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Naoki Otsuka and the Early Years of NJPW


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Now that this is a proper thread, I should note that this first post covers the third interview in this series, as it was the first I acquired. Below posts will cover the first and second, and will go on from there.

Quarterly puroresu magazine G Spirits (a spiritual successor to Gong, involving ex-Gong editors Kagehiro Osano and Tsutomu Shimizu) serialized an interview with Naoki Otsuka. I only have the third part of it in issue 58, which mostly covers the span from after the Ali-Inoki match through early 1978 (stopping right as Fujinami returns). I transcribed this because it was on hand and I wanted material on the company's financial situation for a planned blog series on the 1983 coup and what led to it.

If I really want to do that series right, I’ll need to put it on hold until I can transcribe later parts of the interview. I have already transcribed a 1984 Weekly Pro article by Otsuka which convinces me that he will be able to discuss Anton Hi-Cel and sister business Anton Trading in more detail.1 It was still going as of the latest issue, for a total of at least eight parts. I have placed an order for the issues with parts 4-7, as they were in stock at Toudoukan, although I do not know whether I will give those this same treatment or save them for the coup series.

But even just these ten pages contain the most detailed insight I’ve ever read on what it was like to run a puroresu promotion at the ground level.

First, I should give some background. Naoki Otsuka was originally NJPW’s ring announcer, but he transferred into sales as Inoki’s brother-in-law, Tetsuo Baisho, took that job. The interview indicates that Otsuka had been the deputy manager of the sales department, and that he had been charge of sales in Osaka, Okinawa, and Sapporo, but this part of the interview begins as he was transferred to the general manager (or simply “sales manager”). In 1983, Otsuka was the one who discovered that Inoki had misappropriated company funds to cover his losses in Anton Hi-Cel. He would later become famous as the president of Japan Pro Wrestling. (See the JPW posts elsewhere on this subforum for a rundown on what happened there, although keep in mind that I intend to expand that substantially with the coup series…whenever I can make that happen.)

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POST-ALI RESTRUCTURING

The Ali-Inoki match worsened a deficit NJPW already had. On top of Ali’s steep fee, it had been expected that NJPW would receive $1 million in revenue from closed-circuit broadcasts, but the real payoff was much lower. Inoki was demoted from president to chairman for a time, while Hisashi Shinma was demoted from general manager of the sales department to a regular employee. New Japan would demand compensation from Ali, claiming that the revenue had been damaged by the rule change his camp had enforced, and Ali would sue for breach of contract. Inoki promoted Otsuka to sales manager, choosing him over fellow employee Takeji Fukunaga because of his stronger backbone. Shinma was still considered an informal boss by the sales department, who continued to refer to him by his old title.

Network executives, referred to by a begrudging Inoki as “occupying forces”, took positions in NJPW. The interview identifies one of them as Kohei Nagasato, who had been the head of NET TV’s sports department. This interview does not specify when the network executives were no longer assigned to the company, implying that it lasted past the range of time this part covers. Just know that Nagasato would return to an executive position in NJPW after the network takeover of 1983.

It was around this time that Inoki discreetly registered a company. New Japan Pro-Wrestling Kogyo Co. was registered in Tokyo’s Nerima Ward with a capital of three million yen. The locale was because he could not register the company in Shibuya, and his in-laws lived in Nerima. Inoki had the idea that, if he could register this company in a different ward, he could transfer all the wrestlers to this side company in the event of a full network takeover or other major dispute. Interestingly, this was not the same New Japan Pro-Wrestling Entertainment company that Otsuka was put in charge of in 1983. That company’s capital was insufficient, so a new company of the same name was formed. Otsuka states that he did not know about the original Entertainment company until “well after the fact”.

SALES SHOW WOES

When Otsuka was promoted, he discovered the extent to which “uncollected money” had been weighing their ledgers down. Inoki told him that he would be able to collect “about 30 million yen a year”, but then Otsuka got into the books and found that New Japan had been losing 100 million per year.

The puroresu touring model was mostly based on two kinds of shows: the company-run “independent shows”, and locally purchased “sales shows”. One always wanted to get as many sales shows as possible, because independent shows required you to cover the operating costs, as well as send company people to facilitate them. Sales shows were the majority of the problem. The contract for a sales show stated that half of the fee was to be paid at the time the contract was signed, but this advance pay had rarely been honored unless it was a first-time client. Some promoters did not even pay this fee on the day of the show, or they would do so with dishonored bills. Furthermore, Otsuka states that some promoters pocketed the second half when they made a loss.

One of Otsuka’s measures to combat this was to make a small change on the contract. Originally it had read “Representative Director Kanji Inoki”, and it would have named Otsuka as a representative director as well, but Otsuka changed the title to his position of NJPW sales manager. This allowed him to be strict in collecting money, as he was now the direct contractor. If, for example, Inoki had to miss a show, this meant that Otsuka could stand firm and insist to the terms of the contract, instead of being given the runaround to ask Inoki for a discount. Otsuka never cancelled a show, but he had to threaten to do so. He even recalls one incident where a sales employee had to be assigned to the ticket booth to make sure New Japan got their cut. Over time, though, these issues decreased. Otsuka also encouraged promoters to have good relations with the company by beginning a “national promoters conference”. He would select “around ten” promoters from across the country to take an all-expenses-paid trip to Tokyo and attend Nooj’s year-end Kuramae Kokugikan show, and then receive a commemorative gift from Inoki at a Keio Plaza Hotel conference the following day.

There were some problems with independent shows as well. These came down to ticket sellers who would receive two-to-three hundred tickets, sell them, and never give New Japan their cut. Otsuka says it was very difficult to get that money back.

DAFUYA

This actually comes later in the interview, but I think it fits better around here. Shimizu brings up the topic of scalpers, and Otsuka takes the chance to clarify the “taboo” relationship between dafuya and promoters, while getting into the nitty-gritty of selling tickets.

Otsuka claims that he didn’t get involved with dafuya when he was working sales in Osaka. However, the person who asked them for advance tickets had an understanding with scalpers. The scalpers would buy advance tickets, which normally cost ¥7000, at ¥3500, and then sell the tickets at fixed prices.  As sales manager, Otsuka would become more directly involved with them when overseeing shows in the Kanto/Tokyo area.

When ticket sales were sluggish, Otsuka would sell one to two hundred tickets for the most expensive seats (¥7000) to dafuya at half price. The scalpers were good enough at their trade to sell those tickets at full price, but the company didn’t concern itself about losing those sales. In those cases, there were many more customers who would buy cheap tickets directly from the ticket booth.

Another way that the box office would do business with scalpers hinged around standing-room-only tickets, which were regularly priced at ¥1500. There were days when the standing room was sold out but there were still empty seats, and this was not a profitable arrangement for the box office. So, they would only print around 500 SRO tickets to start with and get those sold, so that that people would be forced to buy seats despite there still being standing room. The dafuya were smart enough to ask how sales were going on a given show, and waited like hyenas for when the SRO tickets were really about to run out. Then, the scalpers would buy 50 or 100 SRO tickets. Now that the standing room tickets were sold out, the ticket booth would not offer any discount, and a seat would cost ¥3000. Meanwhile, the scalpers could mark up all those SROs to ¥2000.

If a dafuya couldn’t get tickets directly, they plied their trade using “invitation tickets”, which they bought for cheap from people who couldn’t come to shows. Then, they would actually go to the venue to check where the invitation tickets would go. These always depended on what seats were available, meaning it could range from a premium ringside seat to a row on the second floor. Naturally, they would price the tickets accordingly.

Both Otsuka and Shimizu recall a particular scalper, Kuro-chan. He was a tekiya (itinerant merchant) who traveled around the country. He could be seen at New Japan and All Japan shows, and Shimizu remembers that Kuro would always shoot the shit with him before shows, likely to try to get information from the press. Kuro would later become a frequent fixture at AJW shows (Otsuka did some sales work for them later on), which sold discount tickets (I’m guessing these were age-based). Kuro would buy ringside tickets, and scalp them to the girls standing in the long ticket booth line.

In recent years, nuisance prevention ordinances ended the traditional dafuya – who, to be clear, could be found scalping tickets to all sorts of entertainment and sporting events – and Otsuka has heard that they now deliver tickets through the mail.

BOOKING TOURS

It was the sales manager’s responsibility to arrange tours. Otsuka would not begin doing so until 1977 because the company had to plan their tours by the year, due to the requirements of major venues. Otsuka gives the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium as an example; it required New Japan to submit their requested dates by the end of February. Requests for big-market shows were generally on Thursdays, which I will explain later on. “In those days, Osaka was scheduled five times a year, Sapporo two or three times, Kagoshima twice, Takamatsu twice, and so on.” The basic pattern of a NJPW tour was already in place; it would last either four or six weeks, and it would travel the Japanese archipelago in a figure-eight centered on Tokyo. Tours would begin in Korakuen Hall, and end at the Kuramae Kokugikan or Nippon Budokan. For Kuramae, sumo was the greatest priority, but NJPW planning department head Akio Nakane was very friendly with the sumo association person in charge, so they were able to learn the sumo schedule. Otsuka would then submit the ideal choice and one backup, and depending on the decision, the entire tour would sometimes be shifted back one week.

Once the big venues were secured, it was Otsuka’s job to apply for the small and medium venues that made up each tour’s connective tissue. As gaikokujin were paid flat weekly fees, one wanted to stretch those dollars as much as one could.2 The goal was to have at least six shows booked per week, and ideally seven. The record was 1975’s 210 shows, and they aimed to reach 200 per year, although the two “martial arts shows” per year made that hard to achieve. The department would determine where they wanted to book shows, and at what price. The department would call local promoters to ask them if they wanted to do business with them at x venue on y date, or if they wanted to do a show in a market which New Japan would be passing through: for example, “Can you do Fukuyama on the day between Okayama and Hiroshima?” In order to encourage promoters to accept a show contract, a column featured which foreign wrestlers were to participate on that tour. (Osaka-based taboid Weekly Fight Magazine, which started the katsuji puroresu style of coverage that Weekly Pro would bring into the mainstream in the 1980s, appealed to hardcore fans for its willingness to leak foreign bookings multiple tours in advance. This was one way that such information would have reached them.) Otsuka states that this was a decisive factor in whether promoters would accept a contract, and that NJPW’s dearth of top gaikokujin in 1977 really bit them here. “If it was [Tiger Jeet] Singh or Andre the Giant, you could be sure that [the promoter would buy the event],” but if you didn’t have those marquee names for that tour, things could get dicey. Sometimes, the best you could get was the third type of show, the “branch show”. These represented a middle ground between the independent and sales show. The company partnered with promoters, so no one from New Japan had to go to the site. However, NJPW would take on the venue booking fee, printing costs, and other expenses, and split the rest with the promoters.

Otsuka claims that, later on, he was the one who asked Masa Saito to track down Stan Hansen as a potential new foreign “ace in the hole”. Saito eventually found him “in North Carolina or Georgia”, and Hansen returned in 1979 for the second MSG Series. Promoters eventually said “if not Singh or Andre, then Hansen is fine”. (Otsuka also cites Sean Regan as a specific gaikokujin who he had wished to see return, but he had become a schoolteacher by then. Regan eventually called him in 1979 and worked a single tour.)

TELEVISION

Otsuka was also required to be present at all television tapings. The presence of a television crew required some seats to be stripped from a venue for the cameras, and this sometimes caused problems with the promoter. The network could not deal with on-site disputes like that, so they needed Otsuka there to set things straight.

Otsuka’s central role in putting tours together and dealing with television tapings even extended to some booking influence. When Seiji Sakaguchi became vice president, he was able to “talk with him more familiarly” concerning the matches that Inoki and Kotetsu Yamamoto were booking. Otsuka would give input to them while submitting show cards to the network, suggesting that this was how TV taping dates were decided on. I mentioned earlier that big-market shows were generally booked on Thursdays, and this was why. World Pro Wrestling was broadcast live at the start of each tour and on subsequent b-show tapings, but major events were taped. Inoki was concerned about the “flow” of World Pro Wrestling, so as Tatsumi Fujinami corroborated in a recent Weekly Pro interview, he supervised the production of these ‘major’ episodes, directing camera cuts. (This was years before Vince McMahon took a similarly hands-on approach.) Despite competing with the “monster program” Taiyo no Hoero!, a police procedural which had taken Nippon Television’s Friday 8:00PM timeslot since they had dropped the JWA (AJPW aired on Saturday), Otsuka states that World Pro Wrestling was consistently getting ratings above 10%, sometimes close to 20%.

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For me, all that is the meat of the article. Here are noteworthy bits from the rest.

  1. On March 31 and April 1, 1977, NJPW became the first promotion in twenty years to book Kuramae on back-to-back nights. On the first day, Seiji Sakaguchi defeated the Masked Superstar in the 4th World League, while Inoki successfully defended the NWF Heavyweight title against Johnny Powers. On the second day, which coincided with NET TV’s name change to TV Asahi, Inoki and Sakaguchi reformed their Golden Tag Team to challenge Tiger Jeet Singh & Umanosuke Ueda for the NWA North American Tag Team titles, which Singh & Ueda had won from Sakaguchi & Kobayashi through dishonorable means two months before. Otsuka seems to regret his ambition. The interest in the World League tournament had waned due to Inoki’s decision to stop entering it the previous year, which hurt the first show’s business. Also, that show was on a Thursday, so those who went to see the second show missed the first day’s episode of World Pro Wrestling. Inoki gave him a slight scolding, but Otsuka thinks he paved the way for the G1 Climax’s multi-night stints at the Ryogoku Kokugikan.
  2. In May, Shinma and Nagasato traveled to the United States. Shinma’s lawyer had recommended they go to trial against Ali, since the yen had appreciated from 310 to 200 to the dollar, but they decided to settle. They also secured a contract with “Monster Man” Everett Eddy to bring the different styles fights back into full swing. This was when these special “fights” began to be broadcast on the Wednesday Special sports timeslot instead of as part of World Pro Wrestling. The return of the DSF would go a long way towards rehabilitating Inoki’s reputation after the Ali debacle, and the television situation functionally gave NJPW an extra episode’s worth of TV money whenever they booked a DSF. They would take advantage of that in the coming years, and at one point, they even considered expanding into a full “martial arts” wing. Inoki’s valet Satoru Sayama, who was his sparring partner and had even conceived of open-finger gloves for Inoki’s DSF against Chuck Wepner, would have been a major part of the division.
  3. The nail death match between Inoki and Ueda on February 8, 1978 could have been even wilder. While brainstorming a gimmick match that would prevent Ueda from escaping the ring, Otsuka pitched scattering the ring mats with broken beer bottles or surrounding the ring with a water tank, but the Budokan never would’ve approved. The nail idea then came up, and after Otsuka explained the idea to commentator Ichiro Furutachi, who would promote it during the Sapporo shows the previous week, the tickets sold at an unprecedented, “explosive” rate.
  4. Two days after that show, Otsuka also got NJPW a variety show-esque gig to broadcast on the aforementioned Wednesday Special timeslot. Among other things, Kengo Kimura sang a Pink Lady cover with Chieko Matsumoto, Yoshiaki Fujiwara cooked, and Inoki & Sakaguchi wrestled the Hollywood Blonds.
  5. This part ends with some words on the Dragon Boom, the popularity spike after Tatsumi Fujinami returned from his three-year expedition. Otsuka states that, prior to this, he had planted young women in the front row at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium shows for about two years (“It was an image strategy to improve the TV ratings”), but Fujinami made any such deliberate effort unnecessary. Otsuka recalls that he used to hold autograph sessions at supermarkets by promoters’ request, and that these had been inconvenient to coordinate because they had happened on the day of the show, and the clients had always requested that Inoki be there. By about the third tour of Fujinami’s return, though, New Japan began receiving requests for Fujinami autograph sessions, and Fujinami was “easy to ask”. Fujinami even motivated younger fans to go out of their way to see him wrestle. Otsuka gives the example of people from Okayama who would come to shows in Himeji or Osaka, or even plan an overnight trip to Tokyo.

 

Spoiler

1. In this article, Otsuka revealed the extent to which NJPW salesmen had been burdened with Hisashi Shinma’s fundraising for Hi-Cel in the early 80s. Forced to buy bonds in the doomed startup, which were sarcastically considered “registration fees” by the salesmen, the company’s sales bureau was pressured to sell tickets to IWE shows and exhibitions at Kenji Kurosaki’s full-contact karate dojo (as well as tickets to some sort of “political party”), and shill vacation home memberships. This was on top of the pressure Shinma imposed on the locker room to pitch in, which led some wrestlers to borrow money from their families. I am certain that Otsuka goes into greater detail in the G Spirits interview, and I need all of it to do justice to the subject of the 1983 coup, its leadup and its fallout.

2. Andre was the highest paid foreigner, at $5000 a week. This was generally the limit for a gaikokujin. By the time Otsuka became sales manager, Tiger Jeet Singh was approaching that limit, as his fee had started at $1500 but had increased by $500 for each subsequent tour. The highest fee he ever saw, though, was for Dusty Rhodes, who got $10,000 a week on one occasion.

 

Edited by KinchStalker
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  • 4 months later...

I have acquired six more parts of this serial interview. If people on the board are interested in more of what Otsuka has to say about early NJPW (what I have seems to span through 1981, though I have other G Spirits interviews with Otsuka on early NJPW and Japan Pro Wrestling), I think this could substantially enrich our understanding of puroresu's classical business model as a whole, on top of offering more insight into one of the most important wrestling promotions of the late 20th century.

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  • KinchStalker changed the title to Naoki Otsuka Interview Recaps: NJPW's "strongest salesman" talks about business and more

Sources used for this post include:

  • Spoiler
    • Interview with Naoki Otsuka and Hisashi Shinma (G Spirits Vol. 51) [March 2019]
    • Interview with Antonio Inoki (G Spirits Vol. 51) [March 2019]
    • Interview with Naoki Otsuka (G Spirits Vol. 56) [June 2020]
    • “New Japan Pro-Wrestling In The No-TV Era” (Showa Puroresu, issue #26) [April 2012]

 

NAOKI OTSUKA AND THE EARLY YEARS OF NJPW, #1: NJPW'S FIRST YEAR AND ITS SALESMEN

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Naoki Otsuka [right] poses with his parents, Tiger Jeet Singh, and Lou Thesz on April 1, 1977.

