Backstory- I was a huge wrestling fan as a kid & due to the personals section of a wrestling magazine (get your mind out of the gutter, pervs) I became a pen pal with a fellow wrestling fan in Florida. He also tape traded with a fellow fan in Texas so that led to us having a lot more access to other federations than most people. Now, I know what you’re probably thinking; what’s a pen pal? Just…ask your parents as I’m old & have to take my One a Day Vitamin™. Also, you have to remember; this was before the internet so access to anything other than what you could get out of magazines or the wrestling 1-900-numbers was extremely limited.
I couldn’t get over how much different wrestling there was in other parts of the country & neither could my friends. The Delaware-Florida-Texas Connection, although only lasting a little over 2 ½ years, easily made me the envy of any wrestling fan in the city of Dover, which is, of course, a huge deal.
Especially with the following info.
I was lucky to tape-trade with some people who had access to Japanese wrestling when I was in my teens & to say I was hooked is an understatement. When these guys punched someone, it looked like they PUNCHED them. Their moves were stiff, precise, crippling & quick, with an emphasis on cardio & storytelling. The crowds watching it were just as different, silent & reverent, quietly watching & appreciating the action, not rowdy, loud or drunk like in the US. I knew watching these badly dubbed tapes that this was different. Over the years since then, my catalogue of Japanese cassettes, DVDs, Blu Rays & files has grown exponentially, as has my appreciation. For wrestlers, the quality of work is measured by an easy formula; 50% work, 50% pay, & watching these wrestlers, you definitely know that they earned their money.
There are 3 major continental regions for pro-wrestling. Mexican or Lucha Libre showcases over-the-top dramas & outlandish costumes along with a very acrobatic stable. These guys are in the air more than they are on their feet. There’s the American style of wrestling, a combination of ground based wrestling & acrobatics with plenty of punches & kicks that focuses more on the emotions of the wrestlers involved. Then there is the Japanese style, which is modeled very much on sportsmanship & honor, although over the years the soap-opera storylines that run so prevalent in American & Mexican wrestling has slowly made its way into the sport. More on this later. Modern Japanese wrestling still makes an impact in modern Japanese culture, with over 150 events going on a month. It’s evolved from just entertainment. We’re not going to be talking about modern wrestlers or events but the veterans & important events leading to where they are today.
I’ll be talking about these subjects in this order. History, important figures, important personalities, American influences, federations, important cards/venues/events of note & the future. First I’ll explain some terms that should be known. This primer should catch any reader up to the 2000s where your friend & mine Mr. Internet can fill in the rest. So let’s begin with some definitions.
- Face- also known as a babyface, hero or the good guy of the story. The one that the crowd loves & pays their money to see.
- Heel- the bad guy/villain of the story. The one that the crowd despises & pays to see get his/her/their butt kicked.
- Stiff- hard style wrestling. There has always been a solid physicality to pro-wrestling with punches & falls needing to look so real that the crowd believes it. However, Japanese wrestling really upped the ante in this regard from the 70s on. They didn’t have the break-neck schedules that the US relied on so they could heal up from in between these more brutal conquests. Strong style is a term used for Japanese wrestling that uses worked shoots & seriously stiff shots to deliver a realistic match.
No one can pinpoint the exact cause for why the
Japanese style of wrestling got so tough in the early
70’s but I have my suspicions…
Kayfabe– pretending to be real for the sake of the business (the paying audience) with a focus on honest reactions to either physical or emotional issues. Staying in character is a prime example for this.
The official theme song for kayfabe
- Heat– anger from the crowd towards a situation or a villain/villains. Comes in the four following forms:
- Quiet/Killing heat.
Cheap heat is the practice of getting the crowd angry quickly without needing an extensive story. Insults or a vicious promo can do this, usually involving local sports franchises, the community, base intelligence, personal financial worth or even current events. These can get that crowd going fast. Canned heat is when boos & catcalls are added to the audio to artificially give the heel a more hated aura. This can be done either live at the match via speakers or just added to video. Go Home heat is when there is legitimate disdain for the wrestler/personality & it’s up to the promoter to find out if the crowd hates him/her due to their excellent work in the ring or if they’re hated just because no one legit likes them.
The one version of Heat not shown is the rarest but most dangerous called Quiet heat or Killing heat where the crowd has used their mob mentality to figure out they’ve just had enough of this situation & whatever person they’re directing this towards is in serious jeopardy. Example: regional wrestler Ron Wright was so hated that after a match the crowd followed him to the local airport where he had a personal small airplane & when they couldn’t find him they promptly burned his aircraft to the ground. That’s entertainment!
Heat can also be a personal term for people in the business having issues with others. Ex: If a wrestler was disrespecting a booker, people could say that the booker would have heat with him/her.
- Young boys– the term used for rookies/wrestlers just breaking into the business. In Japan you can see several of these wrestlers at ringside acting as valets, repairing the ring, fixing the ringside area & doing spot clean-ups when needed. The reason there’s the picture shown is because if you think that I’m typing the words “Japanese young boys” into my search engine, you are flat out insane.
- Gaijin– Japanese word for foreigners.
Oddly enough, when the awesome 70s band Foreigner toured
Japan, guess what they were called? That’s right: Foreigner.
Which one is more evil? We’ll wait…
- Booker– person who plans the stories or angles to make the crowd more interested in investing their time & money into watching.
- Promoter– person who pays for events, pay wrestlers, pays for advertising. Also gets the largest amount of profit over the people actually doing the wrestling. Not always the most honest of people.
And now that we have the definitions handy, let’s get started!
Rikidozan– “father” of J wrestling, 1st big star. Korean/Japanese Rikidozan, a former rikishi or sumo wrestler, after touring the US as a villain in the late 50s, returned home & used that practice in Japan, reversing it so that he was always the hero, which war-weary Japan was desperately needing at the time, & battling foreign villains, usually American or Mexican wrestlers who always, always cheated in their matches.
