First foreign-born sumo grand champion Akebono dies at 54

Akebono waves an American flag as he watches US skaters at the 1998 Winter Olympics. File Photo: Reuters

Akebono, an American-born sumo wrestler who became the first non-Japanese grand champion or "yokozuna", died of heart failure this month in Tokyo, the sumo association said on Thursday. He was 54.

The winner of 11 championships - the 10th most in modern sumo history - Akebono was physically imposing at 203 centimeters (6'8") and 233 kilograms (514 lb). His fighting style relied on his immense size to thrust his foes out of the ring.

Born Chad George Ha'aheo Rowan in Hawaii, Akebono was a college basketball player who was recruited by the head of a Japanese sumo stable, who was also Hawaiian.

He entered the sumo world in 1988 and rose to its highest rank of yokozuna in January, 1993, becoming modern sumo's 64th yokozuna. He later became a Japanese citizen, taking the name Taro Akebono.

As a foreigner, Akebono followed in the footsteps of the even bigger Konishiki, also from Hawaii, and alongside fellow yokozuna Musashimaru, originally from American Samoa.

"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," US Ambassador Rahm Emanuel Emanuel posted on X.

Akebono also regularly appeared as a celebrity on Japanese TV shows and after retiring from sumo in 2001 fought in various mixed-martial arts and professional wrestling events.

Akebono's fighting style relied on his immense size to thrust his foes out of the ring. File photo: Reuters

"RIP to the Mighty Akebono," posted Samoa Joe, the current world champion of AEW pro wrestling. "The epitome of a Yokozuna, both a warrior and a gentleman. A hui hou."

Akebono is survived by his wife, daughter and two sons.

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