Naoki Otsuka got his start in the business during college. He took a part-time job at the event management company Honda Geinō Sports Service, and was assigned to the International Wrestling Enterprise as an associate sales representative. Otsuka promoted events for them in Fukushima prefecture. After graduation, he became a salesman for Toyota. During summer vacation in 1971, Otsuka purchased the IWE's Fukushima box office for ¥850-900k. A high school friend ran a company in Tokyo’s Adachi Ward, directly in front of the Adachi Ward Gymnasium. Otsuka bought a show for “about a million [yen]” and booked the venue for August 2, in a show where Strong Kobayashi defended his IWA World Heavyweight title for the first time against Blackjack Lanza. Otsuka made his own advertising car and played a tape inside it. According to him, his efforts were “quite successful”.

Otsuka was invited to join NJPW by Setsuo Hiroze, the former IWE deputy sales manager. He mentions that Daily Sports reporter Masakiyo Ishikawa was involved in courting him.1 Notwithstanding his off time, though, Otsuka was saddled with the job of a ring announcer in NJPW’s first two years. He explains that Hirose had told him before his job interview on February 1 to "say yes, no matter what they say", and when he went in to talk to Kotetsu Yamamoto he was saddled with the announcing job. Hirose admitted afterwards that he had known this would happen, but pointed out that Otsuka would get to work sales before tours began anyway, and told him that he needed his protege to take care of him.

In a 2019 interview, Inoki claimed that he had approached Yoshio Kodama, the ultra-right power broker and former top JWA stakeholder. He does not say that Kodama supported him, though Kodama greeted him and remarked that “if you win, it’s a victory for the government”. Inoki says that he gathered the capital to start the company with the help of a friend in Kamata. The heads of some of the local businesses that contributed to that fund appeared at the January 28 press conference announcing NJPW’s formation, such as Tadayoshi Nakamura of Kamata Motors, Teruo Mitsunaga of Mitsunaga Construction, and Isao Yoshinaga of Yoshinaga Industries. (Inoki recalls that one of the contributors was an ironworks company, so I presume this was the latter.) One significant donor was not present at the conference though, and that was Mr. Sato of Nakamura Bakery, who had contributed two million yen. In 2019, Hisashi Shinma identified Sato as having been a sponsor of Yamamoto.

 

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Akimasa Kimura [#1: c.1971] had managed Antonio Inoki’s personal company and had been a central conspirator in the failed JWA coup. Kimura held 1,500 of the 9,500 shares underwritten at NJPW’s formation. Otsuka states that Kimura was not the original sales manager. Instead, he took over that job from a man named Akio Nakane, who had worked with the JWA as part of a sales company named Shimizu Sports. Nakane would take another managerial position (I have not found a specific job title beyond that), and a tweet by Kero Tanaka indicates that he remained in the company at least through the early 1990s. [In the first post of this thread, I had misidentified Nakane as the Kuramae Kogukikan’s director due to unclear translation. I have since corrected this.]

Wrestler turned referee Yusef Turk [#2: c.1972] had not been part of the coup but had sided with Inoki on that fateful JWA tour. He had helped Inoki get out of the venue without entering the locker room after his last match for the company, as Turk had suspected an ambush would have occurred. Inoki had checked into a hospital for his protection on Turk’s recommendation. Anyway, Turk was not a proper sales employee, but “knew a lot about [it]”, and had also mortgaged his home to raise capital for New Japan. At the company’s formation, the 2,000 shares underwritten to him made him its second largest stakeholder, behind Inoki’s 3,000.

Former JWA referee and announcer Toshio Komatsu [#3: c.1979] was not a NJPW employee at all, but rather an independent promoter based in Kochi. He was a rare promoter who helped New Japan out on its first tour when most everybody else was still loyal to the JWA, even if Otsuka says that they didn’t actually sell a show to him. He had an office in Okinawa that helped with NJPW’s two shows on the island in 1973. (Komatsu eventually took a sales position with AJW, organizing their twice-yearly western tours.)

In July 1972, NJPW moved their Tokyo headquarters from the Daikanyama Pacific Mansion in Shibuya to the Minami district.2 A new sales manager took the place of Kimura, who had resigned beforehand. This was Hiroshi Iwata [#5: c.1984], who had once been the JWA’s sales manager. Iwata is credited with a pair of ideas in 1959 that had helped the company begin its comeback after the slump of 1957-8. The first was the World League tournament. The second was Mr. Atomic, a masked heel played by Clyde Steeves that took inspiration from early Japanese superhero television. in an effort to market the JWA to children. Masakiyo Ishikawa claims in an interview from G Spirits issue #63 (which I do not own, but from which Showa Puroresu zine writer Dr. Mick tweeted a picture of the relevant excerpt) that he had brought Iwata to New Japan. Otsuka claims that Iwata instigated the move from the very small Daikanyama office.

Two other men are worth noting. The first is Inoki’s brother-in-law, Tetsuo Baisho [#6: c.1979]. Baisho was the man who traded positions with Otsuka in early 1974, and would work as an announcer until Kero Tanaka's hiring in the early 80s allowed him to return to a backstage role. Finally, the original sales department also featured Inoki’s brother Keisuke [#7: c.2022], who was five years his junior.

Of course, there is one man I left out of that: Hisashi Shinma [#4: c.1983].

inokishinma66.thumb.jpg.0537e66cdb364dbee6f870f4d582f440.jpgInoki and Shinma announce the establishment of Tokyo Pro Wrestling (c. April 1966).

Hisashi Shinma had been a central figure in the ill-fated Tokyo Pro Wrestling. Shinma had worked out at the Rikidozan dojo's gym in the mid-fifties. He was the son of Nobuo Shinma, the head priest of the (Nichiren Buddhist) Kantsuji Temple. When Toyonobori left the JWA a decade later, Shinma was a salesman for cosmetic company Max Factor, and "Toyo", as Shinma calls him, approached him for help. Nobuo made a significant loan to Tokyo Pro and got a seat on its board of directors. Toyonobori and Shinma were ultimately accused of embezzling 30 million yen from Inoki, and though the case was dismissed, the scandal had led Nobuo to resign from the Nichiren Shoshu religious council. Hisashi would repay his debt to his father by working in a mine for four years, after which he returned to Tokyo to work as a salesman and run a bakery. Shinma had recently reconciled with Inoki after receiving an invitation to his wedding, and Inoki had asked if he could get him back in touch with Toyonobori. As early as December 1971, Inoki had met with Shinma and Toyonobori to try to get the latter to return to the ring for what became New Japan.

Shinma would join the company proper in September but had unofficially helped the sales department as far back as June. By the time that NJPW received network support, Shinma was head of the “sales promotion department”, where he used his skill at finding bigger sponsors. But at this early juncture, Shinma’s biggest contribution would be to encourage Toyonobori to wrestle for New Japan.

Toyonobori had retired from the IWE in early 1970, and still felt some obligation to recognize that. He and Shinma had some of Mitsuko Baisho’s cooking, and the story that I had told in my Broken Crown series went that this and some money from Inoki had softened Toyonobori up to the prospect of returning. But Shinma adds a wrinkle to that story. He recalls that after they left, Toyonobori asked Hisashi to buy him a bicycle. Shinma thought that this meant that he was going to start training, so Shinma bought him one for about ¥30,000. Otsuka notes that that wasn’t cheap at the time, as the starting salary for a college graduate was ¥45-50k. (I put it through an online inflation calculator, and that ¥30k would be ¥93k today, or a little over $640.) When Toyonobori got cold feet, Shinma lied that Inoki had loaned him the money to purchase his bicycle, and ultimately got Toyonobori to work NJPW's first show for free under this pretense.

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The first part of the Otsuka serial contains many details on NJPW’s earliest tours. As has been established, they had little luck attracting event promoters at first. “Sales shows” are essentially the puroresu equivalent of house shows. While an independent, or “handmade” show allows a promotion to receive all the proceeds after deducting expenses, a sales show is preferable in most circumstances because a local promoter buys all of the tickets to the event and then takes the organizing expenses themselves. NJPW made this work by having the promoter only pay half of the fee when they signed the contract; as covered in part three (the part of this serial I translated first), this came back to bite the company. Otsuka states that the first show they actually sold was on their second tour. On May 9, 1972, they held a show in the precinct of Mishima Taisha Shrine, which was set up by a promoter named Mr. Ochiai. Ochiai worked for a company called Daisan Kogyo, and “bought up all the shows” held in Shizuoka prefecture. New Japan then received the support of Izumiya, a supermarket chain in the Kansai region. As their stores were closed on Thursdays, NJPW held shows in their parking lots. In the later seasons, NJPW held a few outdoor shows in a circus tent rented from one of Toyonobori’s sponsors.

An early promoter to do business with them was Masanobu Takanashi [#8: c.2021], the former head chef at the Riki Sports Palace’s Riki Restaurant. After the JWA cut ties with the venue, wrestler and on-site manager Michiaki Yoshimura had thrown Takanashi a bone by giving him exclusive rights to promote JWA shows at the Machida City and Ota Ward Gymnasiums in Tokyo. Otsuka believes Takanashi was introduced to NJPW by close friend Motoyuki Kitazawa (or Shoji Kai, as he was billed in New Japan), and had fed young wrestlers like Tatsumi Fujinami and Hiroaki Hamada at his Restaurant Hong Kong when money was tight at NJPW’s inception. (Takanashi’s corn potage soup, beloved by Rikidozan and Toyonobori, would become NJPW tradition before big shows.) The first show Takanashi bought was at the Nara Dreamland amusement park on June 24. This brought some complaints that spectators had been required to pay an entrance fee into Dreamland on top of their show tickets.

More notable for Otsuka, though, was the show that Takanashi promoted one month later in Asahikawa. Otsuka was going to ask Takanashi to have an unnamed man who was then running for the House of Representatives to buy tickets for their show, but Hiroshi Iwata instead went with rival candidate Yoshiteru Uekusa. This bit them hard, as Uekusa only sold 50 of the 1,500 tickets he had bought and returned the rest on the day of the show. Kotetsu Yamamoto tried to get Takanashi to pay the whole amount, which sparked a dispute. Otsuka claims he smoothed things over by cutting the fee in half, as it had been New Japan’s mistake, and both Takanashi and Iwata agreed. Interviewer Kagehiro Osano, who has also interviewed Takanashi, mentions that Takanashi was impressed with Otsuka at this early juncture, and had advocated for him, saying it would be a shame if Naoki was stuck as an announcer. (The first show Otsuka got to be in charge of was on July 28.)

Otsuka worked with Tetsuo Baisho to promote shows. In this era, he would spend about two weeks in the show’s area a month or so before the show to sell tickets to promoters. Then, when the next tour started, Baisho took Otsuka’s place as he returned to work as the announcer. Naoki remembers that he got a pachinko parlor to buy 100 tickets for a Nayoro show…on the condition that Inoki served pachinko balls for half an hour. Inoki told Otsuka that he was willing to do “anything”, from autograph signings to supermarket and bowling appearances, but that he never wanted to do that again. At this point, provincial shows were difficult to promote due to NJPW’s low visibility. Many of them had seen Inoki on television but had clearly forgotten about him or assumed that he had left the business entirely. Most humiliatingly, Inoki’s face on posters was often mistaken for Strong Kobayashi.

Companies that sponsored NJPW early on included:

  • Yoshinaga Prince, a general goods manufacturer. Best known for cigarette lighters, the company made the title belt that Inoki and Karl Gotch wrestled for in NJPW’s first “big matches” in autumn 1972. (These matches were broadcast on Tokyo 12 Channel, but footage does not survive; Shinma claims that the company was paid five million yen for the broadcasts but refers to them as a “publicity stunt”, indicating that a proper television deal with the future IWE carrier was not in consideration.) Otsuka says that they were introduced to the company by managing director Shintaro Tomizawa, who had ordered title belts from Yoshinaga Prince during his time as a JWA accountant.
  • Tonan Sangyo, a fixture manufacturer. They supplied plywood walls, among other things, to the below company. 
  • Shokusan Jutaku, a construction and real estate company.
  • In September 1973, when NJPW worked two shows in Okinawa, which had been returned to Japan the previous year, they were sponsored by Pepsi-Cola and JAL.

---

Otsuka states that NET had advised the company to have Toyonobori, Yusef Turk, Hiroshi Iwata, and others leave the company because they were believed to have ties to antisocial forces; that is, the yakuza. It has long been stated that Turk had left over a dispute with Shinma, so take the following information with that in mind. And Shinma seems to indicate that Turk was upset that he was not notified about the JWA-NJPW merger plan. But Shinma also claims here that Turk, who was NJPW's booker, had developed friction with Inoki. He recalls that this started over Inoki's October 4 title defense against Red Pimpernel and had continued to rear its head in the subsequent months. 

Hiroshi Iwata was replaced with final JWA sales manager Takeharu Fukunaga, who joined alongside his subordinate Minoru Yoshida. Shinma states that Fukunaga's appointment was due to Seiji Sakaguchi, whose demands Inoki told Shinma to agree to. Fukunaga would hold this position until Otsuka took his spot in 1976, after which he transferred to the planning and advertising department. NJPW’s new external relations chief, Emiko Kawakatsu, was also a JWA veteran. (My guess is that she had been promoted to the head of the department after Ryozo Yonezawa left with Baba in 1972.) 

Otsuka notes that AJPW had also capitalized during the JWA’s death rattle by securing the services of a promoter named Mr. Tsuji. This made AJPW a client of Nagata Kikaku, a strong promotion company that would handle all of the company’s sales in western Japan. Otsuka recalls this with envy towards the AJPW sales department’s lighter load.

FOOTNOTES

Spoiler

C74_em2VMAADbdM.jpg.b9beec428aa08543e67d547f83b35b99.jpg1. Ishikawa was an important journalist in Inoki’s early career. He had covered him since the Tokyo Pro days and had even been involved in his return to the JWA. While less famous in this regard than the evening paper Tokyo Sports, Daily Sports has been historically noted as the best morning daily sports paper for puroresu coverage. They were the only Inoki-sympathetic voice in the mass media at NJPW's inception, as the company's formation made its front page. The Showa Puroresu zine cites an article on New Japan in the April 1972 issue of Monthly Gong as clearly bearing the style of Daily Sports reporter Shoichi Suzuki. Suzuki [pictured at right] was one of the most prolific journalists in puroresu history, and according to Fumi Saito, Suzuki wrote most of NJPW's tour programs himself. (Daily Sports was also the first publication to give AJW proper coverage, and had a direct stake in it.)

2. When NJPW opened the Minami office, they also announced the formation of an entertainment department which would “promote celebrities and produce commercials and television movies”. Inoki’s wife, noted actress Mitsuko Baisho, was the first celebrity to join the department, and Shinma recalls that they rented the office from Baisho’s management company, Matsunaga Productions. Shinma states that Baisho was not funneling her money into New Japan, and that her manager did not have a favorable view of the company. From Matsunaga Productions’s point of view, New Japan was using their name value to rent the office. Later on, though, they got involved when the entertainment department released “Inoki Bom-Ba-Ye” as a single, which is why Baisho sang on the B-side of that record, “Always Together”.

 

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Your work is amazing. Thank-you for your efforts.

4 hours ago, KinchStalker said:

Naoki Otsuka [right] poses with his parents, Tiger Jeet Singh, and Lou Thesz on April 1, 1977.

Would've been hilarious if you hadn't used commas...:)

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I decided to do that other interview with Otsuka and Shinma on early NJPW as well as part two of the serial. That interview is almost twice as long as a single serial part, but even just two pages in I know it'll be worth it. Expect my post on the first year of NJPW to be expanded in the coming days with information from it.

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The part one post has been substantially expanded with information from the aforementioned Otsuka-Shinma interview, as well as details from a 2019 Inoki interview and a 2012 Showa Puroresu feature. Expect less delay for future parts, as I have completed transcription of the Otsuka interviews up through 1978.

However, there is one more resource I want to bring to the next part. I have an interview with Johnny Powers which I want to partially translate for context on his work with NJPW in 1973.

Edited by KinchStalker
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Sources for this post include:

  • Spoiler
    • Interview with Naoki Otsuka and Hisashi Shinma (G Spirits Vol. 51) [March 2019]
    • Interview with Antonio Inoki (G Spirits Vol. 51) [March 2019]
    • Interview with Johnny Powers (G Spirits Vol. 51) [March 2019]
    • Interview with Naoki Otsuka (G Spirits Vol. 56) [June 2020]
    • “The big heel who delighted not only New Japan but also TV Asahi…Tiger Jeet Singh” Igapro (11/21/2018) [Source: Nippon Pro-Wrestling Jiken-history vol.24: The Century of the Villains (2016 magazine)]
    • “New Japan Pro-Wrestling vs. All Japan Pro-Wrestling: The 50-year history of the "no-honor" struggle” (serial by Kagehiro Osano for Asagei.biz, 2022) [first part here]
    • National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story of the Monopoly that Strangled Pro Wrestling (Tim Hornbaker, 2007)

 

NAOKI OTSUKA AND THE EARLY YEARS OF NJPW, #2: THE TV ERA BEGINS

With support from NET TV, Otsuka recalls that NJPW’s credibility increased dramatically. Local companies and banks were more willing to work with the company, and after a couple months, provincial people stopped mistaking Inoki for Strong Kobayashi. It wasn’t ideal, though. NET had 24 stations across Japan by this point, but only six of them aired World Pro Wrestling live at first. Otsuka notes that Nagano’s station aired the program eight days late at 4:30pm, while Okinawa Television broadcast it two months late! (As alluded to in a previous post, New Japan held a two-date tour of Okinawa in September 1973. It was the first multi-night stand that the company had booked in a single market.) And even with network support, the low name value of the foreign talent booked by Karl Gotch (often under pseudonyms to avoid JWA harassment) was a major impediment to ticket sales. Otsuka remembers he and Keisuke having to lie to promoters that they would bring better names on the next tour. At this point, an NJPW sales show cost around ¥1.5 million, but this would gradually increase. By the Tiger Mask era, that price had gone up to ¥3.2 million.

 img_20191018_0002_new.thumb.jpg.b9969b764f34aa5eefea9d05af0d8e12.jpg

Mr. Moto, Inoki, and Kokichi Endo celebrate Inoki’s NWA United National title win over John Tolos on March 26, 1971.

The network deal also brought Kokichi Endo into the fold. While the former JWA accounting director was a truly terrible commentator, and Shinma likened hiring him to “drinking muddy water”, Endo did have valuable connections. It was thanks to him that NJPW became connected to NWA Hollywood (formerly the Worldwide Wrestling Associates), through which Mr. Moto had long booked wrestlers for the JWA. Unfortunately for the longtime booker, the Lebell brothers soon decided to cut Moto out of the picture and receive the booking fee themselves. Moto’s final appearance in puroresu would be as a ringside witness for AJPW’s October 9, 1973 NWA International Tag Team title match, and he retired the following year.

