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KOJI KITAO BEFORE SWS

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KOJI KITAO BEFORE SWS 

I don’t know you, above poster, but it’s an honor to have my thread pimped to jdw.

Anyway, I rushed Part One and let some things slip through the cracks – perhaps I was wanting to prove that I’m not going to be a one-hit wonder after finishing the Jumbo bio, or maybe I was just really proud of my dumb “Two Princes” joke in the biography section – so I’m really going to take it slow writing Part Two.

There is one big thing I missed at the end of that post that I need to address now. On November 1, 1990, SWS announced a new signing: the controversial retired yokozuna Koji Kitao, through Revolution. And in researching his pre-SWS career, I fell into a sumo history rabbit hole that fascinated me. So Kitao is going to get the extended biographical treatment here, as a stopgap release. The infamous incident against John Tenta had larger backstage ramifications in SWS than might be known in English-language narratives, so I think it’s worth going into detail on where he came from.

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The broad strokes of Koji Kitao’s sumo career suggest either a talented athlete who let a perfect storm of political favoritism get to their head, or one who was already a problem child, but was given their opportunities in the misplaced confidence that they would straighten themselves out. The Wikipedia page in his native language makes it clear that Kitao was a case of the latter, because the warning signs were always there. The spoiled child of the head of a construction company, Kitao frequently complained during training, and would threaten to return home. He actually did so under the guise of a leave of absence after suffering a herniated disc during a tournament, but his father sent him back, and Kitao was punished with a year of latrine duty.

It’s helpful to know what was going on in the broader world of sumo to understand why, by 1986, the fact that there was only one active yokozuna would make the Association desperate enough to promote someone like Kitao.

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The rank of yokozuna was long associated with the prominent Yoshida family. They were actually the first to issue yokozuna licenses, when in 1789 they awarded them to Tanikaze Kajinosuke and Onogawa Kisaburō, the fourth and fifth yokozuna (1-3 were posthumously declared as such). In the 1820s, another family would issue a pair of licenses, and in response the Yoshida family demanded that the Edo shogunate grant them authority to control the sumo world, and it was granted. The Goto family would continue to grant licenses but ended after the Meiji period and from what I gather these are now noncanonical.

Anyway, the Yoshida family would be the arbiters of who was promoted to yokozuna until 1950, when strong criticism of those then active at the rank prompted the Japan Sumo Association to take action.

Late the previous year, 39th yokozuna Maedayama was forced to retire by the Japan Sumo Association for dropping out of a tournament claiming illness, but then being photographed at a baseball game. Then, the January tournament saw the absences of all three active yokozuna: Azumafuji, Terakuni, and Haguroyama. Initially the JSA decided on a very harsh punishment, suspending all three for two tournaments and threatening demotion if they lost the tournament upon their return, but this was protested and reversed. In order to maintain the authority of the division, though, it was decided that yokozuna would no longer be promoted at the recommendation of the Yoshida family, but rather a committee of sumo experts. [1] On April 21, 1950, the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee was formed as an advisory body to the JSA, but the Yoshida family would continue to be involved with the Association. Legally they were a religious organization, so they remained integral to the ceremonial aspect of the yokozuna promotion.

But then, in May 1986, the family was disgraced by scandal. While Nagataka Yoshida the 25th was in Tokyo, his clerical staff had gotten deep into baseball betting, and racked up an ¥800,000,000 (now about ¥943,000,000, or $8.6 million) debt in his name. Yoshida would work to pay it off, but in a meeting with the chairman of the board of trustees Kasugano, it was agreed that the family would sever relations with the JSA and entrust the ceremony to them entirely. (The two parties have never reached reconciliation. Ultimately Nagataka would pay off his debts by selling assets and borrowing from relatives, and paid that off with a loan using the family residence as collateral. In 2005, the property was auctioned off and demolished to build a condominium.)

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So it was that, at a point where there was only one active yokozuna, the Association felt the need in July 1986 to promote somebody. Kitao was one of five ozeki (penultimate rank), and had just had a pair of strong tournament performances. At the latest one his only losses had been to Hoshi, a sekiwake (antepenultimate rank) who was “already performing at the standards of an ozeki”, and to yokozuna Chiyonofuji in the playoff round after having defeated him in the tournament proper. Only committee member Osamu Inaba opposed Kitao’s promotion to the very end, stating that on top of having never won an upper-division tournament, the rikishi lacked the mind and spirit of a true yokozuna. To put it lightly, his peers should have heeded his warnings.

As Kitao could not compete as a yokozuna under his family name, he would become professionally known as Futahaguro. This was suggested by chairman Kagusano, and was a portmanteau of Futabayama and Haguroyama, the respective 35th and 36th yokozuna, and both former members of Kitao’s Tatenami stable. On top of the new yokozuna’s dubious credentials, this name, at least in the opinion of writer Akira Komuro as cited by Japanese Wikipedia, was “too unnatural”.

