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 with the western adversaries that Inoki had battled so valiantly against. Choshu possessed every ounce of the strong-style of Inoki – fighting spirit enhanced by burning, palpable intensity – but funneled through a broad-chested, thick-legged delivery mechanism capable of believably hoisting and bodyslamming Andre the Giant.
While Fujinami would wear opponents down tactically, and Maeda would meticulously carve them to ribbons, Choshu would run them over savagely, suddenly, and inevitably. There was no greater certainty in wrestling than the Riki Lariat – which Choshu admittedly adopted from the repertoire of Stan Hansen. The Riki Lariat was going to cut you down one way or another; how you responded to that fact was left entirely up to you in your preparation for defeat. Few sights in wrestling could jumpstart a viewer’s adrenaline like watching Choshu call out the name of his opponents while running the ropes, and then repeatedly battering them with Riki Lariats, bowling them over until they could no longer conjure enough energy to rise to their feet. The resulting three-count pinfalls were simply a formality.
Several questionable business ventures on behalf of New Japan’s active management team would lead to the departure of Tiger Mask by the end of 1983, and then the withdrawal of Riki Choshu before the end of 1984. Proving that his leadership of Ishin Gundan was no mere wrestling gimmick, Choshu absconded with the bulk of his Restoration Army to form his own Japan Pro Wrestling organization and used it to invade Giant Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling.
The addition of the invading JPW faction to the roster of All Japan Pro Wrestling was a godsend to both the traditionalist organization and to wrestling fans. In particular, Choshu’s presence had a clear benefit upon the match style of his new wrestling home. His taunting of All Japan’s ace Jumbo Tsuruta as an athlete who wrestled like he’d been “soaked in lukewarm water” – whether legitimate or part of a well-orchestrated storyline – promulgated a tangible acceleration of the inring pacing of All Japan’s top attraction. While Choshu would be absent for the solidification of what would ultimately be labeled as ‘King’s Road’ or ‘Royal Road’ style – the style identified by Giant Baba as one requiring the combatants to absorb all of one another’s best maneuvers to demonstrate overall supremacy – his injection into All Japan’s main-event scene was a clear accelerant to the creation of that style.
When Choshu finally captured All Japan’s PWF Heavyweight Championship from Stan Hansen in April of 1986, it was a true breakthrough moment. As Tor Kamata – who had a brief 11day reign with the PWF title in 1978 – was Hawaiian-born, Choshu was the first native Japanese wrestler other than Giant Baba to receive a reign as the PWF Heavyweight Champion and would ultimately be only the third wrestler other than Baba and Hansen to hold the championship for more than 300 days in a single reign.
Choshu’s reign of nearly a year with what was symbolically Baba’s belt reached its culmination only because Choshu vacated the title in 1987 to make a surprise return to New Japan with Ishin Gundan once again in an invading role, and with his laser focus set squarely on two men: Antonio Inoki and Tatsumi Fujinami. This time, Choshu’s presence heralded a paradigm shift for puroresu in more ways than one, because in July of 1988, in what undeniably represented a true changing of the guard in the wrestling world, Choshu would begin the process of single-handedly ending the extended dominance of Antonio Inoki and permanently banishing him from the ‘ace’ position of the company he had founded 16 years prior.
On that night, Choshu would secure a victory over Inoki by clubbing him in the back of the neck with a lariat and securing the pinfall victory, making him the first New Japan native to ever pin Inoki in a singles match, and the first Japanese wrestler to pin him in a singles match since the founding of New Japan. In the February 1989 rematch, Choshu demonstrated that the element of surprise was unnecessary for him to achieve victory over Rikidozan’s protege. In the closing stages of the bout, Choshu bludgeoned Inoki with six successive Riki Lariats, rendered the living symbol of New Japan unresponsive, and captured an overwhelming victory. Fujinami may have been the reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champion at the time, but Choshu had captured Baba’s belt and then returned to his old stomping grounds to emphatically capture both Inoki’s ace position and his spirit. This accomplishment would remain an indivisible, non-transferable and permanent championship that no challenger could ever wrestle away from Choshu’s grip.
