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2020 JUMBO BIO, PART SEVEN

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2020 JUMBO BIO, PART SEVEN

Finally, I have completed transcription of chapter 9, about the Tsuruta/Tenryu feud. It starts with the broad strokes of Tenryu’s early wrestling career, but I think he deserves a bit more from me in this post than that. Tenryu’s autobiography is one of the books that I’ve considered doing a transcription of after the Jumbo bio (though a 2019 Four Pillars bio will probably be my next project if I do this again), but I’d like to add a couple tidbits about his pre-puroresu life.

Would any of you be interested in a detour post about SWS? I don’t know if the story of that company has been played out in English-language circles.

1.) Genichiro Shimada’s father, a farmer, responded to the inquiry of a Nisshonoseki stable patron for potential sumo recruits while they were at a barbershop. The future Tenryu would ultimately join in December 1963. Genichiro tried to balance sumo with schoolwork, but his stablemates found out and forced him to cancel his correspondence course. (One of Genichiro’s classmates in junior high was Yasumichi Ai, who became a master rakugo comedian now known by his stage name of San'yūtei Enraku VI. The two remained friends – apparently a Tenryu impression is part of the latter’s repertoire – and this is how Tenryu met Akira Taue.) His famous generosity took after that of two of his elder stablemates: namely, Taihō Kōki–one of the greatest rikishi of the 20th century, and at the time the youngest-ever yokozuna–and Daikirin Takayoshi. (Apparently, Flair took care of him when they crossed paths during his training excursion, which was another influence.)

2.) Tenryu’s decision to leave sumo and start a new chapter was motivated by the succession crisis that the death of his stablemaster created, but was also influenced by personal loss: namely, the death of his girlfriend. Motoko Baba gave him a second-row ticket to the 1976.06.11 Kuramae Kokugikan AJPW show, most famous for holding the Jumbo/Terry NWA title match. The show convinced Tenryu to become a professional wrestler.

3.) Tenryu has said that “Baba made me want to become a professional wrestler, but Jumbo made me want to remain one”. While their fundamental difference in lifestyles meant that they would never become the closest of friends, they hit it off quite well in Tenryu’s early days. Remember, the only relative peers Jumbo had were his three juniors, so someone just a year older than him was a welcome addition. (Here’s an adorable photo of Jumbo playing with Tenryu’s hair after his chonmage-cutting ceremony in December 1976and another one of the two from the following March in Amarillo.)

4.) However, Tenryu suffered in Jumbo’s shadow for years. Dory remarked that “after three months, he had nothing left to teach Tommy”, but Tenryu just wasn’t such a quick learner. As noted in an earlier post, the weird place Jumbo occupied in the 70s – a #2 guy from the beginning, never less but never more – was further accentuated by how slow the other top prospects (as opposed to guys like Fujinami who started from the bottom), Tenryu and Choshu, were at finding their groove compared to him.

5.) Tenryu and Tsuruta started to become less close around the summer of 1981, shortly after Tenryu settled in Japan for good. Even in the early 80s, Tenryu was the more ambitious one with regards to backstage decisions, and having disagreed with Sato’s reforms for some reason, he tried to get Jumbo to actually use his weight to help him change some things, but to no avail. A public acknowledgment of Tsuruta’s resistance to backstage involvement came in his response to an in-ring “this is no longer the era of Baba and Inoki” promo that Choshu cut in January 1985, where he said that “our era is expressed in our matches”.

6.) The lore around the split of the KakuRyu team states that it roots back to the postmatch of their June 1986 match against the Road Warriors, when Jumbo pulled his partner’s hair to get him back to his feet. Apparently Tenryu blew up at him for his ingratitude, basically stating that he was sick of being his Ricky Morton and getting no respect for it. (Tenryu has said that he also lost respect for Tenryu after a match where, if I read this correctly, Tsuruta was motioning to a photographer to get a good shot of his cobra twist.) After Choshu’s departure, Tenryu was frustrated with Jumbo’s lack of urgency in his work, and went to Baba and said that he was sick of watching Jumbo’s back and babysitting Wajima. It was a break in hierarchy, but uncharacteristically, Baba agreed with Tenryu and allowed him to split from Jumbo, in what would be called the first “bloodless revolution” in puroresu.

