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2019 FOUR PILLARS BIO: CHAPTERS 18-21, PART THREE (THE NIGHT THE PILLARS WERE BUILT)

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2019 FOUR PILLARS BIO: CHAPTERS 18-21, PART THREE (THE NIGHT THE PILLARS WERE BUILT)

With nearly two million residents as of a 2020 census, Sapporo is Japan’s largest city north of Tokyo, and is the political, cultural, and economic center of Hokkaido, the northernmost of the Japanese archipelago’s five main islands. It became the first Asian host of the Winter Olympics in 1972 (and would have been so 32 years earlier, had the second Sino-Japanese War not forced them to relinquish the hosting rights to an event that never happened anyway). It was the first city that my hometown of Portland, Oregon established a sister city relationship with. It holds an annual snow festival.

Sapporo has been familiar to puroresu since 1954, when the nascent JWA booked a three-night run that August. It’s seen its share of big shows and title matches in the decades since, from the Sharpe brothers winning the NWA World tag titles back from Rikidozan & Kokichi Endo in 1956 to NJPW’s two-night Summer Struggle just a few months before I wrote this. But like most cities in the world, it isn’t Tokyo, and building a loyal audience in a large but ultimately regional city is a difficult matter.

In the summer of 1985, Masahito Hino opened what seems to have been a wrestling merch store in Sapporo called Ring Palace. He was to be the promoter of a UWF show at the Sapporo Nakajima Sports Center. This, however, put him in the crosshairs of the AJPW sales department, who harassed him for arranging an event to be held just one night before All Japan’s stop in Sapporo. It was a moot point, as it turns out. The show was set for November 25; the UWF’s final show would be on September 11.

Almost three years later, the Newborn UWF selected Sapporo to host their second event. UWF Starting Over would draw 5,200 to the Nakajima Sports Center.1 One week earlier, All Japan had run the same building with a show headlined by Revolution and the Olympians duking it out for the just-unified AJPW World tag titles. They had drawn 4,400. AJPW wouldn’t work Sapporo again until the following July. Before a show that saw Tenryu & Hansen beat the Olympians for the tag titles, Baba held a talk event where he spoke directly to the crowd for two hours. Hino recalls how this gesture reflected an All Japan that sought to form a more direct audience with its fans, and by extension sought to puncture the atmosphere around professional wrestling that had made mens’ puroresu less approachable for women and children. They drew 3,800 that night, which was fifty more than NJPW had drawn two weeks earlier.

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According to Hino, while good matches had been held in Sapporo over the years, the impression that it wouldn’t hold great matches had prevailed; he recalls when an announced singles match between Akira Maeda and Bruiser Brody was cancelled, and notwithstanding the general opinion on Brody in these circles, that’s the kind of cancellation that can hurt a market. Meanwhile, AJPW would make incremental progress in the market by holding infrequent but consistent events. UWF’s Fighting Art show on October 25 was the top-drawing Sapporo show of 1989, but when AJPW returned for a televised date in that year’s RWTL, they drew a thousand more than they had last time. Those 4,800 certainly made the right call, as they were the first Japanese audience in a quarter-century to watch Giant Baba get pinned by a native wrestler, in a great, subversive match. It would be six years until AJPW drew under 5,000 again.

The Nakajima Sports Center held four wrestling shows in 1990. NJPW was first, putting on a January 25 show headlined by a Vader/Chono singles match; they drew 3,860. AJPW returned on the 1st of June, as 5,250 came to a show headlined by a Jumbo/Kabuki vs. Misawa/Kobashi tag. A third and final UWF show in the Center came the following month, and 5,600 came to see Maeda/Fujiwara and Takada/Yamazaki matches. Finally, AJPW came back for a RWTL date on December 1. This show featured the second-ever Misawa-Kawada/Miracle Violence Connection match, as well as a novel six-man which saw the Funks team up with Andre the Giant to wrestle Stan Hansen, Danny Spivey & Joel Deaton. The show was quite likely dampened by the broken leg which had hospitalized Baba the previous night, but All Japan’s consistency in Sapporo was rewarded by an attendance of 6,100. 

Hino speculates that the dissolution of Newborn UWF might have helped AJPW’s Sapporo audience grow, though I’m skeptical that this was a significant factor; all three of its splinter promotions held Sapporo shows in 1991 and drew about 5,000 each. But despite NJPW drawing 6,350 on a July show headlined by Vader/Hashimoto, AJPW would draw the largest crowd of the year yet again, with a November 29 show headlined by the Misawa-Kawada/ Tsuruta-Taue RWTL match bringing 6,600 through the doors.