Sure enough, Kitao himself would fumble from the outset. At the first yokozuna promotion ceremony held independently of the Yoshida family, held at Meiji Shrine, Kitao would be criticized for his performance, both for adding an extra stance which was derisively compared to that of a traffic controller, and for making his footsteps from the wrong side of the ring. At some point – I am guessing in the middle of the September tournament, as he left halfway through – he was hospitalized for food poisoning and appendicitis, so his physical condition immediately came under scrutiny as well. Futahaguro would notch three runner-up performances over the next seven tournaments, but his other tournament showings were mediocre.

Kitao’s English Wikipedia page gets the circumstances of his retirement right; junior stable members refused to serve him after he physically punished one of them, and he stormed out after an argument with his boss Tatsunami. What it doesn’t mention, though, is that this was preceded by an incident where all but one of them left the tournament after Futahaguro had shot his valet with an air gun. (All but one of those returned after an apology.) And the argument that led to his departure was over chanko. Tatsunami claimed that Kitao blew up over the underling in question using the wrong seasoning, while Kitao claimed it was because the kids couldn’t cook, and that he had repeatedly asked that they be taught.

Regardless, Futahaguro would make history as the first yokozuna ever to be expelled without consultation with his stablemaster (though according to Japanese Wikipedia, Tatsunami did unsuccessfully try to locate him to do so) or a hearing with the Association. [NOTE: As brought up in a post by NintendoLogic below, Kitao's expulsion appears with subsequent information to have partially been a coverup for Tatsunami's embezzlement from the stable.] In the aftermath of Kitao’s disgracing of the yokozuna, the Yokozuna Deliberation Committee would enact a rule that two consecutive tournament victories as an ozeki was required for promotion. This would hold until the last two yokozuna promoted as of writing, Kakuryū Rikisaburō in 2014 and Kisenosato Yutaka in 2017.

Reverting to his birth name as a public figure, Kitao would enjoy celebrity, mostly by starring in the television series Sports Adventurer, but a visit to the Monster Factory as part of this job turned his attention to becoming a professional wrestler. According to the June 12, 1989 Observer, he had a brief tryout with Larry Sharpe; I feel safe in presuming that was the premise of the TV episode. Interestingly, the comment he made to Tokyo Sports at this time was that, if he were to become a wrestler, he wanted to be signed on a tour-to-tour basis like a gaijin, rather than contracted fully to a promotion.

Kitao actually had a little bit of history with NJPW. When he attended a show during junior high, wrestler and future referee Motoyuki Kitazawa invited him to meet Inoki in the waiting room and offered for him to join after graduation. The source doesn’t specify whether he met graduating junior high or high school, but as Kitazawa had (according to an uncited Japanese Wikipedia claim) previously been the one who helped Tatsumi Fujinami, who had entered the workforce as a mechanic after junior high, get into the JWA, I’m presuming it was the former. By this point, Kitao had already received an offer from the Tatenami stable, but I’m guessing the episode stuck with him.

In 1989, Kitao consulted bodybuilder Mitsuo Endo, whose gym he had attended since he was a makushita, about entering professional wrestling. Endo’s connection to the business was that he had worked as a referee for late-period IWE – if you’ve dived into that footage, you have likely noticed a yellow-shirted referee who resembled nothing if not a Japanese Mr. Clean, and who not infrequently had the best body of anyone in the ring – and still had contact with Yukihiro Sakaeda, aka Tetsunosuke Daigo/Tokyo Joe [2]. On June 1, Kitao visited NJPW headquarters and received an unofficial invitation. The next day, he held a press conference to announce he would become a professional wrestler.

Kitao spent two months training under Lou Thesz in Norfolk, Virginia. While he returned in August, Kitao would head to America again, working for the AWA through Masa Saito’s connection as the masked Monster Machine. According to (the free-to-read portion of) an interview with Apollo Sugawara, he also coached Kitao in Japan at Endo’s offer (Endo had gotten him connected with the IWE to begin his career), and would accompany him on the excursion, which is why he was not present for the second Pioneer Senshi event on October 26.

Kitao had wanted to wrestle as Thunderstorm Kitao, but while this motif would linger in his gear and his absolutely incredible entrance music (“BREAK DOWN THUNDER STORM”) courtesy of Demon Kogure (now Kakka), this would not pan out. (I guess it’s fitting that he would eventually work for Tenryu, though.) And so it was that in February, Kitao would wrestle Crusher Bam Bam Bigelow in the Eggdome. From his elaborate entrance, clad in a badass Hokuto no Ken-inspired leather jacket, to the clear Hulk Hogan homage in his gear colors, mannerisms, and moveset, Kitao certainly tried to meet the occasion as spectacle, but his clumsy performance between the ropes would not be overlooked by the crowd.

