Akebono

Akebono Tarō  , (Born May 8, 1969 as Chad Haakeo Rowan is a retired sumo wrestler from Waimānalo, Hawaii. Joining the professional sport in Japan in 1988, he was trained by pioneering Hawaiian sumo wrestler Takamiyama and rose swiftly up the rankings, reaching the top division in 1990. After two consecutive yusho or tournament championships in November 1992 and January 1993 he made history by becoming the first foreign born wrestler ever to reach yokozuna, the highest rank in sumo.

One of the biggest sumo wrestlers ever (6-foot 8, 515 lbs!) , Akebono’s rivalry with the young Japanese hopes, Takanohana and Wakanohana, was a big factor in the increased popularity of sumo at tournament venues and on TV in the early 1990s. During his eight years at the yokozuna rank, Akebono won a further eight tournament championships, for a career total of eleven, and was a runner-up on thirteen other occasions, despite suffering several serious injury problems. Although his rival yokozuna Takanohana won more tournaments in this period, their individual head-to-heads remained very close.

Akebono became a Japanese citizen in 1996 and after retiring in 2001, he worked as a coach at Azumazeki stable before leaving the Sumo Association in 2003. After an unsuccessful period as a K-1 fighter, he is now a freelance professional wrestler, and is one half of the AJPW All Asia Tag Team Champions with Ryota Hama, at the All Japan Pro Wrestling promotion.

Early life

Rowan was born on May 8, 1969 to Randolph and Janice Rowan. He grew up with two younger brothers, one of whom, Ola, also became a sumo wrestler for a brief period after Chad. He attended Kaiser High School, where he played basketball and became an All-Star center. He went to Hawaii Pacific University on a basketball scholarship, but sat out his freshman season.

Early career

Rowan was planning to study for a career in hotel management, but he had always been interested in sumo from watching television broadcasts, and a family friend introduced him to Azumazeki Oyakata, the former Takamiyama, who also originally hailed from Hawai’i. Azumazeki overcame his initial concerns that Rowan might be too tall and his legs too long for sumo, and agreed to let him join his Azumazeki stable, founded in 1986. Rowan flew to Japan in early 1988. Adopting the shikona of Akebono, meaning “new dawn” in Japanese, he made his professional debut in March 1988. This entry cohort was one of the most successful ever, producing two other yokozuna, Takanohana and Wakanohana (sons of the popular champion from the 1970s, Takanohana Kenshi), as well as a great ozeki, Kaio.

Akebono rose rapidly through the ranks, equaling the record for the most consecutive kachikoshi (majority of wins in a sumo championship) from debut, reaching sekiwake before suffering his first makekoshi losing record. He was promoted to juryo in March 1990, the first sekitori from his stable, and to makuuchi in September of the same year. He made his top division debut in the same tournament as Wakanohana, as well as Takatoriki and Daishoyama. In the November 1990 tournament he was awarded his first special prize, for Fighting Spirit, and in January 1991 he earned his first gold star for defeating yokozuna Asahifuji. In March 1991 he defeated ozeki Konishiki in the first ever match between two non-Japanese wrestlers in the top division.

Promotion

In 1992, after a year of 8-7 or 7-8 records near the top of the makuuchi division, Akebono suddenly came alive with a 13-2 record in January of that year, narrowly losing the top division championship to Takanohana.  A second 13-2 record two tournaments later, in May, saw him win the top division championship for the first time, and with it promotion to ozeki. After an injury during the summer, he went on to win consecutive championships in November 1992 and January 1993 to win promotion to Yokozuna. At the time of his promotion, the rank of yokozuna had been vacant for 8 months (an exceedingly rare occurrence) and his promotion, despite the fact that he was the first foreign yokozuna, was welcomed by many. He had met the stipulation of winning two consecutive tournaments that had been mentioned by the Yokozuna Deliberation Council when turning down Konishiki the previous year, and was also seen as having conducted himself with the dignity and humility necessary for such an exalted rank. One commentator remarked, “He makes me forget he is a foreigner because of his earnest attitude towards sumo.”

Yokozuna era

Akebono was a long standing and strong Yokozuna, lasting nearly eight years in the rank and winning the top division championship on a further eight occasions. His career highlights include the rare achievement of winning the top division championship in three consecutive tournaments, in 1993. In July 1993 he beat Takanohana and Wakanohana in consecutive matches to win the honbasho when all three ended up tied at the end of the 15 day tournament, and in May 1997 he defeated Takanohana twice on the final day, once in their regular match and once in a playoff, to win his first title in over two years. The competition between Akebono and Takanohana, who reached yokozuna himself in 1995, was said to be one of the great defining rivalries of postwar sumo. The two finished their careers with a 20-20 tie in bouts against one another. At the opening ceremony of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, a professional sumo wrestler was chosen to represent each of the competing countries and lead them into the stadium. After Takanohana fell ill, Akebono was given the honor of representing Japan in the opening ceremony. Akebono also led other sumo wrestlers in a ring cleansing ceremony at the Opening Ceremony (also meant to cleanse the stadium itself).

Akebono was quite susceptible to injury because of his height and weight. He suffered his first serious knee injury in May 1994 when, after winning his first ten matches, he lost a bout to Takatoriki and fell awkwardly. He flew to Los Angeles and underwent career-saving surgery. From November 1998 to March 1999 he missed three successive tournaments due to a herniated disc in his lower back and faced calls for his retirement. However, after receiving the personal backing of the Chairman of the Japan Sumo Association, he scored a respectable 11-4 record in his comeback tournament in May 1999. In 2000 he enjoyed his first completely injury-free year since 1993 and won two tournaments, finishing as runner-up in three others. He won 76 bouts out of a possible 90, the best record of any wrestler that year.

Fighting style

Akebono was one of the tallest sumo wrestlers ever, at 203 cm (6 ft 8 in) tall, and also one of the heaviest with a fighting weight around 235 kg (517 lb).Despite having long legs, considered a disadvantage in sumo as it tends to make one top heavy and susceptible to throws, he covered for this by training exceptionally hard, and using his long reach to thrust his opponents out of the dohyo (ring). In his prime, he had incredible thrusting strength and on many occasions would blast lesser wrestlers out of the ring in one or two strokes. His most common winning kimarite or technique was oshi-dashi, a simple push out, and he also regularly won by tsuki-dashi, the thrust out. In later years he also used his reach to more often grab his opponent’s mawashi, or belt, and then use his weight and power to force the opponent from the ring by yori-kiri. He liked a migi-yotsu, or left hand outside, right hand inside grip, and was fond of using his left hand to employ uwatenage, or overarm throw.

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