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KinchStalker

Part Three: Black Ship Sinks

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The grand finale of my SWS narrative is here.

Part Three: Black Ship Sinks

SWS TAG TEAM TITLES

As 1992 began, SWS looked to have finally gotten on track. They kicked the year off with a 1992.01.04 show at the Shizuoka Industrial Hall, where a “mostly non-paying” audience of 4,230 saw the start of a round-robin tournament to crown the first SWS tag team champions. Cagematch does not recognize every tournament match as such, so I’ve had to guess which teams were actually participating:

1.      Ryuharagun (Genichiro Tenryu & Ashura Hara) (Revolution)

2.      Natural Powers (Haku & Yoshiaki Yatsu) (WWF/Dojo Geki)

3.      Shunji & George Takano (Palaistra)

4.      Davey Boy Smith & Naoki Sano (WWF/Palaistra)

5.      Samson Fuyuki & Takashi Ishikawa (Revolution)

6.      Shinichi Nakano & Tatsumi Kitahara (Dojo Geki/Revolution)

7.      Kendo Nagasaki & Kenichi Oya (Dojo Geki)

In Shizuoka, Ryuharagun defeated the Takanos, the Natural Powers defeated Nagasaki & Oya, and Smith & Sano defeated Fuyuki & Ishikawa.

That same night, NJPW held their annual Dome show, and as reported in the January 10 Observer, native interpromotional cooperation finally seemed to be a real possibility for SWS. After Japanese postage company Sagawa Express, which had been backing Inoki’s “political adventures” (I know Sagawa was sold NJPW stock several years before), decided to cut back on such expenses, Inoki had approached Hachiro Tanaka to sponsor him. [1] Meltzer reported that the two had reached a deal which included a secretly booked Dome show in the future, with rumblings of a Choshu/Tenryu headliner. This was supported by Choshu’s backstage promo after the Dome main event, in which he had defeated Tatsumi Fujinami to unify the IWGP Heavyweight and Greatest 18 Club championships. In what Meltzer described as a “Jerry Lawler-type interview”, Choshu challenged wrestlers from other promotions and directly name-dropped Tenryu. However, this would go up in smoke the following month. NJPW president Seiji Sakaguchi met with Tanaka to try to negotiate an out-of-court settlement to New Japan’s lawsuit against SWS regarding Sano and Takano, after which Sakaguchi publicly admitted he had done so, but denied that a co-promotional show would happen, or that Inoki had even spoken to Tanaka. [2]

On 1992.01.06, at the Nagoya Conference Center, Ryuharagun defeated Fuyuki & Ishikawa, Smith & Sano defeated Nakano & Kitahara, and the Natural Powers went to a no-contest with the Takanos.  1992.01.08 saw SWS’s first 1992 event in a major market, running the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. As for the tag tournament, Smith & Sano went over the Takanos, and the Natural Powers avenged their August 1991 loss to Ryuharagun, when Tenryu himself took the pinfall. However, this event would perhaps become most infamous for its opening match. In a tag match alongside Nobukazu Hirai against Apollo Sugawara and Toshiyuki Nakahara, the ex-NJPW junior Akira Katayama botched a tope, fracturing his fourth cervical vertebrae and permanently losing the use of his legs. It may as well have been an omen of things to come. At a Korakuen show four days later, their last of January, Ryuharagun defeated Nakano and Kitahara to further the tournament.

SWS began February with a 1992.02.09 show at the Isesaki Civic Gymnasium. As far as (presumed) tournament matches went, Ryuharagun went over Nagasaki & Oya and the Natural Powers beat Fuyuki & Ishikawa, but that wasn’t the only interesting thing to happen on the card. For one, Marty Jannetty showed up for his SWS Junior Heavyweight title shot against Naoki Sano, despite Meltzer having reported that his suspension from Titan Sports had thrown a wrench in these plans. Elsewhere, Ultimo finally had some luchadors to work with, as Kato Kung Lee, Blue Panther, and Emilio Charles Jr. came over from CMLL. [3]

The following night, the tag tournament continued in the Aizuwakamatsu Prefectural Gymnasium, as the Takanos defeated Nagasaki & Oya, the Natural Powers suffered what would be their only loss of the tournament against Nakano & Kitahara, and Ryuharagun went over Smith & Sano. On 1992.02.12, at SWS The Battle Hall VII in a sold-out Korakuen, Smith & Sano defeated Nagasaki & Oya by DQ, the Natural Powers beat the Takanos, and Nakano & Kitahara defeated Fuyuki & Ishikawa.

