When it comes to professional wrestling in Japan (known as Puroresu), it has a vast history being performed on the carnival circuits. Although, in 1883, learning of the popularity stateside, former Sumo wrestler Sorakichi Matsuda ventured to New York City and immediately became involved in the sport. A few years he returned home to promote wrestling in his homeland, however, his efforts fell on deaf eyes. By the 1950s, another man decided to give it a try by the name of Rikidozan.
Although a cultural hero in the country of Japan, “Rikidozan” was actually born in a small village in South Hamkyong Province (North Korea) as Kim Sin-Rak on 14th November 1924. He later changed his name to Mitsuhiro Momota to hide his ethnic origin after settling in Japan at the age of 15. He lived on a farm with the Momota family (thus where his new name originated from) near Nagasaki Prefecture started training to become a sumo wrestler under the Nishonoseki stable debuting in May 1940.
While spending ten years training Sumo in the middle of World War II, Momota was subjected to a lot of anti-Korean racism and was bullied by his Japanese colleagues who tried to force him out of the stable and the sport. Nevertheless, due to his determination, he built to a good standard becoming a ‘Sekiwaki’ which is the third-highest rank in Sumo and during this time he was given the Sumo name of “Rikidozan”.
Possessing a fiery short temper, Rikidozan quit Sumo in 1950 after yelling at an official during a technical decision loss, which was highly forbidden – though he did claim himself, he left the sport due to financial reasons. After falling to defeat in WW2, it was a time of extreme patriotism for the people of Japan, and the country was ready for a hero. Rikidozan was ready to take full advantage of this.
By 1951 a boxing and professional wrestling show, promoted by heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, was touring Japan to entertain the occupying U.S. army troops and observing the popularity of the show, Rikidozan decides to train in the sport. Additionally, he was working out in karate and he shed around 50lbs and come October 28th, he wrestled American Bobby Bruns to a ten-minute draw in his debut. Bruns agreed to help coach Rikidozan in the American style and organised future trips to the States.
Rikidozan promoted himself as a Japanese national and began defeating American wrestlers one-by-one. He reinstated the countries pride, doing battle with the people the Japanese detested the most and doing what the nation had previously seen as impossible: being victorious.
He travelled to Hawaii for extra in-ring schooling with Harold Sakata, who found James Bond movie fame as “Oddjob”. Working for Mid-Pacific Promotions under the NWA banner, Rikidozan received an NWA World Heavyweight title shot against Lou Thesz in Honolulu on 6th December 1953 but was narrowly defeated. He returned to Japan and in 1954 he started promoting his own shows.
Rikidozan was declared as the creator of Puroresu, finally bringing the sport to life in Japan. With the financial help of his friend Nick Zapetti, an American member of the Yakuza, he created the Nihon Puroresu Kyokai (translated to Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance – the JWA) and they became the first NWA affiliate outside of the United States.
On the JWA’s debut eight-day tour in February 1954, Rikidozan and partner Masahiko Kimura were headline attractions. The pairing took NWA World Tag Team Champions Ben and Mike Sharpe to a 60-minute time limit draw on the first show. While the Sharpe Brothers were from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada they were billed as Americans and the promotion sold-out houses in Kobe, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Osaka and Tokyo.
The debut shows were shown on two separate television networks and thousands of people packed the streets in front of the windows of Tokyo stores to watch their hero in action. The Japanese public, who could afford it, rushed out to purchase the TV sets. Rikidozan had become a major national celebrity.
Matches with the foreign villains were always the most lucrative, but prominent bouts between Japanese stars also occurred and by the December of 1954, the JWA had created the Japanese Heavyweight title to be contested at Tokyo Sumo Hall by Rikidozan and Kimura. Kimura was a judoka who trained closely with Rikidozan in 1952 and was an accomplished and experienced shooter.
Although Kimura claims this match was booked to be a draw, Rikidozan began shooting on his opponent during the match and claimed the championship. During the bout, Rikidozan attacked Kimura in the corner with a flurry of chops, right hands, knees and once his Kimura fell to a knee, stiff kicks were laid into his head. Lying face down and immobile, Kimura was counted out by the referee and the hand of Rikidozan was raised in victory.
Rizidozan vs. Kimura video is below.
