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Monday, January 22, 2001

Associated Press
Grand Champion Akebono performs the ring-entering
ceremony during the opening of the XVIII Winter Olympics
in Nagano, Japan, on Feb. 7, 1998.

leaves sumo after
13 years in sport

He says the pain in his knees
is too intense for him to compete

Star-Bulletin news services

TOKYO -- He stood tall in sumo's clay ring, cowing opponents with his massive frame and menacing glare. He toppled his rivals easily and made history as the first foreigner to reach the pinnacle of Japan's ancient sport.

Now, Akebono, the 6-foot-9, 510-pound sumo sensation from Hawaii, will wrestle no more.

Today, the sumo whose real name is Chad Rowan solemnly announced his retirement at age 31. He says the pain in his strained knees has grown too intense for him to compete.

"My legs have been hurting since before the New Year tourney, so I decided to retire," Akebono told reporters at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan after submitting his retirement notice. "I just don't have the energy to climb the mountain again."

Ironically, Akebono, who sat out the just-concluded New Year Grand Sumo Tournament, decided to retire after completing his most successful 12-month stint in seven years, leading all sumo wrestlers in 2000 with 76 wins and a pair of championships.

Akebono, who arrived at the Azumazeki stable in 1988, won the Emperor's Cup 11 times in his career to be placed seventh on the list of all-time tournament champions, but injuries over the second half of his career forced him onto the sidelines of several occasions.

Associated Press
A cheerful Akebono after he won his 10th title
in the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament.

The soft-spoken Akebono displayed his usual humility and grace.

"I've gotten to do what the average person doesn't have a chance to do," he said at a news conference at Tokyo's Ryogoku Kokugikan Sumo Arena, where he has often wrestled. "I'm so thankful to everyone."

The road hasn't always been smooth for Akebono. In 1993, he was promoted to sumo's top rank of yokozuna, or grand champion, amid protests by fans who said the honor should go only to a Japanese.

"Sometimes I would think, 'This is really hard,'" he said. "But looking back, I'm glad I did what I did."

Sumo elder Azumazeki, a Hawaiian expatriate like Akebono known as Jesse Kuhaulua, said he had hoped that his star wrestler would continue, but could see it was over during the New Year tournament which concluded Sunday.

"For 13 years, Akebono put up the good fight. That he became a yokozuna was indeed magnificent," Azumazeki said after he and the 31-year-old Akebono had called on Japan Sumo Association Chairman Tokitsukaze to submit the retirement notice.

The JSA accepted the notice and the board of directors approved the sumo elder's name of "Akebono" since he has not yet secured the "toshiyori" stock to remain a member of the JSA beyond five years.

As a retiring yokozuna, Akebono has qualified to be a member of the JSA for five years, but will need to purchase one of the sumo elders' names to ensure his position in sumo beyond that.

Akebono, who has taken Japanese citizenship, was ranked at grand champion for 48 tournaments, the fourth-longest tenure at that rank ever.

Tradition-laden sumo is considered Japan's national sport, with its roots in ancient religious ritual. Before a bout, wrestlers toss fistfuls of salt to purify the ring and shove their feet into the dirt to squash any demons that may be lurking below.

In sumo, two wrestlers try to force each other out of an elevated clay ring. There are six sumo tournaments each year. Wrestlers face a different opponent on each of the tournaments' 15 days, and the one with the fewest losses is declared the winner.

For sumo fans, the title of yokozuna has an almost a sacred ring to it. Bestowing that honor upon Akebono was considered anathema by many, especially considering worries that the sport was being overrun by foreigners.

Criticism of Akebono, whose rise through the ranks of sumo was one of the fastest in the 2,000-year history of the sport, gradually died down.

He was joined at the yokozuna level by another Hawaii-born wrestler, Musashimaru, although the influx of foreign wrestlers into sumo has abated.

Akebono said he wants to stay in sumo by becoming a trainer. He may eventually run his own stable, the sport's traditional power base, where wrestlers are subjected to rigorous practice and schooled in strict sumo etiquette.

This is a typical route for retired yokozunas and perhaps the only way Akebono can remain involved in the sport.

Those chronic knee problems and other injuries have kept him out of several tournaments, including the recent New Year's Grand Sumo Tournament.

"My body doesn't listen anymore," Akebono said. "This wasn't an easy decision. I really agonized over it."

The Associated Press and Kyodo News Service
contributed to this report.

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