The tournament ended on 1992.02.14, at the Kyoto Prefectural Gymnasium. Ryuharagun defeated Nakano & Kitahara, and the Natural Powers defeated Smith & Marty Jannetty. (Sano was nowhere to be found on this card and the contemporaneous Observers don’t say anything about it, so my best guess is that this was tied to the circumstances behind the 1992.02.12 DQ win.) As was to be expected, the tag title tournament went to a Ryuharagun-Natural Powers rematch when both finished the round-robin with 5-1 records, and the Natural Powers won.

ROAD TO THE BATTLE OF KINGS

The Feburary 10 Observer had reported that Tenryu was pursuing a deal for a singles match against either the Undertaker or Ric Flair, to headline a major event at the Tokyo City Gymnasium on 1992.04.18. Over the following weeks, the plans took shape. Taker would work dates on 1992.03.18 and 03.22, and the March 2 Observer confirmed that Flair would make his SWS debut in April.

March began for the company on 1992.03.14 at the Aomori Prefectural Gymnasium. Perhaps the most notable thing about this show was that El Dandy returned to SWS for the first time since January 1991 to make Ultimo do his first job for the company. Elsewhere, Tenryu and Ishikawa were defeated by Nagasaki and the Berzerker, the latter of whom would be pushed during this tour as a Brody clone, and the Natural Powers defeated the Takanos in 23:24. Four days later in Niigata, Taker debuted with a singles win over Ishikawa, and the Natural Powers retained the tag titles against, once again, the Takanos. SWS The Battle Hall VIII took place in Korakuen on 1992.03.22, as a Sunday noon show since All Japan had the hall booked for 6:30, and was topped by two singles matches in which Yoshiaki Yatsu and Taker defeated Ashura Hara and Haku respectively.

More trouble arose for the promotion that month when WOWOW declined to renew their one-year television deal. After all, the station was drawing higher ratings with their broadcasts of Fighting Network RINGS. Their last broadcast of SWS material was on March 28. However, the promotion would reach a deal with TV Tokyo for a monthly one-hour slot. (An uncited claim on the Japanese Wikipedia SWS page claims that the Nishimatsu construction company sponsored the program which would be called “Gekito SWS Pro-Wrestling”.)

SWS held three events in April, from 04.16 to 04.18. On top of now-former WWF Champion Ric Flair’s participation on all three dates, these shows also saw the Natural Disasters (whom I neglected to mention had unsuccessfully challenged for the Road Warriors’ WWF tag titles at SuperWrestle In Tokyo Dome) look to challenge for the SWS tag titles, and El Satanico represented CMLL to put his NWA World Light Heavyweight title on the line against Ultimo.

The first of two SWS BATTLE MESSAGE ’92 shows was on 1992.04.16, drawing an announced 3,919 to the Minamiashigara Research and Development Center. In a six-man tag pitting Ryuharagun and Takashi Ishikawa against Flair and the Natural Disasters, Flair went over Ishikawa with a back suplex. In the main event, the Takanos finally overcame the Natural Powers to win the SWS Tag Team titles when Shunji pinned Yatsu. The second BATTLE MESSAGE was the following night. As reported in the April 27 Observer, the announced sellout of 3,960 in the Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium had a paid crowd less than half that. For the main event, Flair went over Tenryu in a buildup singles match. Elsewhere, the Natural Disasters beat the Takanos for the SWS tag titles, and Naoki Sano retained his SWS junior title against Chavo Guerrero.

