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Pioneering US-born sumo wrestling champion Akebono dies aged 54

By Andrew McNicol, Mai Nishiyama and Himari Semans, CNN

Tokyo (CNN) — Pioneering US-born former sumo wrestling champion Akebono has died, his family announced in a statement Thursday.

Widely considered to have blazed a trail for other foreign sumo wrestlers, the 54-year-old died of heart failure at a hospital in Japan.

Born Chad George Ha’aheo Rowan in Hawaii, Akebono became the first non-Japanese yokozuna – a sumo grand champion, the highest rank in the sport.

“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,” his family said in a statement via the US military in Japan.

“He led the sumo boom as the 64th yokozuna, and achieved many accomplishments, including winning 11 championships.”

After becoming Yokozuna in 1993, Akebono became a Japanese citizen in 1996. He retired from sumo in 2001 before debuting as a pro wrestler under Japanese mixed martial arts promotion K-1 in 2003.

According to the Japan Sumo Association, Akebono was rushed to hospital after a wrestling match in 2017 and had been unwell ever since.

He is survived by his wife, daughter and two sons.

In a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the Japanese Olympic Committee recalled that Akebono “performed a dignified ring-entering ceremony for the world” at the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998.

US ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel added that Akebono “opened the door for other foreign wrestlers to find success in the sport” and “strengthened the cultural ties between the United States and his adopted homeland.”

News of Akebono’s death came the same week US President Joe Biden is hosting Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington.

Former professional sumo wrestler Masaru Hanada, who competed under the name Wakanohana and became grand champion after Akebono, also reflected on his great rival’s passing.

“I have been asked to comment on the news of Akebono’s passing. I am sorry, but I am not in a condition to talk about it due to the shock, so I will put it in writing,” Hanada wrote on his official website.

“A rival, a friend, and a colleague with whom I shared many hardships and joys, has departed.

“I really miss him so much. I was talking with him about meeting under a tree in Hawaii with all our fellow sumo wrestlers when we grew older. I couldn’t fulfill that promise, and I’m just so sad. I’ll see you under the tree in Hawaii. I’ll see you there.”

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