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A HISTORY OF THE INTERNATIONAL WRESTLING ENTERPRISE PART ONE (1966-1968)

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I think the IWE is worthy of its own extended series, with the excellent Japanese Wikipedia page as a primary source. This will repeat information seen in my previous posts, but I think it’s worth tying it all together into as complete a narrative as I can make without having access to the pair of books on the promotion published by G Spirits in recent years.

A HISTORY OF THE INTERNATIONAL WRESTLING ENTERPRISE

PART ONE (1966-1968)

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PALACE

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Spoiler

The circumstances that led to the formation of the International Wrestling Enterprise were those surrounding the Riki Sports Palace in Shibuya. Modeled after the Honolulu Civic Auditorium, and completed in 1961 for the sum of 1.5 billion yen, the Palace was Rikidōzan’s second attempt to build a permanent venue for professional wrestling, after the Japan Pro Wrestling Center. [1] Like the Center before it, the Palace also housed a wrestling dojo, and it also contained offices for the JWA itself and related organizations such as the Japan Pro Wrestling Commission. Unlike the Center, though, the Palace would expand into various side businesses.

After Rikidōzan’s death, the Palace continued to be used for television tapings over the next three years. Due to a cutthroat business move which saw the post-Rikidōzan JWA create a new company for legal purposes, so that Rikidōzan’s family would be stuck with the wrestler’s debts, the Palace languished as Riki Enterprises was unable to resolve its debts. While still used regularly for JWA television tapings, the side businesses that the Palace had dipped its toes into, such as the Riki Restaurant and a bowling alley, deteriorated.

JWA wrestler and sales manager Isao Yoshihara believed that a permanent venue still had value to the JWA, and began to raise funds for the promotion (or rather the aforementioned second company) to purchase the Palace from Riki Enterprises. However, the likes of Kokichi Endo, the hypersensitive and corrupt accounting manager, interfered with Yoshihara’s efforts by alleging that he was in fact raising money to buy out the JWA itself.

On October 5, 1966, Yoshihara resigned. [2]

FORMATION

Spoiler

Accompanied by fellow JWA sales department worker Toshio Suzuki, Yoshihara formed the International Wrestling Enterprise Co, Ltd soon after. It had been speculated over the years that the name was the brainchild of eventual IWE commentator Takashi Kikuchi, but Kikuchi denied this in a 2010 interview with Kagehiro Osano. It must be noted, however, that the IWE was best known in its native tongue as Kokusai Puroresu (“International Pro Wrestling”). [Throughout this series I will use “Kokusai” to refer to the promotion, in the same way that I would use “All Japan” or “New Japan”. I like having a one to two-word phrase that isn’t an acronym to refer to the promotion, and “International” doesn’t have the same ring to it.]

Early on, the promotion was short on staff, so it tried to adopt a freelance system similar to that of the American industry. On October 24, when the board of directors was announced, Yoshihara said that he wished to contribute to the development of Japanese pro wrestling. He envisioned an industry where rival organizations did not try to “crush” each other; as he put it, “pro wrestling is different from sumo”. The freelance model was, however, abandoned after the JWA refused to cooperate with their new competition.

The roster began to take shape. First, the role of company ace and booker was bestowed upon Hiro Matsuda. Born Yasuhiro Kojima, he had entered the JWA after graduating high school, but left in 1960 over conflicts with Rikidōzan specifically, and more generally the rigidly hierarchical vestiges of sumo culture that Rikidōzan and his ex-sumo ilk had brought into puroresu with them. After going to Peru, Kojima spent the early sixties plying his trade as a journeyman wrestler in Mexico and the United States, where he would receive training from Karl Gotch and adopt the Hiro Matsuda name. In 1966, Matsuda finally returned to the JWA to work the 1966 Golden Series, and later that year would be lured by Yoshihara to start up Kokusai. Matsuda would be joined by Matty Suzuki, his junior at Nittaida Ebara High School who had joined the JWA in 1961, and a pair of 1965 JWA dojo graduates: Greco-Roman Olympian Thunder Sugiyama [3] and ex-rugby player Masatake Kusatsu [4].

