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Part Two: Black Ship Docks (1/2)

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Here's the first part of Part Two of the SWS series, which goes up to the 1991.04.02 Wrestle Dream in Kobe show. The source I've been consulting only tells much of the rest of the story in 1991 through the lens of the reformation of Ryuhara-gun, Tenryu's tag team with Ashura Hara, so that will be its own post, preceded by an extended Hara biography up to that point. 

SWS Part Two: Black Ship Docks (1/2)


The first SWS show with loaned WWF talent was (according to Cagematch) their eighth event, which took place on December 6, 1990, at the Welfare Hall in Himeji. The WWF representatives were the tag teams of Ted DiBiase and Greg Valentine, the Bushwhackers, and the Rougeaus, as well as half of the constituents of the opening six-man tag (the Brooklyn Brawler, Beef Wellington, and Rochester Roadblock). All these men also worked the following night’s show at the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, which drew 6,390, though the January 8 Observer reported under 3,000 paid. According to the December 7 Observer, the WWF had control of the booking of all their wrestlers, and while Meltzer doesn’t state this I presume Akio Sato was heavily involved in the process; he and Titan Sports business VP Dick Glover had both visited Japan in November to announce the partnership.

SWS began the new year with their 1991.01.04 show at the Tokyo Bay NK Hall in Urayasu. While announced as a sellout of 5,909, the 1991.01.21 Observer reported that, at 3,500 with less than half paid, the actual crowd was the smallest that a wrestling event at the venue had ever drawn. The show itself was said to have been Japan’s worst in years, with a Rockers vs Fuyuki/Kitahara tag being the sole three-star match on the card as it was reported to Meltzer. The main event, which saw Tenryu and Kitao go over Tito Santana and Haku, reportedly saw the crowd laughing at Kitao. At this point in the company, Kitao had a second-place tournament performance (1990.12.07, losing to Tenryu), a main event tag victory (1990.11.22, w/Tenryu over Sano/Shunji Takano), and three squash matches to his name, but it wasn’t shaking off his poor reputation. And as reported in a later Observer, this show gave Tarzan Yamamoto and Weekly Pro Wrestling plenty of ammunition.

On January 22, Isao Takagi (Dojo Geki) was dismissed. According to the February 18 Observer, this was because he was skipping too many training sessions due to his claimed injuries and gambling habits.

February would see SWS block Weekly Pro from ringside and interview access completely, though ironically this appears to have arisen from an honest error, rather than Yamamoto’s antics. SWS purchased a full-page ad in the magazine for the 1991.03.30 Tokyo Dome show, and upon seeing it complained and requested corrections. However, the revised version of the ad did not make it to the presses. Yamamoto revealed in subsequent years that this was a printer’s mistake, and that he tried to tell Hachiro Tanaka what had happened, but considering all he had printed about SWS up to that point he was perhaps understandably not believed. The Weekly Pro ban was reported in the March 11 Observer, though Dave was unaware of the straw that had broken the camel’s back. This same issue reported that other outlets heaped praise upon the 1991.02.24 SWS Korakuen Hall show (which featured no WWF talent) in response, wishing to curry favor with the promotion which had just bared its fangs to their biggest competitor, though Meltzer’s “unaffiliated sources” reported that the card wasn’t that good.

A second round of auditions was held on 1991.02.24, with two passing: future WAR junior champ Yuji Yasuraoka and Toshiyuki Nakahara (both Revolution). That same day, two other signings were announced, one of whom was Hikaru Kawabata (Dojo Geki).

As far as new talent went, however, the most important thing going was obviously SWS’s partnership with Shin UWF Fujiwara Gumi, later to be renamed Professional Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi. (See the post above for the rundown on the fracture of Newborn UWF, which led to FG’s formation.) The timeline in the SWS’s Japanese Wikipedia page places the announcement at March 13, 1991, but it was a foregone conclusion long before even if one wasn’t following the money. According to the February 11 Observer, Nikkan Sports reported that Fujiwara, Funaki, and Suzuki were SWS-bound, and the March 11 issue stated that Funaki/Sano had been announced for the Dome show. My guess is that the March 13 announcement was that Fujiwara-gumi were partnering with SWS as their own room.

