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KinchStalker

2020 JUMBO BIO, PART THREE

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2020 JUMBO BIO, PART THREE

I have finished transcription of chapter five of the Jumbo bio, which spans roughly from 1975 through early 1978. This book eschews a beat-for-beat chronicle of his career in favor of a looser approach, though, so there may be tidbits from this period that pop up a little later. I missed a couple days of work due to a power outage in my area, but when I got a hotel room I made up for lost time, and managed to crunch out the rest of the chapter over the weekend.

1.) The earliest Tsuruta US match in circulation is, of course, the 1975.02.05 NWA International Tag Team title match with Baba against the Funks. The biography states that this match took place in San Antonio instead of Amarillo because Nippon TV refused to broadcast a match where All Japan talent would likely be booed, and San Antonio was, of course, a nearby market where the Funks were loathed enough to make Baba and Jumbo babyfaces at least by function. (Hearing this confirmed really does contextualize contemporaneous JWA/AJPW footage shot in America, from Baba’s matches against Fritz and Kiniski in Los Angeles on to stuff like both US Jumbo/Bockwinkel matches and Baba’s matches against Baron von Raschke and Abdullah the Butcher. It’s really unfortunate because this likely means that, with the exception of the aforementioned Jumbo/Bockwinkel matches, there isn’t much surviving tape out there which documents Tsuruta’s acceptance as a babyface. Which eventually ran out on him, even before the AWA run; refer to how Mid-Atlantic booed him against Tommy Rich in 1982 – inevitable, perhaps, but one does wonder if NTV made a miscalculation from their perspective in filming it.)

2.) There is some interesting info here about the circumstances around the 1975 Open League.

              a. The tournament was the brainchild of Satoshi Morioka, Baba’s journalist friend who I mentioned in my first post as having been involved in the facilitation of Tsuruta’s scouting and courtship. 

              b. On one level, it was to commemorate three things: the 13th anniversary of Rikidōzan’s death, the third anniversary of AJPW, and the American bicentennial.

              c. On another, it was a response to Inoki, who was actually still trying behind the scenes to get the singles match with Baba that he’d so badly wanted back in 1971, after winning the World League. Inoki refused to participate in a tournament, so the “Open League” was titled such to stick it to him. [Edit 2021.06.05: There was more drama to this story than the bio revealed, revolving around Inoki's refusal to cancel his match against Billy Robinson to attend the 1975.12.13 Rikidozan memorial show.]

             d. An interesting tidbit that specifically pertains to the Baba/Jumbo match from the League, which was their first singles match: the side suplex that Jumbo hit in that match was a repeat of when he did the same thing four days earlier, in a Budokan tag match alongside Dory against Baba and the Destroyer.

3.) This chapter goes a bit more than the previous one did into the early backstage culture surrounding Jumbo, due to the sudden death of his mentor and handler Masio Koma. I believe that Meltzer’s obituary cited Koma (alongside Akio Sato) as responsible for whatever basic training Tsuruta received before flying out to Amarillo, but he didn’t go into Koma’s deeper importance. The segment pertaining to him does confirm that Tsuruta was the target of professional jealousy backstage–I was struck by the anecdote that Jumbo was allowed to ride in the special green car, then reserved for Baba and the gaijins, from the beginning–but that Baba used Koma, who he most trusted, to both take some of the heat off of Jumbo and teach him the etiquette that would otherwise have never been instilled in him, due to how much of the hierarchy he leaped over. He suddenly died of kidney failure on March 10, 1976. That evening, Jumbo had the first of his ten-match trial series against Verne Gagne. Maybe I’m looking too hard for things, but I think you can see some real sadness in Jumbo’s face before that match starts.

4.) The Trial Series, which began with the aforementioned Gagne match and ended in January 1979 against Fritz von Erich, was a campaign to help further establish Jumbo as a top singles wrestler. Early in 1976, a fan vote was called to gauge interest, and nearly 80,000 ballots were counted. The top fifteen picks, which were counted regardless of political feasibility, were as follows: Bruno Sammartino, Terry Funk, Billy Robinson, Dory Funk Jr., Verne Gagne, Abdullah the Butcher, Harley Race, Antonio Inoki, Rusher Kimura, Andre the Giant, Kintaro Oki, Dick the Bruiser, Nick Bockwinkel, the Sheik, and Lou Thesz. (Gagne was available because the AWA was opening itself in general to more interpromotional cooperation, not just because of the termination of their deal with the IWE.)

5.) Robinson jumped to All Japan because New Japan had tried to cut his pay, and as a recent divorcee he was too financially vulnerable to accept this. [2021.05.15 addition: According to a 2019 Igapro article, the second of a two-part series on the circumstances around the Inoki/Robinson match, the reason for this pay cut was that NJPW was saving money to make the Ali match happen.] All Baba did was match the original offer.

