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2019 FOUR PILLARS BIO: CHAPTERS 1-9, PART FOUR (KEKKIGUN AND THE ASUNARO CUP)

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2019 FOUR PILLARS BIO: CHAPTERS 1-9, PART FOUR (KEKKIGUN AND THE ASUNARO CUP)

Sorry for the slowness. I transcribed over 60 pages this time, deciding to bundle Chapters 6-7 together after the first wasn’t as meaty as I wanted it to be. Personal engagements, existential dread in the wake of my 25th birthday, and the malfunction of my laptop keyboard also contributed to delays. Broadly, these chapters are about the struggle of the younger generation to break through in All Japan in the late 80s. They both essentially cover the same stretch of time from different angles, so I’m not going to bother with splitting them up in my recap. (There's a little bit of stuff it covers later in the timeline, which I skipped for the next post in order to keep things cohesive; I wanted to keep this post strictly 80s.)

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This stretch of the book starts with Misawa’s frustrating transition to the heavyweight division. His seven-match Trial Series was set to begin in July 1986 with a match against Ric Flair, but Flair’s bookings were cancelled and Yoshiaki Yatsu, who had ranked seventh in the fan poll (one spot below Flair), was put in his place. Then, his second match in the series was booked to be against Ashura Hara, but Hara couldn’t reach the venue in a snowstorm and gaikokujin-of-the-tour Frank Lancaster was subbed in his place. By his August 1987 victory over Ted DiBiase Misawa was 3-3, but as contemporaneous Weekly Pro coverage put it, “DiBiase was suffering from WWF Syndrome […] and lost the match without a care in the world”. The final match of the Series, against Jumbo Tsuruta, ended up being delayed for the better part of a year due to the Tenryu Revolution, and in the meantime, Tiger Mask II lost his spot as Jumbo’s tag partner to Yoshiaki Yatsu. The Olympians would win their only RWTL as a unit in 1987, while TM teamed with Yatsu’s old JPW partner Shinichi Nakano in a mediocre 3-7-1 performance.

On March 5, 1988, four days before the final Trial Series match, TM attacked Tsuruta after his singles match against Jerry Oates. His comments to the press in the waiting room denied that he was splitting from Tsuruta outright, and the author notes that this outburst was something that the future Mitsuharu Misawa would never have done. TM got his match against Jumbo, and it was a good one, but he lost in 14:38. Tsuruta commented afterward that “Tiger can do anything; he just needs to perfect his rhythm.”

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Above: Kekkigun (“Rising Army”) was a short-lived faction of midcarder talent led by then-masked Mitsuharu Misawa, an oft-forgotten predecessor to Chosedaigun (“Super Generation Army”). (Left to right: Shinichi Nakano, Akira Taue, Tiger Mask II (Mitsuharu Misawa), Shunji Takano, Isao Takagi).

That June, Tiger Mask II formed Kekkigun (“Rising Army”), a five-man faction of native midcard talent which sought to prove their mettle to Tenryu’s Revolution. Isao Takagi and Akira Taue were then, alongside John Tenta, the latest young ex-sumo talent that All Japan had recruited. Shinichi Nakano was the faction’s lone junior heavyweight, and had been among the few JPW personnel to remain with All Japan in the wake of Choshu’s u-turn back to New Japan. [1] Finally, Shunji Takano had been among the Calgary Hurricanes who controversially transferred to AJPW in 1986, and was the only one to stick with the company beyond his obligations. At 200cm, he was the tallest native talent in the company barring Baba, and while I’ve never been a huge fan of his work, if framed in his proper context it is understandable why he was considered a top prospect.

Kekkigun was a frustrating enterprise, which you might have been able to infer since, while its spiritual successor Chosedaigun (“Super Generation Army”) is common knowledge to Western puro fans, I am willing to bet money that you hadn’t heard of Kekkigun by name until this thread.

The faction unofficially debuted on June 7, 1988, in an six-man tag between Tiger Mask/Nakano/Takano and Tenryu/Hara/Kawada. Cagematch doesn’t even have the complete card for this show! Their televised debut came two days later in Kiryu, a six-man with Takagi in Takano’s place which Tenryu won with a cobra twist to Takagi.

Their first match under the Kekkigun banner was at the start of the following tour, with Tiger Mask teaming up with Taue against Tenryu & Hara in Korakuen on July 2. Taue lost to a Tenryu sleeper hold, after which Tenryu coldly berated him: “You don’t know anything, and you don’t show any technique.” In contrast, Tenryu would praise Takagi for his progress made two weeks later.

