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.