It was while Choshu was the incumbent ace of New Japan that he acquired booking control over the in-ring outcomes of the matches. From that position of responsibility, Choshu orchestrated a booking feat that would have been considered unthinkable one decade prior. First, Choshu created the G1 Climax round-robin tournament and included many of the most promising young stars of New Japan. Then, in what might have been construed by many as an act of selfimmolation, Choshu booked himself – the man who dethroned Antonio Inoki – to lose cleanly to Masahiro Chono, Shinya Hashimoto and Bam Bam Bigelow all within a span of four days and rendered himself winless during the inaugural G1 Climax tournament.
In laying down for the next generation with such alacrity, Choshu accomplished four incredible things. First, Choshu cemented several of the next generation’s stars as being fully capable of dethroning an established wrestling megastar. Second, he achieved in a few days what Inoki had been incapable of doing for 20 years; he turned young, talented wrestlers into unqualified successes that the fans could support with fullthroated enthusiasm, and without any hint of reservation. Third, he promptly established the G1 Climax as a must-see event where new superstars are instantly minted. Finally, when Choshu captured the IWGP championship one year later, his earlier losses to the rising stars of New Japan added intrigue to his subsequent title defenses against them.
When the wave of Choshu’s career had clearly crested, he also used his greatest creation to provide himself with one more well-deserved moment in the spotlight. In 1996, he booked himself to go undefeated in the G1 Climax, with his victory in the G1 Final being achieved against the young star who had benefited from Choshu’s G1 Climax booking more than any other, Masahiro Chono.
In summation, Riki Choshu’s career is most easily encapsulated by the following statement: He was almost inarguably the most popular heavyweight wrestler in Japan during a decade in which several of the most legendary wrestlers in history were ushered to the forefront, including Tatsumi Fujinami, Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu. Unlike the rest of his
contemporaries, Choshu is the only member of this group to be rightly regarded as a booking genius. He created an annual summer event that is still eagerly awaited by wrestling fans around the world for the sake of the star-making performances that will ensue. As a testament to his popularity in the 1980s, Choshu also captured three of the ten Fighting Spirit awards bestowed during that decade, and three consecutive Match of the Year awards for his matches against Antonio Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami and Jumbo Tsuruta. All of this despite the fact that Choshu was well known to have had an acrimonious relationship with the very members of the press who voted on these awards, potentially contributing to the absence of a single MVP award from his trophy case.
Yet Choshu is more identifiable with a sensation than he is with any individual awards or accolades. Instead, Choshu was epitomized by the rush of emotion that accompanied his presence, beginning with the four cracks of a snare drum that touched off his Power Hall theme song, and the crashing wave of energy that crackled through the arena when he stepped through the curtain. In the mid-1980s, playing Power Hall was the easiest way to elicit riotous conditions inside of Nippon Budokan Hall, sending frenzied waves of emotion through crowds that were typically noted for the subdued nature.
Unbeknownst to most, Choshu’s influence wasn’t confined to his homeland of Japan, as his formation of Ishin Gundan, its metamorphosis into the Japan Wrestling Association, and its subsequent invasion of Japan’s two most popular organizations crafted a model that would be emulated by World Championship Wrestling for the invasion of the New World Order a full decade later. Given the response of the WWE, which was to launch the Attitude Era and kickstart the zenith of American wrestling popularity in terms of its peak national television viewership, it can be convincingly argued that wrestling fans in the United States owe Riki Choshu for far more than they realize.
As the result of his creativity and foresight as a booker, Choshu’s body of work resonates through modern professional wrestling differently and more broadly than that of his contemporaries. Tsuruta and Tenryu paved the way in developing a wrestling style that established what a modern main-event style of wrestling should be, and Fujinami raised the bar for in-ring wrestling precision. However, Riki Choshu set a precedent for how a gracious main event wrestler should book young talent, created an annual vehicle to provide that young talent with a showcase while enabling established stars to absorb acceptable, forgivable, intriguebuilding losses. And, last but not least, Choshu executed the invading-faction gimmick so expertly – on multiple occasions and in different companies – that it has had a transformational influence on contemporary wrestling. From the New World Order to the Bullet Club and everything in between, it all begins with Riki Choshu – a once-in-a-generation talent both inside and outside of the wrestling ring.
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