Takanohana Reflects on Intense Training Sessions and Post-Retirement Bond with Akebono | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Takanohana Reflects on Intense Training Sessions and Post-Retirement Bond with Akebono

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on LINE
In January 1993, Akebono defeated Kikanada (then right) by oshidashi to win the Grand Sumo Tournament in the first round. Akebono’s training sessions were not limited to the main tournaments, but also took place in the training halls.

“Sweat comes out of your eyes when you practice,” said Akebono.

Akebono Taro, who became the first foreign-born yokozuna in the history of sumo wrestling, passed away earlier this month due to heart failure, and his funeral was held on the 14th. He was only 54 years old.

Born in Oahu, Hawaii, Akebono came to Japan at the age of 18 to support his family. He joined the Azumazeki stable under the former ozeki Takamisugi in 1988. He was part of a group known as the “Hana no Roku-San Kumiai (Debuting in the March 1988 tournament)” along with Wakanohana brothers and Asashiyama Oyakata (former ozeki, Kyohei).

He played a significant role in the unprecedented sumo boom in Japan, utilizing his towering height of over 2 meters and a weight of up to 233kg to overpower Japanese wrestlers with his dominant train track style from the tachiai, leaving a strong impression on sumo fans. A sports journalist at the time revealed:

“During his active career, while watching the reporters flocking to the Wakanohana brothers, I joked, ‘I guess all sumo reporters are just supporters of ‘Wakanohana,’ right?’ However, Akebono, in a way, understood his position and played the role of a ‘heel.’ Among his peers, only Takanohana considered Akebono as ‘exceptional’ and was always conscious of him. The two, who both became yokozuna, were bound by a strong friendship that surpassed mere rivalry. After Akebono’s retirement, they became true comrades who could have honest conversations.”

Before becoming sekitori (professional sumo wrestlers), the two were known to engage in legendary intense training sessions. The journalist continued,

“Akebono visited the Fujishima stable where Takanohana belonged for keiko (training). The two engaged in a duel-like training session for over an hour. It was unbelievably intense, with both ending up covered in blood. Even their stablemaster, Takanoohana (former ozeki, Takanohana’s father), couldn’t bear it and had to intervene. No wrestlers today, nor could they back then, engage in or endure the kind of training those two did.”

Even during the nationwide jungyo tours after the tournaments, the two continued to push each other. The summer tours, which included Tohoku and Hokkaido, were particularly challenging for the wrestlers due to the heat. A journalist who covered the tours revealed,

“Akebono and Takanohana trained before the group practice sessions in the indoor training hall. On one occasion, they were teaching the training to Asahiyama-oyakata (former ozeki, Kyohei), who was still an active wrestler. I couldn’t enter the training hall, but I couldn’t hear any voices other than the sound of their bodies colliding. It was an incredible scene.”

Foreign-born wrestlers always struggle with the unique sumo training regimen. Akebono, however, was different. He endured the rigorous training at the Azumazeki stable. One of the famous quotes he left from his active days was:

“Sweat pouring from the eyes is true training.”

In other words, enduring such hardships to the point of tears was what true training meant to him, driven by his desire to not lose to anyone. Takanohana once described Akebono during his active career,

“He was like a huge, unyielding rock. Tough and massive. Yet his muscles were supple, and he had a flexible body.”

In April 2016, just before the opening match of his self-established wrestling promotion “Oudou” (Royal Road) in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, Akebono, who had become a professional wrestler, presented a bouquet to Kisenosato Oyakata (at the time), who had been appointed as the tour director starting from this spring tour.

After retiring, they were good friends, even going to karaoke together.

Throughout his career, both in tournaments and in practice sessions, Takanohana struggled with numerous bouts, which left him with lingering aftereffects even after retirement. Wearing gloves and scarves even in midsummer was one of the reasons for this, as he once confided to a reporter from the evening paper.

“I clashed head-on with big sumo wrestlers, which injured my neck. After retiring from sumo, my fingertips get cold,” he revealed.

Since their debut on the dohyo, their head-to-head record, including playoff matches, stood at 25 wins and 25 losses. It’s safe to say their unwavering rivalry was evident. Despite being prohibited from chatting with wrestlers from other stables during their active years, they gradually grew closer after retirement, having quietly respected each other all along.

In 1996, Akebono naturalized as a Japanese citizen, a testament to his dedication to the Sumo Association. However, in November 2003, he abruptly left the Japan Sumo Association for various reasons.

“The main reason was the inability to secure elder stock necessary for managing a sumo stable. At the time, it was said that acquiring elder stock would cost several hundred million yen. Additionally, he advocated for ‘internationalization,’ such as holding the main sumo tournaments overseas in countries like the United States, but the executive board at the time completely ignored him. He was greatly missed because he had successfully raised current stablemasters like Tokitenku (former komusubi Takamisakari) and the late Ushiomaru (who passed away in 2019 at the age of 41) into full-fledged sekitori and had a great reputation for training disciples,” said a sumo journalist.

Even during his tenure with the association, Takanohana expressed, “We need young people to come and watch sumo. To achieve that, I want to hold tournaments at night like professional baseball or the J-League.” Their focus was squarely on “Sumo Reform.”

They began to meet more frequently in public and private settings, including the “Hanano Rokuju San-kumi” class reunion.

“It seems they even enjoyed karaoke together. Akebono was surprised at how talkative and cheerful Takanohana was,” said a Sumo Association insider.

During this period, Takanohana expanded on his theories of association management, ran for directorship, and raised objections to the association’s executive board, leading to what was called “Takanohana’s Rebellion,” which stirred up quite a commotion. Additionally, he openly criticized former yokozuna Hakuho, who accumulated victories while resorting to slaps and elbows similar to forearm shivers, for sumo is not about injuring opponents.

“They never did things that wrestlers from Hawaii did. They were firmly committed to the path of sumo as taught by their masters.” 

Takanohana revealed. Ahead of him, he surely saw the presence of Akebono, Musashimaru, and even senior wrestlers like Konishiki and Takamisakari. As Takanohana continued to speak out in defense of the true way of sumo, Akebono always cheered him on, saying, “I’ll support you no matter what happens.” Akebono collapsed in April 2017, and the following September, Takanohana submitted his resignation to the association. The two, who had competed in the name of “love for sumo, ended up being pushed aside by the Sumo Association. If “Akebono Tarō” had remained in the sumo world, what kind of comment would he have left about the recent controversy surrounding the Miyagino stablemaster?

Photo Gallery2 total

Photo Selection

Check out the best photos for you.

Related Articles