Three days after the board of directors’ announcement, Yoshihara, (Matty) Suzuki, and IWE announcer Yazuo Hasegawa attended a bodybuilding competition. Here they would meet the man who, in retrospect, was the best bet that their company ever had. Shozo Kobayashi, an amateur bodybuilder with a day job on the railroad, was in attendance to support a competing friend. Hasegawa was the one to notice and scout him, and when Shozo met with Yoshihara and Suzuki, he agreed to join the company on the spot, though he initially received some pushback from his family.

PIONEER

Spoiler

As covered in my previous post about Tokyo Pro Wrestling, the bulk of that promotion’s wrestlers, led by Antonio Inoki, had established a new Tokyo Pro after a disastrous final tour in December 1966. Inoki successfully negotiated with Yoshihara, and both companies arranged the Pioneer Series, a twenty-date January tour which began on the 5th and ended on the 31st. No footage from this tour circulates (believe me, there’s going to be a lot of that in this story), but there were some interesting matchups. The first show at the sold-out Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium saw Inoki defeat Eddie Graham, and Danny Hodge defended his NWA World Junior Heavyweight title against Matsuda to a sixty-minute draw. Subsequent shows would see such matches as Inoki and Matsuda, Gotch disciples both, teaming up to take on the Kentuckians (Luke Brown and the future Grizzly Smith). The last date even ended with a rematch from the first Tokyo Pro Wrestling show, in which Inoki went over Johnny Valentine once again.

Yoshihara had approached both Tokyo Broadcasting System and Fuji TV for television coverage, and parallel to this tour TBS conducted a credibility investigation, concluding in February that the IWE was worthy of regular broadcasting. [5] On April 4, TBS president Junzo Inamichi announced they were in discussions with Kokusai. TBS was hoping that Inoki would join the promotion, but on April 6, Inoki returned to the JWA. The Japanese Wikipedia page for Tokyo Pro Wrestling cites the biography of Youssef Turko (Turkish expat who became a JWA wrestler and then referee – he’s going to show up a little later) in a footnote which states that the JWA brought Inoki back by paying him 20 million yen, half of which was to settle his Tokyo Pro debt. There had also been a dispute between Inoki and Yoshihara over the subject of his pay. As I wrote in my Tokyo Pro Wrestling post above, Inoki had intended to bring all of the Tokyo Pro wrestlers – with the exception of Toyonobori loyalist Masao Kimura – back with him, but ultimately did not do so. Haruka Eigen, Motoyuki Kitazara, and Katsuhisa Shibata appear to be the only ones who came to the JWA with him, excluding Masanori Saito, who would rejoin the promotion after his overseas excursion. The remnants – besides Hiroshi Nakagawa and Teruo Kaneda, who both retired upon Tokyo Pro’s collapse – would expand the IWE’s roster considerably: the aforementioned Kimura, Isamu Teranishi, Mammoth Suzuki, Tsuyoshi Sendai (later Tetsunosuke Daigo), Takeshi Oiso, Iwao Takeshita, and Tadaharu Tanaka.

PIONEER 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO

Spoiler

Kokusai would only run one more tour in 1967: the Pioneer Summer Series, held across 15 dates from July 21-August 16. In the interim, they would acquire more talent. The most notable of these was Toyonobori, who had still legally been listed as a member of Tokyo Pro Wrestling but had not participated in the Pioneer Series due to his dispute with Inoki. The next few years would see Toyonobori’s last work of significance in the business. Another wrestler they gained was a high-school dropout named Enzo Inoue. [6]

The tour started at the Kanayama Gym in Nagoya. “Sueo” Inoue made his debut as a curtainjerker, losing to Sendai, and in the second match, Shozo Kobayashi debuted as Fukumen Taro, the first masked native wrestler in puroresu; he would work this gimmick for the rest of the tour.

