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2019 FOUR PILLARS BIO: CHAPTERS 1-9, PART THREE [KOBASHI BIO + BABA'S FIRST CREATIVE MEETING WITH TARZAN YAMAMOTO]

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2019 FOUR PILLARS BIO: CHAPTERS 1-9, PART THREE

I finished Chapters 4-5 yesterday, but a case of Swiss cheese brain induced by a sleepless night had me dragging my feet to write this. Then three-fourths of it were lost when Word got screwy, so I switched to a Google Doc to rewrite it. 


I likely won't get an update out during the first week of August. My folks are taking me to the beach for a few days for my 25th, and as I haven’t been there in many years I plan to enjoy myself.

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Above: Kenta Kobashi, circa 1977.

Chapter Four follows Kenta Kobashi’s path to pro wrestling. He was born and raised in Fukuchiyama. Like Kawada, the then fifth-grader’s interest in wrestling started with the August 25, 1977 Jumbo Tsuruta/Mil Mascaras match, which he watched on television with his older brother. Both brothers dreamed of becoming wrestlers, as they would playfight over a makeshift NWA title they had constructed out of cans. The following year, when his parents divorced, he and his brother moved with their mother to a different school district. While he was considering basketball (as well as volleyball) because Tsuruta had claimed in an interview that playing it had made him taller, Kobashi wound up joining the junior high judo club instead at the suggestion of a classmate who was looking for recruits, under the logic that direct martial arts experience would probably serve him better when looking for employment in wrestling. At some point during his junior high tenure, Kobashi attended an NJPW show, and he claims that he was struck by Stan Hansen’s bullrope for what wouldn’t be the last time.

By this time AJPW had explicitly stated that they would only consider applicants with a high school education, so Kobashi had no qualms about entering. However, despite the offers of some private schools after he placed third in a judo competition, Kobashi entered the public school so as not to put financial strain on his mother, as his third-place performance would have only waived one-third of the tuition fee for the private institutions. To get into Fukuchiyama High School, though, he would have to place in the top 200 of the entrance exam, and on his first attempt he ranked a measly 658th. He took the advice of his homeroom teacher that “if you do not accumulate efforts day by day, you will not blossom”, and passed the bar on a subsequent attempt, though his eyesight deteriorated as a result.

Kobashi thought he might switch to basketball or volleyball, but the judo club advisor gave an enthusiastic invitation, which he accepted. Unlike Misawa and Kawada with amateur wrestling, his achievements in judo at the high school level were relatively unremarkable. In his senior year, he placed third in the qualifying round at nationals, having been outweighed by his opponent in the semifinals by fifty kilograms.

Upon  graduation, Kobashi chose financial independence over wrestling because, once again, he did not wish to burden his mother. He took a factory job at a Yokaichi plant of Kyoto-based manufacturing company Kyocera. He had wanted to work in the General Affairs department, which he imagined was the “heart and soul” of the factory; unfortunately, he was given the tough work of cleaning the machines used to make copier parts. He recalls the dust being what made the job most difficult.

Half a year into his new life, Kobashi found hope when he came across a newspaper article about Mike Tyson. Inspired by the young boxer’s success, Kobashi “wondered what his life’s purpose was”, and then realized it was wrestling.

Kobashi would continue to work for Kyocera through the end of 1986, transferring to a plant in Kagoshima. This was to pay off the debts he owed for earning his driver’s license and vehicle. Then, he told his mother about his plan to quit and apply to become a wrestler. She did not like the decision, but she knew that he couldn’t change his mind once it was made, so she relented. It would fall to Kobashi’s brother to give him the encouragement he’d probably been seeking. The elder Kobashi had laid his own dream to rest, but he told Kenta that he was rooting for him from the bottom of his heart.

Kobashi turned in his notice to Kyocera in 1987, and sent his resume to All Japan. Sadly, he was rejected. When Kobashi called the office, the person who picked up told him that he had no accomplishments. “Did you quit your job? Get a new job and work hard." He called again and again, but the answer never changed.

And yet, still there was hope. Kobashi happened to be a customer of a gym owned by bodybuilder Mitsuo Endo, who had contacts in the wrestling business due to, among other things, his tenure as a referee for the International Wrestling Enterprise. He told Endo that, although he had already been rejected once, he really wanted to see if Endo could get his foot in the door of All Japan specifically. Kobashi would be willing to apply to New Japan if it didn’t work out, but he liked All Japan better. As he put it, while he admired Inoki’s strength, he “liked” Baba for his dignity and composure. In retrospect, Kobashi wonders aloud if he’d always looked to Baba as a father figure in a parasocial sense, before the two had ever met.