But if we’re going to talk about NJPW commentary, there is one man we need to address.

374142181_sakuraiandinoki.jpg.7fbc3a53a2bcfa56a59290b7161249c5.jpgYasuo Sakurai sits beside Inoki at the broadcast table.

Yasuo Sakurai had joined Tokyo Sports in 1961. Fumi Saito cites him as one of the three journalists most responsible for developing the “puroresu myth”, alongside Hiroshi Tazuhama and Shoichi Suzuki. While Sakurai was the last to begin covering the sport, Saito considers him the most “novelized” of the trio. In the 2019 G Spirits interview, Inoki contrasted Sakurai’s character-based approach with AJPW’s Tokyo Sports reporter and color commentator, Takashi Yamada. He opined that, though it may be “a political issue”, he believes that Sakurai’s conflict-based storytelling was more compelling. Sakurai is credited with coining moeru toukon (“the fighting spirit which burns”).

 

THE MAD TIGER

5473singh.jpg.eceb020a06f801218786809c97cced46.jpgTiger Jeet Singh assaults Kotetsu Yamamoto during his match against Steve Rickard on May 4, 1973.

Tiger Jeet Singh debuted for New Japan on the second tour of the NET era, the Golden Fight Series. That hadn’t been the plan.

Singh came to Inoki’s attention through one Mr. Yoshida, an acquaintance of Kokichi Endo who owned a trading business in India. Yoshida had seen Singh wrestle in Hong Kong, and brought a photograph in which Singh held a knife in his teeth. Inoki suggested that they could have him put a saber in his mouth instead, and ordered that Singh be booked for the July tour. Alas, an error in the external relations department brought Tiger to Japan two months early and without a business visa. Regardless, the company invited him to attend the tour’s kickoff show on May 4 in Kawasaki. They worked an angle where Singh, donning a turban but not yet having a saber, assaulted Kotetsu Yamamoto during his match against Steve Rickard. Footage of this episode does not survive, but the live broadcast team was apparently overwhelmed by the angle, and television viewers called the station to protest. Singh would quickly fly back to Hong Kong to get the proper visa, but New Japan decided to push back his in-ring debut a little longer, as it was decided that Singh, and not Rickard, would be booked as the star gaikokujin of the tour. Singh showed up at the following night’s show in Fukuoka to second Rickard, whom he knew from work in Australia. In Rickard & Red Pimpernel’s tag match against Inoki & Sakaguchi, Singh inserted himself into the proceedings by restraining Inoki during the match. On the next day’s main event, another Rickard vs. Inoki tag, Singh assaulted Inoki’s partner Osamu Kido with his saber, Then, on May 7 in Kokura, Singh challenged Inoki to a match after he defeated Rickard in the brief semi-main event. When Inoki accepted, and then turned his back, Singh jumped the ace and bloodied him.

Only then did Singh start to wrestle. Undefeated in singles matches, and notching a win in a tag match against Sakaguchi & Yamamoto, Singh got his first match against Inoki on May 25 in Gifu. Inoki got disqualified in the third fall when he used Singh’s saber against him. The telephone complaints continued, as they would in the years to come, but NET paid them no mind, taking this engagement as a sign of good ratings. One anecdote speaks to how well Singh had been promoted in such a short time. Popular singer-songwriter Takuro Yoshida was arrested on the 23rd after a female college student accused him of assault, and it is said that Yoshida was asking about the result of this match while he was detained. At the end of the tour on June 13, Inoki got his win back in Osaka.

Shinma thinks it was the “madness” of the saber which first won the hearts of the fans, and recalls a time years later when he had to fill in for Singh & Umanosuke Ueda’s manager, Osamu Honda. He and Singh performed a routine where Singh brought the saber with him to the check-in counter at Haneda Airport and Shinma had to convince him to let the stewardess confiscate it. (Singh took it seriously enough to be concerned about the believability of always using a saber that he bought in a Shibuya room-accessory store.)

CilOxGIUkAEEqJk.thumb.jpg.b01e8ea5941dc90af2ec9ce8659799d0.jpgThe “Itabashi incident” may have turned up the heat a little *too* much, but it secured Singh’s legend.

On November 5, Inoki went shopping with his wife and brother at the Isetan department store in Shinjuku. Accompanied by the likes of Jacques Rougeau and Bill White, Singh assaulted Inoki. While there were no photographs of the “Itabashi incident” itself, the bandaged Inoki made the front page of Tokyo Sports. Of course, Inoki declined to press charges and wished to settle the matter in the ring. But the police had gotten involved in the incident, and this backed NJPW into a corner. The police department advised Inoki to file charges if the incident had not been staged, because if it had been, the company would be punished for violating the Road Traffic Law. The police also pressured the Japan Commercial Broadcasters Association not to broadcast Inoki and Singh’s match. Their match in Sapporo on November 16 was a bloody affair, but on November 30, Singh lost a lumberjack match against Inoki and was “banned” from the company. (I could not confirm if either of these matches were broadcast.) Otsuka does not offer any more details on the incident, but remarks that the momentum with Singh did not really manifest in ticket sales until 1974.

The National Wrestling Alliance held a meeting in August, at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. Inoki applied for membership as a promoter. In addition to Mike Lebell, those who voted in favor included Vince McMahon (Sr.), Don Owen, and Roy Shire. But Baba’s relationship with the NWA orthodoxy was too strong, and the application was rejected. 

ONTARIO SHINIGAMI

powersinoki33177.thumb.jpg.475d230938cb992ac7fb36cf5cc76407.jpg

Johnny Powers attempts to win back the NWF World Heavyweight title on March 31, 1977. One of the most iconic heels in early New Japan, Powers earned the nickname Shinigami (“death god”) for his “relentless, cold-blooded style”.

Johnny Powers was a Canadian wrestler with a decade in the business. In the mid-sixties, Powers had made his name in several North American territories, ranging from a pair of early shots at Bruno Sammartino’s WWWF Heavyweight title in Pittsburgh to similarly high-profile matches in Toronto, St. Louis, and Florida. In October 1966, Powers was booked to appear on the first tour by Toyonobori’s short-lived independent promotion Tokyo Pro Wrestling. It was here that Powers wrestled Antonio Inoki for the first time. As the Sixties drew to a close, Powers finally settled in Cleveland. He became a financial partner of promoter Pedro Martinez, who had run the territory since purchasing Ed Don George’s Upstate Athletic Club promotion in 1955. Martinez sold his Buffalo Wrestling Club (New York) to Powers for $50,000 in 1968 while maintaining shares. Fed up with the ten-percent tithe that the National Wrestling Alliance demanded, Martinez went independent and formed the National Wrestling Federation in 1970, with Powers as its booker and top star. Over the next couple years, the NWF expanded across the Northeastern US and Canadian markets. But by 1973, the promotion was in decline.

1546862745_powerswrestlingsuperbowl.thumb.jpg.d9573647969a99d3a7e79799c46db160.jpg

Powers wrestles Johnny Valentine in the August 12, 1972 Superbowl of Wrestling. He claims that he lost $30,000 on the ambitious event, which only drew 15,000 spectators to the Cleveland Stadium.

Powers states in a 2019 interview that he was first made aware of NJPW through George “Crybaby” Cannon. The manager had been working in LA for a while by this point, but he had worked with Sakaguchi in Detroit, and had told Powers that he was “a nice guy that [he] could trust”. Cannon knew that Sakaguchi had begun working with Inoki’s promotion, and suggested that a partnership could benefit both NJPW and the NWF. Cannon first called Mr. Moto, but when he learned that Moto was no longer the booker, he suggested that Powers talk to Gene Lebell, who was about to participate in the NJPW Summer Fight Series tour as a guest referee. When Powers learned that the NWA had rejected New Japan’s application, he started to consider what fellow outlaws could do if they joined forces. 

Inoki and Sakaguchi traveled to Los Angeles for NJPW’s first match on American soil. On August 24, Powers and Pat Patterson were set to defend the hastily created NWA North American Tag Team titles against the Golden Tag Team. The ⅔-falls match was refereed by Joe Louis, and broadcast on World Pro Wrestling with the commentary of Daily Sports reporter Shoichi Suzuki. In the final fall, the Japanese team won by disqualification when Powers refused to acknowledge a rope break, but the titles did not change hands.

After the match, a business meeting was held. The NWF agreed to supply foreign talent in exchange for NJPW essentially buying the promotion out. Both Powers and Martinez were willing to scale back as promoters at this point, with Pedro selling his Buffalo shares to Ed Farhat around this time. Shinma was initially hesitant as he had never heard of the promotion, but Inoki convinced him that an established title would raise his prestige. Powers first worked for NJPW in the Toukon Series tour in September. Wrestling across eight dates from the 5th to the 15th, Powers reached an agreement on business details behind the curtain. In a televised non-title match on the 7th, Powers lost to Inoki by disqualification after refusing to recognize a rope break.

NJPW ended the year with the World Title Challenge Series in December. Powers and Patterson defended the NWA N.A. tag titles against Inoki & Sakaguchi on December 7. Yet again, the Golden Team went over but the belts did not change hands. Four days later, though, Inoki defeated Powers to win what would be NJPW’s top title for seven years. According to a 2004 issue of Weekly Fight Magazine (as cited by Japanese Wikipedia), Powers had sold the NWF World Heavyweight title to Inoki for $10,000. 

Otsuka states that NWA N.A. and NWF title defenses added a fee to the price of a sales show. He recalls that he once sold a show with an NWF defense for five million yen (!), and that the November 30, 1979 show where Inoki won the WWF title from Bob Backlund was sold to a company called Bizan Productions for “about ¥500,000 more than usual”. However, they never implemented a fee for WWF Junior Heavyweight title defenses; when Fujinami or Tiger Mask did defend that belt outside of urban markets, it was “just a bonus for buying the event”. (Otsuka also says that there was no extra price for shows with televised matches.)

884595144_eddieeinhorn.thumb.jpg.5b8f3d1fd6dfa2784aa31868e252bc2f.jpgPowers and Martinez would get back into the promoting business in 1975 with the International Wrestling Association, an unsuccessful attempt at a national promotion owned by sports broadcasting pioneer Eddie Einhorn.

On March 21, 1974, Inoki traveled to Cleveland to defend the NWF title against Ernie Ladd, in what was essentially the promotion’s last show. New Japan continued to treat the NWF as an active organization for some time for storyline purposes. Powers continued to appear for NJPW through 1980, and received three more shots at the championship he had lost. In 1976, a storyline saw Powers take over the NWF after Inoki dropped the world title billing from the championship—a condition of NJPW finally receiving NWA membership (in Sakaguchi and Shinma’s names) in 1975—and attempt to force Inoki to relinquish the belt. 

My next post will jump back a little bit to cover New Japan’s first iconic tag match, before heading forward into 1974. We will see Naoki Otsuka finally transfer into the sales department as NJPW gathers steam.

 

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NAOKI OTSUKA AND THE EARLY YEARS OF NJPW, #3: TOKYO SPORTS, THE WORLD'S STRONGEST TAG TEAM, AND STRONG KOBAYASHI

WORLD’S STRONGEST TAG TEAM

28423243_1981691268761964_6483014693659175134_o.thumb.jpg.99d7571c692bbc79062273eeabcd8ab6.jpg

Tokyo Sports president Hiroshi Inoue with Inoki on March 14, 1974. Inoue was one of New Japan’s most influential allies.

“Hiroshi Inoue [...] saw [my match with Karl Gotch on March 6, 1972] and picked it up in an article saying, ‘This is what professional wrestling should be like!’”

·        Antonio Inoki, 2019

Founded from the ashes of the Kokumin Times newspaper in 1960, Tokyo Sports dedicated much coverage to professional wrestling. An evening publication could not survive on the morning’s reheated baseball scoops, and by its time, some morning papers had smartened up to the business and ceased wrestling coverage. “Tospo”, as it was often abbreviated, had a readymade niche.

Tokyo Sports’ involvement in the business had extended to assigning reporters as color commentators for mens’ wrestling television programs. The first was Takashi Yamada, who had started work for Nippon Television’s Mitsubishi Diamond Hour JWA program in autumn 1967. Yasuo Sakurai followed for World Pro Wrestling. Tadao Monma would represent the paper for IWE broadcasts. The paper had even been weaponized in the industry, such as the case in early 1969 when it was encouraged to print a spurious article that damaged public interest in Great Togo’s rumored new promotion.

Tospo president Hiroshi Inoue had proposed that the newspaper support the first Kuramae Kokugikan show of NJPW’s TV era, with a big tag match to showcase the Golden Duo of Inoki & Sakaguchi. Shinma was enthusiastic at the prospect, but there was little time for preparation, and New Japan only had one foreign wrestler with name value. Karl Gotch declined the offer due to a knee injury. On April 20, the Golden Duo had to make do with Jan Wilkens & Manuel Soto, whom they defeated in two straight falls. (Wilkens would later do business with Sakaguchi in his home territory of South Africa.)

Later that year, Sakurai suggested that they wrestle Karl Gotch and Lou Thesz. When he went to New Japan, it was rejected for budgetary reasons, but then he pitched it to his boss. Inoue was enthuiastic and consulted Inoki and Shinma with intent to fund the match himself. There was just one problem. They needed to get ahold of Lou.

The 57-year old had returned to wrestling. As he explains in the addendum of his autobiography, Hooker, his wife Fredda “was drinking quite a lot at the time and making some stupid deals while she was on the booze”, so Thesz had returned to the wrestling circuit “just to get away from it”. Sakurai consulted his Tokyo Sports coworker Takashi Yamada, who accompanied Giant Baba on his trips to the US to cover the NWA’s major markets. Yamada told him that Sonny Myers knew his whereabouts, and sure enough, Myers provided Sakurai with the living legend’s new contact information. When Sakurai spoke to Thesz, he was apparently reluctant to wrestle alongside Gotch, but was willing to travel to Japan as long as he actually got to wrestle.

How did this booking slip through Baba’s fingers? Just barely. While Yamada did not rat out his fellow reporter, Baba had learned that Sakurai had made a call to St. Louis, where Myers worked. Sakurai said that he had only wanted to get in contact with Thesz. He could not reveal that this match was happening, and certainly not who was funding it, but Baba did not press further. Given the nature of Thesz’s previous appearances for New Japan, it is reasonable to assume that Baba only thought he would be brought on as a guest referee.

img_20220128_00031.jpg.80657884e908e00f912e026b1e146eea.jpgThe “World’s Strongest Tag Team” sign autographs.

On September 11, Inoki announced the match, which was booked for the Kuramae Kokugikan on October 14. Both Gotch and Thesz arrived two days early. Gotch traveled to the Yokohama Cultural Gymnasium to attend the final show of the Toukon Series tour, while Thesz’s flight arrived about an hour after that show ended. Kotetsu Yamamoto would serve as both man’s valet. The following morning, Gotch and Thesz held a public training session at the NJPW dojo, sparring with Yamamoto, Hiroaki Hamada, Osamu Kido, and Katsuhisa Shibata. An autograph session in Shinjuku’s Isetan department store—the same place where Tiger Jeet Singh would assault Inoki a few weeks later—followed. 

gotch-thesz.jpg.9453accf85abea03c0854e5f1c591289.jpgWhile the media was more focused on Thesz than Gotch, he was coming into this match hurt. Five days earlier, he had dislocated his shoulder while wrestling Jack Brisco for the NWA World Heavyweight title in the Mid-South Coliseum. Thesz disclosed this to Gotch, and the two had a long private sparring session for more practice. But Thesz was in no less pain on the morning of. Lou had wanted to work with Inoki, but Inoki’s focus on matwork would surely take its toll on his shoulder. So Gotch suggested that he take the lead. If Lou left the ace to Karl, then he could concentrate on Sakaguchi, whose tendencies to “stand and fight” would better accommodate Thesz’s condition. While Thesz and Inoki do wrestle each other, this compromised approach does reflect somewhat in the match’s construction. Contemporaneous coverage in Monthly Pro Wrestling magazine notes Thesz’s “peculiar” stance at the start, with his left shoulder slightly slumped.

Five days earlier, All Japan Pro Wrestling had brought 11,000 to the same venue to see Giant Baba & Tomomi Tsuruta challenge the Funks for the NWA International Tag Team titles. New Japan would announce that their show drew 12,000, an inflated number. Before the match, in a wrinkle sadly clipped from the copy on NJPW World, a JSDF marching band played renditions of The Star Spangled Banner and Kimigayo. The guest referee was Johnny “Red Shoes” Dugan, familiar to Japanese television audiences for officiating matches taped in the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.

In the final fall, Inoki used a maneuver which Gotch had taught him, the Japanese leg roll clutch, to pin his mentor for the first time.

736892167_Screenshot(1792).png.774d0b2cdf1cf3c77db9d9ac958db2dd.pngThe NJPW New Years Golden Series was a disappointment compared to the tours that surrounded it. “Apparently” recommended by Steve Rickard, at least according to the Showa Puroresu zine, star gaikokujin Mighty Caramba was a Maltese wrestler who had worked for Jim Barnett’s Australian WCW in the sixties and had also become popular in South Africa. Also debuting in Japan were the “World’s Heaviest Twins”, Billy and Benny McGuire. The McGuires were promoted by NET TV through an appearance on a NET TV afternoon show. On the afternoon of the kickoff show in Tokyo, both the twins and Caramba did PR. The twins rode around on their Honda minibikes and pulled a bus, while Caramba pulled the same bus by his teeth. The brothers would work two more NJPW tours before Billy’s death in 1979, but it was always the first tour of the year due to heat sensitivity. Caramba never appeared again. While the McGuires were successful in some regard as a draw for younger fans, it is revealing that the last third of the tour was supplemented by the last-minute booking of John and Chris Tolos. The former had lost the NWA United National title to Inoki three years before. (He would also work a handful of dates in October.)

The first tour of 1974 saw Tetsuo Baisho debut as New Japan’s announcer, and Naoki Otsuka accompanied him on the tour as a “chaperone”. Otsuka would return to the role for a period in 1976 after a car hit Baisho on his bicycle and broke his leg. Outside of that, though, Baisho kept the job until the next decade, when Kero Tanaka took over and allowed him to return to a backstage position. 

—-

GANRYUJIMA 1974

1828808608_kobayashiluna.png.efafc93354eaddb367d1c851b8519dac.pngStrong Kobayashi declares free agency.

