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Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2001

Akebono ready for final cut

As the first foreign-born grand champion in sumo, Taro Akebono experienced both pain and pleasure.

His perennial rivalry with the Hanada brothers -- fellow yokozuna Takanohana and Wakanohana -- gave him a taste of both worlds.

That all ends on Sept. 29 with the removal of his topknot at his official retirement ceremony -- a celebration of an illustrious career many have seen as being bittersweet for the giant Hawaiian.

Speaking at a luncheon Monday at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan, Akebono said he had no regrets to ending his 13-year career in the sport after being plagued with persistent knee problems.

"I had a lot of good times and a lot of bad times, but this all comes with the job and I'm glad that I was able to have this chance that not even many Japanese have," he said.

Akebono reminisced about his early days after arriving in the Japan in 1988, saying becoming accustomed to the strict sumo lifestyle was, at times, harder than practices in the ring.

"Sumo is very much a vertical society, so when I joined at 18, there were some kids who were 15 or 16 who'd joined before me. So no matter how much I beat them up in practice, afterward they'd still make me scrub the toilets and the furoba (bathtub)."

Akebono said that getting through the first six months was the hardest part, but explained that the hierarchy used in sumo helped him remain humble and in the right frame of mind.

Promoted to sumo's highest rank of yokozuna in January 1993, Akebono carted home 11 Emperor's Cups over his career before announcing his retirement in January this year.

His rival to the very end, and a source of his strength, he said, was yokozuna Takanohana, the younger of the Hanada brothers, who won 22 championships before taking a leave of absence after suffering an injury in this year's summer tournament.

Taka's brother and ex-yokozuna Wakanohana completed the trio of powerful yokozuna throughout the 1990s, he said.

"I feel that without those two brothers, I wouldn't have been what I am today. Every day when I first joined they were on the front page of the sports papers. So I felt if I wanted to be on the front page I had to beat these two guys.

"I used to hang their pictures up where I slept and just stare at them every day. I realize now how lucky I was to wrestle 13 years with these two brothers."

Whether Akebono will remain in the sumo world as a sumo elder or stablemaster is still anyone's guess, but he indicated he's not finished with the sumo world just yet.

"I learned a lot from sumo and I feel that in some way it is my responsibility to pass on what I've gained to the next generation," he said. "(However,) becoming a stable master is not something I can decide on my own. I need the support of the sumo association and my family."

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