The Best Wrestler of the 1980s
by Ian Douglass
“I just burst that bubble you’ve been livin’ in, and I’m here on your doorstep with the REAL world championship belt!”
This famous professional wrestling quote was delivered in a literal sense in November of 1991 by Ric Flair to Hulk Hogan during a mid-month episode of the WWF’s Superstars of Wrestling program. Earlier that same year, ‘The Dragon’ Tatsumi Fujinami delivered a figurative and symbolic iteration of that same sentence when he appeared in the main event of WCW’s very first SuperBrawl event – as the reigning NWA and IWGP heavyweight champion - to face ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair with the NWA and WCW versions of the world heavyweight championship on the line.
As the 1990s unfolded, it was understandable for someone raised in the sports entertainment bubble of 1980s mainstream American wrestling to imagine that a professional wrestling match between two Japanese wrestlers would consist of men exchanging martial arts strikes, interspersed with geysers of colorful mist being sprayed into one another’s faces as clouds of powdery salt permeated the air encircling the ring.
When Fujinami arrived in WCW as the standard bearer for Japan, he didn’t uphold any of the preconceived or stereotypical notions of what Japanese wrestlers were. He didn’t wave a Japanese flag over his head. He didn’t insult the United States during his interview segments. He didn’t toss ceremonial salt around the ring or feign a mastery of karate. He didn’t cloak himself in the garb of a ninja, nor did he spew colorful mist from his mouth, wear face paint, or physically manifest any of the other stereotypical elements of Asian mysticism commonly depicted in mainstream North American wrestling during that era.
What Tatsumi Fujinami did on that May night in St. Petersburg, Florida was simple. He climbed into the wrestling ring and did everything... perfectly. Toward the tail end of his stellar world championship match with Ric Flair, Fujinami also did something that is retroactively quite understated in its significance. He casually executed the tightest, crispest version of a Scorpion Deathlock ever delivered in North America up until that moment. WCW’s superstar babyface Sting had been performing the move as his signature maneuver for years, but his variation of the hold notably lacked the precision of Fujinami’s offering. Bret Hart had debuted his own variation of the Scorpion Deathlock, which he dubbed The Sharpshooter, one month prior during the April 21st episode of WWF Wrestling Challenge. At that moment in time, even Bret’s rendition of the move lacked the effortlessness of someone who had either administered or received the hold during countless main event matches for roughly a decade.
The alarming thing is, as I sat glued to my television screen in 1991, I wasn’t even viewing Fujinami at his best. In fact, he was far from it. Fujinami was in the midst of his post-injury comeback tour. He had been seriously injured roughly two years prior during a match with Big Van Vader, in June of 1989, and had missed more than a full year of in-ring action.
While Fujinami’s brilliance and overall presentation may have administered an earthshattering shock to me, not everyone in the United States was in the dark about Fujinami’s mastery of professional wrestling.
In the mid-to-late 1980s, the Dragon had been the absolute darling of the segment of North American wrestling fans who were the most obsessed with in-ring match quality. He captured more ‘Best Technical Wrestler’ awards, as bestowed by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, than any other wrestler during the 1980s, while also receiving the honor of being named the famed dirtsheet’s ‘Most Outstanding Wrestler’ in 1988.
Rare Tatsumi Fujinami ring worn jacket on display at the IPWHF museum.
This round of Western awards mirrored a sentiment toward Fujinami that had consistently grown in his homeland ever since he had been named ‘Rookie of the Year’ by Tokyo Sports in 1974, and eventually culminated with him receiving the ‘Best Wrestler Award’ in 1985 while simultaneously capturing the ‘Most Outstanding Performance Award’ from that same publication more times in the 1980s than any other wrestler.
As the 1990s progressed, I purchased as many videotapes of 1980s puroresu as I could afford, and I began to retroactively absorb all the Japanese mat action that I’d missed during my youth. As the ring work of the decade spoke to me, my heart told me that Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu were the best professional wrestlers in Japan during the decade of the 1980s. Based on the volume of crowd noise echoing through Korakuen Hall, my ears told me it was either Riki Choshu or Antonio Inoki. However, when I rewatched matches from each year of the decade, my eyes told a different tale: From the beginning of the 1980s and straight to its end, Tatsumi Fujinami was the most consistently brilliant professional wrestler in Japan.
Not only was Fujinami incredible during his matches, but he was also innovative. The Dragon Sleeper and Dragon Suplex are both adorned with Fujinami’s ring name, just as the names of the Tiger Suplex and Tiger Driver received their titles from Mitsuharu Misawa’s run as the second Tiger Mask. No, the creation of new moves isn’t sufficient on its own to snatch the title of ‘best wrestler of a generation’ away from some of the other top contenders. Yet, it certainly speaks to Fujinami’s relevance and resonance that the names of serious holds and maneuvers will be eternally decorated by his ring name, as opposed to an array of comedic bumping techniques, like the Flair Flip and the Flair Flop.
To his credit, Ric Flair seems to agree with at least a portion of my assessment. During Fujinami’s 2015 induction into the WWE Hall of Fame, Flair referred to Fujinami as “the greatest wrestler in the history of Japan.” While this statement is arguably true, it doesn’t quite do Fujinami justice. There is a general tendency to place limitations upon the praise bequeathed to non-U.S. professional wrestlers, as if being from Japan somehow imposes an arbitrary ceiling on the loftiness of the plaudits a wrestler can receive. In fact, it can be convincingly argued that the best professional wrestling in the world during the 1980s took place in Japan.
All of this begs a niggling question: What do you call the greatest wrestler from the country that produces the best professional wrestling in the world? By way of a descriptive phrase, you should call him “the greatest wrestler in the world”.
In this case, if we are discussing professional wrestling during the 1980s, it’s also acceptable for you to answer by saying: ‘The Dragon’ Tatsumi Fujinami.
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