On the afternoon of February 8, 1974, IWE ace Strong Kobayashi called the offices of Gong magazine. He had just told president Isao Yoshiwara that he intended to resign, but his boss had just tried to placate him. The next day, Kobayashi walked into the company’s offices, located in the Shinjuku neighborhood of Takadanobaba, and again tried to turn in his notice. But talks broke down, and Kobayashi disappeared. When Gong interviewed Yoshiwara, he told them that he had no concrete plans for the future, while saying that he “didn’t chase after those who leave”. Three days later, Kobayashi submitted his resignation, which made the front page of Tokyo Sports on the 13th. That afternoon, Kobayashi held a press conference at Luna, a coffee shop on the Waseda University campus. IWE sales manager Toshio Suzuki, referee Taizo Maemizo, and announcer Tamio Takeshita all appeared and asked Kobayashi to wait until Yoshiwara arrived, but Kobayashi started the conference at 2:00 PM, remarking that this was his personal matter.

“Strong Kobayashi became a freelance wrestler as of February 2. I have been a professional wrestler for eight years, and thanks to your support, I have become a world champion and have worked hard in the ring of Kokusai Pro Wrestling. However, last year was my lowest year and I could not meet the expectations of President Yoshihara and the fans. I have reflected on the many ways in which I took advantage of President Yoshihara's warm hospitality in the name of International Pro Wrestling, and I have made up my mind to start over from the very first step and rebuild myself as a wrestler worthy of the name Strong Kobayashi. I would like to thank President Yoshiwara and the people at Kokusai Pro Wrestling for all the help they have given me, and in order to repay this debt of gratitude, I am prepared to start over as a lone wolf for the next year or two. If possible, I would like to fight against Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki to test my strength. I would like to ask for your continued guidance and encouragement in my endeavors. Strong Kobayashi, February 13, 1974.”

During the subsequent Q&A session, Kobayashi maintained that his departure was motivated by a need for personal growth and insisted that his dissatisfaction did not stem from matters of finances or human relations. Fifty years later, we know that he was just being professional. His departure was in fact motivated by the harassment of booker Great Kusatsu, who bullied the ace backstage and knocked him down house show cards, exploiting the company’s unique incentive pay structure to get himself (and Rusher Kimura) paid the same amount. While he couched it in kayfabe during the press conference, late 1973 had indeed been a low point for Kobayashi, between an upset against Isamu Teranishi in the IWA World Series and a title loss to Wahoo McDaniel. McDaniel had ended a dominant two-year reign for little apparent reason, except perhaps to give Kusatsu a title shot in a strap match, before dropping it back to Kobayashi on his way out.

In 2019, Hisashi Shinma claimed that Kosuke Takeuchi had let him in on Kobayashi’s discontentment. He claims that he began to visit his home in Ome every night for three months (which would go back to autumn 1973), and that he kept it a secret from all of his coworkers except Otsuka. It was difficult to get Kobayashi to commit to leaving and working with New Japan, as one day he would be on board but on the next he would retract that. Shinma seems to imply that Kobayashi’s hesitation was influenced by his partner. (The July 1973 issue of Monthly Pro covers Kobayashi’s engagement to 23-year-old Mitsuyo Noguchi, but I could not confirm if they had tied the knot by this point.) As the situation progressed, Kobayashi’s family would be pressured to steer him towards a relationship with All Japan. The two men who advocated for this were Matty Suzuki, who had been his trainer, and Monthly Pro editor-in-chief Hisatake Fujisawa.1 By the two-month mark of Shinma’s visits, the Kobayashi household’s eight Maltese dogs had grown quite attached to him and one started sleeping on his lap. (When Shinma got a dog, it was a Maltese.)

On February 22, the Big Fight Series started in Korakuen Hall. This tour marked the NJPW debut of Andre the Giant, two years removed from his previous appearances for the IWE as Monster Roussimoff. According to Koji Miyamoto, Inoki and Shinma had begun negotiations with Vince McMahon Sr. through Mike Lebell the previous August. On March 19 in Okayama, Andre would give Inoki his first clean singles loss since the 1972 matches against Gotch.

On February 25, Inoki announced that he accepted Kobayashi’s challenge. 

 386018468_ZRiKhLT-Imgur.jpg.657b95674a9ff48da4bfcd9d5e0c1ead.jpg

On March 1, at 11:30am, Inoki and Kobayashi agreed to wrestle in a press conference. Hiroshi Inoue stood beside them.

Yoshiwara dropped his front of passivity. Kobayashi stated that his contract had been for one year, and had expired on February 8, but Yoshiwara countered by showing that the contract did not have an expiration date. (When Yoshiwara pulled this again a few years later with Ryuma Go, a legal analyst told Gong that this was illegal, not least because Go had been 17 when he signed it.) Furthermore, as Kobayashi was signed at the top level of the IWE’s tiered contract structure, any promotion that booked him within a year of the contract’s termination would have to pay a penalty fee of ten million yen. On March 8, Yoshiwara announced that Kobayashi would be expelled from the company at the start of the fiscal year on April 1. Furthermore, he would be forced to drop the Strong moniker, and a provisional injunction would be forthcoming.

The next day, Hiroshi Inoue struck. On March 9, he called Kobayashi and Yoshiwara to a meeting at the Tokyu Hotel in Ginza. Kobayashi apologized to Yoshiwara, and Tokyo Sports arranged to pay the penalty fee themselves. Yoshiwara approved with the understanding that Kobayashi was to wrestle as a representative of the newspaper. The IWE could not afford to alienate puroresu’s dominant sports paper, no matter how much the results of Kobayashi’s departure may have damaged their own reputation. Tokyo Sports also drew from their own pocketbooks to promote the match, buying posters and the like in the hopes that it would rejuvenate a business that had been in decline for years. To compensate for their financial investment, the paper permanently raised its price from twenty yen to thirty.

On March 6, NJPW held the first show promoted by Otsuka. He had spent a month in Shimonoseki to promote a show at its City Gymnasium. It was hard getting any tickets sold at first. Otsuka says that he received a lot of help from a local promoter who operated under a company named Cold Water Entertainment, and who had the rights to promote shows by legendary comedic actor Kanbi Fujiyama. The announced number was a relatively impressive 4400, but Otsuka admits that some trickery was involved. Some tickets were sold as two seats, which left one seat empty but could be counted as two in attendance figures. Otsuka also went behind the company’s back to pair tickets with coupons to local drugstores. This was inspired by AJW, which had sold tickets with coupons for Yakult, the popular probiotic milk beverage. (Otsuka was acquainted with AJW’s head salesmen.) When Inoki learned that Otsuka had done this, he was not angry, but asked him not to do it again.

But there was one more trick that Otsuka had pulled. Exactly one week earlier, AJPW had held a show in the same building. After it was over, Otsuka drove a sales car outside the venue to promote his show. A decade later, when Otsuka began meeting with Giant Baba, Baba said that he had “been his enemy since Shimonoseki”. Otsuka then pointed out that he had done the same thing six years later when the companies held back-to-back shows in Osaka, which Baba also remembered. 

It was while in Shimonoseki that Otsuka heard that the Inoki-Kobayashi match had been announced. He got back to Tokyo a few days before, but there wasn’t much he could do to help, so he concentrated on sales and setup for the next tour.

1462654439_inokivskobayashi.jpg.cc53960ae9ed7562601d76ac2dcc2280.jpgInoki and Kobayashi’s first match drew a reported 16,500 to the Kuramae Kokugikan. Fearing that he would back out at the last moment, Shinma spent the night at Kobayashi’s house and rode with him to the show. 

The match was refereed by Umenosuke Kiyomigawa, a former sumo wrestler who had worked in puroresu's original regional independent scene in the 1950s. He decided to work abroad when the JWA became the last Japanese promotion standing. After reestablishing contact with the industry at the end of the 60s, Kiyomigawa had booked European talent for the IWE and had organized training excursions for their talent through his connections with promoters such as Etienne Siry and Edmund Schober. By 1974, Kiyomigawa was 53, and he was ready to return home. Kobayashi had asked if New Japan could give him a job, but Inoki asked Shinma not to increase their roster anymore, so Kiyomigawa was just paid ¥300,000 for this appearance. He would soon get a coaching job with AJW, where he trained Mach Fumiake and the Beauty Pair, among others. Kiyomigawa had left by 1979, when he helped former Black Pair member Shinobu Aso and others with an unsuccessful attempt to form a rival promotion; he died the following year.

Toyonobori also made his first appearance for NJPW in a year, as he asked Shinma to bring him there. He had not only played a major role in Inoki’s early career but had also been a mentor to Kobayashi during his IWE run. Toyonobori would officiate another important Inoki match later in the year.

The match was a defense of Inoki’s NWF Heavyweight title. It was also a onefall match, which started Inoki’s transition away from the standard ⅔-falls layouts of old. Shinma notes that Kobayashi’s cheer squad was led by Kobayashi's uncle, while Otsuka adds that he had sold a car during his Toyota tenure to another member, who was one of Kobayashi’s old schoolmates. As for the attendance figure, Otsuka cites a rumor that more people were rushed in after all the tickets were gone to beef up the standing-room-only attendance, and that cardboard boxes containing the cash all disappeared, but states that he doesn’t believe it. He estimates that they had about 1,500 SRO spectators. This would indicate that the attendance figure was inflated, but to be clear, the venue was packed.

FOOTNOTES 

Spoiler

1. The Showa Puroresu zine has claimed that Monthly Pro had a “strong anti-Inoki tone” at this time. These are a few examples it cites.

  • It ridiculed the “strong style” marketing term in coverage of the first tour of 1975, which featured such unfitting participants as Brute Bernard and the McGuire twins.
  • The January 4, 1976 press conference announcing the Inoki-Willem Ruska match only received a third of a page of coverage, while Monthly Gong gave the event two pages of color photographs and six pages of text.
  • It criticized Inoki for not appearing at the July 27, 1977 press conference in which Everett Eddy signed the contract for his match. Shinma signed the contract in Inoki’s place, and Inoki stated two days later that he had been resting with his family.
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  • KinchStalker changed the title to Naoki Otsuka Interview Recaps: NJPW's "strongest salesman" talks about business and more (with early NJPW history)

Sources for this post include:

  • Showa Puroresu Vol. #24: World Big League Vol. 3 [July 2011]
  • Showa Puroresu Vol. #27: The Strongest! Tag Team Chronicles [Aug. 2012]

One could point to the World’s Strongest Tag Team match and the NWF title win as important victories, but Inoki and Kobayashi’s first match is the best point to place the start of NJPW’s first golden age. And the primary theme of the first golden age was Inoki’s supremacy amongst Japanese wrestlers and his professions towards a match against Giant Baba. The next post will cover NJPW’s first tournament and the return of Tiger Jeet Singh, but first, it’s worth examining the mythology of this theme, which is crucial to understanding several important events to come.

NAOKI OTSUKA AND THE EARLY YEARS OF NJPW, #4: THE ORIGIN OF "INOKI VS BABA" (INTERLUDE #1 - 1969-1971)

From 1959 through 1972, the JWA held the World Big League fourteen times. The format of the tournament was often unclear and inconsistent in the first half of its existence, before the eighth in 1966—the first under the Yoshinosato regime—finally introduced a logical structure. Under the format which it would use for the rest of its life, the World Big League pitted native and foreign wrestlers against each other in a round-robin. The shift may or may not have been influenced by a similar reform to sumo tournaments that began around this time.

But outside of its preliminary matches, the early joint shows performed with competing regional promotions, or its original light and junior heavyweight titles, the JWA displayed a bone-deep resistance to booking matches between native wrestlers. Those familiar with the promotion’s early product may chalk this up to early puroresu’s nationalist roots, but this is reductive. That helps explain why the American Great Togo, a second-generation immigrant who brought his heel act to Japanese audiences, struggled to catch on. But surely competition between countrymen has never been mutually exclusive with national pride?

It all comes back to sumo. The sport’s culture ran deep within the JWA, and an unspoken rule that has held firm throughout its history is that no two wrestlers from the same stable, who train together and eat from the same pot of chanko, shall ever compete against each other in a tournament setting. 

In 1969, the 11th World Big League teased a change. At the end of the round-robin, Inoki found himself tied with three-time winner Baba, Bobo Brazil, and Chris Markoff. Two last matches between the natives and foreigners were decided by a coin toss, and if both of either side won their matches, a tiebreaker would ensue. But Baba and Brazil went to a stalemate in a time-limit draw, while Inoki debuted the octopus stretch to defeat Markoff. Inoki’s victory was the result of lobbying by the likes of Kokichi Endo and Yusef Turk, who had a stake in the JWA’s coming program with NET TV. World Pro Wrestling would need a parallel ace due to the exclusivity clauses that Nippon TV had imposed. The way that they booked it gave Inoki a necessary boost as a singles star while protecting Baba.

Over the next two years, Inoki accrued credibility in his own right while continuing to defend the NWA International Tag Team titles with Baba. In December 1969, Dory Funk Jr. came to Japan to defend the NWA World Heavyweight title. Both of the JWA’s aces took the champion to the full broadway, but it was Inoki who shone brighter in his Osaka challenge. When the 12th World Big League was held, Inoki choked in a Markoff rematch and fell behind Baba by half a point in the final results, but he defeated runner-up Don Leo Jonathan clean in their tournament match. (Baba had lost to him in his tournament match, and only won the final against him because Jonathan had hit the ropes with his groin on a dodged dropkick.) 

7b9b155bb9c81fd083dcc8ee439dc501.thumb.jpg.074843ecc26d66c523062bafcfddbbf2.jpgInoki and Hoshino with the NWA Tag Team League trophy.

In 1970, the JWA designed a tag tournament to accommodate NET. The original idea was to name it the Diamond Tag Team League, after the symbol of the sponsor of their NTV program, Mitsubishi Electric. Unlike the World League, though, this tournament would not be exclusively broadcast on NTV. Thus, the name was changed to the NWA Tag Team League. It would be necessary to split up Baba & Inoki, and so the Japanese teams were determined by a lottery. Baba teamed with Mitsu Hirai, while Inoki teamed with Kantaro Hoshino. 

With both B-I gun and beloved tag specialists the Yamaha Brothers split up to make the league compatible with both networks, fan dissatisfaction overshadowed the tournament. But its result was another triumph for Inoki. On November 5, Inoki and Hoshino defeated Nick Bockwinkel & Big John Quinn in a 72-minute epic that has been lost to time. Baba was absent for the toast in the waiting room afterwards, as well as the press conference. In that conference, Inoki was quoted in Monthly Gong thanking Baba for helping him come this far. But according to the eighth volume of Baba to Inoki, a series written by Yasuo Sakurai under the pen name Yasushi Hara, Inoki made another comment that went unreported: “Winning a tag team tournament or any other official tournament means that I have beaten Baba-san. I think it's time for Baba to accept my challenge and settle the matter on merit.” If true, it indicates that what Inoki would do the following year had been on his mind for a while.

In my earlier tellings of this story, I have misunderstood what exactly happened here. This will correct that mistake.

Shortly before the 13th World Big League, Inoki flew to Los Angeles to win the NWA United National title from John Tolos, and subsequently announced his engagement to noted actress Mitsuko Baisho. The JWA would book another four-way tie this year, as Baba and Inoki were set to wrestle Abdullah the Butcher and the Destroyer in bouts with no time limit. Kokichi Endo’s announcement before the first of these, Inoki vs. Destroyer, openly teased the possibility of a Baba vs Inoki blowoff: “In the event that the winner is not decided in the first or second match of the championship, a rematch will be held.” In the final surviving match that Inoki wrestled on NTV, he and the Destroyer went to a double countout.

While Baba and Abdullah wrestled their match, Inoki called a press conference. He put the Destroyer over while stating that he had fought with all his might. He hoped that Baba would win against the Butcher because the most important thing was that, whether he or Baba won, the World Big League trophy could not be allowed to be taken to another country. But then, Inoki went into business for himself. He announced that he wished to challenge for Baba’s NWA International Heavyweight title, and that he would submit a formal request to the JWA commissioner the next day. He claimed that he did this not for personal reasons, but because he “could no longer ignore the fan’s voices”. Inoki brought up that his United National title victory meant that Japan now had three champions, counting the IWA World Heavyweight title, but that the country only needed one. (Inoki would continue to trumpet the need for a unified Japanese commission over the next few years.) He went on to challenge the JWA’s unspoken rule, insisting that he and Baba should have been allowed to wrestle a decision match before challenging the top foreigner for the trophy, “but because of the rules of Japanese wrestling, this is how it turned out”. Again invoking “the fans’ voices”, Inoki stated that he had no choice but to challenge Baba “with his life on the line, knowing the unspoken rules of the JWA”.

img_20200817_0001.thumb.jpg.637836026564483d906d13769626500b.jpg

Inoki shakes hands with Baba after the 1971 World League final.

After Baba won his match and the tournament, a Gong reporter told him what had just happened and asked for comment. Of course, Baba was surprised. The title was not his property, so he could not simply accept anyone’s challenge. If the commission approved, he would wrestle Inoki anytime, but at the moment he could not say any more. It was a professional response that Baba would return to time and again in the coming years. As the locker room celebrated with a toast, Inoki came out after his shower and shook hands with Baba.

This incident was the nucleus of a public perception that would prop up Inoki and haunt Baba for years to come: “Inoki advancing, Baba escaping”. By the time that this incident occurred, of course, there was more than just company culture blocking it from happening. But as fans wrote in to Gong in favor of the dream match, the two men’s responses began to affect their image. When Yoshinosato and Yoshiichi Hirai, the president of the JWA’s shareholders association, announced that they would reject the challenge, Inoki kept his cool but held firm that the company would only continue to develop if it encouraged its wrestlers to defeat Baba. A roundtable discussion in Monthly Gong would conclude that Baba “should have responded positively” to the challenge. Behind the scenes, Baba was reluctant to work with Inoki, and it has been claimed that on-site manager Michiaki Yoshimura had had to beg him to defend the NWA International Tag Team titles with him that June.

The second NWA Tag League abandoned the lottery system and booked more satisfying teams, with the reunion of former tag champ duo Baba and Yoshimura, the first major showcase for Inoki and Sakaguchi, and the intact Yamaha Brothers. However, the tournament was hurt by a couple of disappointing teams, to say nothing of what happened with Bob Ellis & Frankie Laine.Inoki & Sakaguchi won the final against Killer Kowalski & Buddy Austin.

FOOTNOTES

Spoiler

1. “Cowboy” Frankie Laine had been a popular competitor in the first and second NWA Tag Leagues. During the second, though, he was deported for committing a sexual assault. He never returned to Japan.

