Akebono, First Foreign-Born Sumo Grand Champion, Dies at 54

Taro Akebono, a Hawaii-born sumo wrestler who became the sport’s first foreign grand champion and helped to fuel a resurgence in the sport’s popularity in the 1990s, has died in Tokyo. He was 54.

He died of heart failure in early April while receiving care at a Tokyo hospital, according to a statement from his family that was distributed by the United States military in Japan on Thursday.

When he became Japan’s 64th yokozuna, or grand champion sumo wrestler, in 1993, he was the first foreign-born wrestler to achieve the sport’s highest title in its 300-year modern history. He went on to win a total of 11 grand championships, and his success set the stage for an era during which foreign-born wrestlers dominated the top levels of Japan’s national sport.

Akebono, who was 6-foot-8 and 466 pounds when he was first named yokozuna at 23, towered over his Japanese opponents. Painfully shy outside the dohyo, as the sumo ring is known, he was known for using his height and reach to keep opponents at a distance.

Akebono’s rivalry with the Japanese brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana, both grand champions, was a major driver of sumo’s renewed popularity in the 1990s. During the opening ceremony for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Akebono demonstrated the sumo ring entrance ritual for an international audience, commanding the arena with his hulking physique and captivating stare.

Taro Akebono was born Chad George Ha’aheo Rowan in Waimanalo, Hawaii, in 1969. He played basketball in high school and briefly at Hawaii Pacific University before moving to Japan in 1988 at the invitation of a fellow Hawaiian wrestler who had become a trainer.

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