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Hawaii-born Akebono Taro, Japan's first foreign-born sumo wrestling grand champion, dead at 54

Inside the rise of sumo wrestling in the U.S.
Inside the rise of sumo wrestling in the United States 06:46

Tokyo — Hawaii-born Akebono, one of the greats of sumo wrestling and a former grand champion, has died. He was 54. He was the first foreign-born wrestler to reach the level of "yokozuna," or grand champion, in Japan.

"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, in an email to The Associated Press, said he died "within the past week" but declined to give details.

"I had to tend to personal matters that needed to be done prior to publicly announcing my husband's death," she said.

Akebono grew up on the rural side of the Koolau mountains from Honolulu and was born Chad Rowan.

He moved to Tokyo in the late 1980s and won his first grand championship in 1993.

At the prime of his career he was a real giant, reported at the time to weigh 500 pounds and stand 6-feet-8.

FILE PHOTO: Akebono gestures before fighting at K-1 World Grand Prix in Honolulu.
Akebono Taro gestures before fighting at the K-1 World Grand Prix in Honolulu in July 2005. Reuters Photographer / REUTERS

The United States ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, posted his condolences on social media.

"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," Emanuel posted.

"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. 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."

Akebono was an 11-time grand tournament winner. He retired in 2001.

The family's statement said friends and family will hold a "private celebration of his life." He is survived by his wife, daughter and two sons.

"The family kindly asks for privacy during this time of mourning," the statement said. 

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