Edited by KinchStalker
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Spoiler

Sources for this post include:

  • Showa Puroresu Vol. #44: New Japan Pro Wrestling “World League” [Nov. 2017]
  • Wrestling Observer Newsletter [June 30, 1997]
  • “Bill Dromo Dead At 75” Greg Oliver, SLAM Wrestling [December 29, 2012]
  • “High-Flying Argentine Zuma dead at 85” Greg Oliver, SLAM Wrestling [January 4, 2013]
  • Monthly Pro Wrestling [May 1974]
  • Monthly Pro Wrestling [June 1974]

 

NAOKI OTSUKA AND THE EARLY YEARS OF NJPW, #4: FIRST WORLD LEAGUE

12747091_worldleague1974.thumb.jpg.39128cf2e8d58dc852038343108d9f25.jpg 

The cover of the program for NJPW’s 1974 World League. Although it suffered from a lack of high-profile foreign talent, the tour did good business and the tournament helped reestablish Seiji Sakaguchi as a top singles competitor in his own right.

Two years after the JWA’s final World Big League, New Japan struck first (and likely paid off whichever former JWA official they had to) to revive the branding, albeit with the Big (“Dai”) dropped. The April 1974 issue of Monthly Gong announced a ludicrous lineup for the tournament. Danny Hodge, Baron von Raschke, Bearcat Wright, Bulldog Brower, the Mongolian Stomper, Mr. Wrestling, Killer Karl Krupp, and Sam Steamboat represented America. Sean Regan, Danny Lynch, and Horst Hoffman came from Europe; Jan Wilkens and Albert Hall from South Africa; and Mil Mascaras, El Solitario, and Panthera Negra from Mexico. Showa Puroresu writer Dr. Mick suggests that this spectacular forecast came from an overestimation of New Japan’s budget. Ultimately, only Krupp was booked for the tour. Sister magazine Bessatsu Gong would feature a more accurate announcement afterwards, although it teased that the slot that went to Lord Johnson could have seen NJPW book Wright, Hodge, or Hoffman instead. In the May issue of Monthly Pro, Giant Baba’s response to the World League indicated that he had wished to take the World League branding for himself, but had been beaten to the punch. Baba suggested that he and Isao Yoshiwara could join forces that fall to hold “the real World League”, using Baba’s superior connections. This may have been the germ of the idea that led to the 1975 Open League.

Ultimately, the foreign bracket contained the following. 

34461584_kruppbaisho.png.a53ee59bf515e0208ece42a583fc166a.pngBorn in Holland, George Momberg entered the business in West Germany in 1957 as Dutch Momberg. He emigrated to the Maritimes in the early sixties but his career remained unremarkable until 1972. Ever since Paul Bowser in Boston had turned the Québécois Guy Larose into Hans Schmidt in 1951, the evil German had become a stock character in North American wrestling. Killer Karl Krupp may have been a late iteration, but he managed to distinguish himself just fine. From the requisite goose steps and stiff-arm salutes to committed costuming decisions like a monocle, riding crop, and Reichsadler belt, Krupp took the well-worn trope to cartoonish heights and quickly found success across several territories. Most relevant for our purposes was his appearances on the JWA’s final two tours, where Krupp won the NWA International Tag Team titles twice alongside Johnny Valentine and Fritz von Erich. After the promotion’s final shows, Krupp had taken the titles to Amarillo, where he and replacement partner Karl von Steiger dropped them to the Funks. At the April 4 press conference before the World League began, Krupp assaulted Tetsuo Baisho [left].

35401937_stasiakwwwf.jpg.8c9fb2e1ec19a486d63d157cf7e0af36.jpgGeorge Stiplich debuted in Montreal in 1958. Originally wrestling as Emile Koverly, Stiplich received the ring name Stan Stasiak during a 1960 stint in St. Louis, taken from 1920s wrestler Stanley Stasiak. Throughout the sixties, Stasiak saw success in Canada and the US. In the former, he held tag gold in Maple Leaf Wrestling and worked a hot Stampede feud with Don Leo Jonathan, whom Stiplich knew from his youth attending shows in Chicoutimi and throwing sucker punches at the wrestlers. (Don had cleaned his clock.) In the second half of the decade, he hit his Stateside stride as a top heel in Pacific Northwest Wrestling. Stasiak also worked for Tokyo Pro Wrestling in 1966, challenging Inoki for the US Heavyweight title he’d won from Johnny Valentine. After an unremarkable appearance for AJPW in early 1973, Stasiak had the most famous program of his career in the WWWF. Managed by the Grand Wizard, he pinned Pedro Morales using a full nelson on a Philadelphia house show to win the WWWF Heavyweight title. The transitional reign lasted just nine days before Bruno Sammartino defeated him in Madison Square Garden, but World League tour program writer Shoichi Suzuki was sure to milk it for Stasiak’s profile.

The second incarnation of The Mongols entered the tournament. The team’s origins laid in Stampede Wrestling, when Nova Scotian-born Newton Tattrie met Croatian immigrant Josip Peruzović. Tattrie helped Stu Hart train Peruzović, and the two developed their tag team. Tattrie was Geeto Mongol, derived from the Croatian word for grandfather. Peruzović became Bepo Mongol, which came from the Croatian for baby. The Mongols came to the WWWF in 1968 and won tag gold, as Tattrie became a promoter in Pittsburgh in the early 70s. The original Mongols were first made known to Japanese fans by Tokyo 12 Channel, whose Pro Wrestling Hour program featured syndicated WWWF material; a magazine in the mid-80s called them “the Road Warriors of the 70s” for their powerhouse style. The original Mongols came to the JWA in summer 1972, where Bepo challenged for Sakaguchi’s NWA United National title. But Tattrie sold his Philadelphia promotion to Pedro Martinez soon afterwards, and Bepo left for Georgia to become Nikolai Volkoff. That winter, Tattrie scouted high school teacher Bill Eadie at a Pittsburgh show, and trained him to become Bolo Mongol. Geeto would only make one appearance for NJPW after this tournament, but Eadie would find much more success in the territory, albeit under a different name.

The Invader was Bill Dromo. The Manitobian amateur wrestler had gone professional after meeting his future wife, a dental assistant who moonlighted in the ring. After honing his skills for Gordon Mackie in Winnipeg’s Madison Boxing & Wrestling Club, the 6’3”, 255 lb. wrestler worked in the Midwest for a stint before moving to Georgia in 1960. This would be his home territory for the rest of his career, but Dromo worked in many places. In the WWWF, where he was billed as Bill Zbyszko, he was the first opponent for Giant Baba. His boyish looks, size, and solid, believable work made him a versatile talent. Dromo had first worked in Japan back in 1964, but his most notable appearance had been in 1971 as a challenger for Kintaro Oki’s All Asia Heavyweight title. After another NJPW appearance in autumn 1976, Dromo’s last work in the country was for the IWE in 1980, where he had a rematch with Oki.

You know Khosrow Vaziri as the Iron Sheik, but his Japanese debut caught him at a time before he began to craft a heel character. In this original, straight-laced incarnation, Vaziri’s amateur credentials were cited front-and-center in the World League program blurb. Born to a working-class family in Damghan, Iran, Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri idolized Olympian wrestler Gholamreza Takhti. He entered the sport himself, trying out for the 1968 Olympics. Early that year, though, Takhti died in a hotel room. It was announced to have been a suicide, but Takhti's pro-Mosaddegh sympathies and activist history led many to suspect foul play. Whatever the case, Vaziri fled for the United States. He won an AAU gold medal in 1971; the following year, he assisted Minnesota Amateur Wrestling Club founder and coach Alan Rice with coaching the US Olympic team. It was then that Vaziri was scouted by fellow Minnesotan Verne Gagne. He trained under Gagne and Billy Robinson in the same AWA training camp that produced Ric Flair. Two years after the World League, Vaziri worked a tour for All Japan, during which he held a seminar in South Korea.

Walter Johnson (III) was Cleveland's second pick in the 1965 NFL Draft. The hometown hero had been a triple threat at Robert Taft High School, helping their football and basketball teams win city championships and setting a school record in shot put. First entering New Mexico State University and then transferring to Cal State in Los Angeles, Johnson excelled at football and set another shot put record. At his professional peak in the late sixties, the defensive tackle was a three-time Pro Bowler, and it was in 1968 that Johnny Powers trained him to wrestle on the side. Often wearing his #71 jersey in the ring, Johnson performed football tackles as well as a signature bearhug. Shoichi Suzuki’s program blurb sells Johnson as the potential second coming of Ernie Ladd, who had recently challenged Inoki for the NWF Heavyweight title in Cleveland.

Finally, there was Amazing Zuma. Also billed as Argentine Zuma, Manuel Chaij was an accomplished gymnast who started to wrestle in South America and Mexico before working in the Boston area in 1951. He was then scouted by Jack Pfefer and would find particular success working for Ed McLemore’s Southwest Sports, the ancestor of WCCW. Often billed as a junior heavyweight champion, and once even claimed to be an amateur champion in both Argentina and Portugal, Zuma was hyped as a copy of Antonino Rocca. This led to the highest-profile program of Chaij’s career when Pfefer got him booked for Vincent J. McMahon’s Capitol Wrestling Federation. Zuma worked a program with Rocca at the turn of the decade, with the two setting consecutive records at Madison Square Garden. On November 13, 1959, they sold 21,890 tickets for a gate of $64,125; on January 2, they drew 21,950 for $64,680. This feud propelled Zuma for the rest of his career, but by the late sixties he was working undercard matches for Jim Crockett. Chaij retired soon after this tour, working his last matches for Leroy McGuirk in spring 1975.

695668269_worldleaguenativebracket.thumb.png.0feacec13c272137b65742b298ec0b81.png

Besides Inoki and Sakaguchi, the native bracket consisted of Kotetsu Yamamoto, Kantaro Hoshino, Katsuhisa Shibata, Haruka Eigen, Osamu Kido, and Masa Saito. Saito was making his first appearances in NJPW.

The first part of the World League was set up like a Yoshinosato-era World Big League, as the native and foreign groups wrestled against each other in a preliminary round-robin. The 64 preliminary matches were spread across the first twelve dates of the tour, beginning on April 5 in Korakuen Hall and ending in the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium on the 18th. Wins by pinfall, submission, or countout were worth one point, while wins by disqualification and draws were worth half a point. 

Then, the tournament entered a unique second phase. The top four of each group worked another eight-man round-robin.

Seiji Sakaguchi = 7.5 points
Antonio Inoki = 7 points
Masa Saito = 5.5 points
Kantaro Hoshino = 4 points
—-
Killer Karl Krupp = 7 points
Invader = 6 points
Stan Stasiak = 5 points
Geto Mongol = 3.5 points

Yes, Sakaguchi led the bracket. Inoki had lost his preliminary match against Krupp, who Sakaguchi took to a draw. Outside of the final, the only surviving match from the World League is Inoki and Sakaguchi’s block match, held on April 26 in Hiroshima. They went to a time-limit draw. 

027.thumb.jpg.63710b69269fe2c0dac778ac3fb06c81.jpg

Monthly Pro devoted three pages to the three-way final in their June 1974 issue.

8,100 filled the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium to see the final show on May 8. Inoki, Sakaguchi, and Krupp were tied with 5.5 points, so a three-way would be held. Krupp, who had defeated Inoki in both brackets and had beaten Sakaguchi in the second one, was allowed to choose his opponent. He picked Sakaguchi. The heel went on the offensive quickly in what turned out to be a thirteen-minute brawl. After an apron suplex and atomic drop only got Sakaguchi a nearfall, he tried to clinch it with a cobra twist. Krupp pulled a weapon from his boot and stabbed Sakaguchi in the throat, leading referee Mr. Takahashi to disqualify him. Sakaguchi and Inoki faced off in the second match, delivering a more intense sequel to their previous encounter: “a standoff between a dragon and a tiger”, as Showa Puroresu calls it. In a callback to the Hiroshima match, Inoki went for a figure-four leglock, but Sakaguchi rolled them to the ropes. Krupp and the Invader then intervened. Dromo, who had been unmasked by Inoki during their league match, handled him while Krupp bloodied and brainclawed Sakaguchi. A doctor and two nurses rushed to Sakaguchi, who tried to get back in the ring but was stopped by Saito and Hoshino. Takahashi awarded Inoki the match by doctor stoppage, but Sakaguchi was put over in defeat. In the final match, Inoki finally pushed through the only opponent who had given him any trouble in the League. Krupp may have claimed that “all he needed was a claw” to win, but Inoki escaped from multiple Bronze Claws with strikes, including a thigh kick years before the Ali match made that an acknowledged part of his repertoire. Finally, Inoki dodged a claw attempt, stomped on Krupp’s hand for good measure, and whipped him into the ropes for a back body drop. A bow-and-arrow got the submission.

vlcsnap-2022-10-17-18h19m51s251.png.be956c791cf1606a5c1e4dbf157ece6e.pngThis show was notable for a special guest. Shortly before AJPW was set to hold the MSG Series with WWWF talent, Vincent J. McMahon was invited to the World League final. In a subsequent interview for Gong, McMahon stated that he had discussed bringing Inoki or Sakaguchi over for the fall or winter, in exchange for booking one of his wrestlers. (Neither man would debut for Vince so soon, but McMahon claims in this interview that he decided to bring Strong Kobayashi back with him on the night of the final.) While insisting that Baba was an old friend, McMahon stated that he was a businessman, and that he was interested in working with New Japan as well.

The MSG Series would be the only AJPW tour to use WWWF branding. Over those next few years, Vince would pivot further towards a relationship with New Japan and become the promotion’s greatest Stateside ally alongside Mike Lebell. 

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  • KinchStalker changed the title to Naoki Otsuka and the Early Years of NJPW

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  • Spoiler

    Interview with Naoki Otsuka (G Spirits Vol. 57) [September 2020]

     

OTSUKA AND THE EARLY YEARS OF NJPW, #6: SHOWS AND TRAVEL (INTERLUDE #2)

In the second part of the Strongest Salesman interview serial, Naoki Otsuka walks the reader through the salesman’s process of setting up and promoting an independent show in the month leading up to it. As covered in the first post of this thread, independent shows were set up by the company, as opposed to sales and joint shows which delegated these tasks to local promoters. This post will end with some details on tour travel in the early years.

My next post will cover summer 1974, which will see the returns of Tiger Jeet Singh and Johnny Powers, Inoki's last matches against Karl Gotch, a second unsuccessful attempt to join the NWA, and more. Afterwards, a third interlude will look at the young lions of NJPW's early years, and I plan to transcribe an interview with Kuniaki Kobayashi to shed light on that. Then, we can get to Kintaro Oki.

ANATOMY OF AN INDEPENDENT SHOW

At the office, the first order of business was to decide on the name of the tour and the foreigners that would work it. They decided which photographs would be used and handed them off to a designer, who would be told what size each wrestler would be and the order in which they would be placed. The designer then produced a template, and the date, venue, ticket price, and such were printed later. As covered in the first post of this thread (which will be superseded with more detailed chronological posts when we reach that point in the timeline), it was the general sales manager’s job to “cut the course” and reserve each venue by telephone. Whenever NJPW booked a venue for the first time, they drew a floor plan to determine seat placement. Otsuka had been doing this since his IWE days and would sometimes take measurements on site. It was up to the salesman’s discretion from there, but usually pricing was based on rows, with the more expensive seats starting at around the tenth. The next step was for the person in charge of tickets to have them printed, and then stamped by row, column, and number, although when a show was put together at the last minute a salesman would possibly have to do this themselves. New Japan eventually formed its own printing house, but before that all the tickets, posters, and pamphlets were made at Nippon Sogo Printing in Tokyo’s Ota Ward. 

After receiving a loan from the accountant for lodging and travel, the salesman loaded their car with the tickets and posters and headed out. They took money to book the venue with them, although many provincial venues were okay with receiving that payment on the day of the show. Once the salesman had arrived, they first booked the cheapest room in the best hotel. The ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn with thin walls and sliding doors, was a poor place to do clerical work. A hotel lent one credibility and had a lobby in which to hold business meetings. Then, they went to the venue and greeted its staff, confirming the date and time that the general sales manager had booked and giving them their card. Then came a trip to the local tax office to stamp the back of each ticket. This was the mark of the Admission Tax, which Japan imposed on entertainment and sporting events for fifty years until the modern consumption tax was adopted in 1989. This was followed by trips to the local police and fire departments (which came first depended on “who was in charge"), who would notify the public and provide security. Otsuka always printed “invitation tickets” to distribute to venue, police, and fire staff, but not actual tickets with prices, “which were unacceptable”. It could also be the salesman’s responsibility to order lunches and prepare waiting rooms for the security group, although city gymnasiums already had such facilities.

1979810887_njpw3-13-86poster.thumb.jpeg.22e22dd34c07c3157554df3c8b2ea2f3.jpegA poster for NJPW’s March 13, 1986 show at the Onojo City Gymnasium in Fukuoka. The bottom right corner features a list of local businesses that sold tickets.

With all these arrangements made, it was now time to sell. The salesman decorated their car with advertisements; they would drive around during morning and evening rush hours, and then through downtown at night. If they did not already have a network established, the salesman went to local businesses to see if they wanted to open a booth for advance ticket sales. Rural areas did not have box offices (or as the Japanese call them, playguides). Otsuka says that in a city with 100 to 200,000 people, they looked for at least twenty places to work with. If a business bought bulk tickets for this purpose, they got a 20% “club discount”, but the salesman received a 10% commission. The night that the advance sellers were set up, salesmen put up posters on busy streets, making sure that NJPW had advertisements on peoples’ commuter routes…whether or not they did so legally.

Another task salesmen did early on was visit sponsors in the area, if they knew any. Otherwise, they went to places like local Lions Clubs or merchants’ associations, or visited a local businessman known to be a wrestling fan. The salesman would bring sweets, naturally, but they also had novelty goods to distribute in these cases, such as lighters and handkerchiefs. Otsuka says that Inoki’s autograph, written on stationery with “fighting spirit” (闘魂) on it, was also appreciated. From there, they asked for support. Unless they were searching for advance sales offices, Otsuka stresses that they did not go door-to-door “without introductions”. The sponsors or other people they visited at the start gave them “horizontal connections” to other businesses. “We didn’t push them, we commissioned them.” As for “local people of influence” (I am sure that readers can unpack that euphemism themselves), Otsuka said that he didn’t go to them. If they came to him, he was told to give them a present and ten invitation tickets, but the company did not want him approaching these kinds of people in a local market where the power relations were not known, lest he sell the show to the wrong people. He says he met some “great groups in Hiroshima”, but when he told them he had come from Tokyo on his own, they left him alone. Even when promoted to deputy sales manager, Otsuka says he never got any trouble from that sphere. 