In 1958, Lou Thesz, one of the greatest American wresters of all time, willingly agreed to lose the NWA International Heavyweight Championship, even though the loss would really do nothing to further his own career. This built a huge bridge between Thesz & Rikidozan that was never forgotten by either men’s family. Other famous gaijin feuds were with the Destroyer, a masked wrestler, & Freddie Blassie, a super-villain, whom he wrestled extensively in the US also. Funny enough, even though he would usually wrestle as a villain in the US, whenever he wrestled Blassie, Blassie was so hated that people cheered the “foreign threat” over the homegrown villain. In his personal dealings, Rikidozan’s wealth had afforded him many businesses & holdings which attracted the attention of the Yakuza. He paid monies to them as did almost every independent businessman then but he still angered them with his brashness & refusal to pay exactly what they wanted (which would have been almost everything as with gangster fashion). That same Yakuza was responsible for his death in 1963. While partying at a Tokyo nightclub, a soldier for the Ninkyo dantai claiming insult stabbed Rikidozan with a urine-soaked blade. Legend has it that Rikidozan threw the man out of the club & continued to party.
Others claimed that he did seek medical attention but was told that the wound was not serious. On December 15th a week later, he died of peritonitis. Katsuji Murata, the man who stabbed him, served 7 years in prison for manslaughter, & as a show of remorse & respect promised to call Rikidozan’s sons each anniversary & apologize, also visiting the gravesite to apologize personally. All 3 of his sons became wrestlers but none managed to get anywhere near the heights of success their famous father did.
Inoki (left) & Baba (right) both pictures
When Rikidozan passed away, Japan Wrestling Association was being headlined by himself & his 2 most promising students; Shohei Baba & Antonio Inoki. Standing 6ft 10in, Shohei earned his nickname “Giant” Baba & he became of the most famous wrestlers in Japanese history with a popularity equaling Hulk Hogan’s in the 80s. A former baseball pitcher who was signed to the Yomiuri Giants at age 17, he was with the team for almost 5 years but spent a majority of time in the minors. Rikidozan felt that the time was right to start training a replacement to keep the business booming, just in case something odd would happen to him. Good planning. Rikidozan picked 3 young men as his successors; Shohei Baba, Kanji Inoki & Kintaro Ohki. Baba & Inoki were highly popular, winning the NWA International Tag Belts a record 4 times, which Baba would later break with another wrestler; Jumbo Tsuruta. Baba also wrestled in the US for the WWWF title, facing Buddy Rogers & then Bruno Sammartino on a return trip. Baba remarked at Bruno’s strength, saying that no one had ever lifted him so easily.
Upon Rikodozan’s death, the JWA federation, which was very stringent in its rules & customs began to take its toll on the lives & careers of some of the wrestlers. Following strict customs & tier/status levels were not too hard when they came from a legend like Rikidozan but just some promoters who never even wrestled before? This was more difficult, enough so that Antonio Inoki broke off with some other wrestlers & formed NJPW or New Japan Pro Wrestling. Focusing on younger talent, more storytelling & harder edged or what was to be known as “strong style” wrestling, the new federation took off, becoming wildly popular with the fans. JWA was on the decline, especially with the behind-the-scene management making errors, enough so that Baba formed his own company; All-Japan Pro Wrestling.
He smartly went for & secured the backing of Nippon TV, giving them an immediate hour-long block to showcase their wrestling. He also took over JWA’s NWA backing, giving them legitimacy from the get go. Baba headlined his promotion, winning the actual NWA World championship 3 times on occasions that the NWA World champ came over for a tour. Of course, the ex-champ would regain the belt before heading back to the states & the promoters in the states never actually acknowledged any title changes had occurred. Anyway, Baba was the top star & draw for All-Japan Wrestling but by 84, he realized that he needed to start pushing the next generation of talent to be headliners. He focused on 2 main draws, like they did with him, & picked Jumbo Tsuruta & Genrichiro Tenryu. Until the early 90s, All-Japan was arguably the number one wrestling company in the world when it came to quality. Later, to fill the void of leaving talent, Baba focused on younger stars Kawada, Kobashi, Taue, &, most importantly, took the mask off of Tiger Mask No. 2 & repackaged him under his own name; Mitsuharu Misawa. Baba ran his federation with little-to-no contracts, choosing rather to shake your hand & make a promise. In the world of pro-wrestling, there were & are swindles by the score so when a man who made his living making promises was able to keep every one of them, it’s beyond rare. Not one wrestler over the years All-Japan was in business had a complaint about business with Baba & many regarded him as the most honest promoter ever in the wrestling business. His ringwork dropped significantly as he got older, focusing on tag or 6 man tag matches where there was less work to be done. His last match was in December 1998 to which he was confined to a hospital bed the next day. He passed away on January 30th 1999, from cancer.
Antonio Inoki– In late 1971, Inoki was discovered planning a takeover of JWA. Upon learning this, he was fired immediately. This didn’t deter Inoki one bit as he already had built up experience as a main eventer, & built up respect & friendships in the locker room with the talent. In 1972, his new federation New Japan Pro Wrestling debuted & his first match as a New Japan wrestler was against Karl Gotch, a man the Japanese nicknamed Kamisama, which translates to the God of Wrestling. A lot of the strong style, submission based, suplex heavy, realistic looking holds, joint locks, style wrestling was first brought to bear by this man & Inoki idolized him. Inoki’s star went that much higher with that match. Inoki, behind the scenes, was much shrewder with locker room politics than Baba but was also kept in check by those same principles. He knew that if he didn’t stay totally honest with his people & workers that they could just as easily head over to All-Japan or many of the newer, smaller promotions that were popping up. Inoki, while being showcased as a professional wrestler, was also a fierce martial artist, wrestler & competitor, facing many experts in different fields of disciplines although there was speculation that some of them were rigged. His most famous bout in this field was the infamous Muhammad Ali v Antonio Inoki match in 1976.
Inoki promised Ali a rigged match to get him to agree to come to Japan for the fight but then rumors started, some say from Inoki himself, that he would turn it into a shoot fight or legit fight. After watching Inoki training before the bout, the rules of the fight were changed 2 days before the event, severely limiting the fighter’s ability to inflict damage on each other. The fight was a dismal bore as for 15 rds Inoki kept on his back the entire time kicking at Ali’s legs. The bout ended as a draw 3-3, with Ali landing 6 punches on Inoki & Inoki repeatedly kicking at Ali’s knees & shins. In 1979, during a tour of Japan, the WWF champion Bob Backlund lost the world belt to Inoki in Tokushima, Japan. Backlund won the belt back 7 days later but again, Inoki’s shrewdness came to play as the match was declared a no-contest due to interference. Inoki refused to take the belt, saying that he lost it & didn’t deserve it. See, even though he was scripted to give up the belt, now he looked INCREDIBLY HONORABLE in doing what he was supposed to do.
