The murder-suicide of Chris Benoit, his wife and young son this past week was the latest tragedy in an industry defined by corruption, drug abuse and premature death. Forty-four years ago in Tokyo, Japan the dark side of pro wrestling claimed one of its first victims. Since I first heard the Benoit story Tuesday morning, I’ve thought over and over again of Rikidozan.
He was born Kim Sin-nak in 1924, in the South Hamgyong province of what is today North Korea. As a child he was adopted by a family in Nagasaki, Japan. To avoid the vicious racism directed toward Koreans in Japan, his name was changed to Mitsuharu Momota. The new name wasn’t enough to spare him from the prejudice of his peers. He was disowned by his parents when he was 13, and traveled to Tokyo to train as a sumo. He packed on the blubber and eventually maxed-out at over 300 pounds. But he was quick and agile for his size, and made a skilled and popular sumo. He took the shikona of “Rikidozan,” which translates roughly to “rugged mountain road” in English, a name evocative of his 800 mile journey from Nagasaki to Tokyo. By age 23 he was on the verge of an opportunity to become a grand champion. He quit sumo just over two years later, following an argument with an official over a technicality that cost him a victory.
He worked as a construction worker for a year, training in his spare time in karate, dropping fifty pounds along the way. In 1951, two weeks after an American pro wrestling show in Tokyo sponsored by the Japanese Red Cross to entertain occupying American troops, Rikidozan and a group of professional judoka decide to train for careers as wrestlers. Attempts to establish professional wrestling in Japan had been made as early as 1887 but had always failed due to lack of interest. Rikidozan’s residual popularity from his sumo career gave him a head start with fans, as did the fact that he booked himself to defeat a series of villainous American opponents. It was six years after the defeat of World War II, and the people of Japan embraced Rikidozan as a hero.
Rikidozan traveled to America in 1952, first training and wrestling in Hawaii, then winning his first match in the continental U.S. by pinning Ike Aikens at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in June. Despite working as a heel in front of the American fans, Rikidozan was booked to lose to only three men in the 260 matches he worked during the 13-month U.S. tour. In July 1953, with funding from his friend Nick Zapetti, a member of the yakuza, Rikidozan founded the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (JWA), the country’s first full-time pro wrestling promotion. The company’s early shows were headlined by a feud between Rikidozan and Masahiko Kimura, one of the original judoka who trained with Rikidozan two years earlier. In November of ’53 Rikidozan returned to Hawaii, where he was booked to win an 8-man tournament, earning a shot at the NWA World Heavyweight Champion, the already legendary Lou Thesz. The match with Thesz took place the next month in Honolulu; Rikidozan lost in 43 minutes, after keeping up with the tireless Thesz and earning his respect.
The JWA promoted a series of cards in February 1954 headlined by Rikidozan teaming with Masahiko Kimura against NWA World Tag Team Champions Ben and “Iron” Mike Sharpe. The shows were broadcast by both of Japan’s national television networks. Thousands who could not afford a ticket to the shows or a television of their own gathered to watch Rikidozan on street televisions set up by the Nippon Television Network. Thanks to the popularity of Rikidozan and the JWA, Japan was soon home to numerous full-time pro wrestling promotions, including the All-Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance, International Pro-Wrestling Force, and All-Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling.
On December 22, 1954 Rikidozan defeated Kimura to become the first Japanese Heavyweight Champion. Kimura later claimed that they had booked the match to be a draw, but Rikidozan began shooting during the match and defeated Kimura to claim the championship for himself. Five months later Rikidozan and former sumo star Azumafuji won the NWA Hawaiian Tag Team Titles in Honolulu. In November of 1955 Rikidozan and Harold Sakata put over the team of King Kong and Tiger Jokinder, making Kong and Jokinder the first All Asia Tag Team Champions. A week later Rikidozan defeated King Kong in a singles match to become the first All Asia Heavyweight Champion. There was hardly a major title in the early history of modern pro wrestling in Japan that was not originated in some way by Rikidozan. On May 4, 1956 Rikidozan teamed with Koukichi Endo to defeat the Sharpe Brothers and win the NWA World Tag Team Titles. Eleven months later Rikidozan traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, home of the NWA, to meet with World Champion Lou Thesz and sign a contract for Thesz to defend his title in Japan.
Thesz traveled to Tokyo in October 1957 and became the first NWA World Heavyweight Champion to defend the title in Japan. Rikidozan and Thesz wrestled to a 60-minute time limit draw before a crowd of 30,000 at Korakuen Stadium. Ten months later, at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, California, Rikidozan defeated Thesz to win the NWA International Heavyweight Title, a seldom defended belt awarded to Thesz in 1949 following a victory over Antonino Rocca. Rikidozan wore the title proudly, defending it 19 times over the next five years and establishing it as the most coveted championship in Japanese pro wrestling.
In 1959 Rikidozan won the inaugural World League round-robin tournament. He traveled to South America in March 1960 and discovered Japanese immigrant Kanji Inoki. Rikidozan returned to Japan with Inoki, signing him to the JWA and dubbing him “Antonio” after Argentinean star Antonino Rocca. Following his return from South America, Rikidozan also recruited Shohei Baba, a former pitcher for the Yomiuri Giants, to the JWA. He gave the 6’6” Baba the nickname “Giant.” In 1972, following the collapse of the JWA, Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba founded New Japan Pro Wrestling and All-Japan Pro Wrestling, respectively, the companies that dominated pro wrestling in Japan for the rest of the 20th century.
Rikidozan defeated Fred Blassie in Los Angeles in 1962 to win the WWA World Heavyweight Title. He was the first Asian wrestler to win a recognized World Heavyweight Championship. He lost the belt back to Blassie four months later. In May 1962 Lou Thesz wrestled Rikidozan for the final time, putting him over in the final match of the fourth annual World League tournament. Rikidozan admired the selflessness and generosity of Thesz, and instilled those qualities in those he trained. Thesz was the only American wrestler for whom Rikidozan ever publicly expressed respect. In December of 1963 Rikidozan told reporters in Japan that he was planning on traveling to the U.S. to face Thesz again. Had he lived long enough to make the trip, he may have returned home the NWA World Heavyweight Champion.
On December 8, 1963 Rikidozan was in a Tokyo nightclub when he was confronted by yakuza gangster Katsuji Murata. Murata was a rival of Rikidozan’s friend and co-investor in the JWA, Nick Zapetti. A fight ensued in the men’s room of the club. Murata stabbed Rikidozan in the abdomen with a urine-soaked switchblade. Reports of what happened that night diverge after Rikidozan threw Murata out of the club. Some say he ignored the wound and continued to party; some say he was rushed to the hospital, where he was told the wound wasn’t serious. Either way, a week later, after bleeding profusely and developing peritonitis, Rikidozan died. He was 39 years old.
His funeral in Tokyo on December 20 was attended by thousands from all across Japan. The pro wrestling business suffered in Japan following his death, but thanks to his star students Inoki and Baba the JWA was able to survive. In 1974 Giant Baba pinned Jack Brisco in Kagoshima, becoming the first non-white NWA World Heavyweight Champion in history. In 1995 Antonio Inoki, as owner of New Japan Pro Wrestling, helped promote the first-ever pro wrestling event in North Korea. The two-day event drew crowds of 150,000 and 190,000. Chris Benoit wrestled on the undercard. Inoki went over Ric Flair in the main event, their only match together. A few days prior to the event, Inoki visited the grave of Kim Sin-nak, his mentor, the orphan from Korea who had brought fans in post-war Japan cheering to their feet – the man they knew only as Rikidozan.