Rikidōzan: The Rugged Mountain Road

The year is 2022. The Mad King from Yonkers faces the unofficial Fifth Pillar of Heaven and thanks the gods of his youth that struck inspiration for him to step in the squared circle for the rush that he’s carried through his whole life. A Stone Pitbull butts heads with a former Young Lion, evoking the spirit of The Wrestler that the former faced years ago. New Japan clashes with NOAH, AEW and Stardom. Antonio Inoki passes away. IYO SKY and Asuka are featured heavily on WWE programming.

All of this barely touching the surface, all of this spawned from a man generations ago that took a dream and made a whole fucking country believe: I present to you, Rikidōzan. Without him, Japanese wrestling would not have taken off the way it did, it would not have the ripples that it has today. None of the things we see would be the way it is, the way it was made and always will be, had it not been for him.

In the aftermath of World War II, many countries were left far different places than the ones that came into it. Japan was no exception. After surrendering to the Allied Forces, Japan was still subjected to atomic bombs, firebombs and airstrikes that scarred the nation. Many lives lost, because war is ugly and stupid and plain horrible. The nation needed hope. Attempts to lift the spirits came at the return of sporting events, such as football and baseball. Still, there was contempt and hatred in the air for what was taken from them. 

Where does professional wrestling factor into all of this?

Prior to the war, there had been attempts to bring professional wrestling to this Eastern land, but to no avail. A young Kim Sin-rak, born in Kankyōnan-dō, Chōsen (now known as South Hamgyong, North Korea) would take up a role as a sumo wrestler in Japan. Sin-rak would change his name to Mistuhiro Momota and rise to the rank sekiwake, almost becoming an ōzei rank. That was huge on its own, as Japan was extremely strict about sumo wrestling being exclusive to native Japanese. It would have been shocking if Momota would’ve rose to the highest rank of yokozuna, but due to racial and national discrimination, it wouldn’t have been likely. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that Japan would ease up on this front. It was during this period where Momota reaches his ring name of Rikidōzan.

Eventually, Momota would chop off his ponytail, symbolic of sumo wrestlers, and absconding with that world. What levels of greatness in entertainment awaited him after this? Construction work.

However, Rikidōzan expressed interest in professional wrestling, and luckily for him, Mid-Pacific Promotions and the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) in the United States proved to be a tantalizing opportunity that he accepted gladly. 

Leaving one form of combat sport for another was an eye-opening experience for him. Quickly, he learned that to be a pro-wrestler, power wasn’t the most important thing as it would for sumos – rather, it was about stamina. It’s about drive, it’s about spirit. Rikidōzan stayed hungry and devoured.

Initially he was presented as a foreign Japanese villain to the American audience, but over time he managed to win the crowds over. Soon, he was able to bring wrestling to Japan successfully, the countrymen cheering as dastardly American wrestlers were felled by Rikidōzan’s mighty karate chops. This is it, the Japanese thought. This is the hope we needed. Rikidōzan’s dominance proved to inspire the Japanese and keep them coming back for more, making the medium of wrestling a viable one in Japan. The acclaim of fans, combined with connections both okay and shady, kept business afloat as he started up the Japan Pro-Wrestling Alliance (JWA), and even held the NWA’s International Heavyweight Championship. A star of fiction, he made the Japanese believe that there was light and that things could get better again.

Life was good for ol’ Rikidōzan; he bought nightclubs, hotels, condominiums, and boxing promotions, and the inclusion of his Western friends made for memorable moments. For instance, his suffering at the hands of the Sharpe Brothers, leading to a powerful babyface comeback in a classic bout that symbolized Japan’s ability to overcome the demons left behind by America’s actions in WWII (though the Sharpes were actually Canadian). In the later half of the 1950s, Rikidōzan would face off against one of the world’s biggest wrestling stars in Lou Thesz, the pair reaching levels that would see the fight become one of Japan’s highest rated television events at the time. Years later, in 1963, a two-out-of-three draw with The Destroyer, despite having a lower ranking, was still the highest viewed. 

Tragedy would strike that same year of The Destroyer match. On a night of drinking in Tokyo, Rikidōzan would find himself irate at Katsushi Murata, a member of a Yakuza sub-branch, which was met with a stabbing. Though treated with a successful surgery at the Sannō Hospital, and meeting with Murata and his boss who offered an apology that he forgave, Rikidōzan’s drinking habits got the better of him. On December 15, 1963, the wrestler would die at the age of 39. Murata spent the rest of his life apologizing to Rikidōzan’s family, right up until his death in April 2013. As a result of Rikidōzan’s death, the state of professional wrestling in Japan suffered greatly. His promotion of JWA was in jeopardy, surviving for a decade more, with two of his greatest pupils holding the stead before jumping to make their own promotions.

That’s how we get to where we are today. These pupils were Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba, who started New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW)  and All Japan Pro-Wrestling (AJPW), respectively.

NJPW would feature angles and stories that saw them through several decades, while AJPW would be focused on the sports side and telling the story of the King’s Road in the promotion’s boom period in the 1990s, which is the best decade to have ever existed.

These two promotions would work with the U.S. territories and other national talent while building up the stars that would come. Outsiders mixing it up with local heroes and villains would be the bread and butter, until the NJPW’s Three Musketeers were formed, consisting of Keiji Muto, Shinya Hashimoto and Masahiro Chono while AJPW’s Four Pillars of Heaven were made of Mitsuharu Misawa, Akira Taue, Toshiaki Kawada and Kenta Kobashi. It would expand further and further with Japanese talent rising in their home country and becoming recognizable names on the American independent scene. It led to WCW maintaining positive relations with NJPW in the 90s and Ring of Honor would benefit from their own NOAH partnership in the 2000s. 

Japanese wrestling reached its highest point on an international level as NJPW’s reputation grew through incredible matches, increasingly easier accessibility, and the success of the Bullet Club and Kenny Omega’s rivalry with Kazuchika Okada. 

We don’t get there without Rikidōzan donning his long, black pants. We don’t get there without the man who transcended barriers and planted the seeds for what is to come. We don’t get NJPW, AJPW, AJW, Gleat, NOAH, Stardom, TJPW, Dragon Gate, without people like Rikidōzan.

This is what I love about learning about the sides of wrestling that have big effects on the history of the business. I felt it when seeing Magnum TA’s career cut short, Mildred Burke fighting amongst male wrestlers and introducing Japan to women’s wrestling, Vince McMahon’s purchase of the territories and the Von Erich family suffering from a “curse”; these things that embed a sense of depth as to why professional wrestling is important. Why anything can change at a moment’s notice and why we can’t take these moments for granted. For good and for bad. Professional wrestling is a unique medium, not simply ballet, acrobatics, and theater, it is professional wrestling – a beautiful masquerade of sport. 

We live in a world of many colors and sounds, but it stems from the muted colors and monochrome visuals of the scratchy, muffled sounds of the past. 

To get from there to now, sometimes it takes a chop and a leap of faith, and a climb up a rugged mountain road.