In 1983, Inoki dropped ties with the NWA altogether & started using a series of tournaments to both show off his workers & satisfy the fans. This led to the IWGP tourney, the International Wrestling Grand Prix. To show the international flavor right off the bat, no less than Hulk Hogan won the first one in 1983. Inoki won it in 84, 86 & 87 with Andre the Giant winning in 85. After the 87 tourney, Inoki made the title a defendable championship. The IWGP Heavyweight Tag Belts & the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight championships were soon added. In late 1987, a wrestler formerly known as Leon White was repackaged as a monster heel known as Big Van Vader debuted & demolished Inoki in less than five minutes, causing the usually respectable crowds to lose their minds & riot. That shows how much love & respect Inoki had, even then. A series of interpromotional wars excited fans, especially some of the Jr. Heavyweight tourneys, with some featuring no less than 7 different promotions, equaling a wrestling fan’s dream. He then entered politics in 89, winning a seat in the Japanese House of Councillors as a representative of his own party; the Sports & Peace Party.
I know it seems silly electing a wrestler into politics but the Japanese are just a different kind of people.
Of note is that Inoki made a trip to Iraq right before the Gulf war started & successfully negotiated with Saddam Hussein for the release of 15 Japanese hostages before the fighting started, even going so far as to organize a wrestling event to honor Hussein & get the remaining 41 captive Japanese nationals out. Coincidently enough right before his reelection campaign.
Again, shrewd man.
His career started slowing with age as he began a countdown to his retirement between 94-98, with highlights being a 2 day wrestling event brought together by the governments of Japan & North Korea called the Wrestling Festival for Peace (ok) held in Pyongyang, N. Korea. The main event was Antonio Inoki v Ric Flair in front of 190, 000 fans at the Rungnado May Day Stadium. A famous picture was taken during this visit with Muhammed Ali, Antonio Inoki & Ric Flair that was quickly labeled “The greatest, the greatest & the greatest.”
He’s dabbled in & out of politics over the years, right now winning a seat in the Japanese Diet which is kind of their version of Congress. He was suspended over an unauthorized trip to North Korea, as North Korean actions against Japanese citizens had left the government with no choice but cutting ties. Inoki went anyway, trying to bridge the two countries, saying that Rikidozan was born North Korean & he was one of the finest men that he had ever known. In 1990, while in Iraq, he converted to Islam, keeping this to himself until 2012, & while he describes himself as Muslim, he also considers himself a Buddhist. He is revered in Japan as well he should be, still beloved by many & in a culture that respects tradition & the past, he’s one of the ones who started it all & stayed popular while doing almost whatever he wanted whenever he wanted to it. Now how shrewd is that?
Kintaro Ohki– the third one of the Golden Rookies trained under Rikidozan didn’t have the career that Inoki or Baba had but he had a good & lengthy one besides. He was Japanese & Korean, just like Rikidozan & entered Japan illegally in 58 but was detained & arrested. When released, Rikidozan trained him & let him join the JWA under his real name. On September 30, 1960, Ohki met & defeated Inoki in the ring on Inoki’s debut. When Rikidozan was murdered, Ohki returned to Korea to raise the profile & stature of pro-wrestling. When Inoki left on tour, Ohki went back to solidify the cards. In 67, Ohki became the top star in Korea after winning the WWA world title from Mark Lewin & he was so popular that the JWA wanted to rename him Rikidozan, in honor of his mentor but it didn’t go through. In 72, when Inoki & Baba left to form their respective federations, Ohki became the top star for the JWA, culminating with his winning the NWA International Heavyweight Championship. In 73, All-Japan absorbed what was left of the JWA & Ohki stayed there for a time, wrestling off & on as a freelancer against his friends & other famous former rookies Baba & Inoki through 74-75. He defended the NWA International Title in both the IPW & South Korea until the NWA ordered him to vacate it in 81. Ohki wrestled rarely after that, & his official retirement card on April 2, 1996. Wrestling legend Lou Thesz assisted Ohki, who was wheelchair-bound, in this, his last public appearance in Japan. During his career, he held no less than 19 major championships, with some of them being the WWA World Title, All-Asian Heavyweight Championship & the NWA International Heavyweight Championship. Not too bad a career for the least successful of the Golden Rookies.