Both TBS and Fuji TV ultimately gave the go-ahead for Kokusai, and the former was chosen. Although Yoshihara would not sign a contract until after the tour had ended, TBS did air a bit of IWE material as a pilot: namely, a digest of the 1966.07.30 show in the Fukushima Prefectural Gymnasium, which was headlined by Matsuda & Toyonobori vs. Dennis Hall & Roger Kirby. On August 4 (my birthday), Matsuda was introduced in a segment of TBS’s Sports Hour program. Finally, the main event of the 1967.08.11 show at the Oita Prefectural Gymnasium, a tag between Matsuda & Sam Steamboat and Kirby & Bill Dromo, was broadcast from 11:05-11:50PM the following night. The latter was apparently just broadcast local to the Oita Broadcasting Corporation, but I believe that was a TBS affiliate, and what indicates that it was still TBS-related is that commentary was dubbed over the match by Tadao Mori, Yoshihara’s old college friend and deputy general manager of TBS’s athletic department.

The most notable show from this tour was that which was held at the Osaka Ballpark on August 14. Kokusai thought that, headlined with a Matsuda/Steamboat vs. Dromo/Kirby rematch, their card could compete with the JWA, who were running the nearby Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium in a show headlined by Giant Baba’s first shot at the NWA World Heavyweight title against Gene Kiniski. The results were predictable as, at best, the JWA outdrew them five-to-one. (One source makes an even bleaker claim that the IWE’s claimed audience of 4,200 was actually just 2,500.)

BATTLE AT THE SUMIDA RIVER

Spoiler

On September 11, Yoshihara signed a contract which paid the promotion ¥2,200,000, ¥200,000 more per episode than the JWA’s contemporaneous deal with Nippon TV. Present at the ceremony were the aforementioned Tadao Mori, as well as the TBS athletic department general manager Masao Tsuruta. To raise funds, Yoshihara sold his shares to Hiroshi Iwata, who owned a dairy company in Hiroshima, and brought him in officially as an advisor. This was done through Mori’s mediation.

On November 7, TBS held a press conference to announce that nationwide coverage would start the following January. Yoshihara was conspicuous in his absence, but as he was deeply in debt it wasn’t a good idea for him to appear in public. The Japanese Wikipedia page stresses that this was not a forceful ouster, though Yoshihara took a definite backseat as to the management of the company.

I’ve gotten conflicting information as to the order of these next two events, so take the order I’ve tentatively chosen with a grain of salt. At some point in late 1967, Matsuda left the promotion over an unpaid debt of 60 million yen, to return the United States until he took some dates for the JWA a couple years later. This left the promotion without an ace, and without a booker. Iwata and Mori went to the United States to sign the Great Togo to fill the latter role, with Yoshihara’s approval. If you know your JWA history (or at least have read my JWA: The Transitional Period post), alarm bells should be going off in your head right now. Togo’s financial demands of the JWA had been widely considered extortive, and not long after this, his poor reputation in puroresu would come back to bite him. (The reason why the timeline on this is ambiguous is that Togo wouldn’t have been necessary if Matsuda hadn’t left, but sources have mentioned that Matsuda was dead against Togo coming in, considering it a personal insult to bring somebody who had been so closely in Rikidōzan’s fold. I haven’t read anything about a TBS-mandated division of labor with regards to Matsuda’s position as booker, though that would clear up the matter. [Edit 2021.05.23: Upon further reflection I have an alternate theory that would clear this matter up. Japanese resources often use "booker" to just mean someone who literally books a wrestler - i.e. a gaijin - to appear, with the one who fills the creative function we associate with the term being instead called a "matchmaker". This could be what had happened.])

Meanwhile, Masataku Kusatsu was on an excursion. He had come to work in Florida through the Matsuda connection, but Kusatsu had grown weary of professional wrestling and still had a desire to play a sport rooted in rugby. When he learned about Wahoo McDaniel, who at this point was still working both in wrestling and football, Kusatsu was inspired, and went to Vancouver without Matsuda’s permission to try out for the Canadian Football League’s BC Lions. (I don’t know if he made it, and a page I found of the team’s all-time roster did not feature him, but Japanese sources have stated that in this period he was working in football as well as wrestling. I couldn’t find much on other football leagues active at the time who would have had teams in the Vancouver area, where it would have to have been as Kusatsu was, again, pulling double duty as a wrestler there.)

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Mori met with Kusatsu in Vancouver. Informing him that Matsuda had departed, Mori convinced Kusatsu to return for a push as the promotion’s new ace. During this period, the IWE would be renamed TBS Pro Wrestling, and their television time was a one-hour slot on Wednesday nights at 7:00.

