Taro Akebono, a Hawaii-born sumo wrestler who became the sport’s first foreign grand champion and helped to fuel a resurgence in the sport’s popularity in the 1990s, has died in Tokyo. He was 54.

He died of heart failure in early April while receiving care at a Tokyo hospital, according to a statement from his family that was distributed by the United States military in Japan on Thursday.

When he became Japan’s 64th yokozuna, or grand champion sumo wrestler, in 1993, he was the first foreign-born wrestler to achieve the sport’s highest title in its 300-year modern history. He went on to win a total of 11 grand championships, and his success set the stage for an era during which foreign-born wrestlers dominated the top levels of Japan’s national sport.

Akebono, who was 6-foot-8 and 466 pounds when he was first named yokozuna at 23, towered over his Japanese opponents. Painfully shy outside the dohyo, as the sumo ring is known, he was known for using his height and reach to keep opponents at a distance.

Akebono’s rivalry with the Japanese brothers Takanohana and Wakanohana, both grand champions, was a major driver of sumo’s renewed popularity in the 1990s. During the opening ceremony for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, Akebono demonstrated the sumo ring entrance ritual for an international audience, commanding the arena with his hulking physique and captivating stare.

Taro Akebono was born Chad George Ha’aheo Rowan in Waimanalo, Hawaii, in 1969. He played basketball in high school and briefly at Hawaii Pacific University before moving to Japan in 1988 at the invitation of a fellow Hawaiian wrestler who had become a trainer.

Knowing nothing about Japan and speaking almost no Japanese, the teenager began living and training at a sumo stable governed by strict hierarchy, cooking and cleaning for more experienced wrestlers. Soon he was charting a meteoric rise through the sport’s ranks, dominating with his size.

“We were just brute strength,” he said in a later interview, referring to himself and fellow wrestlers from Hawaii in the 1990s. “We won fast or we lost fast. We weren’t too technical.”

In 1992, the Yokozuna Promotion Council, which decides which wrestlers are worthy of sumo’s top honor, denied it to another Hawaiian, saying no foreigner could possess the dignity befitting the title. The decision prompted allegations of racism and raised questions about the council’s selection process. Only a handful of wrestlers hold the title at the same time, and they are selected through a vote from candidates who have won two consecutive tournaments.

A year later, just five years after arriving in Japan and joining the sport, Akebono broke through that barrier.

He later said in interviews that he rarely considered his nationality in the ring, thinking of himself as a sumo wrestler first and foremost. He became a naturalized Japanese citizen in 1996, and changed his name to Taro Akebono. His chosen sumo name, “Akebono,” means dawn in Japanese.

“I wasn’t thinking, ‘I’m an American, I’m going to go out there, plant my flag in the middle of the ring and take on the Japanese,’” he told The New York Times in 2013.

He gained acceptance and popularity in the sumo world in part because people in Japan appreciated his devotion to the sport, even though in his early competitions, cheers from the crowd were far louder for his Japanese-born rivals.

“He makes me forget he is a foreigner because of his earnest attitude toward sumo,” Yoshihisa Shimoie, editor of Sumo magazine, said in 1993. By the early 2000s, dozens of the ranked wrestlers were foreign, including Mongolians, a Georgian and an Argentine.

Akebono is survived by his wife, Christine Rowan, daughter Caitlyn, 25, and sons Cody, 23, and Connor, 20, according to the family.

In 2001, he retired from the sport at 31, citing chronic knee problems. He went on to train younger wrestlers, and also competed in kickboxing, professional wrestling and mixed martial arts.

“I am retiring with a feeling of great gratitude for being given the chance to become a yokozuna and experience something open to only very few people,” he said at the time of his retirement.

Motoko Rich contributed reporting.

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