One to two days before the show, the salesman made their last preparations. First, they went to all the advance ticket sellers and collected the commission and unsold stock. Two places “got away from” Otsuka during his time as a salesman; one of them was an athletics store in Kagoshima that “closed down and disappeared” on the day he came to collect. The salesman had to hire local people to help prepare the venue (arranging chairs, putting seat numbers on them, etc.) and guide people to their seats. If it was a college town, you could apply to the student affairs office; otherwise, you used the connections you had made to find friends of friends, or you went to a local judo club. Depending on the size of the venue, you would hire 10-20 people for this task.

Their work began at 10 AM on the day of the show, and the salesman needed to buy them lunch and dinner. The salesman assigned a person to the ticket booth. If it was a big place, you could call a representative from Tokyo, but otherwise you would pick a local person you trusted. “If a sales representative did this job themselves, that meant that they had made no acquaintances…which meant that they had not done their job, right?” They also ordered the bouquets and scouted the bouquet girls. Many of the ones Otsuka worked with were daughters or friends of local people he knew well, although he notes that Osaka’s wing of their network, Asahi Broadcasting Corporation, did business with a model club. (He recalls that Tokyo’s network division, which was “very thrifty”, had asked New Japan to form their own model club.)  When the sponsors arrived, you had to keep them happy by holding meet-and-greets, and if they offered to buy drinks for some of the wrestlers, you decided who got invited. Otsuka says this was inconvenient since meals were already prepared at the inns, but they went along with it. It was made clear ahead of time that Inoki would not appear at these gatherings, and at times the salesman would have foreign wrestlers do this.

In a time before bank transfers, the money from the show was collected by hand in a briefcase. Each salesman had their own case with the proceeds from their shows. Otsuka did not do calculations after the sales were over, but he did get a total at the counter. However, the company considered the advance sales to be the true measure of NJPW’s popularity in the market. The salesman remained in the town through the next day, when they went to the tax office to pay the admission tax and thanked people for their cooperation. Once he returned to Tokyo, Otsuka had to write a statement of account. This recorded advance and same-day ticket sales—some money had not been collected yet, and Otsuka says that box offices in Osaka, among other places, would send the money later by check—as well as his own “entertainment” and transportation expenses. At the time, a salesman was allowed up to three percent in personal entertainment expenses, and if they went over, they had to pay the margin themselves.

Otsuka took sales work very seriously. After a Nagaoka show on April 10, 1974, he vowed that he would only allow himself to sleep on the futon in his inn room if he sold ten special ringside tickets per day and would put up posters all night to remind himself of the day’s failure. Otsuka could offer a 10% discount to those who bought a ticket directly from him, and the company rule was that salesmen could take up to 20% off total (hence the club discount for advance ticketsellers). In the example he gives, this meant that if Otsuka managed to sell ¥30,000 worth of tickets without discounting, he could pocket ¥6,000 of that. He states that he was given a ¥3,000 allowance per day for travel, and that if he sold a lot of tickets “by hand” and provided a receipt, he was entitled to an extra margin. The high standards that Otsuka set for himself and his skill at the job made him able to live solely off of the commissions. Even in a place where NJPW struggled to draw, he could spend a month there and sell 300 tickets, which in a provincial venue wasn’t an insignificant amount. 

TRAVEL

The interview also offers insights into the mechanics of touring. Otsuka says that NJPW was slow to acquire buses because they were expensive, and that he thinks they didn’t get them until after Inoki vs. Ali, though he recalls that “micro buses” for the foreigners came early. Anyway, in the early years most travel was done by train. It was the ring announcer’s job to arrange the tickets. The company rule was that the gaikokujin would go first, with the natives following an hour later. All foreigners got green car (first class) seats, while that privilege was only given to the top Japanese wrestlers. Otsuka says that he was helped by a man who worked at east Tokyo’s Ueno Station, which until the bullet train’s line was extended was the traditional hub for long-distance rides to the north.

Interviewer Kagehiro Osano brings up an article from August 1973. The Obon festival, a three-day family holiday in which people return to their ancestral homes, had made it difficult for Otsuka to get the necessary tickets for New Japan’s three shows from August 12-14. Otsuka recalls that it hadn’t been a problem in 1972, since they only traveled to Kyoto and Osaka when the festival took place that year. But come 1973, they were “in a pushy mood” with network support. First they had an August 12 show in Shiojiri. Then, they traveled to Sato Island on the 13th. Finally, they returned to the mainland with a Nakano show the next day. Starting the next year, though, NJPW’s schedule avoided Obon entirely.

84057697_shojiito.jpg.35af423da866902683dc5936283ee73d.jpgMasaharu Ito in the roster listing from the first issue of Monthly Pro Wrestling (August 1972).

The advance rider’s job was to travel ahead of everyone else and stay in lodgings to assess their ability to accommodate the groups. Natives and foreigners were booked in separate establishments, so the rider(s) would book and assign the rooms in both places while also sampling the meals that would be served. This task was particularly vital in an era before chain hotels had proliferated across provincial areas. They also had to book taxis for all the wrestlers to and from the train station, inn, and venue. Otsuka and Kotetsu Yamamoto both worked as riders in the company’s early years, but eventually, Naoki tracked down Masaharu Ito for the job. Ito was one of NJPW’s earliest trainees but ultimately had never wrestled outside of battle royals. An injury had left him unable to extend his arm. Otsuka and Ito continued to work with each other into the Japan Pro Wrestling period. Another rider was Sugawa no Sadayan, who had worked with the JWA dating back to Rikidozan’s time and joined NJPW with Sakaguchi’s group.

 

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OTSUKA AND THE EARLY YEARS OF NJPW, #7: SUMMER '74

 

RETURN OF THE TIGER

The Tokyo police’s response to the Itabashi incident had backed NJPW into a corner, and they “banned” Singh after the November 30, 1973 lumberjack match. Now, though, the heat had died down. In kayfabe, Singh approached the NWF through manager Fred Atkins to get a ticket, and they nominated him as a challenger over Inoki’s protests. While a contemporaneous Monthly Pro article quotes Singh’s assertion that he was the one who approached the NWF to bring him back to Japan, and not the other way around, this was framed as the promotion’s attempt to seize back the NWF Heavyweight title. The conspiratorial bent of the kayfabe surrounding his return anticipated future angles; I am particularly thinking of one from early 1976, where Johnny Powers took over the NWF in a corporate coup and tried to force Inoki to relinquish the title after he dropped its world heavyweight designation. Before he arrived, the most notable match of the tour was in Sapporo’s Nakajima Sports Center. New NWA North American tag champions Karl von Schotz & Kurt von Hess defended the titles against the Golden Duo, coming out on top in forty minutes after Inoki was disqualified in the final fall. Singh joined the Golden Fight Series tour at the 60% mark, working the last 11 of its 27 dates beginning June 14. Inoki accepted Singh’s challenge, which took the form of two title defenses. The first was in Tokyo on June 20 and the second was in Osaka on June 26.

a89c95b03c6412552e7108e7c1fb3754.thumb.jpg.a83d2e1dc28e37925b43473f80d0d0c7.jpgThe specific markings on Inoki's face in this photo peg it as having been taken after his June 20 match against Singh.

The first match was held at the Kuramae Kokugikan. It is not currently available on NJPW World, but it is in circulation. After losing the first fall to the octopus stretch in 21 minutes, Singh decided to cut his losses and sacrifice his first shot to do more damage. The act itself is clipped from the copy we have, but according to written recaps Kurt von Hess, who entered the ring to pour beer on Singh as he sat in the corner, surreptitiously handed him an object. When Inoki went to kick him, and was held back by referee Mr. Takahashi, Singh blinded Inoki with a fireball and rolled out of the ring as Takahashi called for the bell. Just over a minute later, he ran back in with his saber, beating Inoki with its hilt as green seat cushions flew into the ring. Sidelined for the next two shows, Inoki vowed revenge.

Naoki Otsuka lived in Osaka for over two years until his promotion to sales manager after the Ali fight. As the one in charge of the June 26 show at the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium, Otsuka earns some credit for its excellent turnout, announced at the time as 8,900 people. He also designed the poster, for which he chose to only show Inoki and Singh’s faces against a black, bloodied background. He recalls that Sakaguchi, who arrived at the show early, was disgruntled about it, and Otsuka later thought that it was a rude choice. But the match delivered, culminating in Inoki’s ruthless, vengeful assault on Singh’s arm. The next main event held in Osaka would also be something special, but the western city was soon to be often saddled with tag title defenses. (Otsuka: "[...] I wasn't in a position to say anything about the card yet. But the customers were leaving.")

POWERS, GOTCH, AND THE NWA (AGAIN)

67369021_2339896816274739_2990116971179147264_n.thumb.jpg.4188e8e73fbf14ce740849b781fb8f61.jpg

Inoki and Johnny Powers have their anticipated rematch. [Source: Monthly Gong, September 1974]

Spanning 24 shows from July 5 through August 8 (and, as mentioned in the previous post, completely avoiding the Obon Festival), the Summer Fight Series held a handful of significant matches. Johnny Powers made his first appearances since the title switch, joining on July 11 and getting an NWF title rematch on the 30th. Their match at Nagoya’s Fukiage Hall, drawing an announced 9,500, is the only one of Inoki and Powers’ four title matches that does not circulate today. 

That same day, Karl Gotch and Lou Thesz arrived at Haneda Airport. Inoki and Gotch would work a pair of onefall matches with Thesz as guest referee; since Inoki had already defended his title, Yasuo Sakurai had the idea to pitch these matches as a sequel to the World’s Strongest Tag Team match the previous October. The first of these matches on August 1 was NJPW’s return to Osaka. A match recap describes it as “clean, with no penalties”, but Inoki was shrewd and targeted Gotch’s left knee. He almost lost the match when a dropkick was dodged and Gotch capitalized with a German suplex, but Inoki’s foot got onto the rope. Gotch protested to Thesz, and Inoki took advantage, performing an O’Connor roll. The pinfall was Inoki’s first clean singles win over Gotch. After this first match, Inoki took a flight to the States.

1086152126_franktunneymemorial.thumb.jpg.fd67c8359727b5c14f58ce48f7dcb46f.jpgTiger Mask, Hulk Hogan, Inoki, Shinma, and Sakaguchi pay respects to Frank Tunney after his death in 1983. The Toronto promoter supported NJPW's second attempt at NWA membership.

On August 4 and 5, the NWA held its general assembly, again in Las Vegas but this time at the Dunes. NJPW submitted its application for the second time. According to a 2022 Igapro article, sourced from a 2016 issue of BBM magazine Nippon Puroresu Jikenshi, rumors of NWA president Sam Muchnick’s retirement and the possibility of Eddie Graham taking his seat had led to hopes that the company would be approved. While Graham had recently worked a tour for AJPW, and his booker Hiro Matsuda would work with Baba through the spring of 1977, Graham’s close relationship with Vince McMahon led some to believe that he would advocate for NJPW. But Graham missed the meeting due to illness, and Muchnick remained president. The application was rejected 17 to 8. According to Showa Puroresu (which reported a slightly different result of 17 to 9 with 3 abstaining), one vote in favor came from Ed Farhat, who was thought to be a Baba supporter but had recently expanded his Detroit territory into former NWF markets after purchasing shares from Pedro Martinez. Former JWA president Junzo Yoshinosato, who was allowed to remain on the NWA board as a condition of the JWA’s agreement with AJPW, also voted against New Japan, but his allegiances would shift very soon.

8-8-74.thumb.jpg.b7a7e8265b41831b29c78db5c6d12b67.jpgThe tour ended in Tokyo on August 8, where Inoki wrestled Gotch for the final time.

Inoki returned in time for NJPW’s August 5 show, and the tour ended at the Nihon University Auditorium. This show saw the debut of Mitsuo Yoshida, a singles match against El Greco. He won in 5:24 with the sasorigatame, a move that he would long be incorrectly credited with inventing in the West. (To be clear, Masa Saito didn’t invent it either. It was a move that Gotch passed down, and there even exists a photograph of JWA-era Gotch trainee Samson Kutsuwada using the move in late 1972.) Contrary to the results on Cagematch, Gotch got his heat back in the main event. This time, Thesz refereed Inoki strictly, to the ace’s protests. The finish saw Inoki lose his temper and attempt to bodyslam Thesz, when Gotch hoisted himself up in the corner to kick Thesz’s back. Inoki came crashing down to the mat, and as Thesz got off, Gotch rolled Inoki up for the pinfall. Outside of a pair of exhibition matches against Yoshiaki Fujiwara and Osamu Kido in 1982, this was Gotch’s last match in New Japan. He returned to Florida with Yoshida in tow. Eight days later, Inoki & Sakaguchi came to Los Angeles to challenge Schotz & Hess again and won the tag titles. 

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The view from the top will never tell you the whole story of New Japan Pro-Wrestling. This special three-part interlude is by far the longest piece I have yet written for the thread, but I brought it on myself for putting it off so long. Part one will be a biography of NJPW’s head coach, Kotetsu Yamamoto, up through 1974. Part two will look at nineteen wrestlers and would-be’s from the company’s first three years. Finally, part three will cover various topics pertaining to these men, from Yamamoto’s training philosophy and methods to various incidents and anecdotes. At the time I am posting this, I am about 80% done with part two.

NAOKI OTSUKA AND THE EARLY YEARS OF NJPW, #8: THE PRIDE - 1972-1974 (INTERLUDE #3)

PART ONE: DEMON COACH (INTERLUDE #3.1)

 0d76d5eb49a717a8d28d9bc85de818a6.thumb.jpg.9ebd5bae2a30b07dfc22ad8417d22e93.jpg

Rikidozan’s last disciple. One of the best tag specialists of puroresu’s second generation. The first man to fulfill the potential of the wrestler turned color commentator. The greatest wrestling trainer of his generation. Kotetsu Yamamoto was all of these things, and he defined NJPW as much as anyone.

An uncited passage on Kotetsu Yamamoto’s Japanese Wikipedia page recounts an appearance on Tensai Takeshi No Genki Ga Deru TV!!, the variety show hosted by “Beat” Takeshi Kitano. He and other television personalities were gathered in an empty classroom and hypnotized to “revert to their kindergarten days”. The others cried, fought, and played with blocks, but Yamamoto showed no response. When asked about it by Masanobu Katsumura, he explained that he had never attended kindergarten.

Masaru was the sixth of either ten or eleven (the latter is claimed in Dave Meltzer’s obituary) born to a poor family in Yokohama. His father Tozaburo bounced from various jobs and died of an unspecified illness when Masaru was fifteen. He himself had worked since the fourth grade, first as a paperboy and then doubling as a cook for a neighbor “for twenty yen a day”. He took to athletics well. Masaru began bodybuilding in his first year of junior high, while also being “a good runner” on the track team, and even becoming captain of the basketball team. Although some places online claim that Yamamoto graduated from high school, both a 1979 Monthly Pro article and Meltzer’s obituary write that he dropped out after Tozaburo’s death. Yamamoto found work at a Tokai Metal foundry. According to the 1979 article, he also worked at a candy wrapping paper manufacturer. Meanwhile, he kept bodybuilding at a YMCA gym, training alongside old friend Terou Takahashi with the mutual aim of becoming wrestlers.

Yamamoto first tried to enter the JWA when he was 20, but he was turned away by Rikidozan for being too small. He added mass and trained more over the following year, and then made a second attempt. As the story is told in a 2015 issue of Nippon Puroresu Jikenshi (as cited by Japanese Wikipedia), Rikidozan’s first instinct was to rebuke him again, saying that “he was no good no matter how many times he came to him”. But when Masaru stood firm and looked into his eyes with his fists clenched, Rikidozan relented. He would be his final disciple. On July 19, 1963, Yamamoto wrestled his debut match against future NJPW coworker Motoyuki Kitazawa. Just one month later, he was given his ring name. Like others christened by Toyonobori, Kotetsu (“little iron”) was a reference to a historical character.

1793634115_aizukotetsubook.thumb.jpg.40d7c49507f4e04054a1894417a62c7a.jpgA contemporary two-volume biography of Aizu-no-Kotetsu, the namesake of Kotetsu Yamamoto and stock character of Bakumatsu and early Meiji-period historical dramas.

Born in 1833, Senkichi (childhood name Tetsugoro) Uesaka was the bastard son of a samurai and an Osaka merchant’s daughter. He and his mother wandered Osaka until she married a snowshoe mender, and Senkichi ran away to the east when he was eleven. Learning swordsmanship as a teenager, Senkichi was convicted but acquitted of murder in 1849, after which he tried to go straight and returned home. But two years after that, he left again for Kyoto and joined the Aizu-Matsudaira clan. In 1862, Uesaka was named Aizu-no-Kotetsu for his short stature by daimyo Katataka Matsudaira. It is said that the violent knight-errant eventually bore some seventy scars across his body from sword fights, and that his left hand lost all but its thumb and index finger. He formed his own clan in 1868; later morphing into a yakuza syndicate, the Aizukotetsu-kai still exists today. Uesaka died in 1885, two years after serving a ten-month prison sentence for gambling.

Kotetsu Yamamoto’s serious, stubborn nature was noted even by his seniors at the time: “he was a man who would go all the way through everything”. In the 1979 article, he claimed that he had never been bullied; the anonymous writer suggests that he was spared the rod due to a shift in company culture after Rikidozan’s death, but Yamamoto instead asserts he had had no reason to be, for he had practiced hard and eaten as much as possible “while other young men were sleeping or out playing”. Originally part of Rikidozan’s entourage, Yamamoto was reassigned as Inoki’s first valet and dedicated himself to his tasks. Yamamoto noted that, unlike his own valet—likely Akira Maeda—he had had to wash and dry Inoki’s clothes by hand no matter the season. Yamamoto’s early effort did not go unrecognized. In a 2021 article, Soichi Shibata reported that Kotetsu was the most frequent winner of the “Tospo Award”, a commendation by Tokyo Sports for the most impressive performance on each show by an undercard wrestler; this perhaps influenced how he would later encourage young lions. In October 1964, he was the opponent of a debuting Akihisa Takachiho, the future Great Kabuki. In 1966, Kotetsu worked his first televised match, a loss to Karl Gotch on July 22 in the Riki Sports Palace. That year, his win record was the second-best among the younger wrestlers.

777695905_yamahabros.thumb.jpg.f28e1521128280dbb5456beb8827fa5d.jpgThe Yamaha Brothers.

