Sumo | Rikishi Files

American-born Akebono blazed path to pinnacle of sumo

by John Gunning

Contributing Writer

Rowan, an anglicization of the Irish O Ruadhain, isn’t a name widely found in sport.

Indeed, apart from a South African cricketer active from the 1930s to 1950s, you’d be hard pressed to find any noteworthy athletes with the name.

A few journeymen soccer and baseball players and someone who started a single game for the Philadelphia Eagles back in the 1930s is about the extent of it.

By far the most successful Rowan of all time when it comes to sport didn’t even go by that name.

Chad Rowan, far better known as Akebono, in 1993 became the first ever non-Japanese rikishi to earn promotion to yokozuna, sumo’s highest rank. By the time he retired eight years later, Akenbono was sixth on the all-time title list with 11 championships to his name.

Akebono’s battles with Takanohana were the defining feature of sumo in the 1990s. Both men got their maiden title in the first half of 1992 and over the following six years they accounted for 29 of 42 Emperor’s Cups.

Akebono’s success came despite having a tall top-heavy frame that seemed unsuited for sumo.

Using his long reach, the 204-cm Hawaiian perfected a thrusting style that generated enormous force and he was able to send most opponents flying out of the ring before they came close to grabbing his mawashi.

A couple of years after his retirement, Akebono left sumo entirely. After struggling for a while in K-1 and MMA, he built a successful second career in professional wrestling.

Acute heart failure, which lead to Akebono being placed in a medically induced coma in 2017, brought a swift end to his active career as an athlete, and the former yokozuna is currently confined to a wheelchair as he continues on the slow path to recovery from his health problems.

Akebono’s in-ring sumo achievements would have put him among the best ever to do the sport under any circumstances, but the fact that he broke through sumo’s biggest barrier along the way make him a true legend.