6.) There’s an interesting little thread about how Jumbo wouldn’t just borrow moves he’d seen others perform – such as in 1975, when Ricky Gibson worked a tour and hit Jumbo with a missile dropkick (when Jumbo adopted the move, famously using it in the Chris Taylor match from December '76, AJPW commentator Takao Kuramochi dubbed it the "Ultra-C Missile Dropkick") – but would also modify techniques he’d already learned if he liked the way that another person did them more. The bio claims that Tsuruta modified his dropkick technique to resemble Gagne’s rather than Brisco’s, and that, in the amount of training that he accepted from Billy Robinson, modified his butterfly suplex technique to more resemble Robinson’s than the one which Dory had taught him: from “big and loose” (Dory apparently liked the broader gesture so that the audience could better understand it) to “fast and strong”.

7.) Jumbo did receive some training from Robinson at Baba’s suggestion – Fuchi was forced to be his practice dummy – but it sounds like he eventually gave up, because he felt it was “dangerous”. I know Meltzer wrote at some point about Robinson’s frustration with Jumbo, who wanted to be the American-style wrestler that Billy probably felt was a waste of Tsuruta’s talent.

8.) In their early years, AJPW had rented a three-bedroom apartment and a kickboxing gym to be their training camp and dojo, but in 1976, they built a five-bedroom training camp with a dojo in the garden. Tsuruta was the owner; he’d had to take out a 50-million yen loan, but the company was to pay it off through rent, and once it was paid off, it was Tsuruta’s to sell.

            a. Fuchi has reminisced about this period, both in this bio and on his personal blog, and there’s something he recounts Jumbo telling him at this time that breaks my heart in retrospect: “We're still in our twenties, but we've only got twenty years left in our wrestling careers. You should take good care of your body because your life after quitting will be much longer. Don't drink too much alcohol, either.” Fuchi remarked that, even though Tsuruta was only 25, he’d already planned out his life.

            b. In this era, Jumbo’s three juniors were the “three crows” Fuchi, Onita, and Kazuharu Sonoda. While he would later gain a reputation as a penny-pincher regarding his juniors, at least compared to Tenryu (keep in mind that Jumbo was not a social drinker), he often took these three with him when sponsors took him out to dinner. (This isn’t in the bio, but I have to mention an Onita tidbit about Jumbo which I love; when seniors prepared the chankonabe for the company while out on tour, Jumbo’s recipe wasn’t the fanciest, but it was the only one plentiful enough in meat for everyone, no matter their hierarchical position, to receive some.)

9.) Naturally, the bio cites Jumbo as a pioneer of the “idol wrestler” who attracted a significant female audience. (I’ve read elsewhere that this was paralleled a little bit later by Fujinami’s junior ace run.) I couldn’t tell you if this had any connection to the joshi boom which the Beauty Pair would usher in, but while on one hand I’m not sure that they attracted the same kind of women, on the other hand the timeline does roughly match. (Check out this 1977 cover of Weekly Fight, which features Jumbo and Tenryu carrying Maki and Jackie respectively.) One thing, at least, is certain; for better or worse, if not for Jumbo Tsuruta, we’d never have gotten that woman who got Hiroshi Tanahashi to pin her for a television show.

10.) This builds on the last point, and it’s something I’ve been waiting for: scoops on Jumbo’s musical career. The image of Jumbo playing his Gibson acoustic guitar in his spare time, and writing lyrics on tour, was quite an attractive one; I can’t help but think of this in the context of the Japanese folk-rock boom which had occurred earlier in the decade: your Happy Ends and Yosui Inoues and whatnot. He wasn’t the best singer (honestly, from the later tie-in singles that Atsushi Onita and Mighty Inoue did I'd say both had better voices, though Jumbo was far better than Fujinami), but he did some well-received shows, including a charity concert to support welfare facilities for the disabled. His first single was “Rolling Dreamer”, which came out a year before he began using it as his entrance music. He wrote the lyrics himself.

           a. Fuchi has a blog post where he reminisces about this period. He mentions that he had a phase trying to learn guitar as well, and if I understand correctly Jumbo was at one point workshopping a cover of “Hotel California” to perform with his junior.

           b. There’s a bulletin board, deactivated but still up, which either his widow Yasuko or eldest son Yuji set up in the early 2010s to talk to fans about their memories of Jumbo. (We’ll probably get to Yasuko’s story, which I already know, in the next chapter or two.) I've read some of the stuff on there for the video project I'm developing. Anyway, Yasuko was asked about Jumbo’s music, and she responded that Tomomi never sang for her out of shyness. He ended up giving his guitar to a cousin who lost it, which she noted with sadness, since one of her younger two sons would probably have loved to have it.

11.) Jumbo was the first in puro to use entrance music. His first theme was, of course, “Chinese Kung Fu”, a French disco single derivative of “Kung Fu Fighting”. (Here you can watch some French gals dance to it.) It was the idea of AJPW broadcast director Susumu Umegaki, and was first used on October 30, 1975, for Jumbo’s entrance before wrestling Abdullah the Butcher.