JWA president Junzo Yoshinosato already wanted to push Yamamoto alongside the other top young wrestler, Kantaro Hoshino. So at the start of 1967, they were sent off for an overseas expedition. While Hoshino remained in California to work for the WWA when they set foot in the States, Yamamoto traveled to Dallas to wrestle solo for NWA Big Time Wrestling. He even stayed in Fritz von Erich’s home. Around late June, Yamamoto moved to Memphis, where Hoshino had worked since March. This was the birth of the Yamaha Brothers, named for the small but powerful motorcycles. Often working with Tojo Yamamoto, who was credited with discovering them, Yamamoto and Hoshino were respectively billed as Oki and Great Yamaha. The two did great business—some of the best that Japanese wrestlers on excursion had ever done, in fact—and drew massive heat. An anecdote in which an old fan attempted to stab Hoshino in the brain is legendary. Both returned home for the Diamond Series tour that autumn. They would team up intermittently in the years to follow, keeping the Yamaha Brothers name without the associated ring names. The team did gain exposure on the original JWA run of World Pro Wrestling and entered the second NWA Tag Team League together in 1971. But at least in the JWA era, neither man had their most notable matches with each other. Kotetsu’s best remembered early match is his upset win over Gorilla Monsoon in the 1969 World Big League, while Kantaro’s most cited matches are the 1st NWA Tag Team League final and Mil Mascaras’ Japan debut three months later.

Yamamoto remained loyal to Inoki through the winter of 1971, being the only dissenting voice in the vote to fire him after the failed coup. He stood by Inoki’s side “like a bouncer” as he prepared for what would be his final JWA match. He wasn’t dismissed outright, instead being ordered by Yoshinosato to “stay home”, but Yamamoto turned in his notice on December 15. He eventually took the JWA to court over severance pay and got a two-million-yen settlement for it. 

1054932331_logo72.JPG.3e826d9fa17b265b3604b898c6b44f65.JPGPuroresu’s most iconic logo was drawn by Yamamoto in early 1972. 

When the NJPW dojo was built in the garden of Inoki and Mitsuko Baisho’s house on the Tama River, it was Kotetsu who put up the money for the ring. It was during this time that he and Inoki’s young valet, Tatsumi Fujinami, conceived of their new company’s logo. As Fujinami recalled in 2021, they drew its circle by tracing the rim of a rice bowl. They agreed that they wanted a symbol of strength to contrast the JWA’s crown logo, and decided on a lion, although Fujinami’s attempt wasn’t very good, and even Yamamoto was unsure if he had drawn a tiger or a lion. Since the lion was “the king of beasts”, Kotetsu added another touch: KING OF SPORTS.

In his 1984 book Ah, chotto mattekudasai (“Ah, please wait a minute”), Yamamoto claimed that neither he nor Inoki earned a cent in the first era of the company’s existence. He tells an anecdote about how he saved money on food by packing a Nori bento for lunch every day. One day, though, he noticed that his lunch was missing a layer of nori (roasted seaweed). When he came home and told his wife that just one layer wasn’t enough, she burst into tears. They couldn’t afford nori anymore.

takahashi.jpg.c559886a7c32ff2c65ae0b2ab2591d04.jpgMr. Takahashi (center) with Andre the Giant and Hulk Hogan.

Yamamoto’s childhood friend and old workout buddy, Terou Takahashi, had given up on entering the JWA after a shoulder injury. In 1963, though, he joined a new organization formed by Hisaharu Kaji, who had wrestled for Toshio Yamaguchi’s All Japan Pro Wrestling Association before a very unusual transfer to sumo in 1956. Takahashi wrestled for him in Korea and Southeast Asia before returning to Japan. In spring 1972, a photo feature in Gong showcased a new martial art that he had created and promoted for bodybuilders, Builder Fight. Gong reported around that time that Takahashi and a couple disciples would work on NJPW shows to make up for the slim roster, but this never materialized.

In December 1972, Yamamoto got him hired as a referee. Takahashi would work for NJPW for a quarter-century as Mr. Takahashi, but his legacy is incredibly controversial due to writing a series of business-exposing books in the 21st century, most infamously 2001’s Ryūketsu no majutsu (Bloody Magic). They would cost him his friendship with Kotetsu. In a 2018 book, Takahashi claimed that the “demon sergeant” and “stubborn father” had exaggerated such character traits for a kayfabe persona. You may want to keep this in mind in the third part of the interlude.

After completing a two-year excursion, Kantaro Hoshino joined New Japan in the first tour of 1974. The Yamaha Brothers reunited soon afterward against the McGuire Twins.

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Here, finally, is the meat of the post. I will take a look at what I consider the first phase of young lions. I know of 19 from this period. Some made their debut in NJPW, while others hadn’t. A few had short careers before leaving the company or taking backstage jobs. A couple never wrestled at all. But all are worth noting. The third part of this interlude, which I have just started to write, will cover the life of a young lion and various stories surrounding these first ones.

THE FIRST PRIDE (INTERLUDE #3.2)

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Many of the young lions introduced here stand outside the NJPW dojo, likely circa 1974. Squatting, left to right: Daigoro Oshiro, Tatsumi Fujinami, Seiei Kimura. Standing, left to right: Masanobu Kurisu, Mr. Takahashi, Kuniaki Kobayashi, Makoto Arakawa, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Kosuke Hashimoto (?), Masashi Ozawa, Motoyuki Kitazawa, and Hiroaki Hamada.

pre-NJPW

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Unless one counts Donald Takeshi—a unique case that will be addressed at the end of this post—Osamu Kido was the most experienced of the first young lions. He was the fourth son of Yoichiro, a Kawasaki engineer, and he wasn’t the first of them to enter puroresu. Yoichiro and third son Tokio had met Rikidozan through a mutual friend in 1962. Standing at 5’9”, weighing 181 pounds, and holding a black belt in judo, the 15-year-old earned Rikidozan’s interest, and entered the JWA dojo with his mother’s hesitant blessing. Just the next year, the day after setsubun, Tokio’s seventh cervical vertebrae was shattered after a bad bump training with Shinya Koshika. He continued to read about and study wrestling in the coming months, but he would never walk again. By the time his little brother was set to begin junior high, he was coming to terms with that. Osamu had followed Tokio (and second brother Yoshio) into judo and already had his own black belt. As Tokio split his time between home, hospital, and sanitorium, Osamu completed junior high. After a year of high school, he found that study didn’t suit him and dropped out to begin work for his father. Unbeknownst to his parents, though, he sought to fulfill his brother’s dream. 

One day in November 1968, Osamu visited the JWA’s Aoyama office. He met Kokichi Endo and Yoshio Kyushuzan and told them he wanted to join, but when they learned who his brother was, they would not allow him to do so without his parents’ blessing. Yoichiro and Mume were taken aback, and Osamu had prepared for his mother to withhold her approval, but a family meeting saw her relent in light of Osamu’s determination and Tokio’s enthusiasm. Kido debuted in February 1969. Osamu was assigned to referee Yusef Turk as a valet, but he continued to live with his parents when not on tour. He had joined during Karl Gotch’s year as coach, and became his most beloved pupil. Many years later, in the heyday of the second UWF, Gotch told a Weekly Gong reporter that only he, and not the “kick boys” Akira Maeda and Nobuhiko Takada, had been faithful to his style.

Kido had a lot going against him, perhaps most of all his temperament. While Tokio had been showy, smiling, and cheerful, Osamu was quiet and reserved. Even their father admitted that the elder of the two had been better suited for pro wrestling. Kido’s stone face was also a problem. Future NJPW trainee Allen Coage recalled in a shoot interview that he asked Inoki why Kido was not being pushed like Fujinami, and credited Inoki’s answer—Osamu had no charisma, and his face always looked the same—with motivating him to work on his own facials. But even if he would never be an ace, Kido’s time would come.

fujinamijumprope.thumb.jpg.0fc53cb3db12e5fd492404604c969563.jpgAs Kido was getting his start in the business, the other original young lion was across the country. Tatsumi Fujinami was born in Oita, a city on the northeast coast of Kyushu. The son of a charcoal burner had first watched wrestling “over the shoulders of adults, with trepidation”. It was an era when only those with big bodies or special skills and achievements entered the ring, and he remembers holding a “tremendous fear” for martial arts. But gradually, aspirations grew. After junior high, Tatsumi went through trade school into a job at Nakamura Motors in nearby Beppu [source]. He attended the JWA’s infrequent shows in Oita but was too shy to talk to any of the wrestlers. When he brought home a show program which included the JWA’s office address, his older brother mailed multiple applications on his behalf but never received a response. Finally, he heard that Kitazawa, who hailed from the nearby town of Aki, was staying in Beppu for its hot springs. When they met, Kitazawa told him to come to the JWA’s next show in Shimonoseki. That show was on June 16, 1970, and he did as he was told before following the company on the tour leg back to Tokyo. After an interview with JWA executives, he was hired and assigned as Inoki’s valet.

Perhaps owing to a total lack of martial arts experience—he had done track and field in school, then bodybuilding—it took eleven months for Fujinami to get his first match. He is quoted here saying that he wasn’t allowed to practice in the ring during tours, so he worked on his bumps in the halls of the inns where they stayed and did squats in the corners of the venues they booked. Finally, he debuted against Kitazawa in May 1971. Seven months later, Fujinami and Kido sneaked out in the night to Inoki’s Daikanyama apartment, soon to become NJPW’s first office.

1972

 

Ez8ykSVVIAAMCZV.jpg.245e43d866eca1c4263d34a51813ee7a.jpgNJPW’s first true trainee was Mikio Sato. According to his peers, he showed great physical aptitude, but he had one major barrier: he was deaf. Yamamoto was apparently not thrilled about training him, but according to a Twitter thread, it was Inoki who gave Sato a chance. Mikio was ultimately needled into giving up after a knee injury. Four decades later, he worked as a guest referee for an indie promotion featuring deaf wrestlers. This inspired him to form one of his own. Deaf Japan Pro-Wrestling HERO held its first show in 2010, and he debuted on it under the ring name Yamiki. For six years, he wrestled alongside fellow deaf wrestlers Yuryu and Momotaro, using a spinning toe hold and headbutt as his signature maneuvers. After a neck injury in 2016, he was found to be suffering from an undisclosed illness. He died that April. Rebranded HERO Pro-Wrestling, the promotion now run by his son strives to promote “barrier-free pro wrestling” and offers accommodations for the hearing and visually impaired. These include a signer, subtitled venue monitor, free radio receivers tuned to the commentary booth, and even opportunities to touch the ring and wrestlers before matches.

As mentioned in Interlude #2, another early trainee was Masaharu Ito. [Note: I previously transcribed his name as Shoji Ito, due to DeepL’s mistake.] He worked in early battle royals but retired after an injury. Ito became one of NJPW’s advance riders and worked with Naoki Otsuka into the Japan Pro Wrestling era. According to Showa Puroresu, he later worked as a promoter.

book4-Z.jpg.2f6b63eda4de3f8ab6cb23f3426a4ee6.jpgTetsuo Sekigawa during his brief NJPW stint.

Hiroaki Hamada and Tetsuo Sekigawa had been classmates in junior high, and both were skilled judoka. Hamada had struggled with liver problems and bounced from making musical instruments to driving funeral directors, while Sekigawa had gone to Chuo University (the same year as Jumbo Tsuruta) but dropped out after his father’s death and briefly entered sumo. The pair had tried to apply for the JWA in 1971. Great Kojika was running the dojo then, and he showed some interest in “the big guy” but turned away Hamada. The two came to New Japan and joined without any tests. Hamada was originally scheduled to work on the company’s first show, but Toyonobori’s participation led Kitazawa to be slotted back on the card for the match that he would have worked. Sekigawa did not debut until two weeks later, but he received the honor of seconding Karl Gotch, who called the 300-pound recruit “Skinny Boy”. The future Mr. Pogo did not get on well with Yamamoto. It was long thought that Sekigawa had run away, but he denied this in his autobiography. According to him, he had indeed left the dojo after the tour’s end, but it was for a personal reason. His father had been a politician in his hometown, and he was coming home to see a statue of him unveiled. By the time he got home, his mother was in tears. Kotetsu had just fired her son over the phone. As for Hamada, he couldn’t leave; they had taken his car! Soon christened Little Hamada, Hiroaki would wrestle for NJPW until 1975, when he was sent to Mexico after a backstage argument with Yamamoto nearly cost him his job (more on that in part three). There, as Gran Hamada, he became a legend.

552327284_kurisu72.jpg.618dbaec2f92ae1bafdef8a6591b2d0d.jpgThe son of a forestry worker, Masanobu Kurisu had played baseball in junior high before shifting to judo in high school and bodybuilding in college. After graduating from Kokushikan University, he spent six months working in construction before moving to Los Angeles. There, he juggled a restaurant job with training to wrestle. Kurisu originally had no intention of wrestling for a Japanese organization, as he didn’t want to deal with that culture, but that changed when Inoki stopped in Los Angeles. This was in February, when he traveled across America in search of allies. The two met at a restaurant which was a popular hangout for Japanese wrestlers. Kurisu returned to Japan and joined the company in April, but would not debut until September.

NJPW was stuck to holding five-match events for its first tours, with a Fujinami-Hamada match opening most shows. Three new trainees joined the company around the time of its office move and restructuring in July, but only one would last into the following year. Shinichi Kihara debuted on the New Summer Series tour, whose pamphlet claimed that he had gotten into many fights in junior high and once knocked another kid out. He had a background in amateur wrestling and had done bodybuilding before joining the company. Kazuo Sato was a graduate of Kansai University and had wrestled on their team but didn’t debut until September. The two were three years apart in age and had come from different places, but according to Kuniaki Kobayashi, the two were good friends by the time he had met them. Both quit after the year-end New Diamond Series, and Kobayashi’s impression was that it was a case where one left because the other left. According to Showa Puroresu, Sato entered law enforcement, while Kihara later became the owner of a pachinko parlor.

The only July trainee who stuck with the business was Makoto Arakawa. Makoto had practiced judo since junior high but had flirted with amateur wrestling in high school. The story goes that he got disqualified in a tournament match against future politician Kenshiro Matsunami for throwing a dropkick. (I have to share this reenactment.) Early on, he adopted the ring name Shin Arakawa. While his in-ring performances left much to be desired in this period (more on that in #3.3), the thick build he developed through bench-pressing and copious eating leaned into a natural resemblance to Rikidozan which would serve him well. Don Arakawa became a pioneer of modern comedic puroresu in the early eighties, but we have a long, long way to go before it is time to tell that story.

Kuniaki Kobayashi had watched wrestling since childhood, and as he suspects most in his generation were, he was a big Inoki fan. He had experience in karate, and two fan profiles state that he also did shot put in junior high. Dropping out of high school after a few months, Kuniaki learned about New Japan when browsing magazines at a bookstore. The 16-year-old stood at 181cm, six over the minimum, but he was 15kg below the requirements. He traveled from his hometown of Komoro to NJPW’s Tokyo headquarters, but everyone was out on tour. Kobayashi returned to his parents’ house, but returned one week later, and Kotetsu had heard about him. He began dojo life, and would debut in early 1973, but Kobayashi struggled to gain weight as a rookie and was rarely booked at first. Still, Yamamoto’s willingness to give him a chance set a precedent for later hires, most notably Keiichi Yamada.

One week after him, the last trainee of 1972 arrived. 

A farmer’s son from Kitanami (300 miles north of Tokyo), Yoshiaki Fujiwara had moved to Yokohama after high school. Bouncing from office work to culinary jobs, he would spend half a year preparing for wrestling at Takao Kaneko’s Sky Bodybuilding Gym. He befriended Tsutomu Yonemura in the process, who joined the IWE at Kaneko’s recommendation in June 1972. Fujiwara entered the NJPW dojo on November 2 and debuted just ten days later.

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The roster in a Hakone photoshoot, circa autumn 1972. Fujiwara wears black as a trainee.

APRIL 1973

Alongside referee Yonetaro Tanaka and various office people, three young wrestlers followed Seiji Sakaguchi to join NJPW at the start of the 1973 fiscal year.

726837892_ozawayoshimura.jpg.5572ec5d08d37e32942f67309b20af3c.jpgThe most seasoned was Masashi Ozawa. A basketball player in junior high, the Niigata native joined the Kasugano stable and debuted in 1963. He was so thin when he started that it hurt to wear a mawashi, but he coped by inserting folded paper between the cloth and his hip. Ozawa competed for seven years, receiving the shikona Etsunishiki in 1967. The March 1970 tournament would be his last. An orthopedic appointment led to a chance encounter with Motoyuki Kitazawa, who scouted him for the JWA. Ozawa asked his stablemaster Tochinishiki to be allowed to retire, but was denied, so he ran away. After recovering, Ozawa called Kitazawa to bring him from Daikanyama station to the JWA office. The executives asked him to take off his shirt, and when he did, they told him to go get a medical certificate, because “he was going to get bigger”. Masashi joined the JWA in January 1971. Assigned as valet to Michiaki Yoshimura, Ozawa debuted in a match with Osamu Kido that June.

A decade later, Killer Khan returned home from his star-making overseas run when he heard that Tochinishiki, still the master of Kasugano but now also head of the Japan Sumo Association, had become a widower just days before. As he used the entrance for lower-ranked wrestlers, Tochinisiki’s first words to him in a decade were, “Ozawa, you use the front door from now on.” As Khan lit incense, the 44th yokozuna asked his former pupil how much he weighed: 140kg. Tochinisiki noted that he’d have done better in sumo if he’d gained that kind of mass at the time, “but now your name is Killer Khan. Keep up the good work and don’t get hurt.” Ozawa was moved to tears.

kimura.jpg.4642452701e7910b5acf4b6795f49d5e.jpgKimura (left) on October 31, 1972.

Seiei Kimura “was always getting into trouble with his parents and everything around him”. A delinquent who spent several stints in a reformatory, Kimura’s best hope was baseball, as he dreamt of competing in Japan’s annual Koshien high school tournament. Unfortunately, he failed the entrance exam for a strong baseball school. At 15, Kimura ran from home with nothing but clothes and coins. He joined the Miyagino sumo stable in the summer of 1969. Kimurayama only lasted a year, as he states that he developed spondylosis. As he tells it, though, the stable wouldn’t let him leave, so he’d had to sneak out by “wrapping himself up in his beard”. After that, he bounced from part-time jobs such as soba noodle delivery until January 1972, when he joined the JWA. Kimura, Mitsuo Hata, and Masao Ito all joined at the same time; as an open call for new recruits a couple months later turned up empty, these three were the last wrestlers the company produced. Assigned as a valet to Sakaguchi, Kimura was the earliest to debut. He first appeared in a March 12 battle royal. Five months later, he wrestled Akio Sato in a house show on Kikaijima island on August 2. He took the ring name Takashi Kimura soon after and would wrestle under it for almost five years, until a switch to Kengo Kimura in spring 1977.

