Sports

Legendary sumo wrestler Akebono Taro dead at 54 from heart failure

Akebono Taro, the first ever foreign-born sumo wrestler to be named a grand champion, has died of heart failure, his family confirmed Thursday. He was 54. 

Akebono, who was born Chad George Ha’aheo Rowan in Hawaii in 1969, died this month in Japan. 

Akebono performs

U.S. sumo wrestler Akebono, left, performs the grand champion ring-entering ceremony at the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo on Jan. 28, 1993. (Toru Yamanaka/AFP via Getty Images)

“It is with sadness that we announce Akebono Taro died of heart failure earlier this month while receiving care at a hospital in the Tokyo area,” the family said in a statement.

His wife, Christine Rowan, told The Associated Press that he died within the “past week,” but she declined to comment further. 

According to The New York Times, Akebono moved to Japan as a teen, despite speaking almost no Japanese, and began living and training at a sumo stable. Akebono’s popularity in the sport reached new heights in 1993 when he became the first foreign-born wrestler to reach the level of “yokozuna,” or grand champion.

Akebeno raises a fist

Akebono Taro is shown in Japan on Jan. 27, 1993. (Kurita KAKU/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

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Standing at 6 feet 8 inches tall and weighing nearly 500 pounds at the height of his career, Akebono became an 11-time grand tournament winner before officially retiring in 2003. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel released a statement remembering Akebono for his success and the opportunities he provided to others with his unprecedented career. 

“I was deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Akebono, a giant in the world of sumo, a proud Hawaiian and a bridge between the United States and Japan. When Akebono became the first-ever foreign-born grand champion, sumo’s highest rank, in 1993, he opened the door for other foreign wrestlers to find success in the sport,” said Emanuel.

Akebono Taro performs

Akebono Taro, born in Hawaii as Chad Rowan, performs a ritual prior to a match in the 1993 San Jose Basho sumo wrestling tournament held June 4-5, 1993, at the San Jose Event Center in San Jose, California. (David Madison/Getty Images)

He continued, “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. I send my sincerest condolences to his family and friends and to sumo fans everywhere.”

Akebono is survived by his wife, daughter and two sons. The family plans to hold a “private celebration of his life.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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