Noob Japan: Collision in Korea

I know it might seem silly having a title about Japanese wrestling set in Korea, but that’s just the world we live in now. Anything can happen. And the event I want to talk about today is no exception. 

Following the insane episode of Vice’s Dark Side of the Ring detailing the controversial event Collision in Korea, I was morbidly intrigued by the interesting, yet disturbing life, that persists behind the dark borders of North Korea in the past year. 

When many think of the country, they think of the scripted feeling the people seem to abide by. Living under an oppressive regime where a show must be put on for visitors while stroking the egos of dictators that fancy themselves as deities, it all leaves me wondering how citizens would cope and adjust to the outside world when they find out it’s nothing like the propaganda that is fed, that everything in their history needed not happen. Not to worry dear reader, I’ll get to the wrestles! 

For a sizable chunk of the 1990s, WCW had a working relationship with New Japan Pro Wrestling. The head booker of NJPW, Antonio Inoki, would seek to further his political aspirations in Japan by holding a show in North Korea, yet he needed help. Enter Mohammad Ali and Eric Bischoff. The former needs no introduction, and I’d imagine the latter wouldn’t either, but essentially he was the guy behind WCW’s product at the time. 

The event was set. Wrestlers were afraid. Decisions were made behind the backs of important people. This could have ended disastrously. If you’ve watched the episode of Dark Side of the Ring, you know exactly how it could have done so.

Alas, this article is not about the real life danger that everyone faced in one of the most bizarre locations on Earth, but the matches on the card that took place in the quiet yet extremely packed Mayday Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea. That is, until the main event of night two, but we’ll get there. The commentators for this odd spectacle are Eric Bischoff, Mike Tenay, and Kazuo Ishikawa, recorded following the event, likely in the safety of another country. 

Night one was reported to have the second-highest attendance for a wrestling event of all time, clocking in at approximately 165,000, while night two scored the top spot with an attendance of 190,000. It was surreal watching such an event like this.

Flying Scorpio (2 Cold Scorpio) vs Wild Pegasus (Chris Benoit)
Scorpio makes his way to the ring, dancing to his music in the way that only he can, the controlled crowd already confused by what they were seeing. Benoit joins him but he doesn’t dance, he’s about business tonight. Commentary makes note of the history between these two, their paths crossing in both Japan and in WCW. Scorpio’s high-flying talent and Benoit’s technical stylings mesh well here. I actually enjoyed this match – crazy to think Flying Scorpio almost committed a murder on Road Warrior Hawk during this trip, but thankfully Benoit was the voice of reason.

Seeing the background of the MayDay stadium while the North Korean crowd is making slight noise makes me feel as though I’m in the Twilight Zone. Eric Bischoff tries to coax Kazuo Ishikawa into being excited for the Western competitors, but he’s not having it because he prefers Japanese wrestlers. Bischoff is dejected, meanwhile Benoit ends the match with a pin following a diving headbutt. Solid match, very fun.

Yuji Nagata vs Tokimitsu Ishizawa
I know of Yuji Nagata from old episodes of WCW Monday Nitro and from his matches with Jon Moxley on AEW Dynamite and NJPW Strong. I’m very aware Nagata is a big legend, I don’t know Tokimitsu Ishizawa at all. Japanese commentator Kazuo Ishikawa rejoices to Bischoff and Tenay, but Bischoff is nonplussed and Tenay is ambivalent, he just wants to commentate.

As Ishizawa turns the tables, Bischoff regales of a moment during his trip where he went for a morning jog through the city of Pyongyang, much to the fright of the North Koreans. There’s also a second bout going on during this match: Eric Bischoff vs pronouncing Tokimitsu Ishizawa’s name. Fun match – I rooted heavily for the future Blue Justice here.

Some footage of incredibly choreographed performers putting on their own show in Mayday Stadium. I recently entered a deep dive on the wild nature of North Korea following the DSTOR episode, and seeing these types of sights never gets old. Bizarrely wonderful, yet hauntingly captivating, knowing the nature of the communist country.

