One of the tallest and heaviest wrestlers ever, Akebonos rivalry with the young Japanese hopefuls, Takanohana and Wakanohana, was a big factor in the increased popularity of sumo at tournament venues and on TV in the early 1990s.[3] During his eight years at the yokozuna rank, Akebono won a further eight tournament championships, for a career total of eleven, and was a runner-up on thirteen other occasions, despite suffering several serious injuries. Although his rival yokozuna Takanohana won more tournaments in this period, their individual head-to-heads remained very close.

Akebono became a Japanese citizen in 1996, and after retiring in 2001 he worked as a coach at Azumazeki stable before leaving the Sumo Association in 2003. After an unsuccessful period as a K-1 fighter, he is now a freelance professional wrestler, mainly performing for the All Japan Pro Wrestling promotion.[4]

Rowan was born on May 8, 1969 to Randolph and Janice Rowan.[2] He grew up with two younger brothers,[2] one of whom, Ola, also became a sumo wrestler for a brief period after Chad. He attended Kaiser High School, where he played basketball and became an All-Star center.[2] He went to Hawaii Pacific University on a basketball scholarship, but sat out his freshman season.[2]

Rowan was planning to study for a career in hotel management,[5] but he had always been interested in sumo from watching television broadcasts, and a family friend introduced him to Azumazeki Oyakata, the former Takamiyama, who also originally hailed from Hawaiʻi.[5] Azumazeki overcame his initial concerns that Rowan might be too tall and his legs too long for sumo, and agreed to let him join his Azumazeki stable, founded in 1986. Rowan flew to Japan in early 1988. Adopting the shikona of Akebono, meaning "new dawn" in Japanese,[6] he made his professional debut in March 1988.[7] This entry cohort was one of the most successful ever, producing two other yokozuna, Takanohana and Wakanohana (sons of the popular champion from the 1970s, Takanohana Kenshi), as well as a great ōzeki, Kaiō.[8]

Akebono rose rapidly through the ranks, equaling the record for the most consecutive kachi-koshi (majority of wins in a sumo championship) from debut, reaching sekiwake before suffering his first make-koshi losing record. He was promoted to jūryō in March 1990, the first sekitori from his stable, and to makuuchi in September of the same year.[9] He made his top division debut in the same tournament as Wakanohana, as well as Takatōriki and Daishōyama. In the November 1990 tournament he was awarded his first special prize, for Fighting Spirit, and in January 1991 he earned his first gold star for defeating yokozuna Asahifuji. In March 1991 he defeated ōzeki Konishiki in the first ever match between two non-Japanese wrestlers in the top division.[5]

In 1992, after a year of 8-7 or 7-8 records near the top of the makuuchi division, Akebono suddenly came alive with a 13-2 record in January of that year, narrowly losing the top division championship to Takanohana.[10] A second 13-2 record two tournaments later, in May, saw him win the top division championship for the first time, and with it promotion to ōzeki.[10] After an injury during the summer, he went on to win consecutive championships in November 1992 and January 1993 to win promotion to yokozuna.[10] At the time of his promotion, the rank of yokozuna had been vacant for 8 months (an exceedingly rare occurrence) and his promotion, despite the fact that he was the first foreign yokozuna, was welcomed by many. He had met the stipulation of winning two consecutive tournaments that had been mentioned by the Yokozuna Deliberation Council when turning down Konishiki the previous year, and was also seen as having conducted himself with the dignity and humility necessary for such an exalted rank.[11] One commentator remarked, "He makes me forget he is a foreigner because of his earnest attitude towards sumo."[11]

Akebono was a long standing and strong yokozuna, lasting nearly eight years in the rank and winning the top division championship on a further eight occasions. His career highlights include the rare achievement of winning the top division championship in three consecutive tournaments, in 1993. In July 1993 he beat Takanohana and Wakanohana in consecutive matches to win the honbasho when all three ended up tied at the end of the 15 day tournament,[2] and in May 1997 he defeated Takanohana twice on the final day, once in their regular match and once in a playoff, to win his first title in over two years. The competition between Akebono and Takanohana, who reached yokozuna himself in 1995, was said to be one of the great defining rivalries of postwar sumo.[12] The two finished their careers with a 20-20 tie in bouts against one another.[13] At the opening ceremony of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, a professional sumo wrestler was chosen to represent each of the competing countries and lead them into the stadium.