Akebono, a Hawaiian who was the first foreign-born sumo wrestler to achieve the rank of grand champion, has passed away at the age of 54.

This was revealed by US officials and Japanese media reports on Thursday.

Akebono who was born in Chad Rowan in 1969, and was among the most successful sumo wrestlers of the 1990s.

He attained the highest rank in sumo, yokozuna, or grand champion, in 1993 and was naturalized as a Japanese citizen in 1996.

Akebono won 11 tournaments before retiring as a wrestler in 2001 to transition into coaching and training younger fighters.

He died in early April after heart failure, Kyodo News agency said.

United States Ambassador Rahm Emanuel described Akebono as “a proud Hawaiian and a bridge between the United States and Japan.”

“When Akebono became the first-ever foreign-born grand champion, sumo’s highest rank, in 1993, he opened the door for other foreign wrestlers to find success in the sport.

“Throughout his 35 years in Japan, Akebono strengthened the cultural ties between the United States and his adopted homeland by uniting us all through sport,” Emanuel said in a statement.

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Despite standing over two meters tall (6ft 5ins) and weighing more than 230 kilograms (510 pounds), Akebono was initially deemed too tall for sumo. However, he was permitted to join a stable run by Takamiyama, a former wrestler also from Hawaii.

Akebono made his debut in 1988 and steadily progressed through the ranks, achieving his first top-level tournament victory four years later.

He ascended to the rank of grand champion and garnered renown for his intense rivalry with brothers and hometown favorites Takanohana and Wakanohana, who hailed from an esteemed sumo lineage.

Sumo journalist Shoko Sato who knew Akebono for over 30 years and said that the wrestler had felt a heavy responsibility as the first foreign-born grand champion.

“He felt he had to work harder than the Japanese grand champions and had to be recognised as being more Japanese than the Japanese themselves.

“He was only in his 20s at the time and it was a lot of pressure, so sometimes he would overdo it when he went out at night,” she told AFP.

Akebono was so renowned that he played a prominent role in the opening ceremony of the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

“We would like to express our deepest condolences upon hearing of his passing,” said a social media post on X by the official Japanese-language account of the Olympics.