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OBITUARY | Akebono, a Former Sumo Grand Champion, Dies at 54

Hawaiian-born Akebono, the first foreign-born yokozuna, fueled a sumo boom in the 1990s with his rivalry against brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana.

Akebono, a mild-mannered giant of the sumo world who became the first foreign-born grand champion, has died at the age of 54.

Kyodo News reported on the death of Hawaiian-born Akebono on Thursday, April 11, citing heart failure as the cause.

Born Chad Rowan on May 8, 1969, Akebono first came to Japan in 1988 and joined the Azumazeki stable, which was run by fellow Hawaiian Takamiyama.

Takamiyama was initially concerned that Akebono's 6-foot-8 (203-centimeter) frame was too tall for sumo and his knees could not support his weight of 514 pounds (213 kilograms). But those fears were quickly dispelled.

Akebono would rise up through the ranks and go on to win 11 grand sumo tournament championships.

Akebono holds the Emperor's Cup after winning the Summer Basho in May 1997 in Tokyo. (©SANKEI)

He will be remembered as a successful yokozuna. In the early 1990s, he was known for his epic battles with the hugely popular brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana, who both achieved the rank of yokozuna.

In July 1993, Akebono impressed fans by beating Takanohana and Wakanohana in a playoff to win the title after all three ended up tied at the end of the 15-day tournament.

Akebono triumphs over Takanohana in a Summer Basho match in May 1997. (©SANKEI)

Then in May of 1997, Akebono defeated Takanohana twice on the final day, once in regulation and once in a playoff, to win his first Emperor's Cup in over two years.

Along with fellow Pacific Islanders Musashimaru and Konishiki, Akebono was part of a Hawaiian wave that popularized the sport in the Aloha State and beyond.

Akebono (left) grapples with Chiyotaikai in the Spring Basho in March 1998 in Osaka. (©SANKEI)

Ambassador Emanuel Pays Tribute to Akebono

"I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Akebono, a giant of the sumo world, a proud Hawaiian and a bridge between the United States and Japan," US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Akebono "opened the door for other foreign wrestlers to find success in the sport," Emanuel said. "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."

Akebono defeats Dejima in a Kyushu Basho bout in July 2000 in Fukuoka. (©SANKEI)

Akebono gained Japanese citizenship in 1996 while still an active wrestler. He retired in 2001 after the New Year Grand Sumo Tournament and became a stablemaster.

His success on the dohyo paved the way for other foreigners who also reached the highest rank of yokozuna, including Mongolians Asashoryu and Hakuho.

Akebono faces Bob Sapp in a K-1 match on December 31, 2003, at Nagoya Dome. Sapp won via a first-round knockout. (©SANKEI)

Akebono's Post-Sumo Career

He left the sumo world in 2003 and had a brief and turbulent career in kickboxing and mixed martial arts, most notably K-1.

The pinnacle of his career in K-1 came early in a highly publicized match against former American football player Bob Sapp on December 31, 2003.

The combined popularity of Akebono and Sapp attracted a crowd of 45,000 at Nagoya Dome and an impressive viewership of 43% on TV.

However, the match was short-lived. Akebono pushed Sapp back to the ropes with his trademark sumo thrusts and punches but his stamina quickly waned and the more experienced K-1 fighter pounced.

Sapp attacked Akebono with low kicks and punches, knocking the former grand champion down and finishing him off with a KO at 2 minutes, 58 seconds.

For Akebono, there were other matches in mixed martial arts and kickboxing but none received the notoriety of the Sapp match.

It's just a shoe!

Akebono Had Heart Problems in Later Years

In April 2017, Akebono was hospitalized after feeling unwell during a wrestling tour of Kitakyushu. Akebono's wife would later confirm that he suffered acute heart failure and was in a medically induced coma for two weeks.

His health gradually deteriorated after that and by 2018 it was reported he required the use of a wheelchair.

The sumo legend is survived by his wife, a daughter and two sons, according to published reports.


Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.

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