 

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On May 22, 1992, the three top members of Chosedaigun all made their Tsurutagun counterparts submit in a Sapporo six-man. [The formatting and font gives this away as a Weekly Pro page, but I cannot confirm the source issue.]

Five months after All Japan’s previous stop in Sapporo, they would outdo themselves. The Chosedaigun/Tsurutagun six-man of 4/20/91 was already legendary, and the city was privileged to hold a rematch on May 22. A whopping 7,800 came to see yet another early-90s AJPW classic. Their annual RWTL stop on November 27 drew 6,450, with a show headlined by the Misawa-Kawada/Baba-Kobashi tournament match.

Emboldened by three years of strong attendance, AJPW booked the Nakajima Sports Center for two consecutive nights: May 20-21, 1993.

---

The 1993 Super Power Series tour would begin in Korakuen on May 14, but there would be a preamble. Weekly Pro Wrestling parent company Baseball Magazine (BBM) had purchased Korakuen shows from NJPW in 1986 and 1993, but this would be their first AJPW show.  While he was “in charge” of the event, Ichinose was not there to cover it; he had been pulling double duty since the formation of JWP (which would lead to a commentary job on their WOWOW program), and was accompanying them on a trip to Saipan. Due to the special circumstances, Kawada’s first match against the Super Generation Army was not alongside Taue; rather, he wrestled Kikuchi in the semi-main, winning with a stretch plum.

When the tour began, though, so did Seikigun (the Holy Demon Army).2 Debuting with a victory over Misawa & Kikuchi, Kawada & Taue symbolized their equality on this tour by alternating which member entered first and whose name was called first, night by night, on top of their entrance theme mashup. The latter had been seen in the Hansen/Brody and KakuRyu teams, but the alternating name order was novel, even if “Kawada & Taue” was always how the team was referred to by fandom and the like.

The two Sapporo shows were dates 6-7 of the tour. AJPW would not beat the previous year’s attendance record, but they had not expected to. The first night would draw 6,100, and the second 6,400. According to Hino, 1,000 of those tickets were sold on the day/s of, and about 10% of the total attendance had bought their tickets at his shop. On the first night, Kawada & Taue defeated the Miracle Violence Connection to end the final AJPW World Tag Team title reign of what had been the definitive foreign team of the early decade in the promotion. Misawa & Kobashi, meanwhile, beat Hansen & Spivey in the semi-main.

The second night was even more significant. After the Can-Am Express lost an All Asia #1 Contendership match against the Patriot & the Eagle the previous night, Dan Kroffat made up for it by defeating Fuchi for the junior title, and thus ending what will quite likely always be the final 1000+-day title reign in puroresu. Even this, though, would pale in significance compared to what followed.

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Photos from the four singles matches that built the legend of the Four Pillars. [Source: Weekly Pro Wrestling Issue #555, dated June 8, 1993 (photograph included in free preview of the issue’s archived digital copy)]

Mitsuharu Misawa, Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, and Akira Taue all wrestled singles matches against the four top All Japan gaikokujin of the early 90s. All four would win. Taue was first, wrestling Danny Spivey in the first of three matches officiated by Kyohei Wada. Taue suffered a laceration under his left eyebrow, but he hit the nodowa otoshi to win his first singles match against Spivey, after four attempts.  Next up was Kobashi, wrestling a former Triple Crown champion in Terry Gordy. Kobashi had already pinned Spivey on February 28, but had not beaten Gordy, just as Taue had beaten Gordy in a 1993 Champion Carnival match, but not Spivey. In just over nineteen minutes, he changed that. After a Baba-style neckbreaker drop didn’t do the trick, a moonsault did. A detail Ichinose notes is Kobashi’s clenched fist in the postmatch, which he appears not to notice at first. The fist pump before a moonsault was already a Kobashi trope by this point, and much later on, the so-called ‘Fist of Youth” would become part of Kobashi’s brand in another sense; just from looking at his social media (seriously, he ends like 40% of his tweets with 『いくぞー』!!) you can tell that he uses the gesture in his motivational speaking. Kobashi bowed to all four sides of the Nakajima Sports Center, and when he returned to the waiting room, he took questions from reporters and shook hands with all of them. Ichinose only gives Kawada and Misawa’s matches against Steve Williams and Stan Hansen a cursory mention, but the latter was Misawa’s third successful Triple Crown defense, coming off of his loss to Hansen in the previous month’s Carnival final.