On August 20 in Korakuen, the next tour began. Kekkigun, this time in the configuration of TM & Takano, wrestled Tenryu & Hara. Before the match (timestamped), Hara took the mic to provoke Shunji: “Hey, Takano. You’re a big guy, so don’t be a pussy.” Takano would job to the Tenryu powerbomb in 14:21, after which he prostrated in the ring with tears of frustration. Five days later, in Yoshikawa, another tag was booked with Taue in Takano’s place, which ended in the bloodied ex-sumo eating Hara’s Hitman Lariat for the pinfall. Taue showed some progress, but it wasn’t enough.

On September 1, during a show in Kurayoshi, Tiger Mask injured his left knee on a diving plancha in a tag match alongside Nakano against Johnny Ace & Tom Zenk. He was sidelined for the next three shows, returning to duty on the 7th. His ACL tear seven months later was well-known, but this knee injury continued to affect Tiger Mask afterward; “every time he fought, his knee would give out”, forcing him to put it back into place. Kekkigun arguably never recovered. TM was the only component that made the faction even register as adversaries of Tenryu. For his part, Tenryu commented in a backstage interview on September 6 that the four men needed to realize that Tiger was holding them back.

Three days later, the faction achieved its greatest kayfabe success when Takano & Nakano defeated Footloose in Korakuen to win the All Asia Tag Team titles. Meanwhile, Tiger Mask would be involved in a postmatch angle after the main event. Abdullah the Butcher was disqualified in his NWA International Heavyweight title match against Jumbo Tsuruta, and TM and Jimmy Snuka followed one another to stop Abby’s assault. TM and Snuka would team up after this, and it was clear in a matter of days that they were intended to enter the 1988 RWTL as a unit. Add this to Takano & Nakano’s loss of the titles back to Footloose in Korakuen on September 15, and Kekkigun’s future was in limbo.

Yet another humiliation came on October 28. In what would be his final match for AJPW, Ashura Hara faced Taue in a singles match at the end of the Giant Series tour. As Weekly Pro reported, Hara took sixteen strikes from Taue before downing the ex-sumo with only three. Hara’s dismissal from All Japan on Nov. 19 was another blow to Kekkigun’s prospects, as they had a better chance of bringing him down than Tenryu.

As you all know, Hara’s dismissal led to Kawada’s appointment as Tenryu’s partner in the 1988 RWTL. In his 1995 autobiography, he stated that he didn’t know why Baba had selected him over Fuyuki despite Fuyuki’s seniority, only speculating that his greater mass than his partner at that point had influenced the decision. It had only been as a part of Revolution that Kawada had truly found a place for himself in AJPW, and his performance in the tournament was a revelation. He admitted that in the first half, he was fighting “against Hara’s shadow”, but after a December 4 tournament match against the team of Giant Baba & Rusher Kimura, in which Baba took Kawada’s offense “with his chest out”, he apparently experienced a breakthrough. On December 10, two days after his 25th birthday, Kawada faced the Olympians alongside Tenryu, and secured an upset victory with an outside dive to Jumbo and some ankle-grabbing to ensure Tenryu and only Tenryu got back into the ring before the countout.

Compared to the mediocre showings put forth by the Kekkigun-adjacent teams of Tiger Mask & Jimmy Snuka, and Shinichi Nakano & John Tenta, Kawada’s work during the RWTL, culminating in one of the most acclaimed final matches in tournament history, was a shining beacon towards the company’s future. His left knee, already hurt during the tour, was exploited by Stan Hansen & Terry Gordy, and Tenryu was isolated to fall to the Western Lariat. Nevertheless, Tenryu was deeply proud of Kawada’s performance, as he expressed to reporters afterwards: “Now we just have to win.”

At the awards ceremony afterwards, where Tenryu & Kawada won the Fighting Spirit Award, the crowd roared its approval. Tiger Mask & Snuka, meanwhile, made do with the Technical Award after a disappointing 3-6-1 performance.

On December 27, Hiroshi Wajima and Takashi Ishikawa announced their retirements from professional wrestling; Ishikawa would return to the business in the wake of SWS’s launch, but Wajima stuck to his.

