Riki Choshu: The Lariat, The Legend,
And The Legacy
by Ian Douglass
Riki Choshu is undeniably among the most important figures in the history of professional wrestling, and wrestling fans across the world are more indebted to him than the overwhelming majority of them will ever comprehend. Choshu’s significance stretches well beyond his in-ring exploits, and he would be worthy of induction into the International Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame on the basis of his booking and promotional creativity alone.
Of course, Choshu would never have materialized in a position to wield such creative control over event promotion and decisionmaking had he not already possessed one of the most remarkable wrestling careers of all time, marked by an uninterrupted decade as potentially the most popular heavyweight wrestler in his home country of Japan.
Visions of achieving such unfathomable popularity would have been improbable dreams to the half-Korean Choshu – whose real name is Mitsuo Yoshida, and whose birth name was Kwak Gwang-ung – during his humble upbringing in Tokuyama, Japan, as the son of a waste collector who faced daily discrimination. As is commonly the case with the underprivileged and marginalized, Choshu clawed his way out of poverty through the strength of his incredible accomplishments in sports where that underdog tenacity is best capitalized upon.
At the age of 21, Choshu represented his father’s home country of Korea at the 1972 Munich Olympics in the 90 kg freestyle category, then captured Japan’s 1973 Freestyle and Greco Roman wrestling championships in the 100 kg weight class. In a fictional presentation of a sporting contest where much of what is presented to the audience is inauthentic, Riki Choshu was as real as it got. He was then recruited directly to New Japan Pro Wrestling, almost as a parallel to All Japan Pro Wrestling’s recruitment of Jumbo Tsuruta – Japan’s 1972 Olympic representative in the 100 kg weight class.
However, unlike Tsuruta, who Giant Baba was hell bent on vaulting into the main event scene of All Japan from his very first appearance in the ring, Choshu was forced to follow a more traditional path by slowly progressing to the top of New Japan. Still, several of the trademarks that would make Choshu an irrepressible star were already present on his very first night as a professional wrestler; he defeated his opponent with one of the moves that would become his trademark: The Scorpion Deathlock.
As the 1970s gave way to the 1980s and Choshu’s talents progressed, he was routinely relegated to a position on New Japan Pro Wrestling cards beneath Tatsumi Fujinami – arguably the greatest light heavyweight wrestler of the 1970s, and the heir apparent to Antonio Inoki’s role as the ace of New Japan. This pattern of perceived mistreatment continued despite Choshu’s publicized holding of the UWA World Heavyweight Championship in Mexico. This justifiable resentment came to a head in a famous incident, when Choshu would publicly tell Fujiami that he was not his “biting dog,” which was a reference to a lesser dog used to train championship-caliber dogs in dog fights, or weaker wrestlers used to elevate main-eventers.
With that, Choshu declared war on a personal level against Fujinami, and would form a stable of wrestlers within New Japan itself known as the Ishin Gundan – ‘Restoration Army’ or ‘Revolutionary Army’. It was the first instance of a set of native wrestlers within a Japanese wrestling company setting itself apart as its own organization to feud against the establishment. Choshu would also fully establish himself as a wrestler on Fujinami’s level when he captured the WWF International Heavyweight Championship from ‘The Dragon’ in April of 1983. Since Antonio Inoki had discontinued the NWF Heavyweight Championship in 1981, Choshu found himself in possession of New Japan’s foremost prize at the time. However, the position of New Japan’s most prominent wrestler resided with Inoki, and everyone knew it.
Consequently, Choshu’s ascension created a noteworthy three-way chase for the successor role as New Japan’s new top star alongside Tatsumi Fujinami and Akira Maeda. If Fujinami and Maeda represented the bifurcation of Inoki’s styles – the puroresu purist and the prototypical mixed martial artist – Choshu displayed a style developed from identification