12.) However, this use of music wouldn’t really click until February 1977, when Umegaki was inspired to have Mil Mascaras, whose popularity had fallen a bit, enter to “Sky High” by Jigsaw. The importance of Jumbo and Mascaras’ classic August 1977 match is often ascribed to being an early prominent example of the crosspollination between puroresu and lucha libre, but this overlooks the fact that Mascaras had taken booking in Japan for six years prior. (Also, even if Gran Hamada hadn’t come back from training in Mexico yet, Mach Hayato may have. [Subsequent correction: he hadn't.]) The term that the bio uses for this match is “idol showdown”, and its popularity (if you don’t know, it inspired Kobashi to change his dream job from baseball to wrestling, and also got Kawada interested in wrestling) makes more sense when you put it in that context than if you try to see in it the first inklings of lucharesu.

[2021.04.19 addition: I have since received some information which suggests that Jumbo was merely the first native wrestler to use music in Japan. I was perusing Mighty Inoue's Japanese Wikipedia page, as one does, and it tells a very interesting story cited from the 2017 IWE biography and from a 2014 Weekly Pro Wrestling article on Inoue's 1974.10.07 shot at Billy Graham's IWA World Heavyweight title. Apparently, during his European excursion Inoue had used Naomi Chiaki's 1970 hit single "Yottsu no Onegai" as entrance music. The TV director was inspired by this story, and got an instrumental cover of "Jesus Christ Superstar" to play for Graham's entrance.]

13.) The chapter ends in early 1978 with the UN title match against Anton Geesink, where we learn some cool tidbits about his involvement in puro. The JWA had actually wanted him since 1964, after he had won in judo at the Tokyo Olympics. They specifically had interest in running a Baba/Geesink program to compete with NHK’s annual New Years Eve singing contest. Alas, Geesink’s signing finally happened due to an alliance between Nippon TV and Saburo Arashida, a promoter who years earlier had arranged the Beatles’ 1966 Japan tour, in an effort to increase stagnant ratings.

------------

One last thing. The bio has not mentioned this story, at least not yet, but I cannot in good conscience omit it: that time in 1975 when NJPW booker Hisashi Shinma attempted to seduce Jumbo to the Inoki side of the Puro. (This is a summary of the story as recounted in this blog post, which cites its own sources at the bottom.) While Inoki was by this point not interested, having recruited the future Riki Choshu, Shinma didn’t want to give up yet. He proposed to Koshiji Miura, who essentially ran NET TV (still wasn’t TV Asahi yet), that he attempt to recruit him. Miura even proposed that, in the event that Tsuruta suffered a career-ending injury, NET would pursue a deal with him as a commentator.

One day, Shinma and his intermediary picked up Tsuruta in Inoki’s limo and tried to lure him with the suggestion of an excursion for the WWWF, and then another in Los Angeles, so that NJPW’s involvement would not necessarily be clear. Tsuruta was reportedly attracted to the idea of working MSG, but though they drove him to NET headquarters, and Miura then went into the limo to discuss it further, they never heard back from Jumbo.

Around six months later, though, Tokyo Sports president Hiroshi Inoue chewed Shinma out for his aggression. Tsuruta had told Baba what happened; apparently Baba had laughed it off and never tried to make it public, but it somehow got passed along to Inoue. Inoue was pro-New Japan, but he hated anything that threatened to disrupt the order of the larger industry, so he was incensed at Shinma’s audacity.

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This might not be worth its own post but since I'm using this place to dump the Jumbo knowledge I've acquired, I might as well show you all what I believe to be his first acting credit: a bit part in the final episode of 1976 drama Oretachi no Tabi, in which he plays the boyfriend of a woman who one of the leads tries to chat up.

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So much fascinating stuff there. Thank you again and again.

And really :

5 hours ago, KinchStalker said:

11.) Jumbo was the first in puro to use entrance music. His first theme was, of course, “Chinese Kung Fu”, a French disco single derivative of “Kung Fu Fighting”. (Here you can watch some French gals dance to it.)

And so the first theme in puroresu was a disco track by Les Clodettes, who weren't just some French girls, but the dancers for Claude François who basically was the biggest French pop star of the 60's and 70's (big time TV star too), and still basically a cult figure to this day ! And the music was apparently by Bernard Estardy, a quite famous (in some circles) figure of the library music scene. 

Mind blown.

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55 minutes ago, El-P said:

So much fascinating stuff there. Thank you again and again.

And really :

And so the first theme in puroresu was a disco track by Les Clodettes, who weren't just some French girls, but the dancers for Claude François who basically was the biggest French pop star of the 60's and 70's (big time TV star too), and still basically a cult figure to this day ! And the music was apparently by Bernard Estardy, a quite famous (in some circles) figure of the library music scene. 

Mind blown.

I had figured the dancers (thanks for the context) were the equivalent of something like Legs & Co., which was this troupe in the late 70s who would dance to songs on Top of the Pops.

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