In weighty Japanese ruling, American to gain sumo crown

January 25, 1993|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- No choice this time. The next Yokozuna -- grand champion of sumo wrestling, the most Japanese of all sports -- will have to be an American despite years of official and semiofficial resistance.

Akebono, or Chad Rowan to his friends back home in Hawaii, unceremoniously drove Japan's great nativist hope out of the ring in a matter of seconds yesterday to win his second tournament championship in a row.

Two championships in a row is traditionally the one sure way to get the nod from the sober-faced men of the Yokozuna Promotion Council. Winning the fall tournament 14-1 and the New Year's one 13-2, as the huge Akebono did, only makes it harder to deny the promotion.

The council has long been reluctant to promote a foreigner, but Japanese sports newspapers published full-color extra editions last night to say the taboo will die at a meeting today. Television sportscasters said Akebono's promotion was already decided in telephone calls among the 12 council members.

Akebono thus broke through where fellow-Hawaiian Konishiki, or Salevaa Atisanoe, spent much of the past decade at the verge.

A year ago, Konishiki won two tournaments out of three and placed second in the one between, but he was denied promotion.

Akebono seemed painfully aware yesterday that personal demeanor was one of the arguments used against his fellow Hawaiian a year ago. He kept a tight grip on his emotions as he accepted the truckloads of trophies, foodstuffs, kitsch and other booty that are heaped upon a tournament champion.

He let loose none of the tears that became Konishiki's post-tournament trademark. At his post-victory press conference, he ignored sweat trickling down the sides of his face and kept his countenance grim and his lips tightly together, parting them only for a few syllables in response to each question.

"Maa, shiremasen" -- meaning, "Well, I can't say" -- he said over and over, especially when asked whether he was ready for promotion to his sport's highest rank.

Just once, he went this far: "When I came to Japan, Yokozuna was my dream."

Taciturnity can only stand him in good stead with the stewards of a sport whose roots run deep in the stoicism of medieval Japan's martial arts.

Sumo is an event that brings into a rope-ringed circle of packed sand and clay two implausibly fat but quick men, dressed only in loin cloths. Akebono stands 6 feet, 8 inches and weighs 455 pounds. Konishiki is an even heavier 580 pounds.

The size of the foreigners has been an argument against them. The man Akebono beat yesterday, Takahanada, weighs a mere 293 pounds but has made a specialty of manhandling far bigger opponents.

The combat is brief, usually much less than a minute. It ends when one wrestler either touches the surface with anything but a foot or lets any part of him touch down outside the rope.

Akebono's last step to promotion came with a blaze of thrusts to the throat, followed by a long right-handed push under the chin that kept the smaller man off balance until his foot came down outside the ring.

But it was also a great tournament for Takahanada, the man Akebono beat. He won 12 of his 15 bouts and with them certain promotion to Ozeki, champion, alongside Konishiki. Takahanada has won two tournaments, but not consecutively.

Takahanada, perhaps the most celebrated man in Japan since his meteoric rise in sumo and his wildly popular engagement last year to movie and nudie-book star Rie Miyazawa, is to be promoted to Ozeki, or champion, at the same council meeting that will make Akebono a Yokozuna. At 21, he will be the youngest Ozeki ever.

Takahanada's promotion will take some of the sting out of having to promote Akebono. It will put a Japanese back into sumo's championship ranks after a year in which the two Hawaiians were the only men at the top.

The sumo council made clear throughout this tournament that it

was pulling for Takahanada.

It broke with tradition for the first time since 1975 by scheduling Takahanada against Akebono as the final bout of the tournament's 15th and last day. Normally, the two Ozeki, champions Konishiki and Akebono, would have fought the last match.

"This is a very important tournament for Takahanada," said former Yokozuna Kagamiyama, now one of the officials who scheduled the matches. "We wanted Takahanada to have to fight until the very end."

For Akebono, promotion at age 23 will be doubly sweet.

He wrestled for years in his fellow Hawaiian's shadow.

While Konishiki was burning up the sumo circuit and breaking ground as the youngest this and the first foreign that, Akebono carried the stigma of a great and dedicated talent who had everything but smiled too much and seemed to lack the heart to win.

But months of controversy over last January's nonpromotion took their toll on Konishiki last spring.

As Konishiki's star faded, a changed Akebono came into the ring, as if determined to pick up where the older Hawaiian was leaving off.

He didn't smile and indeed often frowned. He began to still criticism by the silent speed and all-but-mechanized regularity with which he dispatched opponents.

By last fall, he had been promoted to Ozeki, a rank in which Konishiki was his only foreign predecessor.

The last Japanese Yokozuna and Ozeki retired earlier last year, leaving the two Hawaiian behemoths as the sport's only champions.

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