Endo got his foot in the door. On May 26, 1987, All Japan held a show at the Shiga Prefectural Gymnasium in Otsu, and Kobashi was informed that an interview would be conducted there. When he arrived, the interviewer was revealed to be Baba himself. Kobashi expected the interview to go ahead, but before he could even talk to Baba, he was told by Shohei that he would be called when the tour was finished, but that he should say hello to everyone in the meantime, and move to Tokyo. Just like that, Kobashi was admitted.

And yet, it seemed that Baba didn’t really care whether Kobashi was there or not. After the tour’s end, Kobashi was not in fact given a call, so he got fed up and called the office. Whoever picked up said “oh yeah, Baba-san told me about you. So why don’t you come?”

In June, Kobashi moved to Tokyo, and then went to the AJPW office in Roppongi. As he entered, he was approached by reporters from Weekly Gong and Daily Sports (including future Jumbo biography author Kagehiro Osano), who requested that he take off his shirt and pose for photographs taken by a fellow reporter in the office. Kobashi was initially amazed that even a trainee would be given such attention by the press, but alas, this was a case of mistaken identity. Osano had mistaken Kobashi for Tamakirin: that is, Akira Taue. (In a 2020 interview translated by NOAH superfan Hisame, Kobashi recalls that he later asked if he could at least get one of the photographs that had been taken due to the misunderstanding, but they had long since been disposed of.) This incident and Baba’s apparent antipathy towards Kobashi are reflective of the regard, or lack thereof, in which he was held early on. 

Ichinose’s first memories of Kobashi date from the second half of the year where, as was customary for trainees, he would accompany wrestlers to the ring and then remain at ringside to spectate. He was just another new trainee as far as the reporter was concerned, but still the author recalls being struck by the intensity with which he observed the ring. However, near the end of the year, Kobashi would disappear from Ichinose’s view.

On November 28, 1987, South African Airways Flight 295 was en route from Taipei to Johannesburg when it broke apart over the Indian Ocean, killing all 159 people on board. Two of these people were newlyweds Kazuharu & Mayumi Sonoda. Alongside Masanobu Fuchi and Atsushi Onita, Kazuharu was one of the “three crows” which had been the AJPW dojo’s first full products (as in, they didn’t go to Amarillo) in the seventies. He is perhaps best known to readers for his 1981-1985 stint as Magic Dragon, a sister gimmick to the Great Kabuki which spread to All Japan, but which was stripped from Sonoda in a mask vs hair match, as a sacrificial lamb to put over the “Mask Hunter”, Kuniaki Kobayashi, in his feud against Tiger Mask II. Sonoda had remained as an upper midcarder with occasional appearances on television (usually eating tag pinfalls), and was the head trainer of the dojo behind the scenes. He and Mayumi were on the plane at Baba’s suggestion, set to spend a honeymoon in South Africa as Sonoda did some work on shows promoted by Tiger Jeet Singh.

As the Japanese press pursued Baba for comment, the Great Kabuki (who would later recall that he had declined the invitation to work in South Africa, which led to Sonoda taking the flight) decided that his valet Isao Takagi needed to be replaced for poor performance. Without consulting Baba, he asked Kobashi if he was already serving this function for another, then assigned him to Baba. When Baba returned to the hotel, Kobashi told him he was to be his new valet. The uninformed and grief-stricken Baba angrily rejected Kobashi, telling him to “go back to Fukuchiyama”, under the impression that Takagi had used the trainee so he could skimp on his duties; Kobashi felt that he could not reveal Kabuki’s involvement, because it would sound like he was telling on him.

The two would not speak for the next two months, but Kobashi continued to perform as Baba’s valet in silence. He was also saddled with the laundry of senior wrestlers, and since coin-operated laundries were not as common back then, Kenta often had to wash their clothes by hand. Kobashi and Ichinose both believe that Baba’s treatment was a test of the young man’s fortitude; the man himself compares it to that stock scene in Japanese period drama wherein a samurai patiently sits before a gate, waiting to be allowed inside. Kobashi would make his unofficial debut in the meantime, though. On December 16, five days after the Real World Tag League final, a memorial ceremony for Sonoda was held at Korakuen Hall. [1] During this event, three matches were booked, ending with a ten-man battle royal. Here, Kobashi and Tsuyoshi Kikuchi made their first public appearances between the ropes.