122.jpg.d202c6f33233024e28d03fad37a98966.jpgFinally, there was Isao Oshiro. Born in Kume, a small Okinawa island, Isao had moved to Tokyo after graduating from junior high and found work driving a truck. It is known that he participated in one of the IWE’s open tryouts before joining the JWA in 1971, where he was assigned to Sakaguchi’s entourage. After a first appearance in the same March battle royal as Kimura, he debuted in July 1972. While Japanese fan profiles state that he would be a popular undercard wrestler, it says something that the most notable incident of his career was probably his last JWA match, in which opponent Kazuo Sakurada was ordered by Great Kojika to shoot on him in revenge for jumping ship. His new ring name, Daigoro Oshiro, arose from a perceived resemblance to Daigorō Ogami, the child co-protagonist of then-running (and now-classic) manga Lone Wolf and Cub.

 

DECEMBER 1973

hashimoto.jpg.15cad05b6d7d91f9104cb7a88b426ec7.jpgYutaku Hashimoto joined at the end of the year. Standing right at the cutoff point of 165cm, the 21-year-old from Otsu had experience in amateur wrestling and gymnastics and entered after “an enthusiastic sales pitch”. Just eleven months after his debut in September 1974, Kosuke Hashimoto followed Hamada to Mexico, where he wrestled as Hashi Masataka. In a 2017 G Spirits interview [excerpt here], Hamada said he didn’t know why Hashimoto tagged along, and speculated that promoter Francisco Flores had wanted a tag team. As Hashimoto’s promotional photo had shown him wearing a title belt, Flores created the fictitious AI Championship for him to defend. In early 1976, Hashimoto worked a program with Villano III for the UWA Welterweight title. Upon his return to Japan, he only worked one match that June against Kuniaki Kobayashi. Hashimoto transferred to the sales department soon afterward. By Naoki Otsuka’s recollection, he assisted general manager Akio Nakane and worked in Tohoku, the northeast region of Honshu, but only lasted about six months. 

Hashimoto was far overshadowed by a hire which was announced on December 8. You know him as Riki Choshu, but he was not yet known as such.

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Mitsuo Yoshida, or Kwak Gwang-ung, was the youngest of four children born to a Korean garbageman and his Japanese wife in Tokuyama. His ethnic background led to discrimination from teachers as a child. Mitsuo’s first dream was to become a baseball star. Late in his elementary school years, he was the catcher on a community team that won a city tournament two years in a row. He had also begun judo, and had talent for it. Yoshida joined the judo club in junior high, and according to this column won a prefectural championship. 

2147308203_choshujudoandsportsfestival.jpg.c255949ffbfa188e5dee284de4e04193.jpgYoshida with the judo club at Giyang Junior High (seated, center), and receiving first place at the 24th National Sports Festival. (Beside him in the latter photo is the future Snake Amami, who placed third.)

He was then invited to attend Sakuragaoka High School and join its wrestling department. In his last year of junior high, Yoshida introduced himself to the sport. About 25 miles southeast of Tokuyama, in the city of Yanai, was the Saito Dojo. Less than a decade earlier, in 1961, Ken Saito had founded the school to teach amateur wrestling to children. It is the oldest actual wrestling dojo (that is, not a university club) in the country. As Yoshida recalls, the building had previously been a pawnshop, and they wrestled on its second floor. As a junior in 1969, Yoshida won second place at nationals in the freestyle 73kg class. That autumn, he entered the 24th National Sports Festival (held that year in Nagasaki) and won the freestyle 75kg class. He wasn’t supposed to enter since he was not a naturalized citizen (and would not be until 2016), but his instructor had gotten him in deceitfully and feigned ignorance of the rule when the matter was brought up. Regardless, Yoshida’s performance earned the interest of university scouts. 

Yoshida enrolled with Senshu University on an athletic scholarship in 1970, and joined its wrestling club from the jump. His coach was Keizo Suzuki, and his captain was Kiyomi Kato, who would win Olympic gold. (One of his juniors is also worth noting: Mitsushi Hirasawa, father of future NJPW wrestler Mitsuhide Hirasawa/Captain New Japan/Bone Soldier.) In his sophomore year, Yoshida won student nationals in Greco-Roman at 90kg. During a tour of the United States, he competed as a foreign entrant in that year’s US Greco-Roman championships, where he lost in the final to Willie Williams. (This does not seem to be the karateka Willie Williams who would challenge Inoki in 1980.) 

1935924229_choshumunich.jpg.714ff89eaf95a9132e583a155de06a86.jpgYoshida wouldn’t be able to sneak onto the Japanese Olympic team, but Olympic officials got him a deal to join South Korea. Their Olympic team only had three wrestlers: Greco-Roman bantamweight An Cheon-Yeong, freestyle flyweight Kim Yeong-Jun, and freestyle bantamweight An Jae-Won. He entered the Japan Olympic training camp but struggled to stay in financially. As he recalled in a 2020 POPEYE magazine article, Yoshida had spent his nights cleaning street gutters for ¥4000 a day to help pay the ¥60000 dormitory rent. He would compete under his Korean name as the second-youngest freestyle wrestler in Munich. A second-round win against Romanian Ion Marton was not enough to keep Kwak afloat, as he was eliminated after the third round with losses to East German Günter Spindler and Cuban Bárbaro Morgan, the latter of whom was just a day younger than him.

As a senior, the now-captain of the Senshu team entered nationals as a heavyweight in both Greco-Roman and freestyle. Wrestling at the Nippon University Auditorium from August 9-12, he won both blocks, with a fellow double entrant, Meiji University’s Yasunari Akiyama, earning both silvers. Double wins at the student championships followed the next month.

Kagehiro Osano’s 2020 Jumbo Tsuruta biography, The Strongest Champion of Eternity, claims that the future Choshu had been on All Japan’s radar. One of Baba’s biggest allies in wrestling print media, Monthly Pro Wrestling editorial advisor Satoshi Morioka, was the brother-in-law of Akio Nojima, a Japan Amateur Wrestling Association board member and the president of equipment manufacturer Olympique Products. Nojima played a part in Tsuruta’s courtship, and he later recalled that he had an eye on Yoshida as well, but Choshu told Osano in 2019 that Nojima had never approached him, even if he had attended an All Japan party with his coach. Suzuki invited Yoshida to a “high-class” sukiyaki and steak dinner with Takehira Nagasato. Nagasato was an alumnus of Waseda University’s wrestling club, which linked him to the man at the top of both it and JAWA, Ichiro Hatta. More importantly, he was the director of NET TV’s sports department. Hisashi Shinma scouted Yoshida through Nagasato’s mediation.

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Mitsuo Yoshida is introduced at the December 7, 1973 Osaka show.

1974

As far as New Japan was concerned, January 1974 was most notable for the debut of Kantaro Hoshino. But he was joined by a far less remembered JWA veteran: one who doesn’t really fit in this discussion, but who fits even less elsewhere. 

donald-bruce.jpg.819df0c05f0a09fe2f9b5c58ca5e2511.jpgDonald Takeshi was puroresu’s first exchange student. Donald Leow Seng Boo was the son of Singaporean wrestler Leow Kong Seng, whose career seems to have spanned from the late forties through the late sixties. At 17, he was encouraged by his father to drop out of the country’s oldest and most prestigious secondary school, the Raffles Institution, and wrestle in Japan. He joined the JWA during Gotch’s year as coach and debuted in a battle royal on May 26, 1968. According to Mitsuo Momota, Donald quickly adapted to the setting, and he learned Japanese quickly by conversing with the young female receptionists at the ryokan where they stayed. After winning his first match against Fujinami on June 30, 1971, he had proclaimed that he wanted to be as famous as Donald Duck. He was conscripted into the Singapore Army two months later, but newspaper ads for early 1973 shows at the Gay World Stadium indicate that he wrestled during this time. By the time his service was done, the JWA was gone, so he joined New Japan, where he wrestled for eighteen months. According to a 2013 Tokyo Sports column by Kagehiro Osano, Donald found work back home as a travel guide.

Donald brought a friend with him: Bruce, a Chinese-Singaporean who had been a cook in Hong Kong. He never made it to the ring, and he couldn't speak Japanese, but his portrait was shown in early 1974 pamphlets and he was at ringside during the first Inoki-Kobayashi match. Bruce brought “authentic Hong Kong cooking”, bird feet and all, whenever he was on chanko duty.

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  • 2 weeks later...

 

Spoiler

Sources for this post include:

  • Interview with Kuniaki Kobayashi (G Spirits Vol. 51) [March 2019]
  • Showa Puroresu Vol. #2: New Japan Pro Wrestling in the 1970s [Sept. 2002]
  • Showa Puroresu Vol. #5: Japan Pro-Wrestling: The Road To Collapse [July 2003]
  • Showa Puroresu Vol. #26: New Japan Pro Wrestling in the No-TV Era [April 2012]
  • “It has been eight years since Kotetsu Yamamoto passed away. What has happened to the power harassment issue in the wrestling world?” Miruhon [August 26, 2018]
  • “New Japan's "big boss" Kotetsu Yamamoto shines with a valuable medal (IWA Tag Champion)”, Monthly Pro Wrestling [March 1979]
  • Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Kotetsu Yamamoto obituary) [September 8, 2010] 
  • Various excerpts from Tatsumi Fujinami’s 2021 Weekly Pro Wrestling interview by Tetsuya Hashizume, featured on BBM Sports (first part here)
  • Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Riki Choshu career bio) [July 1, 2019]

Much of the direct testimony I have on the life of an early young lion comes from a 2019 interview with autumn 1972 trainee and current dojo custodian Kuniaki Kobayashi. I would like to expand this post if and when I acquire more testimonies and resources.

The next post will finally return to the main narrative and cover the last third of 1974, but it may take a while, as I would like to transcribe a resource I have about Kintaro Oki: namely, a 2019 interview with his former valet Masanori Toguchi (Kim Duk).

LIFE WITH THE LIONS (INTERLUDE #3.3)

1223411495_nogedojoopening.thumb.jpg.d7f4b4e2038524f0c45f63254e1ac957.jpg

 January 29, 1972: Kotetsu Yamamoto, Yusef Turk, Osamu Kido, Antonio Inoki, and Tatsumi Fujinami drink from a ceremonial barrel of sake at the NJPW Dojo’s opening.

NOGE DOJO

In 1971, Antonio Inoki and Mitsuko Baisho bought a mansion in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward, near the Tama River. It had previously belonged to enka singer Midori Hatakeyama, and according to Naoki Otsuka, the property had been brought to Inoki’s attention by Hiroshi Iwata. Otsuka recalls that the house was said to be haunted, due to a rumor that a maid had committed suicide during Hatakeyama’s tenancy. The couple had originally bought the property to live in, but as the late Yoshihiro Inoue put it, “Inoki had no land, so he destroyed his house”. After the mansion garden, with its pine trees and carp pond, was cleared “overnight”, New Japan’s dojo was built. During this time, Tatsumi Fujinami’s training consisted of construction assistance, such as picking up pebbles and carrying steel frames, as well as running along the river. The dojo would be a single-story wooden building with 48 square meters of floor space. As mentioned in #3.1, Kotetsu Yamamoto paid for the ring. The Noge Dojo was opened on January 29, 1972, at 4:00. In a traditional ceremony known as kagami biraki, the four wrestlers and Yusef Turk broke a wooden barrel of iwai-zake with wooden mallets. After drinking the ceremonial sake, they held an open practice session.

While Osamu Kido split his time between the dojo and his parents’ house, the young lions otherwise lived in the mansion, each with his own room. Inoki came only once or twice a week, but Yamamoto was at the dojo every day. Awaking at 8am, the lions would practice for three hours starting at 10. After that, they ate chanko together and were free for the rest of the day. Curfew was 9pm, but Kobayashi admits that none of them observed it. Kuniaki notes that he thinks it is harder to be a young lion now than it was in this early period, because the much larger number of senior wrestlers gives them so much more chores to do. Kobayashi claims he was never bullied, and that all his senior young lions were kind men, even if Hamada “used him a lot”. Kuniaki is called Sanpei by his seniors, which was a nickname that Toyonobori had bestowed upon him, one which Kobayashi feared he would be made to wrestle under.

Kotetsu Yamamoto needed to produce talent quickly, and he was already a conditioning fiend, so the physical demands he made of young lions were great. Kobayashi was blindsided by the 1000 Hindu squats per day, as he had only been doing one to two hundred. One day, Yoshiaki Fujiwara asked Yamamoto if he could perform a reduced number of squats due to a knee injury suffered the previous day. When this was refused, Fujiwara briefly became fixated with murdering his coach and practiced stabbing Yamamoto with a kitchen knife on a birch tree just outside the dojo. (Even Akira Maeda, who entered the dojo half a decade later, remembers the marked tree.) Another case that Kobayashi recalls was when Yamamoto made Hamada perform bump drills when he complained of stomach pain, which he would find was due to appendicitis.

I am not equipped to untangle kayfabe from reality when it comes to the matter of NJPW’s sparring, but I can’t write this post without acknowledging it. A 2021 blog post about a 2014 NJPW-licensed book quotes a plausible testimony from Motoyuki Kitazawa. Kitazawa states that New Japan’s sparring had its roots in the gachinko (literally “cement”: equivalent to shoot) training of the JWA, and long preceded Karl Gotch’s coaching tenure. When Rikidozan was in charge, the dojo practiced joint-based submission sparring called kimekko, but “it was not something noble like sparring in the dojo”. Those who could not adapt to kimekko would “never be recognized as professional wrestlers”, and in essence, Kitazawa and others were toys to be experimented on and crushed by the older wrestlers. Those who couldn’t handle it ran away. When Gotch coached for a year, he expanded the kimekko tradition not just with new submission holds, but with rougher methods of escape, such as elbows to the back of the head and finger thrusts into the anus. Kobayashi says that Fujiwara was the best of the first young lions at sparring. The young wrestlers who followed Sakaguchi from the JWA were assimilated into the fold, but Kotetsu stoked his lions’ competitive spirit: “Don’t you ever lose to them!” Ozawa was the best of the ex-JWA trio at sparring, due to his size and sumo experience, but Fujiwara always came out on top. There was a substantial pay gap between Kobayashi and those three, whose salaries at least quadrupled his ¥50k per year, but they went out to eat and drink with the rest of the roster from the start.

Yamamoto once quipped that those in the JWA who hated practice had joined AJPW, and later criticized Jumbo Tsuruta for allowing himself to develop such a stomach (while giving Shinya Hashimoto a pass because of his constitution). Later on, he would acknowledge that the Four Pillars had excellent conditioning but still criticized the AJPW curriculum for its lack of sparring. As I mentioned in my profile of Masio Koma, All Japan’s original head coach had been good friends with Yamamoto, and the two had talked shop about their training methods before Masio’s death in 1976. I believe Kotetsu’s comments should also be considered in that context, as the Great Kabuki has claimed that Koma’s original curriculum had retained some gachinko training, but that this was lost due to the subsequent influence of the Funks. (I would like to track down interviews with Onita or Fuchi to see if they did any kimekko in the first years of their career.)

Kobayashi contrasts Yamamoto’s “scary” personality with Inoki, who did not use corporal punishment in the dojo. Notably, Inoki also did not force young lions to drink alcohol, as Rikidozan had made him do as a teenager when meeting with sponsors. As for Gotch, Kobayashi praises him as a teacher. Karl did not ignore the students who struggled, and taught everyone as an equal. Gotch preferred natural exercises to bodybuilding, and on top of squats and pushups he had young lions climb rope.

When Mitsuo Yoshida joined the company, he trained as a young lion. This contrasts sharply with how Tomomi Tsuruta was brought into AJPW. As Tsuruta completed his baccalaureate in the five months after his signing, he received basic training from Masio Koma, who was assisted by Akio Sato. Yoshida only wrestled one match in Japan before leaving for the States alongside Gotch.

IN THE RING

The 1979 Monthly Pro article describes Kotetsu watching the prelims at a seat out of sight with a notebook in his hands. The ideal for a preliminary match was consistent with Rikidozan’s: essentially, amateur wrestling with a bit of color. There would be corporal punishment backstage if you stepped outside of these parameters. Kobayashi recalls that he was punished by Inoki for a match with Arakawa in the Adachi Ward Gymnasium (possibly early 1975), where the two had gotten into a strike exchange and excited the crowd. When interviewer Kagehiro Osano points out that Fujiwara lost many of his matches by “backbone folding”, Kobayashi explains that that was what we know as a camel clutch. Little Hamada was given special permission to use a dropkick due to his short stature. Yamamoto also fined wrestlers for poor matches. Kobayashi remembers that he lost ¥3000 every time he wrestled Arakawa. One time, Kobayashi was forced by Inoki to do a thousand squats after a stinker against him and did them with frustrated tears in his eyes. Kotetsu would also implement a ¥5000 bonus for good matches, which Kobayashi says he always received when working with Satoru Sayama. Others Kuniaki praises include Kitazawa (“He brought out something in me, or rather, he let me wrestle properly”) and Haruka Eigen (“He was easy to work with and knew how to excite the crowd”), the latter of whom joined NJPW upon his return from excursion in October 1973.

When asked about stories of young lions being punished in the ring for poor performance, Kobayashi cites an example that the cards I could find don’t totally match up with. He specifically claims that this happened in a match between Arakawa and Masanobu Kurisu, and that both men’s parents attended the show. Inoki came into the ring and beat them with the shinai, but the way he says it doesn’t quite line up with the records. He says it was in their hometown of Izumi, and specifies that they were wrestling against each other, but neither of the Izumi shows from the era had them in the same match. He could be referring to one of two singles matches in Kagoshima city from 1975, or to a myriad of other singles matches. Arakawa and Kurisu would wrestle each other numerous times, and due to their shared hometown, this match would be nicknamed the Kagoshima Championship. (Arakawa’s 1979 Tokyo Sports show match against the IWE’s Snake Amami, a fellow Kagoshima native, also received this nickname.)

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A section in New Japan pamphlets called Ore wa yuku! (“I’m going!”) was dedicated to young lions. This example is from the 1976 Big Fight Series.

In autumn 1974, NJPW held the first Karl Gotch Cup during the Toukon Series. The ancestor of the infrequent Young Lion Cup ended when Fujinami defeated Ozawa. In June 1975, nine lions became five. Fujinami and Kido left for West Germany, while Hamada and Hashimoto went to Mexico. Kobayashi confirms that Hamada had nearly been fired the month before. At the final show of the 1975 World League tour, held in the Nihon University Auditorium, Hamada and Yamamoto got into an argument over chores in the waiting room. Kobayashi claims he saw Hamada doing chores, but a misunderstanding arose and Hamada’s will was too strong to back down. They stood there arguing over whether he was going to do them until Kotetsu struck Hamada and everyone stepped in to pull them apart.

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