Then, on January 7, 1989, the Emperor died after months of poor health. The Showa period was over, and the cultural significance of this could not help but reverberate in puroresu. Showa puroresu, as it has come to be called, was over. Around this time, AJPW got the ball rolling with the marketing campaign I covered in my previous recap. It’s worth noting here that oudou (“King’s Road/Royal Road”) was not being used as a marketing term at this point. Instead, the nomenclature used to describe All Japan’s new direction was akaruku, tanoshiku, hageshī puroresu – “bright, fun, and intense pro wrestling”. I explained the metaphor of “brightness” in my previous recap, used to express the clean booking approach in contrast to the opacity of Showa puroresu.

Kekkigun’s prognosis wasn’t good, clearly being already seen as a relic of Showa puroresu. When the author went to interview Tenryu in Los Angeles that February, en route to his brief alliance with the Road Warriors, the topic of the faction didn’t even come up.

On February 25 in Korakuen, Takano got a singles match against Tenryu. He lost, but he showed an uncharacteristic aggression, most notably manifesting in a piledriver spot on a table, that garnered praise. He continued to show promise in a six-man tag at Budokan on March 8, in which he wrestled alongside the Olympians against Tenryu & the Road Warriors. A March 27 Korakuen show saw Taue get his own singles match, and though he didn’t perform nearly as well there was still some small improvement. But by then, of course, Kekkigun was dead in spirit if not in name.

On the March 8 Budokan show, Tiger Mask II received the final NWA World Heavyweight title match in AJPW history, against Ricky Steamboat. It wasn’t a great match, and the writing was on the wall even then about AJPW’s future collaborating with the NWA. That November, when Baba was asked during a university lecture why he had not booked Tsuruta or Tenryu to wrestle Steamboat for the belt, he claimed that the NWA had limited the number of challengers and vetoed the two. Of course, the more pertinent issue was the ACL tear that TM suffered during the match. He would spend the rest of the year on the shelf, as he decided in April to get knee surgery.

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Above: Mitsuharu Misawa recovers from knee surgery with his wife, Mayumi, and his daughter, Kaede.

On June 5 at Budokan, Takano wrestled a singles match against Yatsu. He professed that “since Tiger Mask isn’t coming back, this match is very important [to Kekkigun]!” Alas, in 9:35 he took the pinfall to a Yatsu backdrop, having shown none of the fire he’d given Tenryu three months before. On June 7, at a press conference after the conclusion of the tour, Baba announced that Kekkigun was dissolved: “It’s rare that a year goes by and no progress has been made.”

There was now another plan to display the youthful side of All Japan. But let’s get up to speed on Kobashi first.

There had been speculation in 1988 that Kobashi would join Kekkigun, but despite how special Kobashi was considered by all as a symbol of a bright tomorrow, the hierarchical leap was just too great to make at that point. Kobashi dreamed of an American excursion, and repeatedly expressed his desire to Baba.

As mentioned in the previous recap, Kobashi got a shot at Footloose’s All Asia tag titles in March, teaming with none other than Baba. That month, Tatsumi Kitahara began an excursion to Calgary, having been personally requested by the Dynamite Kid. While Baba had told Kobashi before that he would send him to Dory Funk Jr., Baba’s bridge with the NWA was burned just as Kobashi would have crossed it. He told Kobashi that “the time of America is over,” and that he would raise him. “Don’t talk about America anymore! Don’t say America anymore!” On May 16, at a show held in a parking lot, Kobashi got his first singles win against Mitch Snow.

The Asunaro Cup (often translated as “Tomorrow League” in Western accounts) was the idea of Tarzan Yamamoto, who also came up with its name. Essentially, it was a successor to the Lou Thesz Cup of 1983, a midcard round-robin tournament between six younger talent. Three ex-Kekkigun members – Takano, Takagi, and Taue – and both members of Footloose were joined by a sixth man: Kobashi, who would make his first televised appearances through this tournament.

In a July interview with Tenryu, the newly crowned Triple Crown Heavyweight champion opined that it had been best to disband Kekkigun, since he felt they played things too safe, and were “kind of like a friend’s club.” [2] He suggested that the other five men in the tournament “think about why Kobashi is in the league, [and] take a hard look at themselves.”

The tournament began on July 1, the first date of the Summer Action Series. On the 8th, after winning his first tournament match against Fuyuki, Takagi was sidelined with a knee injury; he would not return until the RWTL tour. This gave everyone except Fuyuki a two-point freebie. On July 11, Kobashi would manage to wrestle Fuyuki to a time-limit draw (which G+ recently unearthed from the NTV archives), and on July 22, he got a countout victory against Takano, his first against a native wrestler. Kobashi wound up with five points, just one shy of the three-way tie between Kawada, Takano, and Fuyuki which would be handled in a three-match decision league.

