Genichiro Tenryu: The One and Only
by John Lister
Few wrestlers headline a show before 30,000 fans. Even fewer do it ten times in a career. But Genichiro Tenryu must surely be the only man to do it for five different promotions.
Born Genichiro Shimada, he adopted the ring name “Tenryu” when he entered the professional sumo ranks. It may well have been inspired by Tenryu Saburo, a 1930s sumo star who famously led a strike over pay before being thrown out of the governing Japan Sumo Association.
Genichro Tenryu had a mixed career record, though did briefly make it to the lowest ranking of the makuuchi division, placing him among the top 42 competitors in the sport. Like his namesake, his career ended prematurely, in his case over personal differences with management of his stable.
Shoehei “Giant” Baba recruited Tenryu for professional wrestling. As with future rival Jumbo Tsurata, he went to the Amarillo territory for training and seasoning by the Funks before working his way up the card in All Japan Pro Wrestling.
While Japanese wrestling had traditionally been based on native vs foreigner rivalries, Tenryu’s biggest programs of the 80s came against fellow Japanese wrestlers Riki Choshu and Tsuruta. As NWA International champion (the title created by Lou Thesz for international tours), Tenryu beat PWF and United Champion Stan Hansen to create the Triple Crown, which remains All Japan’s supreme championship.
Only a year later, Tenryu left the promotion to become the flagship star of Super World of Sports funded by Japan’s largest eyeglass manufacturer. They had the money to recruit one major star to anchor the promotion and it’s a sign of Tenryu’s stature that he was the choice.
When the group collapsed, Tenryu launched his own promotion, Wrestling and Romance (WAR). During this era, he headlined several Tokyo Dome shows including teaming with Hulk Hogan against the Road Warriors. He also wrestled old rival Choshu on a New Japan Dome show, this time with Tenryu cast as the invader. And he headlined stadiums for groups as diverse as the shoot-style UWF-i and the blood and guts of FMW.
Tenryu’s homeland success left little time for US excursions, though he did make appearances at the WWF’s WrestleMania VII and the 1993 and 1994 Royal Rumbles, along with the fifth NWA Clash of the Champions show.
Even when approaching his 50th birthday, Tenryu remained in a headline role, capturing the IWGP title. He then returned to All Japan to help save the company after almost all the roster had left to start the rival NOAH promotion. Here he picked up two more Triple Crown title runs and headlined the Tokyo Dome again. With All Japan back on safer footing, Tenryu spent his later years making guest appearances on a host of independent shows. In 2015 he sold out Tokyo’s Ryōgoku Kokugikan (Sumo Hall) for a final time, losing his retirement bout.
There will surely never be another wrestler whose first match was against Ted DiBiase and whose last match was against Kazuchika Okada. But then there will surely never be another Genichiro Tenryu.