Kusatsu returned in December, at which point he would receive the “Great Kusatsu” moniker. Thunder Sugiyama returned from his excursion at the same time, and while he doesn’t get mentioned much in the narrative leading up to the so-called “Battle at the Sumida River”, a reprinted article from long-running Japanese fanzine Showa Puroresu claims that he was being groomed for a similarly high spot, despite Togo’s advice that neither were good enough for the ace role, and that Toyonobori was the roster’s best bet. In a press conference, Kusatsu read a statement prepared for him by TBS, in which he stated that he was now on equal footing with Giant Baba, the man for whom he had worked as a valet, and that he would try his best not to lose to him in terms of his performances, although the wording was good-natured.

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“TBS Pro Wrestling” looked to be getting off to a promising start. The television program would be called TWWA Pro Wrestling Live. The TWWA, or Trans-World Wrestling Alliance, was an organization created by Togo as part of his plan, which was supposedly run by Frank Tunney.

Once again, the promotion would battle the JWA on the same turf, though they didn’t initiate the conflict this time. On 1968.01.03, TBS had the Nihon University Auditorium booked to begin the tour. The JWA were the aggressors this time, as while they were originally supposed to start their tour the following night in Okayama, they hastily booked the Kuramae Kokugikan for an extra fee, with a show headlined by a defense of Baba’s NWA International Heavyweight title against Crusher Lisowski. They also preempted the TBS broadcast by broadcasting the episode live at 5:30PM. Meanwhile, Rikidōzan’s widow, Keiko Momota, as well as his sons Mitsuo and Yoshihiro, were invited to the TBS show (they were still on poor terms with the JWA, which explains why it was such a big deal for Baba to gain their symbolic approval when he started up AJPW), as was a young sumo wrestler by the name of Genichiro Tenryu. In the main event, Kusatsu would make his grand debut with a shot at the TWWA World Heavyweight champion…Lou Thesz.

First of all, this wouldn’t be as widely televised as intended. The December press conference had announced that twenty member stations would broadcast the first episode of TWWA Pro Wrestling Live. However, at least one of these, Shizuoka Broadcasting System (SBS), ultimately did not air the program, and it has been rumored that this was due to pressure from NTV and/or the JWA and/or Mitsubishi Electric (the sponsor of the JWA’s NTV program).

Before the match, a TBS official gave Thesz a subtle request to “bring Kusatsu some flowers today”. I was confused by this phrase when it was used in an earlier post of mine, namely about the buildup to the Koji Kitao/John Tenta match which ended in a shoot, but its use here makes it clear that the phrase meant for Thesz to put Kusatsu over. Thesz was quite upset at the implications not only because of his pedigree, but because, unlike the young Kusatsu, he had started from the bottom. Yoshihara assuaged him by acknowledging the TBS official’s rudeness, and told him that, while Yoshihara needed Thesz to agree to do so on the surface so that Yoshihara could maintain his face with the network, he didn’t need to actually put Kusatsu over. Whether or not what was coming was Thesz’s intention, the result was a rude awakening for their television debut, and a legendary example of the IWE’s hard luck. At the end of the first fall, Thesz hit his Greco-Roman backdrop for the pin. Kusatsu’s delayed recovery bore the signs of a legitimate concussion, and guest referee Fred Atkins stopped the match.

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Kusatsu has claimed that he was faking the concussion on the instruction of Togo, who was at ringside. Whatever the case, it was a terrible first impression for TBS Pro Wrestling. JWA president Junzo Hasegawa was strongly critical, stating that it was an insult to Thesz, and to Rikidōzan by proxy, for Kusatsu to have challenged Thesz so soon in a title match. JWA wrestler Umanosuke Ueda watched the match before leaving the country on an American excursion, but did not mince words when asked for comment, remarking that Kusatsu’s performance had been “embarrassing” and “juvenile”.