Ookami Gundan (Hiro Saito & Masahiro Chono) vs El Samurai & Tadao Yasuda
I’ve seen Masahiro Chono in WCW, mostly as a part of the future New World Order, but this is 1995 and not 1997 when he joins. He and Hiro Saito look like some tough fellas. El Samurai looks cool yet goofy, but Tadao Yasuda and his sumo background balance it out. Not really, but the match is great. Fun tag team action, but nothing to write home about. 

Footage of wrestling talent and Muhammad Ali seeing the sights and sounds of Pyongyang, the wrestlers looking noticeably uncomfortable, but Ali seems like he’s having fun. Maybe it’s nice taking a break from floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee.

Mariko Yoshida & Manami Toyota vs. Akira Hokuto & Bull Nakano
Bull Nakano and Manami Toyota I am familiar with and I am fans of both. Yoshida and Toyota look gorgeous while Hokuto and Nakano are colorful and scary, with the latter sporting a Marge Simpson hairdo if she had snapped into a Slim Jim (OOOOH YEAH – DIG IT!).

In watching this match, the commentary is apparently enjoying the action in the ring, and shockingly they even add to this match! I especially recommend this bout, the four All Japan Women put on a great showcase. Nakano and Hokuto are the destructive monsters they need to be here while Yoshida is often in dire straits, Toyota often her savior. I won’t spoil the match, it’s one worth seeking out.

Verdict: I need to watch more AJW and you do too!

Shinya Hashimoto (C) vs Scott Norton: IWGP Heavyweight Championship
My familiarity with Scott Norton stems from Nitro and the Dark Side of the Ring episode, while I know Shinya Hashimoto as one of the Three Musketeers of NJPW, along with Keiji Mutoh and Masahiro Chono. Big boys doing big things. Hashimoto’s gear reminds me of Liu Kang from Mortal Kombat, while Scott Norton’s black and white striped gear makes him look like the unofficial mascot of Foot Locker. 

Hashimoto finds himself at odds, but Norton has a bad arm in this match, and it’s worked especially well, but not much else to say.

Kazuo Ishikawa on commentary bickers with Eric Bischoff back and forth about whether Japanese or American wrestlers are better. I don’t know why, because Collision in Korea was in April and World War 3 wouldn’t arrive until November of that year, sometime after Monday Nitro’s debut. That’s actually something I hadn’t thought about before – how this pay-per-view happened just months before Nitro’s debut in Mall of America.  

Another Intermission
Dramatic music drapes over footage of ceremonial performances from the native North Koreans, and shown are some spectators from the NJPW and WCW rosters. The performers are incredibly choreographed. There’s even a part where some black-and-orange clad individuals seem to do a mixture of dabbing and Naruto-running. If you watch the show, you’ll see what I mean. Also there’s basketball. Nothing but net! The music really gives a sensation of eeriness. 

Tadao Yasuda vs Road Warrior Hawk
It has been said that the Pyongyang crowd is quiet, more quiet than a crowd ranging between 150,000 to 190,000 people would have any right to be. The Road Warrior Pop does not exist here. OAAAARRRGHHH WHAT A… lack of a rush?

This was a weird clash, but Yasuda’s sumo stylings strangely mesh well with the cartoony monstrosity of Hawk’s skills. To paraphrase Gorilla Monsoon, this is an unstoppable force meeting with an immovable object. The match is relatively short, a trade of offense, yet nothing too remarkable, Hawk seemingly displeased by the lack of crowd engagement.

Steiner Brothers vs Hiroshi Hase & Kensuke Sasaki
The Steiners arrive in their letterman jackets, while Hase and Sasaki arrive in t-shirts. This fashion battle is the clear match here, but the opponents lock up anyways. Steiners get a lot of offense in the early going and hit their signature poses. This probably lead to some North Koreans thinking Americans must think they’re dogs, based on Rick being on all fours.

