Former Yokozuna Akebono said Thursday he has resigned from the Japan Sumo Association and decided to become a K-1 martial arts fighter.

Taro Akebono is scheduled to meet popular American K-1 fighter Bob “The Beast” Sapp when he debuts in a K-1 event Dec. 31 in Japan, event organizers said.

“I decided to become a professional fighter, and as a first step, I decided to take part in K-1,” Akebono, who is the first foreign-born sumo grand champion, said at a news conference at a Tokyo hotel attended by some 300 journalists.

“I want to hold the pride of the yokozuna and make a new challenge,” he said. “It has been nearly three years since I retired from (competitive) sumo, but my zeal for combative sports never cooled down and my desire to fight again increased.”

K-1, which has become very popular in Japan over the last few years, is a combat sport combining elements of martial arts with kickboxing and wrestling.

The 34-year-old native of Hawaii said he has recovered from knee problems that kept him from the sumo ring during the latter part of his career.

On Sapp, who later joined the news conference, Akebono said, “I’ll just try my best to be able to stand and keep up with him.”

Sapp said he is honored to get in the ring with Akebono but said he is not too excited about the challenging task of fighting the man he looked up to as a champion in sumo.

Akebono, who was born Chad Rowan and took Japanese citizenship in 1996, said he submitted a letter of resignation Wednesday to the Japan Sumo Association and it was accepted Thursday.

Promoted to sumo’s highest rank of yokozuna in January 1993, Akebono won 11 titles before announcing his retirement in January 2001. Since then, Akebono has served as a stable master at the Azumazeki Stable.

The 203-cm-tall Akebono arrived at the stable, run by Azumazeki — fellow Hawaiian expatriate Jesse Kuhaulua — in 1988 and rose quickly through the ranks with his thrusting and slapping style of sumo.

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