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Above: A spread of coverage of the Haru Sonoda memorial show, on which Kobashi made his informal debut.

On February 26 in Ritto, Kobashi made his proper debut. In the second match on the card, he wrestled Motoshi Okuma, who had dominated the All Asia tag title division in the late Seventies alongside the Great Kojika, but after television appearances as a jobber to the stars in the mid-80s had wound down into an undercard role. Kobashi was pinned in 4:48 after a diving headbutt, but as he went backstage, Baba told him that a surprise was waiting for him at the hotel, and finally invited him to dinner, from which he had been snubbed as a trainee. As Kobashi recalls, all of the hardship and distress he had weathered was washed away in an instant. From this day forward, Baba would demand that Kobashi always be an ebisco, a term for “glutton” used in sumo. 

Kobashi would not get to work the first Budokan show after his debut, which was the second card of the Champion Carnival tour. AJPW had an odd-numbered roster at that point, and he and Kikuchi alternated opening matches against Mitsuo Momota in the first five dates of the tour. Not long after this, however, Kobashi would become an “indispensible part” of the company.

One of Weekly Pro’s recurring features at the time was a page titled Chūmoku! Kono ichiban (“Attention! This first”), in which ringside reporters spotlighted young talent in undercard matches. Ichinose had been assigned to the All Japan beat since the ban of 1986, but Chūmoku! Kono ichiban had remained “a remote page” to the journalist, who recalled being frustrated by how the promotion’s bland undercards made him feel that he was being denied the right to do his job. Not since the era of 1982-3, which had seen the likes of Mitsuharu Misawa, Shiro Koshinaka, and Tarzan Goto blossom under the guidance of Akio Sato, had All Japan displayed any of the underneath vitality which made NJPW and the UWF so stimulating. When Ichinose had been covering the company, even the “new” guys weren’t really new, but ex-sumo guys; John Tenta was almost 24 when he debuted, and Takagi and Taue were both two years his senior.

But then, on April 9, Ichinose was in attendance for the thirteenth show of the Carnival tour in Kumamoto. In the third match on the card, for the first of many times (not counting the Sonoda memorial battle royal, in which both had worked), Kobashi would wrestle Toshiaki Kawada, who at that time was exactly one month deep into his first All Asia tag title reign as one-half of Footloose. Kobashi would lose to a lariat in 7:46, but his performance finally put Ichinose on the page which had long eluded him. On the April 26 issue of Weekly Pro, the entire Chūmoku! page was devoted to this match. Ichinose’s recollection of how Kobashi was so refreshing for the company, whether or not he was earmarked to reach the top, does much to contextualize his 1989 Newcomer of the Year award from Tokyo Sports; yes, these are mark awards, but this still feels reflective of how wrestling journalists were endeared to him. 

One year later, Kobashi received his first title shot. At Korakuen Hall on March 27, 1989, he challenged Footloose for their All Asia tag titles with none other than Baba as his partner. Footage has sadly not surfaced, as this show did not receive a television taping, but the result I found was that Kawada pinned Kobashi with a dragon suplex in 18:07. Ichinose calls this match, alongside Baba & Rusher Kimura’s February 25 shot at the Olympians’ AJPW World Tag Team titles, the birth of the “New Baba”.

We transition into Chapter Five, which gives us some insights into the AJPW reform plan developed with the collaboration of Weekly Pro editor Tarzan Yamamoto.

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Above: The “dokusen poster”, released in January 1989, is emblematic of the image strategy which ushered in this new era of All Japan Pro Wrestling. In the top half, Baba smiles with a cigar in hand, with text on his right that roughly translates to: “Since everyone else is getting into martial arts, I’m going to monopolize pro wrestling.” Red text to Baba’s left reads “happy new year”. On the bottom half, the two-character word dokusen (“monopoly”) is written in giant boldface.

