Akebono takes a dip in a pool at a university campus in Yokohama in 1999. AFP PHOTO/Jiji Press
These are hard times for Akebono Taro, the Hawaiian-born sumo-wrestler-turned-fighter-turned-pro-wrestler alternatively known by his birth name Chad Rowan. According to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, the 47-year-old Akebono was taken to the hospital last Tuesday after working a match for Japanese pro wrestling promotion DDT, and has since been put in a medically induced coma. Details are hazy and elusive: a translated update from Akebono's Oudou promotion says he's been hospitalized with leg cellulitis and an infection and that he's recovering and "aiming for a return."
We've made fun of Akebono's MMA career in the past, but his current situation isn't funny at all. And while it's easy to chuckle at what Akebono has been up to for the last 16 years, it obscures a sumo career that was truly superlative: he was the first gaijin, or non-Japanese, to earn the highest rank in a sport that was institutionally guarded against outsiders.
Akebono's skinny legs and top-heavy frame—supporting 500 pounds dispersed across six feet and eight inches—weren't regarded as championship attributes when he moved to Japan to pursue sumo in 1988. But a low center of gravity isn't everything in sumo's science of managing human-on-human collisions: Akebono's long reach and palm thrusts made him capable of pushing opponents from the ring in seconds. "We were just brute strength," Akebono told The New York Times of he and his contemporaries of the era. "We won fast or we lost fast. We weren't too technical."
Within five years, he broke down a key cultural barrier that had existed throughout sumo's 1,500-year history: of the 63 grapplers to attain the rank of yokozuna, or grand champion, none had been a foreigner. Part of that was that yokozuna candidates had to win consecutive tournaments, which was hard, but a bigger part was the sport's built-in prejudices: sumo stables restricted the number of foreign-born competitors on their rosters, and many sumo aficionados said it was impossible for foreigners to possess hinkaku, a form of dignity unique to the Japanese and requisite for all yokozuna. In 1992, an American-born sumo wrestler had been denied a promotion despite having a record equivalent to his Japanese peers. But in January 1993, the 23-year-old Akebono won his second straight tournament, and the Yokozuna Promotion Council couldn't deny that the mild-mannered, serious sportsman had earned the rank.
All together, Akebono won 11 championships before his retirement and went 25-25 against Takanohana, his chief yokozuna rival during a resurgence of spectator interest in sumo. In 1996, he changed his name as a prerequisite to earning Japanese citizenship. Two years later, he represented the country during opening ceremonies at the Winter Olympics in Nagano.
After injuries forced his retirement from sumo in 2001, financial problems led to his return as a fighter on Japan's freak-show circuit, going 0-4 in mixed martial arts and 1-9 in kickboxing. But even in defeat, Akebono has remained a household name: his K-1 bout with Bob Sapp garnered 54 million Japanese viewers, roughly half the country's population. Twelve years later, that fight was enough of a cultural touchstone that they rematched at a Rizin FF's first New Year's Eve carnival of oddities. And after out-sumo-ing The Big Show at WrestleMania 21, Akebono continued to compete for a variety of Japanese pro wrestling promotions, including Oudou, which he started in December 2015.
But those years in sports entertainment are distractions from what a pioneer Akebono has been in sumo. Of the eight wrestlers awarded the title of yokozuna in the two and a half decades since Akebono, one is Hawaiian and four are Mongolian. Taboos that persisted until a generation ago are now in the past, thanks to a history-making, 500-pound behemoth that is as human as the rest of us. Good vibes and best wishes for a quick recovery.