We should probably address that now. As stated in part one, the heya system was Tenryu’s idea, a transplant from sumo, and its “rooms” were not just kayfabe factional entities, but distinct units within the company structure. To Tenryu’s credit, it was a pretty good idea; the differences between AJPW and NJPW company culture probably would have been irreconcilable had he tried to push those same-sided magnets together into a single locker room. And the third faction, Wakamatsu and Sakurada’s Dojo Geki, was intended to serve as a mediating party between Revolution and Palaistra. However, to skip ahead just a bit, Sakurada and Wakamatsu would soon depart: Sakurada back to America, and Wakamatsu to his seriously ill wife.

The appointment of Kabuki as booker was an asymmetrical arrangement, as his booking favored those who had left All Japan alongside him, and was even done with Tenryu’s consultation. This was not an arrangement that George Takano, or indeed many others, were happy with. They also saw that the WWF partnership was hinged on ex-All Japan buddies Tenryu, Kabuki, and Akio Sato, and that Revolution were favored in the booking of WWF-loaned talent. (In fact, as had been reported in the November 19 Observer it had only been Tenryu and Kabuki accompanying Hachiro Tanaka to negotiate to secure the WWF partnership in the first place.) The wrestlers would appeal directly to Tanaka, who then stepped in and interfered with Kabuki and Tenryu’s decisions.

SWS/WWF Wrestlefest in Tokyo Dome took place on 1991.03.30. The claimed attendance was a sporting event record for the venue, at 64,618. The April 8 Observer reported that the real attendance was somewhere from 42-45,000, with an estimation of around half of that paid. The following week, Dave would get the real juicy details. 30,000 of that attendance was what the Dome’s box office had reported “out” – as in, the individual tickets bought directly from them as well as bulk tickets ordered by ticket sellers (the paid attendance was reported as “probably near” that amount) – but the show had been papered by a massive freebie campaign from Megane Super, in which they distributed 50,000 coupons in the Tokyo area which could be redeemed for two tickets. The WWF had also done a trade-off campaign with Armed Forces Radio, in order to get stationed US personnel and their families to get crowd reactions for the “American spots”, but this campaign wasn’t as successful as their previous one for the 1990.04.13 Dome show.

SWS Wrestle Dream in Kobe, held two days later, would be the stage for one of the most infamous shoot incidents in modern wrestling history…Apollo Sugawara walking out of his match against Minoru Suzuki. Nah, I’m just screwing with you. Let’s get to what you came here for.



Above: Koji Kitao makes an infamous comment on the microphone after his disastrous rematch against Earthquake.

At the Dome show, Koji Kitao had put over Earthquake: that is, the Canadian former rikishi John Tenta, who had retired from sumo in 1986 [1] to join All Japan Pro Wrestling, before signing with the WWF in 1989 to perform somewhere closer to home.

A 2021 web article for Sports Graphic Number by writer Genki Horie, published on the thirtieth anniversary of the Kobe show, advances a couple theories about the incident at the Kobe show. The first is that Kitao’s head got gassed up by Don Arakawa and others backstage; Apollo Sugawara claims that Kitao had called him afterwards and threatened to no-show Kobe. The second theory is given much more real estate in the article since it is sourced from an interview the author himself conducted with Tenta.

According to Tenta, the intent was not to trade wins between the ex-yokozuna and ex-makushita, but for Earthquake to beat Kitao both times. However, Kitao complained that Tenta had injured his breastbone with his Earthquake Splash, although Tenta found that ridiculous (nobody he’d worked with in the WWF had complained about the move). Then, as Tenta told it, Kabuki flew into the dressing room to tell him his intentions. What he said to Tenta translated as “let’s give Kitao some flowers today.” (As a supplement to DeepL, I checked RomajiDesu’s translation feature, which breaks down smaller passages into romaji and translates the individual units, in order to see whether this was wrong. But no, this is what was written; I don’t know a specific colloquial meaning, but my tentative guess is that Kabuki decided at the last minute to put Kitao over to keep things running smoothly. However, apparently in an episode of Between the Sheets Bixenspan and Zellner interpreted/reported this as Kabuki telling him to actively provoke Kitao.)

