Hello, everyone! Before I begin this guest post about professional wrestling (aka puroresu, or puro for short) in Japan, let me address two things right off the bat.
1) Yes, pro wrestling is fake. It’s a big sweaty oily series of hugfights whose outcomes are fixed for the purpose of spectacle rather than competition. That said, puro’s emphasis on simulating realistic, rather than emotionally satisfying, combat means that they very often beat the crap out of each other during what are still, for lack of better phrasing, predetermined athletic exhibitions.
2) Any kind of scholarly article on the history of puroresu would take literally forever to write, and even longer than that to read, so I’ll try to breeze through it without omitting anything too important.
The development of puroresu can be traced back to one man: Rikidōzan (real name Mitsuhiro Momota). Born in Japanese-occupied Korea, Rikidōzan trained for sumo and competed in the makuuchi division, but discrimination against Koreans forced him out of the sport. So, like countless other wash-out athletes before and since, he made his way into pro wrestling. He debuted in 1951 and became a national hero in post-war Japan by defeating an endless conveyor belt of American wrestlers, including Freddie Blassie, the Destroyer, and NWA Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz, who’d built up his own impressive reputation for ass-kicking in the States. Once he’d established himself, Rikidōzan started his own wrestling promotion, the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance, and trained a handful of wrestlers. We’ll get back to them once Rikidōzan is dead.
Actually, we’ll just skip ahead to that now and save a little time. Rikidōzan pissed off the yakuza somehow and got stabbed in a nightclub in 1963, dying of peritonitis a week later. His JWA promotion would close up shop in 1973, after every main event draw left the company. Two of those stars, Kanji “Antonio” Inoki and Shohei “Giant” Baba, were among Rikidōzan’s original students, and they each formed their own wrestling promotion after breaking away (which has since become a recurring theme in Japan).
Inoki, known for his enormous chin, started New Japan Pro Wrestling. Inoki was a man with big ideas, and he grew NJPW by having his stable of wrestlers defeat invading forces, usually in the form of foreigners or other companies. Inoki was also a fan of mixed martial arts before that was even a term (back in the day, it was called shootfighting), and that hard-hitting style has become puro‘s most recognizable, and imitated, feature. Unfortunately for Inoki, his own attempts at shootfighting weren’t nearly as successful. The most infamous of his fights was a 1976 bout against Muhammed Ali that went for 15 rounds without a winner and provoked the Tokyo audience into rioting out of sheer boredom. Not even kidding.
Baba, known for his enormous size (6’10” on a good day), founded All Japan Pro Wrestling, and was pretty much the antithesis of Inoki in every way. He insisted on clean finishes to matches (aka no outside interference, cheating, or other chicanery), and distanced himself from other companies, preferring to work with wrestlers who competed exclusively for AJPW. Baba was widely respected throughout the international wrestling community, and AJPW’s golden years produced some of the greatest matches in the history of professional wrestling, Japanese or otherwise. None of them involved Giant Baba, though – even in his prime, he moved like something that slept in a sarcophagus.
Today, puro is struggling to maintain the business it had enjoyed in the 1980s and 90s, but AJPW and NJPW are still around – AJPW is currently owned by Masayuki Uchida, and NJPW is owned by Yuke’s, a software company best known for developing the hilariously broken WWE Smackdown vs. Raw series.
Anyway, enough with the history – let’s get down to some classic pro graps! Since I talked up Baba and Inoki here, I’m including matches in which each of them participated.
Match 1: Abdullah the Butcher/the Sheik v. Giant Baba/Jumbo Tsuruta (AJPW 1977)
Match 2: Antonio Inoki v. Andre the Giant (NJPW, year unknown)
And in addition to them, a whole slew of other Japanese promotions have opened up, which we’ll get to in future posts. If Paula will let me, that is. 🙂 Hope you enjoyed a glimpse into the world of puroresu.