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Above: Misawa at the 1988 wedding of Tokyo Sports reporter Soichi Shibata (right). Five years later, Shibata would be the first journalist to refer to Misawa, Kawada, Kobashi and Taue as the Shitenno (“Four Heavenly Kings/Four Pillars”). [This photograph was shared by Shibata himself on Twitter on the day of NOAH's 2021 Misawa tribute show.]

 

After getting his law degree in 1982, Soichi Shibata became a reporter for Tokyo Sports. He worked for the publication for three decades until his 2015 retirement, and he has been mentioned earlier in these recaps. However, a Western puroresu fan is most likely to recognize him for over a quarter-century of commentary work for NJPW, which ended on the first night of Wrestle Kingdom 15 in 2021.3 Shibata was the first one to refer to Misawa, Kawada, Kobashi & Taue as Zen Nihon Shitenno, and he did so in his report on the May 21 show.

Not every name thought up by a puroresu journalist took root, but some did. Ichinose claims credit for coining “Doctor Bomb” to name Steve Williams’ spinning powerbomb. When Taue began doing a chokeslam off the apron, the name he had come up with was “Nabiki Nodowa Otoshi”, but Weekly Gong’s name “Cliff Nodowa” was the one that stuck with fans.

I need to get something out of the way now; shitenno is not a distinct term. It is a standard Buddhist cultural reference that had been invoked before in puroresu, and has been since. Trying to look deeper into the symbolism of the Four Heavenly Kings to see parallels to Misawa, Kawada, Kobashi & Taue, or perhaps even holding onto the term Four Pillars as hard as we in the West do (I’m thinking of OJ’s annoyance with the term, which he expressed in one of the GWE threads), would be a bit like Japanese fans of Western wrestling trying to determine which of the Four Horsemen were Pestilence, War, Famine and Death. In fact, the four men that the Pillars beat on that second night in Sapporo had themselves been called the foreign Shitenno of the period. And grumbling about whether Akiyama “deserved” to be a Pillar more than Taue is particularly silly; from what I understand, after Jun got his main-event push,the term gotsuyo (五強, “Five Strengths”) emerged, which is another Buddhist reference.

Just because it’s a standard cultural reference, though, doesn’t mean that it didn’t take root in the domestic fandom, or that AJPW didn’t immediately run with it.

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In Misawa & Kawada's first Budokan main event as enemies, the Holy Demon Army double-teams the Triple Crown champion.

"From the legend of Sapporo to the myth of Budokan. Four young people look at their dreams, embrace the future, and fight. This is the World Tag Title match. [...] Another new chapter in the history of King’s Road Pro Wrestling4 is about to begin.” Those were Kenji Wakabayashi’s words as the Nippon Budokan was bathed in green, orange, red and yellow for the first time. On June 1, Kawada & Taue held their first defense against Misawa & Kobashi; it would be the first of eight tag matches between the four over the next two-and-a-half years. Before the match began, Wakabayashi told Baba that he’d heard the media had already started to call the four the Shitenno. Baba, as Ichinose recalls, seemed to be trying not to shake with joy.

 

Taue would powerbomb Kobashi to retain by pinfall in 29:12.

Spoiler

1. The book claims this set an attendance record. However, according to Cagematch, the February 5, 1986 AJPW show that saw Riki Choshu & Yoshiaki Yatsu defeat Jumbo & Tenryu for the NWA International Tag Team titles drew 6,400.
2. Knowing how this book is written it might come up later, but although I have reached the end of 1993 in what I have thus far transcribed, Ichinose has not stated the origin of the Holy Demon Army moniker. According to an uncited claim on the team’s Japanese Wikipedia page, it was determined by a fan vote.
3. This was also the final night for co-commentators Katsuhiko Kanezawa and Kazuo Yamazaki.
4. Ichinose has yet to discuss the origins of oudou (“King’s Road/Royal Road”) as an aspect of AJPW’s branding. A roster photo circa 1996
displays “KING”S ROAD” patches sewn upon the breasts of the company jackets, so I knew it was at least that old. However, Ichinose has not yet stopped to mark or explicate the phrase like he did for akaruku, tanoshiku, hageshī puroresu.

 

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