On July 25, Kawada won the Cup with a moonsault to Takano. The original plan was to give the winner a shot at the Triple Crown title (as would consistently be reported afterwards in the Observer), but Tenryu actually shot this down, and Kawada’s singles match against his faction leader would just be an untelevised (but fancammed, and really good) Korakuen match in October.

 1983782661_kobashiwpwcover8-1-89.jpg.96aae4c8f0a1f0a6804906dc917c9253.jpg

Above: Kenta Kobashi takes the fall in his first televised main event, but he gets his first Weekly Pro cover photo in the process. Of the future Pillars, only Misawa had been a cover story to this point, and that was as Tiger Mask II.

Elsewhere on this tour, Kobashi would wrestle his first televised main event, teaming with Jumbo against Tenryu & Hansen on July 15 in Korakuen. Before the match, Tenryu, the champion of the company, boasted that he would finish the match in ten minutes. It took him twenty. Ten days later, Baba remarked that “he had high hopes for [the finalists in the Asunaro Cup], […] but Kobashi is working the hardest”.

Chapter 7 winds down with more insights behind the scenes. This is where Ichinose discloses that, beginning in the second half of 1988, he began to be included in what were essentially creative meetings with Baba. As a representative of the AJPW fanbase, when Yamamoto had suggested the idea that became the Asunaro Cup, Ichinose recalled to Baba how, as a schoolboy, he would plan his own round-robin tournaments in his notebook during boring classes.

From here on out, Ichinose would write event cards with the advice of ring announcer Ryu Nakata to propose to Baba. Yamamoto envisioned a “macro-strategy” in which the company was determined to sell out Korakuen Hall and “develop a myth”. Ichinose, meanwhile, would focus on the provincial tours; while reporting at ringside, he would talk with Nakata about his ideas and opinions while listening to the customers around them.

The “Korakuen myth” found its starting point in the January 25, 1989 match between the British Bulldogs and the Malenkos. While the four wrestlers did not have the size that Baba preferred in his wrestlers, and thus could not provide the “clash of big bodies” which Baba felt was the “true joy of wrestling”, Baba’s reluctant approval of the match was vindicated when it tore the house down. Subsequent Korakuen matches would develop the promotion's reputation for quality shows at the venue, such as beloved career undercarder Mitsuo Momota’s shots at the junior title, the aforementioned Baba/Kobashi vs. Footloose and Baba/Kimura vs. Olympians tag title matches, the Kawada/Kobashi opening match of the Asunaro Cup, and the July 15 Jumbo/Kobashi vs. Tenryu/Hansen main event.

However, it appears that Ichinose fucked up or suffered miscommunication pertaining to the date of the Asunaro Cup final. There is no coverage of the moment when Kawada won the tournament, because Ichinose had falsely assumed that the tournament would end on July 28. He claims he would have flown to the show with a camera himself, but this was not possible because Ichinose was obligated to cover whether Antonio Inoki would win a seat in the impending House of Councilors election results. He recalls being chewed out by Yamamoto for his screwup, and refers to the Asunaro Cup as a bitter memory because of it.

Spoiler

[1] When Nakano had accidentally hit Jumbo Tsuruta in the face with a missile dropkick in the April 1987 Tsuruta/Tenryu vs. Yatsu/Nakano tag match, which was the last match of note that the former team ever wrestled together, Jumbo responded with a then-shocking burst of violence that, in retrospect, was a clear antecedent of the dynamic he would establish with Tsuyoshi Kikuchi in the Super Generation Army/Tsurutagun faction wars of the early 90s. A 2021 article on the match went so far as to call Nakano “the man who made Tsuruta […] become a monster”, referring to the “monster” (kaibutsu) nickname associated with Tsuruta’s last stretch of significant work. (The pedant in me must note that this wasn’t really the start of the kaibutsu nickname. As I covered earlier in this thread, Choshu called him such in press comments after their 1985 one-hour draw, referring to his inhuman stamina.)

[2] This is unrelated, but I cannot keep this to myself. During this interview, the manner in which Tenryu chose to speak of Jumbo after beating him for the gold was this “exquisite parable”: “Jumbo is a loofah floating in the bath; I’ll squeeze him tightly because he’s a squishy bastard.” [Belated correction; this infamous line was from a Tenryu interview after he first split up the KakuRyu tag team.]

 

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