His performances would remain rough. During a later match, a six-man tag alongside Shinya Hashimoto and Masa Saito against Vader, Bigelow, and Steve Williams (either on 1990.05.24 or 1990.05.30), Kitao got his legs tangled up in the corner and fell down. From the beginning, Kitao had made it clear that he did not want to fully sign with a company, like Hiroshi Wajima had in All Japan. This request would be granted, as Kitao was signed not directly with New Japan, but as an “exclusive freelance contractor” through the Arms entertainment agency, but I think it’s safe to presume that this arrangement would have alienated his coworkers even if Kitao didn’t have personality issues. His crowd reception would not improve, and he didn’t help his case when, in an interview as part of the publicity campaign for the single release of his entrance theme, Kitao brushed it off as simply a manifestation of their frustration with how quickly his matches ended. Top this off with his lack of selling, and his difficulty with taking moves properly and consequent refusal to take certain maneuvers (he once injured his lower back landing wrong on a vertical suplex, or “brainbuster”, out of fear), and you had a man who nobody liked even before the incident you all probably know about. Kitao’s last match for New Japan was on 1990.07.22, and was also the last NJPW match of Kazakh wrestler Vladimir Berkovich.

This is the least interesting part of the story to tell for me because everyone already knows it. One day, Kitao had a violent confrontation with booker and on-site supervisor Riki Choshu over skipped practice sessions, which culminated in his use of an ethnic slur against the Zainichi Korean. His contract was terminated, even if New Japan publicly claimed it was an amiable exit. In a later interview, Choshu remarked that no matter which organization took him on, Kitao would cause trouble for them.

On November 1, 1990, it was announced that Koji Kitao had joined SWS through Revolution. It wouldn’t be long until Choshu was proven correct.

Spoiler

[1] Just as an aside, I recently learned that post-Kodama JWA chairman Yoshiichi Hirai, a former member of the House of Representatives first as part of the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democratic Party, was also at some point a member of this committee. The prevalence of right-wing politicians in upper positions of the JWA has definitely been noted – Robert Whiting in his book Tokyo Underworld goes so far as to call the promotion a propaganda tool for the LDP specifically – but I would be interested in researching similar associations between Japanese conservatives and the Committee/JSA.

[2] After six years in sumo, Yukihiro Sakaeda retired at the May 1966 tournament. On October 12, he officially entered professional wrestling as one of the initial crop of trainees of Toyonobori’s ill-fated Tokyo Pro Wrestling, alongside fellow ex-sumo Haruka Eigen, Takeshi Oiso, Katsuhisa Shibata, and Isamu Teranishi. When that promotion fell apart, Antonio Inoki took Eigen and Shibata with him back to the JWA, but the rest were left behind and subsumed into the IWE. While he debuted as Tsuyoshi Sendai, a name taken from those of his godfather and hometown, it was at this point that Sakeada began to wrestle as Tetsunosuke Daigo. He lingered for years in the under-to-midcard, and never got called up for an overseas excursion until 1973, when he traveled to Grand Prix Wrestling in Montreal through the connection of Mad Dog Vachon. He would work for a year here as Tokyo Joe.

It was planned for Daigo to return triumphant to the IWE in March 1974, but he and Devil Murasaki would work one more program for Stampede before he did so. Daigo’s Japanese Wikipedia page claims his request to return to Japan was initially refused due to a contract dispute before he was given the OK, while Meltzer’s obituary in the November 13, 2017 Observer reads that he and Murasaki expressed interest in working one last Canadian program. But on March 18, his in-ring career would end. He was travelling with Murasaki, Killer Karl Krupp, and Gama Singh to a Lethbridge show in a snowstorm, when they turned back to Calgary after being told by the Stomper that the show was canceled. On their way back, as Sakaeda was working to get their vehicle out of a ditch, a young driver swerved on the black ice to avoid crashing into it, only to hit him. Sakaeda’s leg would be amputated.

It was under these circumstances that Sakaeda remained in Calgary for the rest of his life. He would still be of service to the IWE, though, as he became their foreign booker. The following year, when Verne Gagne told the struggling promotion to choose the AWA or Daigo, they went with the latter. Sakaeda would eventually receive some help from top IWE gaijin Gypsy Joe, who became an intermediary to bring Mid-South talent to the promotion, but of course it wasn’t enough to save the company at the end.

Sakaeda took to running a gas station after the IWE’s closure, but apparently remained involved with the business in the meantime. Japanese Wikipedia claims that he was responsible for Ichimasa Wakamatsu (see the first SWS post for a mini-bio) coming to work for Stampede, and that was through his mediation that Gerry Morrow, who had worked for the IWE as Jiro Inazuma, would find some work with AJPW in 1983-4, most notably a shot alongside Gypsy Joe at All Asia tag champs (and ex-IWE stars) Ashura Hara and Mighty Inoue. In 1984, he was brought on to manage the North American branch of NJPW, through NJPW advisor, IWE founder and president, and former JWA sales manager Isao Yoshihara. This would not be a popular move with some, and was apparently a small part of the tangled web of circumstances that led to the British Bulldogs jumping ship to AJPW, but he remained in the position.

 

 

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