Tenta stated that he wanted to have a good match at the start, so he began working in good faith. However, Kitao unsuccessfully tried to blindside him with a Fujiwara armbar attempt out of the collar-and-elbow. What ensued famously manifested as a minute or so of uncooperative shoot-ish working between the two until, as captured in this photo, Kitao refused to lock up, instead giving a certain gesture to Tenta. (I have seen this commonly called an “eyepoke” gesture, but Japanese Wikipedia interprets it as a handgun gesture. This had been seen in Japan around this time to indicate a gachinko/”cement match”.) According to Tenta’s testimony, this was the point when he no longer took the match seriously, and sure enough, the rest of the match saw the two staring each other down and talking shit until Kitao got disqualified by kicking the referee. As you likely know, Kitao grabbed the microphone afterwards (fancam footage) and exposed ‘da business.

Tenta was not proud of the match, but he did note that when he returned to America, the rumor had grown to the proportion that he had actually beaten Kitao in a shoot, which boosted his reputation backstage. (That’s not to imply that Tenta wasn’t tough; I recently learned that we might have him to thank for sparing our timeline from a full-on Raja Lion run in AJPW, after they sparred in the dojo and Tenta trounced him.)

Honestly, what I find more interesting for the purposes of our narrative is not the circumstances which led to the incident, but what happened immediately afterward. After Kitao’s death in 2019, Masakatsu Funaki uploaded a vlog to his YouTube channel, where he aired out some laundry that I have to mention. Hachiro Tanaka’s wife was working as an on-site supervisor, and when she warned him about his behavior, Kitao threw a chair at her during his backstage tantrum. It didn’t hit her, but from Funaki’s testimony she would have been injured if it had. This went unreported, but Funaki claims that it was a turning point in Hachiro Tanaka’s attitude towards his wrestlers, and understandably so.

Tenryu and Kabuki took responsibility for the incident, and so Tenryu asked Tanaka to demote both of them from their respective roles as director and booker. Initially Kitao was punished with a fine and suspension, but Palaistra and Dojo Geki objected to such leniency. In an emergency meeting, Tenryu and Kabuki asked for Kitao’s resignation, and Tanaka was forced to fire him. Then, Tanaka would step down from his presidential role, deciding to give the seat to Tenryu to “take care of everything”.

Under the Tenryu regime, Kabuki would not step down as booker after all, but changes were implemented that temporarily suspended the heya system, and it appears that all the respective heads were, for a time, allowed to be involved in the booking.

(Note: Tanaka would try to bring Kitao back at some point as a member of Fujiwara Gumi, but the meeting went nowhere after Kitao took out his laptop, where he had written his pitch for how he wanted his matches to go, and well, let's just say it wasn't PWFG-compatible.)


Above: President Tenryu.


[1] John Tenta’s English Wikipedia page states, with citations from contemporaneous articles in the Western press, that Tenta retired due to a combination of the demanding sumo lifestyle, and the cultural differences that made his bicep tattoo (a tiger, in honor of his alma mater LSU) a problem. In actuality, there was a little more to it. Tenta was a poor fit in general for the sumo world, sure – his stablemaster had told his stablemates to “forgive Kototenzan’s (Tenta’s sumo name) selfishness because of his talent”, but this had apparently backfired – but there was also a scandalous matter regarding Tenta’s interpreter, a woman with whom he became romantically linked. According to culture writer Robert Whiting, Tenta ultimately retired because his stablemaster would not give him a satisfactory answer regarding health insurance in the case of injury.


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I remember 12 year old me, having zero knowledge of non US wrestling at the time, being absolutely baffled that these two Japanese dudes I'd never seen before (Tenryu and Kitao) not only had a match at Wrestlemania 7 but actually got a win over Demolition. 

Also I just realized WM 7 was like a week before the famous incident with Earthquake and both of them were on this show too. I wonder if they had any kind of run in at this show that might have fed in to what happened later. 

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