Riki Chosu– Debuting in New Japan in 74, Riki did what others did by touring the US for experience, almost always playing the “foreign heel” element for local faces in promotions. He excelled in the heel gimmick & brought it back to Japan, openly insulting or ignoring others during interviews. This sounds pretty tame but back then in Japan, it was some saucy stuff. His explanation for his actions? “Survival. This world is hard & unfair. You need to make it fair.” He became an anti-hero for a while from 79 to 83, fighting both villains & heroes, whomever was in his way to a championship. In 83, that changed when he was upset at not being selected for the inaugural IWGP Heavyweight Championship tourney & he became an out & out villain. He became the first “traitor heel” ever in a Japanese promotion, turning on Tatsumi Fujinami during a tag match. He shortly later formed his own stable the Revolutionary Army or Ishingun. In 88, he faced Fujinami to a no contest, which held up the title. Fujinami won the rematch, but this still furthered Chosu’s respect from the audience. He won his first IWGP title in 89, winning it again in 90 & 92 but 96 was his banner year as he won the G1 Climax tourney, winning every single bout & not losing once. In 98, he retired, winning 4 of the 5 matches that he had that night. He was then hired as the booker for New Japan but his retirement wasn’t a long-time thing as Atsushi Onita challenged him to a “barbed razor-wire deathmatch” in FMW. He continued booking & wrestling for NJPW until an open talent exodus caused doubts with his booking, enough so that his position was taken away from him. He ran his own federation, Riki Pro, with some success but returned to New Japan in 2005 after he was offered the combined job of site foreman, booker & wrestler. He is still wrestling today, though not as often as he did in his youth but he has proven that he indeed is a survivor. Also was not shy about putting his name on a product or two…
Keiji Mutoh/the Great Muta– debuting in 1984 under a series of different, rather generic ring names, Keiji finally hit his standard as the Great Muta. He is one of the first Japanese wrestlers to gain a prominent fan base outside of his native Japan. Billed as the kayfabe son of another great Japanese wrestler, the Great Kabuki, he brought together a lethal mixture of talent that was different than anything seen before in pro wrestling. He had a lightweight’s build but he was amazingly quick & agile & deadly accurate with kicks & elbows, with his finisher being the Moonsault, a backflip splash, usually from the top rope. And his entrance was spectacular too, with him coming to the ring in Deteiyatsu Shinobi Ninja royale gear, taking off his cover & exposing a painted face that was a version of a Kabuki-style ghost. And then there was the mist, another homage to the Great Kabuki, who spit a colored spray into the air. Muta made this into a weapon, spraying it into others eyes for an advantage, with some wrestlers acting like they were in pain with the explanation that maybe alcohol or something salt-heavy was in it. Needless to say, it merely added to the layers of the character, & in a sport where everyone was different, he was unique. After wrestling abroad in different federations under rather generic names, he premiered in the NWA in 1989 & was an instant hit with the fans, which was odd as he was a heel. Returning to Japan in late 1990, he rose in fame in New Japan but under his real name & a different wrestling style, more scientific, more ground based. But whenever a feud went too long or his temper was raised, he would bring back the Great Muta to the delight of the crowd. Mutoh, Masahiro Chono & Shinya Hashimoto, upon completion of the first G1 Climax tournament, celebrated in the ring together, being nicknamed the 3 Musketeers of NJPW & also cementing their status as the next generation of stars in New Japan, with Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami & Riki Chosu making way for them. In September of 1990, an infamous event occurred during a match with Hiroshi Hase where Muta was cut open/bladed too severely, leading many smart marks & wrestler fan pages to instantly come up with the Muta-Scale. “How bloody was that guy? Man, he was a 6.8 on the Muta. DAMN!” Over the years, his style changed from athletic & quick to more ground based & power driven, as the years of him doing the moonsault had weakened his knees. The makeup was gone too, as he had shaved his head & started donning masks, all of monsters or demons. A long goatee was also part of the change as was the debut of his new finisher, the shining wizard which he created. Whereas the moonsault was an elegant, graceful maneuver that ended with him landing on you followed by a pin, the shining wizard was a brutal attack, starting with the opponent down on one knee, then followed by Muta stepping off of that same knee while running his other knee into his opponent’s head.
In early 2002, after a year-long series of dream matches between NJPW & All-Japan, Mutoh shocked the wrestling world by defecting to All-Japan with Satoshi Kojima & Kendo Kashin, which to us would be similar to what Hall, Nash & Hogan did with the NWO. He offered his years of experience with booking & promoting to All-Japan which impressed them heavily, enough so that in September 2002, Mokoto Baba, Giant Baba’s widow, named Mutoh the new President of All-Japan & transferred all of the family stock to him. He still continued to wrestle full time, but made sure the angles from top to bottom were interesting to the fans. He resigned as President in 2011 following an incident involving a fight & some injuries stemming from that. He had nothing to do with the incident but accepted responsibility for its consequences. He then toured the states & Japan, wrestling where he pleased & could entertain fans. In 2012, Mutoh & his business partners sold their All-Japan shares for 200 million yen or roughly $1.63 million dollars today. Mutoh resigned from All-Japan in 2013 after his friend Masayuki Uchida was let go as president. In July of 2013, Mutoh announced the foundation of Wrestle-1, which was formed by Mutoh & a core of All-Japan’s wrestlers who left en masse to be with Mutoh. Wrestle-1 is much more open with its wrestler’s contracts & expectations, giving them more leniency for traveling abroad. Keiji Mutoh, the Great Muta, whatever you want to call him, is the epitome of the new age Japanese wrestler, bucking excesses while breaking new ground & at the same time respecting traditions. No more could be asked of a wrestler.
Jumbo Tsuruta– former competitor for the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Tsuruta was scouted by Giant Baba & sent to the states to learn his craft, specifically learning under Dory Funk Jr. Tomomi Tsuruta was one of the first Japanese wrestlers to be cheered by American crowds, due to his bravery & ability. His name Jumbo was chosen during a fan contest as his name Tomomi was thought to be too feminine. His wrestling acumen was second to none & he pulled off a rarity by winning the AWA world title in the states & holding the belt for a few months, losing it to Rick Martel in 1984. He went back to Japan as a hero & could have easily coasted by the rest of his career doing little else. But he wasn’t finished yet. He became the first triple-crown champion, winning the 3 major belts in that region & unifying them to become the All-Japan main championship. His level of work continued to improve as he got older, with his skills allowing him to headline cards well past his athletic prime, lending credence to those who said that he arguably was the best wrestler in the world through the 80s. In 1992, he was found to have hepatitis b & never fully recovered. His final matches were tag team endeavors against other old-timers, more for the gratification of fans rather than serious wrestling. He announced his retirement in February 1999 after being forced out of a front-office position for All-Japan. 4 days later, Tsuruta & his family moved to the United States & became a visiting researcher at the University of Portland in Oregon. Tsuruta had a bachelor’s degree in political science & later also became a part-time instructor in physical training. By April 2000, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer & while he found a donor in Manila, he died from complications from the transplant. In the wake of his passing, the press called him the strongest wrestler in the history of Japanese wrestling & it’s a hard reputation to argue.
