Rikidozan: The Father of Puroresu
by Brian Solomon
In the years after World War II, the Japanese needed a hero; someone to make them feel whole again after their demoralizing defeat at the hands of the United States and its allies. Although diplomatic relations between the two nations were healing, many in Japan felt a sense of powerlessness, of going from a world power to a beaten nation.
For those who felt that sense of loss, vindication came in the form of Rikidozan, a superstar of epic proportions, whose valiant exploits in the squared circle on the behalf of the people of Japan made him an object of worship. Most ironic of all was the fact that he wasn’t even Japanese and had to hide his Korean heritage during a career that was cut tragically short by murder. Nevertheless, in his dozen years in the spotlight, Rikidozan single-handedly established puroresu as the most passionate wrestling tradition in the world.
He was born Kim Sin-rak on November 14, 1924 in South Hamgyong, Korea (in present-day North Korea), but in his youth was adopted by a Japanese family living in Nagasaki Prefecture.
Wishing to avoid the rampant anti-Korean prejudice in his new country, he was more than happy to take on his new family’s name, calling himself Mitsuhiro Momota. That family would later disown him due to his involvement in pro wrestling, but before that he would achieve acclaim as a teenager competing in a very different form of wrestling more native to his part of the world, sumo. Debuting at age 15, Momota was given the sumo name of ‘Rikidozan’, which would stick with him for the rest of his life.
Rikidozan Mitsuhiro achieved some noteworthy success as a sumo, getting as far as runner-up to the top yokozuna champion position during his decade in the sport, before his Korean heritage eventually forced him out. Sumo, with its proud nationalistic tradition, wanted no part of him any longer, and so in October 1951, he made the transition to the less-prestigious new form of American professional wrestling that was taking hold in Japan.
Promoters and bookers seized on the impressively built young man, having him win in matches against imposing and belligerent American villains. Up to then, the majority of wrestlers performing in Japan had been American; but now, with Rikidozan, a new dynamic developed. Playing off national insecurities and bitterness, the Americans were portrayed as evil and treacherous, and Rikidozan was the inspirational vanquisher, toppling them one by one. The formula was an instant hit, and before long Rikidozan had achieved so much fame (and money) that he was able to create Japan’s first native pro wrestling organization, the Japanese Wrestling Association.
Rikidozan’s star rose to such a degree that he even started traveling to America to wrestle, even though while there he was presented in the same villainous light as most other performers of Asian extraction. But his massive international fame was really secured when he faced NWA World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz in October 6, 1957 in a 60-minute draw that was broadcast in closed circuit on giant TV screens throughout Japan and scored a mind-boggling 87.0 rating, meaning that nearly 9 out of every 10 people in Japan with a television set were watching that match. Television was even newer in Japan at that time than it was in the United States, and Rikidozan galvanized the nation as the first superstar of the medium in a way that simply would be impossible to accomplish in the ensuing multimedia landscape.
Other epic matches followed, including an August 27, 1958 rematch with Thesz, as well as an April 23, 1962 match against WWA World Champion Fred Blassie that was notorious for the way Blassie antagonized the relatively naïve and timid Japanese fanbase by pretending to file his teeth into points in an attempt to draw their hero’s blood. Blassie would become known in Japan as ‘The Vampire’, and legend has it that the bloodletting in his matches caused some TV viewers to die of heart attacks in their homes. Whether true or not, the hype was indicative of the vast attention paid to Rikidozan’s every move, culminating in his May 24, 1963 60-minute draw with The Destroyer that drew a staggering 67.0 rating (an even higher viewership than the Thesz match, due to Japan’s much greater TV audience by that time).
By the early 1960s, Rikidozan’s great wealth had enabled him to open a series of hotels, nightclubs, and other properties. It was in one of these
nightclubs on December 8, 1963 that he was stabbed by a member of the yakuza wielding a urine-soaked knife. The attack is believed to have
been an organized crime revenge hit in retaliation for a match Rikidozan had with former judo champion Masahiko Kimura, in which he had legitimately roughed up Kimura. He neglected to take the wound seriously, and a week later, Mitsuhiro ‘Rikidozan’ Momota died of peritonitis at the age of 39.
His star may not have burned for as long as those of his successors, Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba, but it arguably burned even brighter. The father of Japanese professional wrestling, Rikidozan, through the sheer enormity of his star power and his connection to the Japanese people, singlehandedly launched a national tradition that is proudly carried on to this day through the efforts of Kazuchika Okada, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kota Ibushi, Testuya Naito, KENTA, and many others. Arguably more famous and beloved in Japan in his day than any pro wrestler has ever become in the United States or Canada, his contribution to the global business is impossible to be overstated.