Pioneering Hawaiian-born Sumo Champion Akebono Dies @ 54

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  • Born Chad Rowan, he became Sumo’s first non-Japanese grand champion in 1993
Hawaii-born Akebono celebrates his 10th tournament championship with his family and supporters in 2000 – Photo by AP

In Japan, tributes are pouring in for Akebono, the first foreign wrestler to reach the pinnacle of the sport of sumo, who has died at age 54.

The wrestler, who was born Chad Rowan in Hawaii, is regarded as a pioneer after he broke down cultural barriers in the centuries-old sport to become the first non-Japanese yokozuna grand champion in 1993.

He won 11 major sumo tournaments, which are held six times a year, before retiring in 2001 and turning to K-1 and professional wrestling. He was runner-up at 13 other tournaments, despite being plagued by injury.

Japanese media said the wrestler, who took the name Taro Akebono when he became a Japanese citizen in 1996, had died of heart failure this month, citing a statement by the US Forces in Japan.

Rahm Emanuel, the US Ambassador to Japan, said he was “deeply saddened” by the news. Rahm said in a post on X that the wrestler, who was 203cm (6ft 8in) tall and weighed 233kg (514lb) at his heaviest, was “a giant in the world of sumo, a proud Hawaiian and a bridge between the United States and Japan.

“When Akebono became the first-ever foreign-born grand champion … he opened the door for other foreign wrestlers to find success in the sport.

“Throughout his 35 years in Japan, Akebono strengthened the cultural ties between the United States and his adopted homeland by uniting us all through sport. I send my sincerest condolences to his family and friends and Sumo fans everywhere.”

Akebono, who was a familiar face on Japanese TV, entered the Sumo world in 1988, becoming the 64th yokozuna at the New Year tournament in Tokyo in January 1993. He became a stable master after retiring as a wrestler in 2001.

One of the heaviest and tallest rikishi, or wrestlers, in the sport’s history, Akebono and his fellow Hawaiian behemoth, the 287kg Konishiki, paved the way for a steady stream of foreign wrestlers, including five yokozuna from Mongolia.

Many Sumo fans will remember Akebono for his fierce 1990s rivalry with the popular Japanese brothers and members of the Sumo aristocracy, Takanohana, and Wakanohana, both of whom went on to become grand champions.

Akebono is survived by his wife, daughter, and two sons. – With The Guardian report

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