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Tarzan Yamamoto was assigned editor-in-chief of Weekly Pro Wrestling after Hideo Sugiyama’s transfer to sister publication Martial Arts News. The AJPW ban had been lifted for five months, and with the return of much of Japan Pro Wrestling to NJPW, Yamamoto felt a dangerous imbalance of power in the wrestling world. Knowing that he wouldn’t be able to get an interview with Choshu anyway, Yamamoto approached Baba for one, which was granted. In the April 27 issue of Weekly Pro, Baba spoke honestly about his feelings in the wake of Choshu and company’s U-turn back home.

“Two years ago, when Choshu and his friends wanted to come to All-Japan, I accepted. When I accepted them, I cleared up all the problems and made sure that they would not complain. So I told them to do the same. I'm not trying to take their lives. There's nothing in the contract about taking lives.”

All Japan was resuscitated by the start of the Tenryu Revolution that June, with former tag partners Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu now embroiled in a feud. But there were still deeper problems beneath. The first Jumbo/Tenryu singles match of the feud had drawn well, bringing 12,100 to the Nippon Budokan. However, despite the October rematch in the same venue having an announced attendance only 300 below, fans in the second floor could be seen lying down across multiple seats as if on a couch. When the first Triple Crown unification match was booked six months later, between Tenryu and Bruiser Brody, old tendencies won out and the match ended in a double countout at thirty minutes. Ichinose was at ringside, and “was just frustrated”.

It was now mid-1988. At what I am guessing was a press conference after the end of the Super Power Series tour, Baba displayed the major matches of the following tour for reporters, before offhandedly asking that they let him know if they had any good ideas. Most did not respond, but Tarzan, who recognized that the company still had major problems, could be heard saying “alright”.

This wasn’t the first time that Baba had asked for ideas. Four years earlier, around the same time of year, he was drinking tea with Gong editor-in-chief Kosuke Takeuchi and NJPW president/future JPW head Naoki Otsuka at the Capitol Tokyu Hotel in Akasaka. When Baba spoke of his desire to somehow sign Satoru Sayama to get Tiger Mask, Takeuchi was the one who pointed out to him that his best bet was to get Ikki Kajiwara’s blessing to just make a new Tiger Mask. [2] 

Once again, Baba would have a meeting at the Capitol Tokyu Hotel. Yamamoto was accompanied by illustrator colleagues Shiro Sarashina and Haruo Matsumoto. Over six hours, the four men analyzed the current state of AJPW and brainstormed how to change the promotion’s image. Sarashina made an unflattering comparison of the company to the baseball team the Lotte Orions, whose spectators in Kawasaki Stadium often entertained themselves by playing catch and mahjong. Nobody was throwing balls in Budokan at least, but the sluggish attendance and atmosphere made it a fair comparison.

The “dokusen poster” at the head of this section is representative of the fruit of this meeting. All Japan would not be seduced by martial arts, be that the shoot-style of the now-Newborn UWF or NJPW’s contemporaneous work with Soviet amateur wrestlers. However, the pro wrestling that Baba sought to monopolize was itself different. It was to be a “bright” wrestling whose fundamental sportsmanship did away with the opacity of so much of Showa puroresu. In July issues of Weekly Pro, Baba espoused his ideals of sportsmanship, and stated a belief that the “restoration of trust in professional wrestling” was the only way to earn the support of the modern fan. 

Ichinose does not try to suggest that Yamamoto had any direct influence on what would later be called oudou/”King’s Road” (in fact, Ichinose hasn’t used that term yet, so I hope that he will get to its origin later in the book). However, he also admits that any speculation on his part that Baba had always had reservations about being a star in an era of wrestling that was far from his idea of sport is just that. 

However, there was one point before 1988 where Baba had clearly expressed his sensibilities. On March 13, 1986, Jumbo Tsuruta wrestled Animal Hamaguchi as part of a one-night best-of-5 series between AJPW and JPW wrestlers. Baba was moved by the grace with which Hamaguchi accepted his defeat, and commented to the press that he wanted all of the others to learn from him. This would not stick, however, and even the third Jumbo/Tenryu match of October 1988 paid such ideals no mind with its DQ finish.

Spoiler

[1] NJPW would also hold a memorial service for Sonoda, at the start of a June 1988 show in Sonoda’s hometown of Kobayashi.

[2] A photograph I have of Ikki Kajiwara at Jumbo Tsuruta’s wedding, which would have taken place shortly after this, makes more sense now.

 

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Fantastic stuff as usual. It sure seems like a lot of Japanese wrestlers came from broken homes. A minor correction: the baseball team was called the Lotte Orions, not Rotterdam.

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