Professional wrestling in Japan is commonly known as Purofesshonaru Resuringu, usually abbreviated to Puroresu.The first Japanese to become a professional wrestler in the Western style was former sumo wrestler Sorakichi Matsuda, who went to the United States in the 1880s and was somewhat successful. Attempts by him to popularize the game in his native land, however, fell short and he ended back in America, where he died young.Subsequent attempts before and after World War II failed to get off the ground initially, until Japan saw the advent of its first big star, Rikidozan, who made the sport popular beginning in 1951.
So 1951 was the year it truly all began in Japan, properly at least with the rise of a Korean, billed as a Japanese Sumo champion who with a fistful of Yakuza money and the backing of several ‘businessmen’ took the sport from a cult to a national passion.
Rikidozan, born Kim San-nak trained to be a Sumo wrestler under the assumed name of Mitsuhiro Momota taking on the name of a family that took him in upon his arrival in the country. He took the stage name or Shikona of Rikidozan but gave up in 1950 due to the acts of discrimination taken against him from Sumo organisations and dojo’s due to his Korean heritage and went on a campaign to bring happiness and pride to post war Japan and become a hero to rise above these actions…
One after another American wrestlers (and Japanese ones as well) fell before the man who fought in the style of the time where it was open handed strikes, chops, occasional throws and holds, his STIFF ‘karate’ chops taking down many a man in his rise to the top of national attention….
But it was not until he met a man by the name of Lou Thesz in 1958 that he gained the true pinnacle of stardom, not just in his adopted homeland but the world as he defeated a man seen along with Karl Gotch as being the finest wrestler of all time for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship. Several re-matches lead to records including a 60 minute draw with Thesz in a match which to this day still holds a record in Japan for the most watched event on television with an insane rating of 87.0…
Knowing that he alone could not last forever he began to groom the next crop of stars he felt would lead his promotion beyond the end of his career, most namely a former baseball pitcher by the name of Shohei ‘Giant’ Baba and also Kanji ‘Antonio’ Inoki.
But even he could not see the end coming so soon… his death, which shocked the nation, came thanks to his connections with the Yakuza. When one family announced a war against his friends and backers in another family ‘Riki’ was right in the firing line and was a target hit by gangster Katsuji Murata who stabbed him with a blade soaked in urine leading to a deadly bout of peritonitis at the tender age of 39, his passing coming on December 5th 1963.
The JWA shouldered on without him, nurturing the talents of Baba and Inoki and being the base of NWA operations in Japan until the IWA was established in 1968 and established Japan’s first native ‘world’ title.
This lead to the slide of Rikidozan’s baby and then the roof caved in as Baba left to form All Japan Pro Wresting and Inoki took off as well on his own path to form New Japan, both of them in 1972.
It was these two promotions that really took on the work of Rikidozan and pushed Japanese wrestling to the next level, providing us with such stars as Misawa, Tenryu, Tsurta, Kobashi, Tiger Mask, Kawada, Taue, Fujinami, Choshu, Meada, Liger, Chono, Hashimoto, Muto et al.
It was All Japan that kept alive the links with the NWA and provided many great intercontinental battles whilst New Japan where the first promotion to seriously push Hulk Hogan and brought the best out of him…
But none of this would have happened if it had not been for a dream and a plan of a Korean Sumo wrestler who wanted to entertain, instil pride and of course make money…
Known as ‘the Father of Puroresu’ it is where any person who wants to appreciate the history of Japanese wrestling should begin.
Next time I will explain the layout and some history of the current state of Japanese wrestling, its promotions and highlights that you need to seek out…
Until next time puro-heads!