Prince of Whales
updated 02/22/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 02/22/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST
Yes, forget that shrimp Riddick Bowe, the 244-lb. heavyweight boxing champ. The really big American lord of the ring is sumo wrestler Akebono, real name Chad Rowan, who has just been elevated to yokozuna—a rank he describes as "something like a god." And with good reason. In the last 350 years only 64 wrestlers have attained this top ranking—and Akebono is the first non-Japanese.
The oldest son of a Hawaiian-Cuban mother and an Irish-Portuguese-Chinese-Hawaiian father, Rowan, 23, really wanted to be a basketball player but quit after his freshman year at Hawaii Pacific University. Sumo—"two big guys running at each other"—was just something he saw on TV. But Rowan continued to grow—to 6'8"—and in 1988 accepted a coach's invitation to move to Japan. "Besides learning how to wrestle," he says, "the hardest part for me was learning Japanese."
With his new title, Akebono is a certified celebrity and sex symbol in Japan, with a coterie of admiring young women. (Although one magazine linked him to Hawaiian hula dancer Hokulani Catao, he denies having a serious girlfriend.) Being a yokozuna has also brought a modest salary increase to $14,960 a month—and a cornucopia of prizes from sponsors, including a year's supply of gasoline from the United Arab Emirates. He also received a year's supply of beer from a Czech brewery and 10,000 eggs and 3,780 pounds of rice from a farmers' union.
As he settles into his new fame, Akebono says he does miss Mom's cooking. "Once a year I go home," he says. "Then I have meal loaf."