The bio does not mention this, but I have a speculation that there was possibly another factor in this creative decision. Around this time, Weekly Pro Wrestling head editor Tarzan Yamamoto began to work as an advisor to Baba, and even wrote an “All Japan Reform Proposal”. Yamamoto would later claim that he had convinced Baba to put Misawa over Jumbo – something which I cited in my extensive rewrite of Misawa’s Wikipedia page. (I’m not as proud of my work on it now that I’ve seen a bunch of other sources and the peer review process for good article certification took a lot out of me, but I put months of work into it, and the project that my research is going towards is basically the successor to it.) [2021.10.08 correction: Subsequent information I have gathered makes it clear that Yamamoto was not a creative consultant for Baba until the summer of 1988.]

Either way, there’s an interesting undercurrent around this time pertaining to the Japanese wrestling journalism scene. Kagehiro Osano, the writer of this very bio, was actually Tenryu’s reporter for Gong in the 80s, and he has commented that Tenryu was basically the only reason Gong had any real coverage of All Japan in his day. (Jumbo was a very professional and often boring interview, while Tenryu was far more able to give the press what they wanted.) In 1989, Tenryu had a secret meeting with Inoki in Los Angeles, and Osano got the exclusive scoop. Tarzan Yamamoto’s later use of Weekly Pro Wrestling to criticize Tenryu, SWS, and later WAR is well-known (well, about as well-known as any 1990s puro wrestling journalism politics are), and Yamamoto would in fact admit in his autobiography that Baba had paid him to print negative coverage (although Baba would apparently say that he never asked him to go as far as he did), but the tensions started here.

7.) Before the 1987-90 series of seven singles matches, Jumbo and Tenryu had had two prior singles matches which both went to thirty-minute draws. The first was for the 1982 Champion Carnival tournament, the last until 1991. The second happened during a CC tour show the following year, but received no television coverage. In fact, it was part of a card which Baba had hastily rearranged when he learned that network executives would be attending the show to evaluate its worthiness for prime time.

8.) Their 1987.08.31 match drew a 12.4 Nielsen. Their October rematch drew a 9.5, which was still impressive since news of Brody’s interference in the finish had widely spread by its broadcast.

9.) Speaking of Brody, the Budokan show that became the Memorial Night was originally a card that was to be determined by a fan vote. The votes came in, and the top matches were Brody/Hansen for singles, and Jumbo/Brody vs Hansen/Tenryu for tag. The bio claims that Baba was looking forward to going all in on this new matchup possibility, and whatever one might think of an alternate universe where Brody continues working for All Japan for a couple more years, it is an interesting display of the shift in puro fan mentality, and while the Hansen/Tenryu team would later happen on-and-off for eleven months it still feels like a road not taken.

10.) Baba and Sakaguchi met on January 4, 1990 to announce their cooperation. Baba, who had finally gotten the presidential seat back from Mitsuo Mitsune in April 1989, remarked that he was “celebrating his appointment as president” in this way. The common narrative around their meeting is that Jim Herd backed out of the NJPW/WCW Dome show, and that may be true, but there’s something really interesting in this telling of the story. Remember the anti-pullout agreement that Baba and Inoki had signed in December 1985? Well, that still applied, even to gaikokujin (hence why Dick Murdoch couldn’t ever come back to All Japan, and maybe why he ended up doing those Japan indie appearances later on), and even though AJPW had long since left the NWA by this point, Ric Flair was still considered an All Japan gaikokujin by its terms. Sakaguchi wanted Flair, while Baba wanted Steve Williams, and they made each other’s wishes happen, on top of the 1990.02.10 Dome show. (The writing about the show itself is mostly a recap of Jumbo’s match, but apparently Kengo Kimura received some training from Benny “the Jet” Urquidez in 1987?)