Kusatsu would receive a non-title rematch on 1968.01.08 at the Kagoshima Prefectural Gymnasium, and though it apparently went forward without incident, he still lost 2:0. This match was later broadcast as a backup to the live program on April 24, 1968 due to a TBS labor strike. On 1968.01.10 at the Oita Prefectural Gymnasium, Thunder Sugiyama received a shot at the title, and while this match didn’t end in such embarrassment (and Sugiyama had gone over Thesz in a buildup singles match) he didn’t win either. On 1968.01.17, Toyonobori would get an unsuccessful shot of his own at the Miyagi Prefectural Gymnasium, in a match that was shorter than either Kusatsu’s or Sugiyama’s. Finally, on 1968.01.24 at the Taito Ward Gymnasium, Danny Hodge challenged Thesz for the belt, and Lou put him over 2:1 in 35:52.

Neither the Sugiyama nor the Toyonobori matches were as interesting as something happening behind the scenes, though, as Togo plotted to swipe Kim Ill, professionally known in Japan as Kintaro Oki, from the JWA to receive the 01.17 shot. Kim Ill’s distrust of the JWA executives had reached a fever pitch, so he accepted. However, news of this reached the JWA side. Despite receiving death threats over the phone, Kim turned in his resignation at the JWA office and departed for Sendai, only relenting when an unnamed former JWA director and the president of the publication S-Sports (Sendai Sports) came to personally dissuade him.

In returning to work for TBS, Togo had broken his promise to the JWA never to work in the Japanese professional wrestling industry again. Initially the Yamaha Brothers, Kantaro Hoshino and Kotetsu Yamamoto volunteered to take it to Togo, but referee Youssef Turko would do so instead, since it could be a liability for relatively high-profile wrestlers to perform an assault. On January 18, at around midnight, Turko himself and wrestler Gantetsu Matsuoka went to Togo’s hotel whilst dressed as mailmen, before beating him bloody. Turko turned himself in to the police, who only gave him a warning that “if you’re going to fight, do it in the ring”. Needless to say, the fact that Togo – who was wrestling for TBS on top of his booking duties – got his ass handed to him by a referee did not do wonders for his credibility. Publicly, JWA president Yoshinosato suspended Turko for this incident, but it is said that behind the scenes, he was rewarded with a round-the-world ticket.

According to the Japanese Wikipedia page for the TWWA Pro Wrestling Live program (this name would remain for the rest of the IWE’s tenure with TBS, though it would switch to Relay when it moved away from live broadcasts), the television ratings in this first tour were fairly even with those of the JWA - even the loss at the Sumida River saw them draw a 32.3 against the JWA's 36.3 - which prompted the latter to change from a biweekly to weekly broadcast schedule. (This was done by moving Disneyland - or as we know it, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color - to Tuesday nights.) However, outside assessments of the program were as harsh as Ueda had been, and a report by advertising agency Dentsu, which was submitted to the network after the 1968.01.24 show, stated that Hodge had outshone all three natives.

The TWWA had established two other titles for the IWE wrestlers to win, and I should get those out of the way now. The first of these were the TWWA World Tag Team titles, whose inaugural holders were the Fabulous Kangaroos. On 1968.01.10, the Kangaroos would drop the titles to Toyonobori and Sugiyama, who would hold them for the next fifteen months. According to Wrestling-Titles.com, a TWWA World Junior Heavyweight title was also established and given to Édouard Carpentier, but he never had a chance to defend it, as he wasn’t booked as a gaijin during the brief period where he could have before the title was abandoned.

Togo would leave partway through the second tour he booked, the World Tag Team Series. Sure enough, he charged TBS an exorbitant booking fee, and when they hesitated, he struck back by apparently manipulating the gaijin – Hodge, the Kangaroos, Fred Curry, Bulldog Brower – into boycotting and thus sabotaging the last dates of the following tour. The live broadcasts would be hastily cancelled and replaced by backup tapings, and TBS announced its distancing from Togo in a February 12 press conference. Soon afterward, TBS withdrew from the management of Kokusai and revert it back to its original name, due to concerns over the station’s image. [7] Iwata had long since left the promotion, frustrated with its antiquated management structure.

Without Matsuda or Togo, Isao Yoshihara no longer had a route through which to book gaijin talent from North America. On February 20, however, Kokusai held a press conference to announce that they would be shifting to a European gaijin pipeline.

