End of a new dawn as Akebono retires

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The Independent Online

Akebono, Sumo's first foreign-born grand champion, retired yesterday, ending a career which saw the former Hawaiian high-school basketball player not only excel in the sport but adapt to the ultra-conservative world of sumo.

Akebono, Sumo's first foreign-born grand champion, retired yesterday, ending a career which saw the former Hawaiian high-school basketball player not only excel in the sport but adapt to the ultra-conservative world of sumo.

The 31-year-old yokozuna, or grand champion, cited injuries, including knee and back problems. "Before, I would try to withstand the pain, but now it is unbearable even when not sumo wrestling," he said.

Akebono rose quickly through the ranks in an illustrious 13-year career, fighting with devastating pushes that took advantage of his 6ft 7in, 514lb frame to become the 64th yokozuna in 1993 in the shortest time.

The Hawaiian-born wrestler, whose name means "dawn" in Japanese, has 11 career championships under his belt, the last one last November when he took the Kyushu Grand Championship with a record of 14 wins and one loss. "I've lost the motivation to rise to the top again and my body will not move the way I want it to any longer," he said.

In sumo, it takes more than just the fighting in the ring to climb to the top, and it was no different for Akebono. Born Chad Rowan, he first knocked on the doors of his American stable-master Azumazeki when he was 18. He knew no Japanese, and had to adapt to the harsh, tradition-bound sumo world which repels many Japanese teenage aspirants and where seniority is paramount.

For years, a foreigner holding the title of yokozuna was frowned upon, and another US-born wrestler had failed at breaking the barrier less than a year before Akebono did. The now-retired Konishiki, a fellow Hawaiian, appeared well placed to reach yokozuna in 1992 after several impressive displays. But elders vetoed his advancement, as they felt he lacked the hinkaku, or dignity, necessary for a grand champion.

Akebono will have the chance to become a stable-master, as he gained Japanese citizenship in 1996. If he had not naturalised, he would only have been able to remain with the sumo association for five years.

In place of Akebono will be Musashimaru, another US-born yokozuna, who has proven himself worthy of grand champion mantle by winning eight titles. He nearly won a tournament which ended on Sunday, but lost to Takanohana in a play-off.

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