Genichiro Tenryu– At age 13, he entered sumo wrestling & stayed there 13 years after which he then turned to pro-wrestling. His successful reputation there translated perfectly to pro-wrestling, & being taught in the states by Dory & Terry Funk, he did something others didn’t by staying voluntarily on the undercard, wanting to learn from his betters rather than trying to grab the spotlight. He shot up as a main eventer when Jumbo Tsuruta went overseas to challenge for the NWA International Heavyweight title, with Tenryu winning the NWA United National title in Japan. In 84, Tenryu & Tsuruta joined as a tag team, winning various titles off & on. 1989 was Tenryu’s big year, with Jumbo becoming the first Triple Crown champ & his first challenger was Tenryu, & their series of matches set the standard for the intensity & prestige that the triple crown represented. Tenryu finally won the belts in June 89 with the match being called match of the year by almost all Japanese publications. He also pinned his mentor, Giant Baba, which was a huge honor for anyone. To show how tough & respected Genichiro Tenryu was, when the Road Warriors turned heel & attacked their 6 man tag championship partner Dusty Rhodes, they were asked why they picked Genichiro Tenryu as his replacement. “Simple.” They said. “He’s as tough as us. Tougher, even.” He did what no one else ever did by defeating Antonio Inoki & Giant Baba, thereby becoming the only Japanese wrestler to defeat Inoki & Baba by pinfall. He was also the first native to win both major titles in Japan, All Japan’s triple-crown & the IWGP title. He finally retired…a few years ago with a memorable storyline that had him do a surprise return to New Japan Pro Wrestling & having a confrontation with a little known wrestler known as Kazuchika Okada; perhaps you’ve heard of him. On November 15th, 2015, 40 years after his debut, he lost to Okada in his retirement match with no less a magazine than Tokyo Sports naming it 2015’s match of the year; not so to the action in the ring but the importance of it with Okada basically becoming in one night what Tenryu had been his entire career. Wrestling has few perfect endings to careers but this was one of them.
Mitsuharu Misawa– trained by no less than Dick “the Destroyer” Beyer, Shohei “Giant” Baba, & Dory Funk Jr, Mitsuharu was known for coming to train, exercising, & not really letting people get too close to him except professionally. Misawa debuted in 1981, then wrestled in All-Japan from 84 to 90 as the 2nd generation personification of the popular manga & anime character Tiger Mask as Tiger Mask II. He rose from the jr. heavyweight ranks to heavyweight over those years, getting title shots against the NWA & AWA world titles & receiving rave reviews for his matches. But in 1990, when Genichiro Tenryu departed All Japan, Giant Baba chose Misawa to be the focus as the next rising star. After a famous tag match, he unmasked & abandoned the Tiger Mask gimmick after six years. He then went on to dominate All-Japan Pro Wrestling through the 90s, defeating his opponents utilizing the strong style of wrestling. Whereas Giant Baba could be compared to Hulk Hogan popularity-wise, Misawa would be compared more to a Ric Flair, without the pizzazz. All-Japan prided itself on having a serious reputation of quality matches & that is where Misawa excelled, having a continuous legacy of 5 star matches that left the crowds applauding for more, all the time wearing his traditional green & white colors as his standard.
Following the passing of Giant Baba, Misawa was promoted to president of All-Japan but his ideas were thought to be too radical for the traditional-minded owners, especially Baba’s widow. In 2000, Misawa & a huge faction of wrestlers from All-Japan jumped ship to form Pro-Wrestling Noah, another federation that was friendlier to the workers both monetarily & schedule-wise. Misawa slowed his schedule some but still delivered quality matches under difficult conditions, including tours overseas to the states & Europe. On June 13, 2009, Misawa took a rather simple-looking belly to back suplex during a tag match in the Hiroshima Prefectural Sports Center Arena. Misawa lost consciousness immediately & was brought to the hospital. The waiting crowd was stunned when he was pronounced dead. The cause of injury was speculated to have been a cervical spinal chord injury leading to cardiac arrest but nothing official came from it as Misawa’s family invoked a Japanese law the requested the police not release an official cause of death. He kept his personal life so private that wrestlers who knew him for 20-30 years didn’t know that he had children. He believed that a man should be judged on his works & if that is the case, then his works were some of the greatest ever seen.
Jushin “Thunder” Liger– dressing like a Ultraman character in bright colors, this masked wrestler started under his name Fuji Yamada, traveling overseas, even wrestling in Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling. Also learning to wrestle in the legendary Hart “Dungeon”, he returned to New Japan where they needed him for a gimmick based on the immensely popular anime superhero Jushin Liger. New Japan had done this successfully with Tiger Mask & looked to repeat the practice. Yamada was adorned with a full body costume & a demonic mask, resembling ones that you’d see regularly on kid’s programs. And where the gimmick should have been enough to get him over with the fans, he went further than he ever needed to, reinventing his wrestling style by taking up a more acrobatic flair, even creating new daredevilish moves like the Shooting Star press. From 89 to 2000, his high flying style slowly adapted to power moves & grappling, not so much for the toll it was taking on his body but due to the fact that he had a brain tumor in 96. After the successful surgery, he came back & picked right up where he left off, regaining the jr heavyweight belt off & on & winning several tourneys, most notably the Super J Cup in 95 & 2000.
A very young Kevin Owens & Jushin Liger pose.
As a testament to his longevity, in 1991 the magazine Pro-Wrestling Illustrated started an annual list of the top 500 wrestlers in the world. It’s still going on today & Liger is the only wrestler to be on every list every time since then. He’s still wrestling today & while he’s slowed a bit, he’s still as dynamic as his anime counterpart. He announced that he will be retiring on January 5th 2020 which will wrap the career on an amazing career. He was supposed to be a gimmick to get kids to watch & he turned out to be the greatest junior heavyweight wrestler of all time. Not too bad.
Tatsumi “the Dragon” Fujinami– one of the wrestlers who followed Inoki from the JWA to Inoki’s newly formed New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1971. He was sent to wrestle abroad to learn other styles while New Japan was being formed, & it paid off well when he returned. His ability & personality could easily be compared to Bret Hart in the US, as he was one of the wrestlers who wasn’t immediately thought of when planning main events but when he was finally placed in them, the audiences readily accepted him, especially with his ability. A career of respected matches & feuds led to a memorable title v title match with his IWGP belt v Ric Flair’s NWA world title at the Tokyo Dome with 64000 plus fans watching in 1991. The ending of the match was presented differently to each country, with Flair getting pinned & losing the belt to Fujinami but in the US version, the match was ended by dq earlier due to the ref getting hit. Fujinami held a copy of the belt & defended it a few times before losing a rematch with Flair later that year but in the US, the audience was told Flair still had the belt & the rematch where he regained the belt was just called a successful title defense. Interesting times & in the hands of other wrestlers, it could have been a huge mess. With pros like Flair & Fujinami, it went as planned. In 2006, after 35 years in New Japan, Fujinami left, giving an ultimatum to management that either Riki Chosu leave or he would. New Japan picked Chosu so he was gone. As many veterans did, he started his own promotion Dradition that specializes in focusing on young talent or as he said “Aiming the future forward.” Tatsumi “the Dragon” Fujinami was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame a few years back & to show how respected he is, Ric Flair asked to be the one to induct him. Fujinami remains an active competitor & is still in great shape, even nearing the age of 65 & to be honest, he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down.