Mike Tenay makes mention of Kensuke Sasaki and Akira Hokuto being introduced to each other on the trip to North Korea. Fun backstory, they kept their fellow wrestler hotel neighbors up all night as they uh…fell in love. Eat your heart out, Rihanna – Sasaki and Hokuto can find love in a hopeless place as well! This factors little into the match but I wanted to share this trivia as Tenay deemed it important enough to mention in the first instance.

Despite his luck in finding love, Sasaki wouldn’t have much luck with his tag team partner, who is isolated for the majority of the match. Some exquisite tag team psychology by Rick and Scott. 

Another fun fact about the trip in North Korea, Scott Steiner almost got everyone in trouble by making a scene, disdainful of the culinary dish provided by the communist country. That’s probably one of the most Scott Steiner things I’ve ever heard.

Antonio Inoki vs Ric Flair
This is the main event, the two biggest names on the card facing off for the first time. Ric Flair reads as nervous and timid, uncharacteristically tense from whatever experiences he faced in North Korea. Whatever he expected going across the Korean Demilitarized Zone, this was not it. He looks like he wants to get hell out of there, right now.

The opposite can be said for Inoki, however, as he is beloved here. Some context: Inoki was trained by Rikidōzan, a North Korean who moved to Japan and trained NJPW and AJPW founders Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba respectively. By virtue of being linked to Rikidōzan, Inoki is accepted by the North Koreans. Like North Korea, Inoki is an enigma.

The actual match reads as standard fare for Flair, hitting his same style and beats. That flip over the top turnbuckle to the outside, begging on his knees, the late sells, it’s all here. Seeing his bleach blonde hair in a crowd that is known to hate Americans is surreal, perhaps this plays into the later half of the match when they rise to their feet.

The massive crowd feels more animated as the match plays out, making more noise than any previous match. They react warmly to Inoki’s successes and fearfully to Flair’s own upward momentum. “Inoki! Inoki! Inoki!” This match is fun, but also tense considering the circumstances. Flair is able to keep Inoki’s fans on the edge of their seats, and each hit Inoki lands becomes the pulse of the match.

The final beat before the release at the match’s end and the crowd goes wild, probably having the most fun they’ve had in their lives until that point. I know in the grand scheme of things that this didn’t matter much in the history of North Korea, but for a moment, thrill personified the heated up Pyongyang crowd that night – like a gulp of cold water after toiling away outside on a hot and sweaty summer day.

In large part this show was for Antonio Inoki’s the political aspirations, which he lost. This was meant to be a show that would have lasting implications on the world, not just professional wrestling, yet all was for naught. People were made to feel unsafe and scared for seemingly nothing. The only accolades this show had is being the first professional wrestling event in North Korea, as well as the crazy attendance number – but not of paying customers, as it would turn out. 

This felt like a PR stunt for the country as well, as they were in economic downturn and famine throughout the ‘90s, and they were fresh off the death of their dear leader Kim Il-Sung the year before. And during this decade, the impoverished citizens of North Korea were suffering from a country that cares so little about their lives, like a parent who is more obsessed with their inward and outward appearance than the wellbeing of their children. I know I’ve been goofy in this article, but this is utterly heart-breaking, and it still persists to this day.

This show was filled with fun matches, but nothing anyone would clamour for, save for Benoit vs Scorpio, the joshi match, and Flair vs Inoki. Collision in Korea is known mostly by its name and controversy than by the wrestling quality for that very reason. As it stands, the event is a bizarre nightmare/dream, something in wrestling that is beyond what you might be used to. It’s an experience, but not in the same vein as a WrestleMania.

The world is in fear, countries and leaders lay in fear of each other, and we ourselves live in fear of others. Sometimes the home you live in is filled with lies; the wool is pulled over your eyes. And so begins the selection for societal sanity, the controlling of narratives. This mission was that of alleviating that immense weight of oppression, and for a brief time, one infinitesimal instance, it did just that.