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Azumafuji (東富士)

azumafuji1.JPG.86550144a9aa3f5ee33d73dddac258e2.JPGReal name: Kinichi Inoue (井上謹一)
Professional names: Azumafuji
Life: 10/28/1921-7/31/1973
Born: Shimoya-ku (present-day Taito), Tokyo, Japan
Career: 1955-1958
Height/Weight: 179cm/125kg (5’10”/275lbs.)
Signature moves: Saba ori (sumo bearhug)
Promotions: Japan Pro Wrestling/JWA
Titles: NWA Hawaii Tag Team [Mid-Pacific Promotions] (1x, w/Rikidozan)

Summary: The first yokozuna to enter puroresu, Azumafuji spent about four years with the JWA. While ostensibly pushed as a top native talent, he ultimately realized that the company wasn’t big enough for two major ex-sumo stars.

Kinichi Inoue was a big kid, weighing 6.8kg (15 lbs) at birth and over 75kg (165 lbs.) by the time he was twelve. He gained a local reputation for his strength through the judo he had been taught in elementary school and his help at the family ironworks. This eventually reached the ears of Fujigane IV, who got Kinichi to agree to join his new Takasago stable after graduating elementary. At that point, Kinichi’s 165cm height was below the required minimum, but Fujigane cut a deal with an examiner to let him in anyway. Sumo did not come naturally to Kinichi, and in an era where only two tournaments were held per year, it took him two years to pass the lowest division of maezumo. Fujigane held firm, vociferously defending Inoue to his stablemates and moving the young rikishi to work hard. Once he got through maezumo, Kinichi rose through the ranks, receiving the shikona Azumafuji upon reaching the sandanme division in 1939.

azumafujivstochinisikifall53.thumb.jpg.49ee582c7cb97f6308df3636949e1ac1.jpgLeft: Azumafuji wins his final tournament by defeating Tochinisiki on October 29, 1953.

Just before Azumafuji was promoted to juryo, he had a fateful encounter with Futabayama during a tour of Japan-occupied Korea. Breaking rank to challenge the yokozuna after Futabayama had plowed through all the sekitori in multiple exhibitions, Azumafuji was chided for his impudence and did not do any better than his superiors. However, he had endeared himself to Futabayama, who from that day forward invited Azumafuji to his training sessions. Azumafuji’s career would continue to be difficult, as a combination of injuries and temperament likely kept him from ever matching such a dominant yokozuna as Futabayama. Nevertheless, Azumafuji himself would reach the sport’s highest rank in 1949. In fact, Azumafuji was the final yokozuna to be promoted by the House of Yoshida Tsukasa. In 1950, the absence of all three yokozuna from the first tournament of the year, combined with the forced retirement of Maedayama (who had been photographed at a baseball game after dropping out of a tournament claiming illness), led the Japan Sumo Association to decide that the Yoshida family would relinquish the right to promote yokozuna, in favor of a special committee of sumo experts. Azumafuji continued to compete until he suddenly announced his retirement in 1954; he did not wish to hinder the promotion of Tochinisiki, who otherwise would have been the fifth active yokozuna. When a horrified Tochinisiki met him personally to beg him to reconsider, it actually did the opposite, convincing Azumafuji that he deserved to become a yokozuna immediately.

After his retirement, Azumafuji was introduced to Rikidozan by Rikidozan’s patron, Shinzaku Nitta. (The 2019 Crowbar Press book Japan: The Rikidozan Years claims that Nitta had also been a patron of Azumafuji, but I want to see a Japanese source that corroborates this information before I parrot that.) Azumafuji and Rikidozan had been friends in the sumo days, and during his sumo career, Azumafuji had even borrowed a convertible from him for his Tokyo parade after winning his first championship. (Yusho winners have paraded in open-top cars ever since.) Convinced to transfer to professional wrestling, Azumafuji traveled to Hawaii with Rikidozan that spring to begin training under Oki Shikina. While he had competed at a peak weight of nearly 400 pounds during his sumo career, Azumafuji would wrestle at around 275. Azumafuji and Rikidozan won the territory’s tag titles from Bobby Bruns & Lucky Simunovich during their expedition, with Azumafuji still wearing his topknot. It would not be cut until July 7, eight days before Azumafuji was set to make his domestic debut. 


Right: this cartoon describes Azumafuji’s first JWA match better than any photograph likely could. [Source: Puroresu magazine, August 1955]

In his 2000 book Bodies of Memory: Narratives of War in Postwar Japanese Culture, 1945-1970, Yoshikuni Igarashi wrote what is still one of the only pieces in the English language to seriously analyze Rikidozan (and by extension puroresu) as a cultural phenomenon. I’m going to turn over to him on that match: “Indeed, one of the most memorable moments for Rikidozan fans was a match between Azumafuji and the Mexican wrestler Jess Ortega in 1955. Azumafuji did not put up much resistance and was beaten unconscious. However, despite the fact that it was a singles match, Rikidozan jumped into the ring and applied his karate chops to Ortega, who then fell out of the ring. The scene was a bit too perfect, probably prearranged by Rikidozan and Ortega, but the crowd simply loved it. Azumafuji, moreover, damaged his own image in another match when he attempted to stop a fight between Rikidozan and Ortega. Azumafuji’s tagmate, Rikidozan had slammed Ortega’s head twice into a corner steel pole; Ortega’s head was covered with blood, and his wound later required some twenty stitches. Making a feeble attempt to stop the ringside fight, Azumafuji caught his thumb between Ortega’s head and the steel pole and broke it. The former sumo champion never matched Rikidozan in the presentation of this new form of entertainment, and the authority of sumo plummeted along with the formidable reputation of Azumafuji.”

In October 1956, the JWA held an interpromotional tour with wrestlers from the regional promotions Yamaguchi Dojo, Asia Pro-Wrestling, and Toa Pro Wrestling, split between three tournaments in the light, junior, and heavyweight divisions. This tour was intended to delegitimize the JWA’s competitors and/or scout whatever talent was worth swiping from them, but it was also intended to build up Azumafuji. In the heavyweight division, Azumafuji reached the finals to face Toshio Yamaguchi, who in January 1955 had wrestled Rikidozan for puroresu’s first title. After their first match ended in a draw, a rematch saw Azumafuji win. This gave Azumafuji the right to challenge Rikidozan for that belt, but whether it was due to the tailspin that Nitta’s death, poor attendance, and the fallout with Sadao Nagata sent the JWA into, or solely down to Rikidozan’s ego, that match never happened. Azumafuji was reportedly generous during his JWA tenure, lending money to fellow wrestlers even though he wasn’t paid much better than them. In the second half of 1958, he led the locker room in their attempts to press Rikidozan for better wages. However, in what accomplice Surugaumi would later call betrayal, Azumafuji decided to retire after getting nothing but some money and smooth talk from Rikidozan. The papers printed the cover story that he had suffered a hairline fracture in his elbow after slipping in his bathroom. In 1959, Azumafuji took a sumo commentary job with Fuji Television, which he would hold until 1966. In addition to writing a sumo column for Nikkan Sports until 1971, he ran a successful consumer loan firm and managed a restaurant (albeit to less success). He died of colon cancer in 1973.

[Credit goes to a two-part profile (part 1, part 2) in the defunct Sumo Fan Magazine, written by Joe Kuroda, for virtually all of the information here that doesn’t pertain to puroresu.]

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