Atsushi Onita– one of the original importers & innovators of the deathmatch or garbage-style type of wrestling. Onita was the first true graduate of All-Japan Pro-Wrestling’s training Dojo in 74, getting sent to the US mostly wrestling as a light-heavyweight or in tag matches. This would be far more influential than he thought, especially where he toured. When he returned to Japan, the Jr. Heavyweight boom started & Onita was picked to be the main star for All-Japan, which wasn’t nearly as competitive as New Japan’s Jr. Heavyweight division but it was a solid alternate. In 85, after years of accumulating injuries, he retired. Three years later, Onita returned to the ring & a year later, created his own federation, FMW- the Frontier Martial Arts Federation. This federation was heavily influenced by the matches he saw in Memphis that focused on over-the-top violence & death matches that was short on order & high on chaos.
In 1998, after years of taunting Keiji Mutoh, they finally had a match in FMW with Mutoh donning the Great Muta persona & Onita wearing a similar parody gimmick, calling himself the Great Nita. The match? A “No Rope, Barbed Wire, Barricaded, Electric Land Mine, Double Hell Death Match.”
Later, when FMW was trying to tone down its image & history, Onita became the leader of the NWO-like group called ZEN that wanted to return the federation to its more violent ways. Onita left FMW altogether in 1998 to promote his own interests, like acting & getting his GED. He wrestled off & on over the years, with his winning the 19th House of Councilors election as a representative of the Liberal Democratic party, following wrestlers Antonio Inoki & Hiroshi Hase to a seat in the Japanese Diet (their version of Congress in the short). One of his first actions in office in 2001 was to launch a post 9/11 humanitarian mission to Afghanistan where he & some friends made crudely constructed rings made or sticks & rope, all to entertain & benefit the children in that area. His exit from politics followed a sex scandal that I won’t go into here but if you want to know what a PIMP is, do a little reading.
On May 10, 2017, Onita announced his retirement tour that would conclude with his final match on October 31st, 2017 at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, claiming that this, his seventh retirement, would be his “true” retirement. He retired the Great Nita character in August after a match & on October 31st, finished his 43 year career by pinning Nosawa Rongai in his retirement match, a simple, dignified 6 man barbed wire match where he, Kai & Shingo Takagi defeated Nosawa, Kazuyuki Fujita & Kendo Kashin. It’s almost always a given that a wrestler’s last match usually has him losing as a way to put another over on the way out the door & as an avenue of respect to the business. I kept thinking how appropriate it was that not only did his team win but he got the victory, truly keeping in line with his character over the years.
The Gaijin or foreign wrestlers are always a big draw in Japan, as the audiences there always appreciate diversity, intensity & talent but with their own wrestlers being diverse, intense & talented, for someone to excel in Japan, they have to be exceptional &, above all else, dynamic. These are the ones who were legends in Japan. I’m only going to briefly talk about their history there rather than bore you with their entire careers.
The Destroyer- Dick Beyer was an athlete at Syracuse U. He played in the 1953 Orange Bowl. He graduated with a Master’s in education & was also an Eagle Scout for the Boy Scouts of America. He then put on a mask & started beating the hell out of people in the ring. He fought Rikidozan in 1963 in a match watched by 70 million viewers, giving the Japanese hero a proper villain to battle. 70 million viewers is an impressive number today but putting it in context, this means that almost every person that had a television in Japan in 1963 watched this match.
Abdullah the Butcher– debut in 1958, this wrestler from the Sudan has one of the most violent & bloody reputations in wrestling but it wasn’t his robust size or look that drew the Japanese fans attentions. Flames, forks, knives; this man has used them all & has had them used on him, further reinforcing his legend as a psychopathic monster. It didn’t hurt his reputation that he looked like an end-boss-battle for the video game Streets of Rage 2.
Andre the Giant– the 8th wonder of the World, billed at 7 ft 4 in & weighing 520 lbs, he was an absolute moneymaker in Japan where he towered even over Giant Baba. His good nature that was on display in the US was replaced by a more focused attitude, wanting victories & trophies over sportsmanship. In the states, he was promoted as being undefeated for 15 yrs leading into a famous confrontation with Hulk Hogan but had actually lost by submission to Antonio Inoki in 1986. After his final run in the WWF, he finished his career in All-Japan in 1992 & passed away in 1993.
Speaking of Hulk Hogan– the bleach blond, muscle-bound 6 ft 7 in strongman premiered in New Japan, the fans were in awe. They nicknamed him “Ichiban” which translates to “Number One”. If you hate Hogan’s limited repertoire in the US, you need to watch his matches in Japan, as he used a variety of holds, maneuvers, y’know, wrestling, rather than the punch-kick style that he is known for everywhere else. In 1983, he won the first International Grand Prix tourney, beating no less than Antonio Inoki by knockout in the finals. He was so over as a personality there that he recorded a top selling album in Japan. On the scale of 1 to 10, it is an album.
Warning: if a girl or guy or someone you like catches you listening to this, you’re mostly in for some lonely nights.
His visits to Japan since then were much fewer but when they happened, they were sellouts. He’s had some…issues over the last few years but hopefully he can honestly mend those fences & be a true hero to many once again.
Bruiser Brody– standing 6 ft 8 in with a full beard & long black hair, Brody cut quite a figure in Japan, running out to the ring swinging a 12 ft chain over his head barely missing the fans who were scurrying away, but he was more so noted for his wild actions & mean behavior. Even though he was a villain, his toughness & bravery earned him the respect of the crowds & the promoters, who kept bringing him back even with his attitude problems. Considered one of the greatest legends in wrestling, he won a slew of titles in Japan, destroying opponents, ring equipment & promoter’s patience all at the same time.