As expected, SWS THE BATTLE OF KINGS took place on 1992.04.18 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, with an announced crowd of 9,019. After a double pin, Satanico retained his title against Ultimo with a countout victory. The Natural Disasters traded the SWS tag titles back to the Takanos. Sano retained against Guerrero in a title rematch. And finally, Tenryu defeated Ric Flair in a 2/3-falls match.

It would be the last time that SWS could claim to project any semblance of stability.

FRACTURE

According to Igapro, Kabuki resigned as booker back in March; I initially assumed this was an error since the press conference didn’t occur until May, but Igapro had also said that Kabuki had “disappeared” for a time after quitting, and the April 27 Observer states that he was gone as part of an angle. Anyway, he had continued to emphasize Revolution in his work, and dealing with the other factions, as well as Hachiro Tanaka (to whom they always appealed to intervene), drove him to quit the post. He wouldn’t leave the company entirely, but he also left Revolution to perform for the company as a freelancer, in an attempt to prevent Tenryu from being rallied against by the rest of the company by keeping his distance. [4] The May 18 Observer reported that Takashi Ishikawa took over booking, but an uncited claim on SWS’s Japanese Wikipedia page, which I am taking at face value for the time being, is that the position was taken over by the joint efforts of Ishikawa and Goro Tsurumi. Each represented the pro-Tenryu and anti-Tenryu contingents (this is the phrasing that the Igapro SWS articles eventually just switch to, with “anti-Tenryu faction” meant as shorthand for the amalgamation of Palaistra and Dojo Geki), and would draw up their own cards and then present them to each other to negotiate the final card.

On May 14, one week after the press conference where Kabuki announced he had stepped down, Yoshiaki Yatsu, who had taken over as head of Dojo Geki after Ichimasa Wakamatsu departed to grieve his wife’s death, [5] announced that he would resign from his position. [6] He also revealed a deep conflict between the warring factions of the company, but he didn’t tell the full story, and it would be years before we got the entire context.

SWS had failed to turn a profit, and beyond the upfront investment Tenryu had spent a lot of money since he became president in order to increase its status. Put this on top of the exorbitant WWF booking fees, and all this debt had led to Hachiro Tanaka’s ouster from Megane Super proper. (There was also speculation among the talent that Tenryu, Kabuki, and Akio Sato were pocketing the margin.) With all this pushback from the parent company, as well as the fact that Tanaka had given up his SWS presidential seat, he plotted to break up SWS. That wording is important. To disband SWS would mean a mass liquidation that was sure to damage its parent company’s corporate image, so Tanaka needed to drive SWS’s factions apart.

As has been mentioned before, Dojo Geki was originally meant as a buffer between Revolution and Palaistra, with Wakamatsu and Kazuo Sakurada working as mediators between the respective ex-AJPW and ex-NJPW factions. But what was originally intended as a suture to keep SWS together would become the scalpel that cut it open. Yatsu was the best man to play both sides against each other, as he had worked for both AJPW and NJPW, but had a “cold view” of Tenryu as well as Choshu. (The source mentions the latter even though he was never in SWS, so I think it’s meant to mean that that his feelings about Choshu had bled into his general distrust of NJPW back when most of JPW returned there. Also, note that Yatsu was brought into NJPW as an elite from the start, as he had basically been Hisashi Shinma's unsuccessful attempt to have a Jumbo Tsuruta of their own, so the likes of George Takano had not been fond of him to begin with.) To paraphrase Vince McMahon, if anyone was gonna kill Tanaka’s creation, he was gonna do it! Him…and Yoshiaki Yatsu.

At some point the two met in Tanaka’s office. His plan was to put words in Yatsu’s mouth suggesting that the stables become independent promotions. Tanaka would be willing to pay them 200 million yen (roughly 212 million yen now, or 1.94 million dollars) a year, but he didn’t even suggest a condition that they would work any joint shows. Yatsu hesitated, as he was tired of wrestling itself and not just SWS, but accepted on the condition that he would receive 200 million yen of hush money so as not to implicate Tanaka and then leave the business. Yatsu went to work, and made proposals to Tenryu and George Takano. Takano agreed that he and Tenryu had irreconcilable differences, but Tenryu wasn’t convinced. He had worked so hard to build their promotion against the slings and arrows of the locker room and the press, and he considered this proposal tantamount to splitting the company up just as it had found its groove.