INTERNATIONAL LAMPOON: EUROPEAN GAIJINATION

Spoiler

Hope had arrived when Yoshihara was introduced to Ichiro Hatta. I shared a post about him early in this thread’s life, but the short version is that he was a crucial figure in establishing amateur wrestling in Japan (as well as an early international supporter of sambo) who made several contributions to professional wrestling, in the belief that a thriving pro-wrestling industry would help the amateur sport by encouraging young people to take it up. [8] Hatta was still president of the sports club at Yoshihara and Mori’s alma mater, Waseda University, and he used his connection to Joint Promotions to open up a route between Kokusai and the European wrestling scene. Their liaison would be George de Relwyskow Jr. of Relwyskow & Green Promotions. Besides being a source of gaijin talent, this connection would eventually be reflected in the International Wrestling Association, the kayfabe governing body behind Kokusai’s championships, when Yoshihara formed a connection with French promoter Roger Delaporte.

Things were still going to be rough for the IWE. Their replacement tour, the nine-date Japan-Europe Decisive Battle Series, was arranged on such short notice that the European gaijins were given tourist visas. As a result, the first event on 1968.02.28, which was to be headlined with a Toyonobori/Sugiyama vs. Tony Charles/Lee Sharron tag match, was cancelled and then hastily retooled into a charity event with no admission fee. The gaijin flew to Hong Kong the next day to switch to work visas, after which the tour resumed as planned. The Japan-Europe Decisive Battle Series ended at the Handa Civic Hall on 1968.03.27.

On 1968.04.03, the IWE Japanese & British Champion Series began at the Sky Hall in Yokohama. The most consequential match was the semi-main event, in which Masao Kimura lost to a debuting British wrestler: Billy Robinson. Robinson would make a powerful impression during this tour, particularly impressing the Japanese audience with his butterfly suplex (or as they were wont to call it, the “Human Windmill”). Later dates on the tour would see him defend his European Heavyweight Championship against Toyonobori, Sugiyama, and John Lees. He wouldn’t defend against Kusatsu, though, as he worked a program with Tony Charles to win his Western Great Britain Heavyweight title.

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Above: pictures from Billy Robinson's first appearances in the IWE. At right, he performs the butterfly suplex on Masao Kimura.

This tour would see a change in the IWE’s television situation. On April 24, a TBS labor strike led the network to broadcast the taped Thesz/Kusatsu rematch from 1968.01.08 in lieu of the live program. After this, taped shows became the norm for TWWA Pro-Wrestling Live rather than the exception, although live broadcasts would still occur at least during this era of the promotion’s existence, for Kokusai still had some advantages over the JWA. As TBS broadcasted baseball on Wednesday nights, it was rare that a game would pre-empt TWWA Pro Wrestling Live. Also, TBS’s outreach allowed Kokusai to penetrate a handful of markets which did not carry the JWA. The Iwate, Shimane, Okayama, and Oita prefectures all carried IWE programming exclusively for at least some time, and Kokusai enjoyed similar advantages in the Niigata and Fukuoka prefectures. Their foothold was especially strong in the Iwate and Miyagi prefectures where, even by JWA officials’ admissions, it was impossible for them to outdraw the IWE even with B-I Cannon unless they were broadcasting live.

Meanwhile, the JWA continued to sabotage their competition. Until NET TV began their parallel television deal with the promotion, they were somehow able to use their connections with Nippon TV and the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper to block the IWE from running Korakuen Hall. [9]

1968 CONTINUES

Spoiler

Next, the IWE ran the World Selection Series across 13 dates from May 21 through June 8. On 1968.05.25 at the Nakajima Sports Center in Sapporo, Kusatsu defended the Western Great Britain Heavyweight title against Albert Wall. At the same venue (according to puroresu.com) the following night, Toyonobori and Sugiyama retained their TWWA World Tag Team titles against John Cox & Enrique Edo. The final show at the Ohta Ward Gym in Tokyo saw them defend the titles again against Wall & Cox.