The Road Warriors– Hawk & Animal, 2 muscular war-painted, leather wearing monsters managed by Paul Ellering looking less like pro wrestlers & more like the bad guys that were trying to kill the Hobbit , tore into Japan like a natural disaster, barreling through their toughest tag teams with frightening efficiency, with their debut having them defeat the monster tag team of Animal Hamaguchi & Killer Khan in less than 4 minutes. Some of their earliest matches had them brawling with a tag team, then fighting outside the ring where either Hawk or Animal would simply piledrive one of the opposing team on the concrete & then jump back inside for either a countout victory or merely beat the man nearly to death if he returned. Their matches were always main events & even though they were heels, one could look into the Japanese crowds & see either signs or people wearing warpaint, all supporting the Legion of Doom.
Terry & Dory Funk– Not overly big or tall, these 2 Texan brothers are legends many times over, especially with the fans. Both former World champions, these men can both wrestle & brawl with ease, and, again, even as villains, they were extremely popular with the fans who appreciated the hard work & bravery these madmen had. Terry was so popular in Japan that he also recorded a soft rock album that reallllllly has to be heard to be appreciated. This is not a challenge to listen to it, btw.
Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy & “Dr. Death” Steve Williams– their tag team nickname translates out to the Miracle Violence Connection. Both standing at 6’3 & a solid 320 lbs, these guys lived for the strong style of wrestling & had no problem handing it out. No other American team had so successful a run in so few years, winning several tourneys & championships. From 90-93, if you were a tag team wrestling in Japan, you could count on being dropped on your head from a high distance several times by 2 men who loved to do it. Both men have passed away with Gordy leaving us in 2001 & Doc passing away in 2009 & the sport is truly lesser for them not being in it.
Big Van Vader– 6 ft 5 in & weighing 400 plus lbs, Leon White was given the Big Van Vader idea by Giant Baba but Leon gave it life, virtually becoming the monster of Japanese folklore that he was portraying. His first match was against a worn down Antonio Inoki, who had already wrestled earlier, & he crushed him. The audience then rioted, which was an incredible rarity in Japan. This also caused New Japan to be banned for a while from the Sumo Hall, which was its home arena. Vader then won a tourney to become the first non-Japanese wrestler to wear the IWGP belt.
During another match, he was hit so hard by a punch that his right eye actually popped out of his head (see above picture). He merely pushed it back in & kept his eye shut & continued the match for another 20 minutes, so as not to disappoint the fans. He won the Triple Crown in All-Japan a few years later, becoming the first man to wear both the All-Japan & the New Japan titles, not bad for a foreigner. To show how much respect the Japanese have for Vader, the Fatal Fury character Raiden & the Saturday Night Slam Masters character Alexander the Grater are both based on Vader. Leon White just passed away in July of 2018 & to say that he will be missed is an understatement.
Stan Hansen– This man is the most popular foreign wrestler ever to compete in Japan. He started out in the United States & was feared worldwide but became famous for breaking the neck of Bruno Sammartino with his infamous lariat clothesline (although some say that it happened from a bodyslam earlier in the match but I don’ know nuthin’ ‘bout that). Standing 6ft 4 in & weighing 320 lbs, his image is of a loud, crazy cowboy who would fight whomever was in front of him, good or bad. He was nonstop motion in the ring & his stamina was legendary, which was especially more impressive when you take his size into consideration.
His trademark cowboy hat, chewing tobacco & leather vest are so known in Japan that when people see pictures of just that, they usually attribute it to Hansen. They’ve had cowboys come through before & they’ve had loudmouths come through before, so what was it that made Stan not only stand out but become a mainstay for Japanese wrestling? His wrestling style; he was an amazingly stiff wrestler who also expected you to reciprocate in kind on him. His matches were more like wars & you’d hear people remark “Man, he looked like he just ran over that guy.” Well, it’s because he just ran over that guy. His secret for his hard-hitting matches? Poor eyesight. When he’d throw a punch, sometimes the recipient was closer than Stan thought he would be so that punch just went right through that poor victim. When I talked about Vader earlier, I mentioned someone knocked out his eye in a match. Guess who did it?
And in a sport where only a few Japanese wrestlers go past 10 years in the major leagues due to the injuries & difficulties, Hansen wrestled in All-Japan from 1981-2001 with only a few months wrestling in the states where he won the AWA world title in 1985 & the WCW US title in 1990. All of his other times wrestling was in Japan & always in the main events just brutalizing anyone in front of him.
Joshi Puroresu or women’s professional wrestling was done differently in Japan. Whereas in the states, women’s wrestling was at best barely respected & at worst a novelty, in Japan, it is considered wholly different. The women there were athletes through & through & were tough as nails.
All Japan Women’s Pro-wrestling– founded in 1968, the AJW featured easily some of the best female wrestlers in the world & focused them on a weekly show. The 80s were the prime years for AJW, with some angles, especially the Crush Gals v Gokuaku Domei, possibly being the most popular angle in all of Japanese wrestling during the 80s & brought tremendous ratings to their weekly program. The Crush Gals, Lioness Asuka & Chgusa Nagayo, were so popular in fact that they had many appearances on tv shows, specials & also had several top 10 pop singles.
Who wore it better?
Being so popular actually helped doom them as other all-women federations popped up with a regular frequency, enough where the AJW started suffering a loss of talent, leading to financial troubles. That combined with loss of talent & increased competition slowly eroded them until they finally closed their doors in April 2005 after 37 years. Up until that point, it was the longest running promotion in Japan.
Here’s some interesting tidbits that you’ll want to know.
Ribera Steakhouse– There is a little steak restaurant in Gotanda, Tokyo that is a rite of passage for any wrestlers who travel to Japan. The walls are covered from top to bottom with signed photos of some of the greatest wrestlers of all time, & every one of the wrestlers who’ve eaten there buy a satin Ribera Steakhouse Jacket. Google the words Ribera Steakhouse Jacket & you’ll see some of the best wrestlers ever wearing various shiny jackets. In the late 70s, American wrestlers looked for a good restaurant that was close by & cheap. Bruiser Brody & Stan Hansen are equally credited with discovering the establishment & the owners started getting autographs, photos, title belts & trophies to let people know who has eaten there before. The jacket is fairly plain, satin with a bull logo over the heart. Road Warrior Animal made the 2nd version of the look, the jacket with Zubaz weightlifter pants & of course the fanny pack, popular with wrestlers, showing both the differences in culture & the absolute horror of 1991 fashion.