Kimura claimed that night, he received a telephone call from the members of the Yazuka that they were about to arrive in Tokyo “to kill Rikidozan.”. Kimura stated he called them off from harming Rikidozan.
The sport continued to profit on both sides of the pacific and although he was recognised as a hero in Japan, the American promoters would fly Rikidozan over and promote him as the foreign villain. NWA champ Lou Thesz showed great respect to Rikidozan and agreed to wrestle three return World title bouts against him in Japan, these matches all ended in 60-minute draws. The 6th October 1957 bout drew an 87.0 rating – a staggering 87% of the Japanese public was watching.
Seeing the massive popularity in Japan, and the money that could be made, Thesz asked the NWA to defend the championship more regularly over there, they refused and Thesz gave up the title. In 1958, Rikidozan defeated Lou for his newly created NWA International Heavyweight Championship, a belt that was promoted in Japan until 1989. This win helped the Japanese public ease the pain of their World War II losses.
“Once we had a chance to sit down together and discuss our business, I discovered very quickly that Rikidozan was no fool. I had already figured out for myself that he had built himself a money-making machine, but I had no idea of its magnitude until he mentioned, almost off-handily, that he had received a $250,000 — a fortune in those days, especially in yen — from his television network for the rights to televise our Tokyo match. He had used the money shrewdly, buying advertising and doing heavy promotion, so interest in our match was front-page news.”
Lou Thesz – from his autobiography ‘Hooker’.
On 24th May 1963, his popularity continued to be colossal as he battled to a draw with The Destroyer which drew a 67.0 rating, the largest viewing audience in Japanese history, a considerably larger audience than the Thesz match as more people had purchased television sets by then.
Rikidozan went on to tour both sides of the Pacific and feuded against The Sharpes, The Destroyer and “Classy” Freddie Blassie and continued to make big money. Although he enjoyed the nightlife, women and alcohol, he invested wisely and created his own wrestling school, purchased a golf course, shares in nightclubs, apartments and hotels. As his business ventures and his assets increased so did his involvement with the Yakuza.
On the evening of December 8th 1963, an incident in the New Latin Quarter nightclub in Tokyo brought a sad ending to Rikidozan’s career and his life. It is reported that he was confronted by Katsuji Murata, a member of the Yakuza and rival to Zapetti, and a fight broke out in the bathroom. Murata pulled a switchblade from his belt and he stabbed Rikidozan in the abdomen.
Conflicting reports state that Rikidozan either ignored the wound and kept partying or was rushed to the hospital. Murata reportedly offered an apology, which Rikidozan accepted days later. He did receive treatment for the wound and doctors ruled it not to be serious but recommended Rikidozan to have surgery which was successful. However, he was advised to take it easy, stay on a strict diet and stop drinking to help the recovery which he ignored. His condition worsened and it required further surgery, he had contracted peritonitis and passed away at 9:50pm on 15th December.
He was 39 years old. Murata was found guilty of manslaughter and served seven years imprisonment.
However, Rikidozan’s legacy continued well past his death. In the early sixties, he took two protégés from his training school under his wing.
In March 1960, he returned home from a trip in Brazil with 17-year-old Japanese immigrant Kanji Inoki. He signed the trained mixed martial artist to the JWA and labelled him as Antonio Inoki after Argentinean wrestling great Antonino Rocca. He also recruited a 6ft 10inch former Nippon Professional Baseball pitcher, called Shohei Baba. Due to his height and being abnormally tall
for a Japanese national, Rikidozan gave Baba the moniker of “Giant.”
The JWA didn’t survive the death of Rikidozan and in 1972, it was closed. However, Antonio Inoki founded New Japan Pro Wrestling (January 1972) and Giant Baba created All-Japan Pro Wrestling (October 1972) – the two companies that would dominate Puroresu for the rest of the 20th century and two companies influential in our journey at ProjectWCW.com.
Rikidozan introduced professional wrestling to Japan. Not only for his lifetime but forged a legacy for its future. He truly is the founding father of Puroresu.
As always, thanks for reading…
Source: Lou Thesz and Kit Bauman – Hooker, Chris Charlton – Lion’s Pride: The Turbulent History of New Japan Pro Wrestling, Rikidozan: A Hero Extra Ordinaire (Feature Film)