11.) The WWF/AJPW/NJPW Wrestling Summit was largely booked by Akio Sato, whom the WWF had hired the previous November as both a wrestler and a coordinator for their vague plans for Japanese expansion. (They had initially sent letters to AJPW and NJPW requesting their cooperation, but received no reply, and a later story claimed that the AJPW letter was accidentally sent to AJW.) Sato returned to work the New Year Giant Series tour in January, during which he also negotiated with Baba as Vince’s representative. Vince’s initial idea was to have the show be a WWF-AJPW coproduction, but it was Baba who proposed that he offer to let Sakaguchi in on it. It was at Choshu’s request, as he was working as NJPW’s on-site manager, that the NJPW wrestlers only wrestled each other on the card, as he wanted to “show their style”. Sato initially considered a Jumbo/Savage match, but instead opted for Tenryu.

12.) Kawada and Fuyuki returned to the “regular army” from Revolution in early 1990. Meanwhile, Tenryu’s tensions with the company increased. Immediately after the March 1990 Budokan show, Tenryu received his offer for contract renewal. He was dissatisfied with the increase in salary, and his attempts to raise the wages of the others who had worked alongside him (as in Footloose and the midcarders aligned with Revolution) fell on deaf ears. Another source of frustration was creative; Tenryu did not see the point in continuing the Jumbo program if Tsuruta was unwilling to escalate the matches further, specifically with blood. He was unaware that Tsuruta was just trying to protect him and others from his disease, and Kyohei Wada was unaware as well, so when Wada told Jumbo of his intentions, and Tsuruta told him to “tell Gen-chan to take it easy on me tonight”, Tenryu saw this as a maddening display of complacency. He would later state that he would have understood if he had been told what was really going on.

During the Champion Carnival tour (where Revolution was officially disbanded on the twelfth show), Tenryu was recruited by Kazuo Sakurada for what would become SWS. Three days before the last Jumbo/Tenryu match, in the waiting room of the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, Kagehiro Osano was with Tenryu, when he muttered “If I lose to Jumbo, I quit.” He told Osano that he meant he was “going out of business” as opposed to retiring, but told him not to tell anyone. However, this was too big for a reporter to ignore, and he was obligated to print it. The April 25, 1990 issue of Gong had this as its cover…six days after Tenryu lost.

The following day, the Gong editor-in-chief [2022.06.09 EDIT: Tsutomu Shimizu] received a call from Motoko Baba. Shohei then took over, and rather than complain about the 4/25 story, told him and Osano that Tenryu was going to Megane Super, under the assumption that Osano already knew (he did not), but requested that they keep things quiet for now, since they had come to “a clean agreement”, and there was the possibility that AJPW and SWS could collaborate in the future through an interpromotional angle.

13.) I’d like to end with some more facts about SWS’s origin. As is known in English-language circles, Hachiro Tanaka’s original plan was to swipe Keiji Mutoh, but there’s a couple interesting things that this Igapro article states. First, Mutoh was approached by Tanaka’s agents in the industry, Kazuo Sakurada and Masa Wakamatsu. Second, the initial plan was not going to be an immediate new organization, but a training camp for young wrestling recruits to create a reserve force. (Former wrestlers would also be accepted during this time, and a percentage of SWS’s profits would be distributed to them as a pension.)

It looks like Tenryu wasn’t actively trying to take wrestlers from AJPW, but that “he couldn’t turn down anyone who wanted to come and leave them in limbo”. This led Baba to suspect that Tenryu was using money to destroy All Japan, and led him to pour oil on the fire by paying Tarzan Yamamoto. I do know that Yatsu and Kabuki left the company more due to problems with it than feelings towards Tenryu (even though Kabuki’s favoritism as SWS booker towards Tenryu would cause friction with its other “rooms” – Tenryu had launched a “room system” in SWS inspired by sumo and nonexistent elsewhere in puro – George Takano’s Palaistra and Nagasaki & Wakamatsu’s Dojo Geki).

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