This Day In History: January 27

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On January 27, 1993, American Chad Rowan becomes the first non-Japanese sumo wrestler to become a “yokozuna,” the sport's highest rank. Rowan, a 23-year-old Hawaii native who stands 6-foot-8 and weighs 455 pounds, is the 64th person to hold the top rank in sumo, Japan's national sport.

Rowan, who went by his sumo name, Akebono, which means “Sunrise” or “Dawn,” was unnaturally tall for a sumo wrestler but extremely long and athletic. Despite only playing high school basketball his senior year, he earned a basketball scholarship to Hawaii Pacific University. However, he quit basketball and dropped out of college to pursue a career in sumo wrestling.

Using his long reach, Rowan perfected a thrusting style, generating enormous force—enough to send opponents flying out of the ring. After breezing through the lower divisions and setting records along the way, he joined the senior division in 1990.

In 1992, Rowan won two tournament championships. After winning a second consecutive championship in early 1993, he was promoted to yokozuna. He went on to win four of the next eight championships before injuries slowed him. 

Rowan initially faced skepticism upon his promotion. "I don’t have any complaints about [his] ability," former grand champion selection committee chairman Yoshitaka Takahashi told the Associated Press. "But I don’t feel good about this.” 

Added Shinichi Suzuki, the governor of Tokyo: “Akebono is still young and there should be no hurry for promotion. He should have more chances to study sumo and build up dignity.”

In response to the criticism, Rowan simply said, “I’ll do my best to train well and fulfill everyone’s expectations.”

When Rowan retired in 2001, he was sixth on the all-time list with 11 championships.