Better Know a Rikishi: Akebono Taro
Live sumo action doesn't happen for another six days, which means you have that amount of time to sign up for Fantasy Basho on Fantasizr and pick your team. If you've already done that, bide your time on the 4th of July by reading this essay about sumo's first American Yokozuna, Akebono.
In Japanese, 曙, or “Akebono,” means “Dawn.” That shikona was given to the 19 year old Hawaiian Chad Rowan like any other ring name for a foreign sumo wrestler in March of 1988. He was a new recruit who needed a Japanese name. The same name had bedecked a series of warships in the Japanese Navy, as well as a passenger train from Tokyo to Aomori. But that may not have meant anything, either. Although an unusual ring name for having a single kanji and not in reference to any other rikishi, it was also a name for someone who needed one.
In retrospect, christening sumo’s 64th Yokozuna “Dawn” was surprisingly prescient. Akebono would become the first non-Japanese Yokozuna, as well as the first Yokozuna after a rare period without anyone at sumo’s top rank. He absolutely was the dawn of a new era of sumo, with his American origins bringing a new interest to Japan’s national sport from abroad. With his main rival Takanohana, he helped to define sumo in the 1990s.
But the real story of Akebono is that he was one-of-a-kind.
In 1987, Chad Rowan was a Hawaiian basketball player planning to go into hotel management when he was introduced to fellow-Hawaiian Azumazeki-oyakata. Before retiring from the ring, he was Takamiyama. Takamiyama was a local legend in Hawaii, winning the yusho in July 1972 as the first foreigner to ever lift an Emperor’s Cup. He was also immensely popular in Japan due to his trademark sideburns, bright orange mawashi, and commitment to never missing a match. As a sumo elder building a brand-new stable, the former Takamiyama couldn’t help but notice the young man’s immense frame. He took the chance on bringing him to Japan to train him in sumo.
At 200 cm (6’8”) and 152 kg (335 lbs), Akebono entered sumo on the bigger end of all rikishi. Although his size was impressive, that did not guarantee success. First, he had never been to Japan, and he would need to adapt to the country’s culture as well as sumo’s. Second, he had never before participated in any kind of sumo or wrestling. He was as green as could be.
Then all he did was win. He didn’t get a yusho in the lower-levels, but he dominated. Akebono went 6-1, 5-2, 5-2, 6-1, 5-2, and 6-1 over his first year in sumo. That’s the kind of record university standouts who enter sumo at 22 achieve. Akebono was a raw, inexperienced foreigner who was just 19 years old. Then he only got better. By March 1989, Akebono was in Juryo, and he spent just three basho there, going 30-15 overall. When he joined Makuuchi, he kept winning. In May 1991, he became a Sekiwake just after turning 21.
That was also the first basho he got a make-koshi. Akebono competed in 19 tournaments, fought at every level of professional sumo, and was promoted to sumo’s third-highest rank before he got the smallest of demotions. And it was just a 7-8. For a few basho, he hung around the kachi-koshi/make-koshi line in the upper Maegashira/lower Sanyaku range. January 1992 saw a leap, and Akebono won 13 matches, a jun-yusho, and two special prizes from Komusubi. An Ozeki run was now a live possibility.
He completed it with an 8-7 at Sekiwake, followed by a 13-2 Yusho in May 1992. Akebono had officially arrived. This Ozeki promotion was not the storming of the rank that sometimes happens, with an 8-7 in the middle. Yet his Yusho was a welcome moment, because it also expanded the top of the Banzuke. Yokozuna Hokutoumi retired in May 1992, leaving sumo without a Yokozuna. Akebono became a third Ozeki with fellow Hawaiian Konishiki and long-serving veteran Kirishima. Despite an injury that saw him sit out his first basho as an Ozeki, he quickly moved past sumo’s second-highest rank to become a Yokozuna. After a 9-6 in September 1992, he won back-to-back yusho with a 14-1 and a 13-2. In January 1993, Akebono became sumo’s 64th Yokozuna as a 23 year old. He was the first foreigner to achieve the rank, making worldwide news with his elevation.
That last point is more remarkable than it seems at first blush. Arguably, Konishiki should have been the first foreigner to earn the rope. Like Akebono, Konishiki was brought into sumo by the former Takamiyama as a teenager. He was an obvious rikishi, standing over 6 feet tall, but notably much more wide than tall. Yet when he joined Takasago stable, where Azumazeki oyakata was in 1982 before forming his own stable, Saleva’a Atisanoe was blessed with the shikona “Konishiki.” The name was held by a Yokozuna at Takasago in the late 19th century.
The Hawaiian Konishiki proved worthy of the name. He made it to Juryo in 7 basho and Makuuchi in 11. He racked up 4 Jun-Yusho and a bevy of special prizes by his 24th birthday. When he made Ozeki in 1987, he was on Next Yokozuna watch. Konishiki did not initially dominate as Ozeki. Then from May 1991 to March 1992, Konishiki went 75-15 with two Yusho and two Jun-Yusho. That was Yokozuna level performance.
The Yokozuna Deliberation Council did not give Konishiki a promotion. On the record, it was because his Yusho were not in consecutive basho, an unofficial criterion for promotion to Yokozuna. Off the record, they made clear they were uncomfortable with a brash foreigner like Konishiki being at sumo’s pinnacle, especially as the sport was without a Yokozuna at the end of his run. The line became he needed to prove he was really a Yokozuna with consecutive yusho. He never won another yusho (or jun-yusho) after March 1992.