Another location was built in Meguro, if you ever visit. Ricky Fuji has famously said that in English, Ribera translates to say “I’m a wrestler & I’ve been to Japan.”
Streamers– A curious tradition is observed for the most favored of wrestlers in Japan during the introductions before a match. When the name of one is announced, fans at ringside will litter the ring with streamers. This is not a required action or expected but you can tell the importance of a wrestler by the amount of streamers the fans throw. There have been some amazing introductions & the fans interaction only adds to the pageantry.
Tokyo dome– 55000 seat in Tokyo Japan, NJPW been there since April of 1989 – nicknamed the Big Egg or the Tokyo Big Egg, New Japan has held the January 4 Dome Show, currently promoted as Wrestle Kingdom every year since 1992. This is comparable to Wrestlemania in the US.
Drop kick bar- DDT (Dramatic Dream Team) founded in 1997 by Sanhiro Takagi. It’s one of the top names in the Japanese indy scene due to its unique sports entertainment style & Japanese flair to the matches. The Drop kick bar is owned & operated by DDT members, wrestlers, timekeepers & announcers. More on this later btw.
Shinjuku face– AN EVENT hall located on the 7th floor of the Humax Pavilions Shinjuku complex. Hosts various mma, boxing & pro-wrestling events. It only has the capacity to hold 600 people but its matches are talked about throughout the industry, showing their influence.
In closing, this was only a primer about the history of Japanese wrestling & an introduction of their forefathers. All-Japan Pro Wrestling is still popular & active, even under so much corporate restructuring, allowing wrestlers to wrestle on cards with a more free & open respect. New Japan is the largest promotion in Japan & second only to the WWE in terms of revenue & attendance. AXS TV acquired the rights to rebroadcast some episodes from 2014 for American audiences & was so successful that another season was added, giving hope that more current episodes could possibly make their way over here. New Japan also has very positive working relationships with ROH, Global Force Wrestling & Border City Wrestling. Pro Wrestling NOAH, Wrestle-1 & Inoki Genome Federation have been talked about earlier, each with a focus on innovation & preserving traditions.
Big Japan Pro Wrestling has taken the place of FMW. Dragon Gate has an exciting standard based on the luchador or Mexican wrestling style. There are now federations that exclusively market to the elderly & others that focus on pure grappling & others that never take place in a ring, going to wrestle exclusively at parking lots, department stores, malls, book stores, & bars. All different yet all coming from the same well & these people were the ones that started it here.
The strength of Japanese wrestling is still a powerful one with die-hard WRESTLING fans (not “sports entertainment fans) in the states flat out ignoring their own country’s brand & watching Japan’s exclusively. Name another endeavor where that happens that much? BESIDES SOCCER…
Their focus on agility, ability & showmanship are all following the ones who started it & they do their forefathers proud with their actions.
I always try to end a piece with something entertaining so I present to you DDT wrestling or Dramatic Dream Team. It’s one of the top indy promos in Japan with a unique entertainment style that has to be seen to be believed with the only downsides being that there’s an amazing lack of kayfabe & every time they have a match American wrestling legend Jim Cornette has a micro-coronary.
Some characters there include Danshoku Dino who may be the gayest man ever, which, I know, is a bold statement. (Barrowman!) Konosuke Takeshita, whom many are calling a future superstar, had his official debut match in DDT with El Generico. El Generico has, sadly, gone missing & hasn’t been seen in some time with the only witness to his last whereabouts being WWE star Sami Zayn. There’s Super Sasadango Machine, the office-based masked wrestler whose defining skill is his ability at building at Powerpoint presentations. He’s usually always ready to wrestle at all times with his Macbook always nearby. And since there’s weird stuff happening here, you know that Colt Cobana makes regular visits.
And then there’s Ladybeard…
…but I’ve got nothing to add about that. Over the years, DDT has become infamous for viral videos & GIFs that have popped up over the years. Here’s some of the more popular ones.
- Kota Ibushi wrestling a blow-up doll to a full match. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mFL46I96dVM
- Current NJPW superstar & considered best wrestler in the world Kenny Omega wrestled a 9 year old girl who promptly put the whoopin’ on him. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTizPJj23QY
- A wrestler fought an invisible man to what some would consider a solid 2 ¾ star match. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8O9OZdu3_RE
- The infamous Joey Ryan debuting his test-of-strength winning strong American penis whip & various follow-ups. He has since relabeled his style from Super Strong Style to King of Dong Style. He’s also known for having hardcore matches with the most painful items ever. Not glass. Not barbed wire. Not thumbtacks. But LEGOs. I still get goosebumps seeing him land on those.
- A ladder winning a ladder match (you read that correctly) & that ladder later having a retirement ceremony. (footage not available)
- This has to be seen to be believed but a tag-match filled with potential betrayals are halted live in the ring by friendship montages. Still one of the funniest things that you’ve ever seen & still my favorite video from them. https://www.sbnation.com/lookit/2016/6/24/12023840/wrestling-video-referee-stops-count-friendship-montages-dramatic-dream-team-DDT
There’s a heavy emphasis on offbeat comedy but it has a ton of young talent who are hungry for the spotlight that might not get noticed by the bigger leagues. Well, they get noticed here & in a country where there’s dozens of indy wrestling groups, that says something. Some other matches of notice is the Train match; a Royal Rumble match on a train where new wrestlers enter at every stop.
New Japan Pro Wrestling star Minoru Suzuki wrestles here & there is absolutely no comedy with his character, even when he’s wrestling cross-dressing mummies or pink robots. There is absolutely no comedy from him at all, which is why it’s funny.
DDT also owns & operates a sports bar in Shinjuku where their pro-wrestlers not only make appearances at the bar but sometimes they’ll even serve you at your tables. Be warned; not tipping them properly can make you the victim of the ass-chop, which is just like a Ric Flair chop but aimed firmly at your butt.
A lot of these wrestlers & matches mentioned are available online via the YouTube so go & check them out when you’re not busy or you’re at work. Be careful because they’re very addictive so you’ve been warned.