Thursday, August 03, 2006

Jumbo Tsuruta and Riki Choshu

This week Inside the Squared Circle inducts into its Hall of Fame arguably the two most significant and influential Japanese wrestlers of the past twenty five years. Riki Choshu and Jumbo Tsuruta had great success during the peak periods of their careers, doing strong business and being involved in some of wrestling’s most important matches and feuds. Perhaps even more importantly, after their peak years were completed, they were the two most important wrestlers in creating the next generation of wrestling stars. Born the same year, parallel figures in many ways, they enter the ITSC Hall of Fame together.

Riki Choshu was born Mitsuo Kwak December 3, 1951 in South Korea. He represented South Korea in freestyle wrestling in the 1972 Olympics before immigrating to Japan. He changed his name to Mitsuo Yoshida, and took the wrestling name Riki Choshu, which meant King of Choshu, the town where he lived. He began training for New Japan in 1973, and made his debut in 1974. He wrestled preliminary bouts for a while, and was sent to Mexico to learn the sport. Upon his return he became one of Japan’s biggest stars.

Choshu put himself on the map by turning heel on Tatsumi Fujinami in October of 1982. Over the next two years they would have one of the most important feuds in Japanese wrestling history. It did big business, selling out almost all New Japan events and doing huge prime time ratings. It was also one of the very first feuds between Japanese. The success of Choshu as a heel led Japanese wrestling to move beyond Japanese vs. foreigner feuds, setting up the most successful programs of the 1990s. Most importantly, it led to the first great promotion vs. promotion feud. Choshu formed his own group of young wrestlers, named Ishingun, to feud with the established group, Seikigun. This promotion vs. promotion angle was the predecessor of New Japan vs. UWFI, WCW vs. NWO and similar angles that did monster business. Much like the NWO over a decade later, Choshu became more popular as a charismatic rebel than he was as a good guy.

In 1984, Antonio Inoki was in the midst of an embezzlement scandal, and Choshu, along with a number of wrestlers primarily from his Ishingun group, jumped to Giant Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling. To that point, it was the biggest jump of a group of wrestlers in the history of the business. This put New Japan on the verge of collapse, while All Japan did huge business with Choshu’s army against All Japan’s top stars Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu. In 1987, Inoki had once again weathered the storm, and he used a big money offer to entice Choshu and his group of wrestlers to jump back to New Japan.

Choshu’s return to New Japan had a major impact on the business. Choshu’s return essentially took Akira Maeda’s spot in the promotion. This led to serious resentment from Maeda, and one of the most infamous moments in pro wrestling history. In a six man tag team match, as Choshu applied his sharpshooter finisher, Maeda came in and kicked him as hard as he could in the head. This “shoot kick” broke Choshu’s orbital bone and knocked him unconscious. It also made Maeda the hottest star in Japan, although Maeda would never do the money feud with Choshu. Choshu was so important in 1987 that he broke Ric Flair’s streak of six straight Wrestling Observer Wrestler of the Year awards.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Choshu occupied a top spot in New Japan. He feuded over the IWGP Title with Tatsumi Fujinami, Big Van Vader and the invading Russian wrestlers. He also took over control of the business, and helped lead New Japan into another very successful financial period. In 1991 he put over Shinya Hashimoto and Masahiro Chono in the G1 Climax tournament. They along with Keiji Muto became the Three Musketeers, selling out the Tokyo Dome over and over again throughout the decade of the 90s. Choshu was voted the Wrestling Observer Best Booker of 1992, and Best Promoter from 1995 to 1997. Choshu had his retirement ceremony January 4, 1998 in front of a sellout at the Tokyo Dome. He wrestled five matches, beating Kazuyuki Fujita, Yutaka Yoshie, Tatsuhito Takaiwa and Jushin Liger while losing to Takashi Iizuka. He came out of retirement in 2000 to have a death match with Atushi Onita. New Japan’s struggles led to Choshu being fired as booker, and he left the company in 2002. He formed the ill fated WJ promotion, which folded last year. Choshu, one of the most influential wrestlers of all time, still takes independent wrestling dates.

Few wrestlers have represented the sport as well as Tomomi “Jumbo” Tsuruta. Born March 25, 1951, Tsuruta excelled in numerous sports as a child. He took up amateur wrestling at a late age, and quickly became a world class wrestler. He won Japanese amateur wrestling championships in 1971 and 1972 while studying law. Like Choshu, he wrestled in the 1972 Olympics. He was heavily recruited by all the major Japanese pro wrestling organizations, and his signing with Giant Baba was greeted with major fanfare. He signed in 1972, the first major signing of All Japan just ten days after the promotion was formed. Very loyal to the revered Baba San, Tsuruta would wrestle for the promotion until his health made it no longer possible.

Tsuruta was sent to train with Dory Funk, Jr. in the United States. Tsuruta was a natural in the ring, and he quickly became one of wrestling’s greatest in-ring performers. He commanded such respect that he was the first major Japanese wrestler to ever be accepted by American fans as a clean, technical good guy. Tsuruta was placed in a high profile position immediately upon his return to Japan, becoming the regular tag team partner of Giant Baba. Together, they won the Real World Tag League tournaments in 1978 and 1980 by defeating the Funks. They also defeated such teams such as the Bruiser and the Crusher, Stan Hansen and Bruiser Brody and Killer Kowalski and Bruno Sammartino. In the late 1970s, Baba stepped back, and let Tsuruta carry the reigns as All Japan’s top star.

In the 1980s, Tsuruta was All Japan’s greatest star, and he defined the promotion as the home of the world’s greatest wrestling matches. He feuded with Stan Hansen, Bruiser Brody, Ric Flair, Harley Race, Genichiro Tenryu, Riki Choshu and others. In the late 80s, All Japan had a falling out with the NWA, and Tsuruta won the first All Japan Triple Crown World Championship by defeating Stan Hansen. In 1990, it was decided All Japan would create the next generation of stars. Tsuruta played the biggest role, putting over Mitsuharu Misawa clean in what is perhaps the model example of wrestler elevation.

In 1992, Tsuruta was diagnosed with Hepatitis B, ending his tenure as All Japan’s flag bearer. He gradually reduced his schedule over time until he ultimately retired on March 6, 1999. He became a professor in Japan, and then moved to the United States to teach. He taught at the University of Portland and was contemplating a move to the fine institution of UCLA before his health deteriorated. Sadly, the classy Tsuruta passed away on May 13, 2000 of kidney cancer at the young age of 49. He was a fantastic wrestler, a main event star for two decades, one of the most famous cultural figures in Japanese wrestling, and one of the finest representatives pro wrestling will ever have. Inside the Squared Circle is proud to induct into its Hall of Fame Riki Choshu and Jumbo Tsuruta.


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