Tenryu and Yatsu’s first meeting went to a dead end, and they agreed to meet at a later date to discuss the matter calmly while promising not to divulge the contents of the meeting. However, Yatsu then concluded on his own that Tenryu would not be convinced by further discussion, and proceeded to call a spontaneous press conference, where Yatsu resigned and revealed the internal situation. As Yatsu must have seen it, shining a light on the matter would be the easiest way to drive the factions to go independent, and he would thus have done his job. But then, Tanaka threw Yatsu under the bus, stating that he had done this on his own, and tying up that loose end. (I presume he never got that hush money either.) He asked Yatsu to “bow down” to him, even if only formally, but Yatsu refused after this betrayal.

Now that the matter was public, Tanaka approached Tenryu about cancelling SWS’s upcoming dates so that they could split the promotion, as he had intended. By this time, though, Tenryu had already announced the events for May and June, and had sold tickets, so he couldn’t back out now. He protested that, if necessary, he would book these events with only Revolution and loaned WWF talent. Tenryu probably knew he couldn’t salvage the promotion by this point, but he probably still insisted on fulfilling these obligations in order to thank the fans which had supported them. The anti-Tenryu faction decided to participate in these last events because Yatsu had been contracted to do so, on the condition that they were not involved in matches with Revolution and WWF wrestlers, which would be granted.

The last stretch of SWS dates began on 1992.05.18 in the Katsuyama Municipal Gymnasium, drawing a “full house” of 2,630 according to the June 1 Observer. Not much is notable about it except that the delineation between factions so far as the booking was concerned was quite clear. The following night’s show at the Toyama Gymnasium was apparently more notable. According to a last-minute addition to the May 25 Observer, during this show all of the ex-New Japan talent (Takanos, Sano, Oya and Arakawa) entered the ring together to declare that they could not get along with Tenryu. While Meltzer wasn’t aware of the full extent of Tanaka’s plans (the account given in the June 22 Observer was that Yatsu and Nakano were trying to get Palaistra to quit SWS, but that they instead went to Tanaka to form their own group, leaving Yatsu and Nakano out in the cold), by this point he was openly reporting that Tanaka was sick of all the losses he’d accrued, and that he’d realized that the WWF partnership was a mistake, since a Tenryu/Fujiwara singles match likely would've outdrawn Tenryu vs. Hogan.

The 1992.05.20 show at the Ishikawa Industrial Hall in Kanazawa drew a “full house” of 3,050. Most notably, Sano defended his junior title against Rick Martel, and the anti-Tenryu faction’s refusal to work with WWF talent meant that, instead of teaming with Haku (and to be clear, Haku worked these dates), Yatsu had to settle for ol’ Kendo Nagasaki as his partner against the Takanos, to predictable results.

The May shows ended at Korakuen on 1992.05.22, with an announced crowd of 2,015. By far the most interesting thing about this show was what was billed as Yatsu’s retirement match, in which he faced the Takanos alongside his old JPW chum Shinichi Nakano (who was also quitting SWS). In a display of the turn of public sentiment against the anti-Tenryu faction which is sure to remind readers of One Night Stand 2006, Yatsu threw shirts into the crowd as a parting gift, only for them to throw them back into the ring while mockingly doing Yatsu’s “orya” chant. (Apparently, Nakano was genuinely hurt by this reception.)

The next day, SWS held an emergency board meeting. Here, it was decided that the two factions would split into different promotions starting in July. Two days later, at the ANA Hotel in Tokyo, this was announced.

SWS ended with four shows in June. The first was at Korakuen on 1992.06.05, drawing 1,980. Then, on 1992.06.16, they ran the Kumamoto Gymnasium to an announced sellout of 3,070. Following this were two shows on 1992.06.18-19, at the Sasebo City Gymnasium (announced sellout of 3,620) and the Nagasaki International Gymnasium (announced sellout of 3,860). Not much is notable except that Shunji Takano was absent for the last three, having suffered a car accident as reported by the June 29 Observer.