Following this was the Big Summer Series, held across 16 dates from June 22 through July 30. At the opening show at Tokyo’s Adachi Ward Gym, Kusatsu defended his title against Cox. Meanwhile, Toyonobori and Sugiyama defended their titles a whopping four times this tour. First, at the second event on 1968.06.25, they defeated Sky Hi Lee and the Outlaw (Gordon Nelson) 2:0. At the seventh date on 1968.07.13, they retained against Bull Davis and the Outlaw. Finally, on the last two dates of the tour, 1968.07.27 and 1968.07.30, they won successive defenses against Ian Campbell and the Outlaw.

Then came the World Summer Series, held across 22 dates from August 3 through September 11. Toyonobori and Sugiyama made four more tag title defenses against Davis & Prince Kumali (1968.08.06), Campbell & Kumali (1968.08.16 & 1968.08.18), and Wild Angus & Kumali (1968.08.24). On the final date at the Yokohama Sky Hall, Kusatsu won a double title match against Davis, for his Western and Bull’s Southern Great Britain Heavyweight titles.

The penultimate tour for the year was the Dynamite Series, held across 19 dates from September 22 through October 15. Toyonobori and Sugiyama just made three tag defenses this time, the first on 1968.10.01 against Lord Al Hayes & Ray Hunter, the second on 1968.10.09 against Hunter & Jim Hussey, and the third on the last date against Hussey & George Gordienko. Also on the last date, Kusatsu apparently only defended the Western GB title, this time against Mr. Guillotine (aka Peter Thornley, the original Kendo Nagasaki).

1ST IWA WORLD SERIES

Spoiler

The first part of this retrospective ends with Kokusai’s last tour of the year. Held across 30 dates from November 4 until December 21, this would feature the World Series singles tournament to crown the inaugural IWA Heavyweight champion. The gaijins were: Billy Robinson (UK), George Gordienko (Canada), Ray Apollon (USA), Ray Hunter (Australia), Peter Maivia (American Samoa), Micha (billed as “Michael”) Nador (Hungary), Gil Voiney (France), and John Walter da Silva (New Zealand). The tournament itself ended up going to a three-way final between Toyonobori, Robinson, and Gordienko, with Robinson beating Toyonobori to win on 1968.12.19, the penultimate date, to win the tournament and the new belt. Elsewhere on the tour, Robinson made a pair of defenses of his European Heavyweight title: the first on 1968.12.14 against Maivia [10], and the second on the last date against Kusatsu. Toyonobori and Sugiyama made 5(!) defenses of their tag belts, against Gordienko & Apollon (1968.11.22), Gordienko & da Silva (1968.11.30), Gordienko & Maivia (1968.12.03, 1968.12.12), and Apollon & da Silva (1968.12.10).

With Robinson’s victory, Kokusai had broken ground with puroresu’s first gaijin ace. However, the knowledge about how Danny Hodge had so outshone the natives during his January match against Thesz appears to contextualize this as more necessity than innovation, due to the native talent's lack of credibility.

Part two of this retrospective will likely cover 1969-1971.

Spoiler

[1] The Japan Pro Wrestling Center was a venue built on a plot in the hometown of Rikidōzan’s sumo patron (and yakuza member), Shinsaku Nitta. However, the limited audience it could accommodate limited Rikidōzan’s satisfaction with it, and it just so happened that the Center became a target for expropriation.

[2] The JWA held their last date at the Palace on 1966.11.18. The venue was taken as collateral by its creditor, Nishiyama Kogyo (“Kogyo” would indicate that it was a group), and in 1967, they sold it to Kinki Kanko, who converted it into a cabaret. As that business declined, the former Palace was sold, and in 1992, it was demolished because its atrium and sauna piping made it impossible to remodel into an office building.

[3] Much of this information is sourced from an interview published by Sugiyama's alma mater before his death in 2002. Tsuneharu Sugiyama was a high school champion in judo, and continued to practice judo during his freshman year at Doshisha University, despite being so large and strong that his seniors would not train with him. That winter, Tsuneharu contracted pneumonia during solo field training, and his father Masakatsu drove to the training camp to pick up his son and his belongings. (Masakatsu Sugiyama would be among Kokusai’s original board of directors.) While it appears that he dropped out of Doshisha, after he had healed Tsuneharu would be accepted by Meiji University, and eventually joined their wrestling team. Just ten days after joining, Sugiyama won the final qualifying round for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, but was disqualified from competing due to lack of experience. After victories in both the student – Sugiyama was, in fact, the first Japanese professional wrestler to have won student nationals, which he did in 1960 and 1961 – and national championships, Sugiyama made it into the Tokyo Olympics.

