Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Today Inside the Squared Circle inducts into its Hall of Fame a man not well known among fans of today’s American wrestling, but who is nonetheless one of the most important and influential wrestlers of all time. He is the father of Japanese wrestling, and a cultural icon like few other wrestlers, Rikidozan.

Rikidozan was born Kim Shinraku on November 14, 1924 in North Korea. He immigrated to Japan at the age of 15, later claiming the name Mitsuhiro Momota and a Japanese identity to avoid Japanese discrimination against Koreans. He became quite successful in the sumo world, but left it to join professional wrestling. Shortly after leaving sumo, he took the name Rikidozan, which means rugged mountain road. He debuted on October 28, 1951, in one of the first American wrestling tours of Japan. He left Japan shortly thereafter to train in Hawaii. While in Hawaii, he lost to Lou Thesz in a match for the NWA World Heavyweight Title. It was an early tease of what was to come.

Rikidozan returned to Japan and founded the Japan Pro Wrestling Association, or JWA, in 1953. It would become easily the most important wrestling company in Japan for the rest of his life. The company’s first series of events came February 19-21, and wrestling was an immediate smash hit. All three shows were broadcasted on network television, and Rikidozan became a legend almost instantaneously. On the first night, Rikidozan and Masahiko Kimura beat the gigantic Sharpe Brothers. While the Sharpes were from Canada, they were billed as Americans, and the image of Rikidozan making the gallant tag and holding them off with karate chops was a psyche builder for the Japanese, still demoralized by the embarrassing loss of World War II to the Americans. Thousands of Japanese who could not afford televisions stood in parks and outside stores to watch the matches. Rikidozan’s rise in wrestling would come to parallel the rise of Japan as one of the world’s leading economic powers.

Rikidozan’s star would rise even further with a December 22, 1954 match against partner and judo star Masahiko Kimura to crown the first Japanese Heavyweight Champion. The agreement was that the match would be a draw, but Rikidozan double crossed Kimura in the ring. He began legitimately pummeling Kimura with kicks and chops, and eventually stomping his head until the referee stopped the bout. The shocked Kimura did not see it coming, and Rikidozan was established as Japan’s top star. It was yet another example of a wrestler’s unprofessional behavior leading to tremendous success.

In 1957, JWA announced Lou Thesz was coming to Japan to defend the NWA World Heavyweight Title, the first world champion to ever come to Japan. On October 6, 1957, Thesz and Rikidozan wrestled to a 60:00 draw in a 2 of 3 falls bout in front of 27,000, with neither man scoring a fall. It drew an 87.0 rating on television, the largest TV rating for a wrestling event anywhere in the world. It still ranks among the top ten most watched television shows in the history of Japan, along with a number of other Rikidozan matches. 30,000 people came to see their rematch on October 13, where they drew again in 60:00, this time scoring one fall each. Shortly after this, Thesz would lose the NWA World Heavyweight Title, and from then on would defend his NWA “International Heavyweight Title” all over the world. Rikidozan won that title from Thesz in Los Angeles, and brought it to Japan, where it became Japan’s most prestigious title. Thesz and Rikidozan always had great mutual respect, and they did great business together.

Rikidozan’s influence on the Japanese wrestling business became all the greater when he recruited two young men to be the next superstars of Japanese wrestling. While touring Brazil, he ran into a Japanese high school boy. He brought Kanji Inoki back to Japan. At the same time he recruited a tall Tokyo Giants pitcher named Shohei Baba into professional wrestling. Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki would both debut on September 30, 1960, and along with their mentor, they would be the most important figures in Japanese wrestling history.

In 1962, Rikidozan began a feud with Vampire Freddie Blassie that drew big business. The bloody matches between the two in 1962 captured the Japanese imagination. During their feud, Rikidozan became the first Asian to hold the WWA World Title. This set up Rikidozan for his final legendary feud, against the Destroyer, Dick Beyer. He defeated Rikidozan in Rikidozan’s only clean singles loss in Japan with the figure four, making him a legend in Japan to this day. Their rematch was the most watched match in Japanese wrestling history, as more households had televisions and the rating was still 67.

1963 was a year of celebration and sorrow for Japan’s legendary hero. His June wedding was a national event, drawing 3,500 guests amidst great fanfare. Rikidozan by this time had grown to be a wealthy man, owning wrestling and boxing promotions, hotels, golf courses, bowling alleys, real estate, bars, and his own night club, Riki Palace. However, this empire had been built with help from the Japanese yakuza, or mob. On December 8, 1963 he was partying in a nightclub following a match the night before. There was an issue between two rival gangs who wanted to control wrestling, and Rikidozan was affiliated with the wrong gang. His assailant, Katsuji Murata, was a major figure in the major opposition family, and stabbed Rikidozan in a hallway. While the wound was considered minor when he was taken to the hospital, he did not heed the doctors’ advice to take it easy. Subsequently, he died of an abdominal infection on December 15 at the age of 39. His funeral saw thousands attend in a massive showing of sorrow. He was a symbol of Japanese strength and resourcefulness.

Today Rikidozan takes his rightful place in the ITSC Hall of Fame. He was the father of puroresu, a cultural symbol and a huge money maker. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter named him the most important wrestler of the century, and he finished 14th in a Japanese newspaper poll for Man of the Century. Few wrestlers are more worthy of joining the Inside the Squared Circle Hall of Fame.

Still to come: Buddy Rogers, Freddie Blassie & The Sheik, Mitsuharu Misawa & Toshiaki Kawada, Jumbo Tsuruta & Riki Choshu, Verne Gagne, Giant Baba, Antonio Inoki, Gorgeous George.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

A little more about the Rikidozan Kimura wrestling match. The following is from Wikipedia.

Hours later, Kimura's gangster supporters offered to kill Rikidozan. Mas Oyama was among the volunteers. (Kimura was a mentor and good friend.)
Kimura declined the offer to avoid unnecessary killing. Through meditation, the "death" that appeared in his head signified that Rikidozan would someday die violently. Ten years later, Rikidozan was killed by a small-time gangster, with a tanto, in a bar.

9:46 AM  

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