Hachiro Tanaka would keep his promise to the groups in that he gave both of them financial support for a limited time. WAR would receive the backing of Megane Super for two years, and NOW for one (apparently cut short due to lack of success). Humorously, he would also pay off Tarzan Yamamoto for one year not to slag him in Weekly Pro Wrestling. However, while an SWS postmortem is beyond the scope of what I set out to write (to be clear, I am interested in at least writing something about WAR eventually, if I find stuff that I think might expand the Western narratives, but that’s too major an undertaking for now), I should note that in September, just one month after NOW held its debut show, the Takanos left to form Pro Wrestling Crusaders while lambasting SWS and Megane Super in an article published by Shukan Bunshun. (NOW would replace them with Ishinriki and Umanosuke Ueda, the latter of whom was thirty years deep into his career by that point.)

CONCLUSION

I’ve seen the SWS called the kurofune (“black ship”) of puroresu, and I’ve evoked this imagery in the titles of these posts. To explain the historical allusion, the black ships were the Western vessels which ended Japan’s isolation at two points in history: first, the Portuguese carracks with pitch-painted hulls, which linked Goa to Nagasaki in the 16th century; then, the American steam-powered warships, which were commanded by Matthew Perry on his 1852-4 expedition of gunboat diplomacy. It’s an apt metaphor for SWS, actually, because the most consequential things that both kurofune incidents sparked came from within Japan. Whatever one might say about Christian expansionism, the external stimuli of Portuguese missionaries ultimately provoked the Japanese peasantry themselves to dissent in the Shimabara Rebellion. And when the kurofune came again, the Bakumatsu which ended the feudal period of Japan also came from within. Similarly, Tanaka could only buy his way into the wrestling business due to the internal tensions already present during the Baba/Inoki era of puroresu. SWS might not have lasted long, and it might not have reached its potential – the NJPW/WAR feud would end up fulfilling the implied promise of the Revolution vs. Palaistra setup of SWS, to a greater degree than SWS itself ever could have – but it was a necessary chapter in early Heisei puroresu. From what it itself entailed, to what it drove its competitors to adopt in the wake of the exodus that gave it shape (especially All Japan), SWS pulled a major trigger on what made the 1990s such an important era in Japanese wrestling history.

Spoiler

[1] The January 20 Observer reported that, after JWP announced it would fold after a Korakuen show, Rumi Kazama and Shinobu Kandori also approached Tanaka for his sponsorship.

[2] The February 10 Observer speculated that, after the absences of Super Strong Machine, Hiro Saito, Tatsutoshi Goto, Norio Honaga, and Masanobu Kurisu from NJPW’s start-of-the-tour show on 1992.01.30, the first four were either working an angle or possibly headed to SWS while Kurisu was looking to join Masashi Aoyagi's independent group.

[3] The March 2 Observer reported that Toshiyuki Nakahara would be sent on a Mexican excursion to be trained by Blue Panther. He would be accompanied by Masao Orihara, and the two debuted for CMLL on 1992.03.07 as the tag team of Iga and Koga.

[4] Kabuki had made a surprise appearance at the 1992.04.23 FMW Korakuen show. It was reported in the May 4 Observer that he was working on a deal which would see Tanaka have something to do with FMW, or at least Onita. The May 18 Observer, though, would report that Kabuki stated during a press conference that he wasn’t going to FMW after all.

[5] An uncited claim on the Japanese Wikipedia SWS page states that Yatsu had also been Dojo Geki’s representative on the booking council, during the period in the aftermath of the Kitao incident when things shifted around. Apparently, Don Arakawa was Palaistra’s representative. To be clear, I do not know when or even if the booking system had reverted back to its original form before Kabuki left the position; I suppose the same frustrations could have arose.

[6] Meltzer’s reportage of this press conference in the May 25 Observer doesn’t address this, instead stating that Yatsu was retiring to aim for competing in the Barcelona Olympics despite an unspecified “blood disease” (it was actually type 2 diabetes).  However, “some [were] saying” that this was just a work to cover him retiring from the business, and that he apparently had some real estate side business going on in Hawaii.

 

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