Breaking: Tare Akebono, the First Foreign-Born Sumo Grand Champion, Dies at 54

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Taro Akebono, a Hawaiian-born sumo wrestler who became the sport’s first foreign grand champion and fueled a boom in popularity in the 1990s, has died in Tokyo at the age of 54.

Breaking: Tare Akebono, the First Foreign-Born Sumo Grand Champion, Dies at 54

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According to a statement from his family released by the US military in Japan on Thursday; he died of heart failure in early April while being treated at a Tokyo hospital.

In 1993, he became Japan’s 64th yokozuna, or grand champion sumo wrestler, making him the first foreign-born wrestler to hold the sport’s greatest title in its 300-year modern history.

He went on to win 11 grand championships, ushering in an era when foreign-born wrestlers dominated the top levels of Japan’s national sport.

Akebono, who stood 6-foot-8 and weighed 466 pounds when he was first proclaimed yokozuna at 23, towered over his Japanese opponents. Painfully timid outside the dohyo, or sumo ring, he was notorious for exploiting his height and reach to keep opponents at bay.

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Akebono’s rivalry with the Japanese brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana, both grand champions, fueled Sumo’s resurgence in the 1990s.

Akebono performed the sumo ring entrance ritual for an international audience at the 1998 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Nagano, Japan, commanding the arena with his enormous body and compelling stare.

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

Knowing nothing about Japan and speaking almost no Japanese, the adolescent Akebono began living and training in a sumo stable with a tight hierarchy, cooking, and cleaning for more experienced wrestlers.

He quickly rose through the sport’s ranks, dominating due to his physique.

Akebono broke through that barrier a year later, only five years after coming to Japan and beginning the sport, by changing his name to Taro Akebono. His sumo name, “Akebono,” means “dawn” in Japanese.

The family reports that he is survived by; his wife, Christine Rowan, and three children: daughter Caitlyn, 25, and sons Cody, 23, and Connor, 20, according to his family.

He retired from the sport in 2001, at the age of 31, due to chronic knee problems, but went on to coach young wrestlers and compete in kickboxing, professional wrestling, and mixed martial arts.

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