the final court hearing for his green card.
We arrive at Soslan's home, which is owned by Talipov, who lives in the house next door. Soslan lives with Talipov's parents in a one-story house, roughly 1,500 square feet. The front door opens opposite a wall covered with artwork by the Talipov's grandchildren. Family is most important to them, and they consider Soslan one of their own.
In his room there's an entanglement of sumo medals hanging by a nail not too far from a New England Patriots jersey with Soslan's last name on the back, given to him as a gift. In his closet, there's a T-shirt he received for being an offensive line prop in Jon Gruden's football camp. And, next to his bed on the floor is his laptop he uses regularly to video chat with friends and family in Russia. It is his main line to his daughter, whom he hasn't seen in person in more than two years.
Soslan takes a quick shower, and then we sit down on the living room couch to eat lunch. Talipov is not here because he is in Washington, D.C., taking classes to be an NFL agent. He plans on representing Soslan as soon as he passes his agent certification.
After lunch, Soslan flips through Instagram on his phone, showing me pictures of his wedding day, his daughter in a ballet recital, and old pictures of himself as Wakanoho. "When I came here, I didn't mind spending the money because I came to chase my dream," he reasons. "But, if you ask me, right now, ‘If I would do the same thing,' I have to really think about it because when you have to pay your bills and don't know how, it's a lot of pain. When your daughter ask for Christmas present and you have to borrow money to get her one, it hurts."
Then, he scrolls through pictures of himself as a football player. He pulls up photos of his playing days at Webber and Warner. He points to a picture of himself lifting his leg over his head on a flexibility measurement machine and another one of himself posing in an Orlando Predators uniform. Realistically, arena football makes a lot of sense for Soslan, and he has connections, but his determination won't allow him to concede to a second-tier league just yet. "I don't want to play in CFL or Arena," he declares.
The last picture Soslan pulls up is of him at Tom Shaw Performance competing in a one-on-one pass rushing drill against Khalil Mack, the former University of Buffalo linebacker and fifth player taken in this year's NFL Draft. In the photo, Soslan looks like Wakanoho again, bringing his opponent to the ground: no pads, no teammates, just a contact sport stripped to its most basic element, man against man. What he once did to 400-pound sumo wrestlers, he is now doing to a former First-Team All-American.
He asks me how much I think Mack makes now, and I estimate around $5 million a year. Soslan fixates on the image for a while, remembering why he is here, looking for a future in a sport and a country where he is still a stranger. For all the ground he has gained, losing a small fortune in the process, he still has so much more to cover. But he has this picture, a glimpse of what may still be ahead for him, tangible evidence his pursuit is not in vain. "I can't just play four years and say ‘Fuck it, I'm giving up,'" he says. "I don't have a lot of time."
"It's NFL or nothing."