Like Kusatsu, and fellow Tokyo Olympian Masanori Saito, Sugiyama joined the JWA in 1965. Sugiyama joined professional wrestling with the encouragement of Ichiro Hatta (if you don’t know his story it will come up later in this post). All three were considered “elites” due to their athletic pedigrees, but as I learned during my transcription of Kagehiro Osano’s Jumbo Tsuruta: The Strongest Champion of Eternity (which was this thread’s original purpose), all three were still firmly held back by the verticality of early puroresu culture, which trickled down into the manner in which they worked (in other words, no highspots allowed from someone who hadn’t paid their dues, even if they happened to be an Olympian). Sugiyama debuted at the Riki Sports Palace on 1966.03.04, wrestling Kazuo Honma to a draw. His last date for the company was the 1966.09.23 Palace show, where he lost to Hideyuki Nagasawa.

[4] Kusatsu had been a talented rugby player, and he was brought into the JWA as an “elite”. However, unlike the humble Saito and Sugiyama, Kusatsu was a poor fit for early puro locker-room culture due to his laziness and cocky attitude. The future Great Kabuki would later recall that Kusatsu frequently skipped training. At the time he jumped ship, Kusatsu had been out of action with a shoulder injury.

[5] Back when TBS was KR TV, they broadcasted JWA material starting on September 4, 1955. However, a conflict arose with Nippon TV over who would get to broadcast the World Champion Series – as in, Rikidōzan vs. Lou Thesz – and when forced to choose between the two, Rikidōzan went with NTV. Furious over being slighted (and holding a personal distaste of wrestling), programming department head and future station president Junzo Imamichi ordered KR TV to terminate JWA coverage.

[6] When the future Mighty Inoue got his career off the ground, Osaka Gakuin University High School invited him to their graduation ceremony and gave him a diploma.

[7] In 1969, Togo teamed up with Thesz to form an attempted third Japanese wrestling promotion, Togo & Thesz Company, which would have tentatively been called the National Wrestling Enterprise, with Shachi Yokouchi planned to be its ace. Attempts to sell to NET TV (now TV Asahi, who would soon pursue a second television deal with the JWA) or Fuji TV fell through, the startup fell prey to the sabotage of the JWA (with the assistance of Tokyo Sports), and in August 1969, their petition for NWA membership was rejected 8-10.

[8] I do know that Hatta had unsuccessfully petitioned the department of education to make amateur wrestling a required component of the Japanese phys-ed curriculum – as judo and kendo had been in Imperial Japan – so it makes sense that he would see pro wrestling as the best promotional tool available to him.

[9] The earliest IWE date in Korakuen took place on 1970.04.16, but they wouldn’t run the venue again until 1973.09.26. Until then, their small-venue Tokyo shows took place at the likes of the Adachi, Itabashi, and Ohta Ward Gyms.

[10] Yeah, I guess I should get into this. During this tour, Robinson and Maivia got into a street fight. Robinson recalled the incident in his memoir, Physical Chess. The gaijin were all at a restaurant, Gordienko got upset about the peculiarities of the Japanese menu (as in, you couldn’t mix-and-match sides on the dishes offered), and Peter joined in until finally, Robinson told him to shut it so they could get some food and go their separate ways. Later, they met by their hotel, and though Robinson tried to deescalate the situation, Maivia was drunk and would not be deterred. Peter bit straight through Robinson’s cheek, and his old catch instincts took over. According to him, the fight lasted all of 15 seconds. At the end of it, Maivia was out cold, and Robinson went to the hospital for stitches and an injection. The next morning, Robinson came to Maivia’s hotel room and chewed him out, telling him he was lucky he had gotten off as easy as he did, but that he was welcome to try again if he wished. The sobered-up Maivia knew he had no chance, and in talking to Robinson revealed that Gordienko had instigated the whole thing, so Robinson went to his room and told him the same.

By Robinson’s own account, him and Maivia became friends afterwards, and Maivia even booked him in Hawaii.

 

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