Akebono then started dominating as Konishiki faded. So the 6’8” giant Hawaiian beat the impossibly wide Hawaiian to becoming a Yokozuna. Perhaps his demeanor, quieter and more deferential than Konishiki, made the Yokozuna Deliberation Council at ease with a foreign Yokozuna. Maybe the lack of Yokozuna made the Council more willing to have a foreign Yokozuna. Really, Akebono was forcing their hand.
Akebono’s dominance can mask just how singular his sumo is. There’s a reason the Banzuke isn’t littered with men standing 192 cm (6’3”) or taller. While many excellent rikishi have been fairly tall, they are usually also notable broad shouldered and carry weight in their lower body. A long-limbed rikishi is less able to deliver forward mass to an opponent consistently and is more prone to leg-trips and other tricky throws. A rikishi with Akebono’s build has obvious ways to attack for shorter opponents, which everyone would be.
None of that mattered with Akebono. His typical style was to come right at an opponent’s chest with a hard, two-hand shove. From his height, and with his athleticism, that usually meant he was shoving down on a hapless opponent. He also could move with most anyone as a younger rikishi. Those long arms were helpful in allowing basically no one to come inside quickly. Akebono wasn’t a model of how to do sumo, because few other rikishi had his physical advantages. Yet he maximized his considerable assets and minimized his weaknesses.
He did have weaknesses. Akebono’s great rival was his fellow Yokozuna Takanohana. As Takahanada, he also joined sumo in March 1988. The son of his oyakata and former Ozeki Takanohana, he also joined with his older brother who arrived as Wakahanada. Takahanada had the shikona Takanohana reserved for when he made Ozeki, while Wakahanada had his former Yokozuna uncle’s shikona of Wakanohana set aside. Along with future Ozeki Kaio, the debuting class of March 1988 is the best of all time, and Akebono was not the initial standout.
Takanohana was the star of that group from the start. He was a preternatural sumo talent, with solid size and shocking grasp of the fundamentals. The up-and-coming Takahanada set age related records, while also handling all comers. As an Ozeki and Yokozuna, he was a model sekitori on the dohyo. He fought straight ahead, looking for a belt grip. He most often won by yorikiri, with an ability to throw an opponent when needed.
And in their careers, Akebono and Takanohana went 25-25 against each other. If any rikishi should have been able to consistently overcome Akebono’s physical gifts, it was Takanohana. Instead, they were even. Watching all of their matches shows Akebono’s willingness to use his length and strength to redirect, while Takanohana takes him head on with a try at a mawashi. Their career matchup history has winning streaks, but it all came out in the wash.
Akebono was a pure pusher, when Yokozuna are usually said to need a refined mawashi game. Akebono kept his feet extraordinarily well for a man whose center of gravity was so high. That kept him balanced well, but also meant he was delivering as heavy a shove as he could. With his body, that was a powerful amount of force. He was notably vulnerable to a henka or any other tricky maneuver. Famously, the undersized Mainoumi pulled a wild up-and-under kirikaeshi on Akebono in November 1991. That ended up on highlight reels for sumo for a long time. It was also Mainoumi’s only win over Akebono.
In addition to his physical gifts, Akebono was also an incredibly smart sumotori. He had one main goal, but he knew how to make a match fit what he wanted. It was also what allowed him to overcome the struggles in his career. Takanohana’s ascension to Yokozuna in 1994, which was followed by dominance in 1995 and 1996, largely came at the expense of handing Akebono jun-yushos. Then he faced serious injuries, unsurprising for someone of his size.
By 1999, Akebono looked done for, but made one last push. He showed he could still compete at a Yokozuna level, winning 75 matches in the year 2000 as well as getting three jun-yusho and two yusho. After winning his 11th championship in November 2000, he did suffer one more injury he didn’t feel he could come back from. After a 0-0-15 in January 2001, Akebono officially retired.
Chad Rowan officially became Akebono Taro when he gained Japanese citizenship during his active sumo career. Like many foreign rikishi, that was done with an eye towards becoming the head of a stable. Akebono’s oyakata career did not last, unfortunately. Due to some poor business investments, he needed to retire from the Sumo Association. An Akebono stable was never developed.
After sumo, Akebono first tried kickboxing and then professional wrestling. The kickboxing didn’t really work, as his impressive agility for a super-heavyweight sumo wrestler still meant he was slow for a kickboxer. The professional wrestling went a little better. He first entered the squared circle in 2005 as part of a bad fake sumo match with WWE’s resident giant Big Show at Wrestlemania 21. After that small program, he returned to Japan and joined All Japan Pro Wrestling under the tutelage of the legendary Keiji Mutoh. Better known in America as The Great Muta, Mutoh was able to bring Akebono along as a genuine professional wrestler.
Akebono’s post-sumo life brought many titles in the fake sport of professional wrestling. Intriguingly, the first American Yokozuna in Japan’s national sport spent almost all of his time in pro wrestling in Japan’s major promotions. He never tried to do more in WWE or anything else in America past his one-off Wrestlemania. Post-sumo, Akebono was thoroughly Japanese, and he grew his legend in his adopted country. Unfortunately, Akebono has been in poor health in the last few years, including a series of heart problems. That has made him retreat from the public eye.
Akebono was the dawn of a new era, where foreigners would more likely be Yokozuna than Japanese-born wrestlers. He also helped promote sumo’s popularity through his American origin, otherworldly size, and rivalry with Takanohana. Yet his real legacy is being a unique wrestler, a giant pusher-thruster who found the way to fight his match against almost any opponent. Sumo wrestlers probably cannot use Akebono as a model for their careers, but sumo fans should still enjoy his career.