Considered by many to be the greatest Japanese professional wrestling mat technician, Jumbo Tsuruta is spoken of in hallowed tones.
Real Name: Tomomi Tsuruta
Stats: 6′ 5″ 300 lbs.
Born: March 25, 1951
By Steve Slagle
When you ask informed North American wrestling fans to list a few of Japan’s all-time greatest wrestlers, the names Inoki, Baba and Rikidozan usually come to mind immediately. However, if you traveled to Japan and asked the same question, more likely than not, the first response would probably be Jumbo Tsuruta.
The rugged and ultra-talented three hundred pounder was, in terms of championship reigns, easily one of the most successful wrestlers in Japanese history. However, in terms of ringwork, the ahead-of-his-time former Olympian was legitimately in a league of his own, and he was the innovator of many moves that are now common in professional wrestling. Additionally, Tsuruta introduced the highly realistic, believable and punishing “strong” style of competition that eventually became synonymous with Shohei Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling, thus altering the “sport” forever in the Land of the Rising Sun…
Tomomi “Jumbo” Tsuruta was born in Spring of 1951, and after excelling at both wrestling and basketball while in college, he made his debut as a professional wrestler in 1973. Just prior to turning pro, Tsuruta became a well known sports hero in his native land by competing on the Japanese national Greco-Roman team, and the six-four, three hundred pounder even placed 7th in the super-heavyweight division during the 1972 Olympic games in Munich.
So, when it was announced early in 1973 that Tsuruta had signed a contract with Shohei “Giant” Baba’s fledgling All Japan Pro Wrestling group, the news made national headlines in Japanese sports circles. The potential-filled young grappler had some workouts with the legendary masked man known as The Destroyer (Dick Beyer) and was then promptly sent by Baba to Amarillo, TX. in order to be personally trained by the reigning World Heavyweight champion at the time, Dory Funk, Jr. and his brother Terry. The talented Tsuruta was a quick study, and after his initial training by the Funk brothers, he debuted in the Amarillo territory as Tommy Tsuruta.
Even though the war between the United States and Japan had ended some thirty years earlier, Japanese wrestlers who toured America in the early seventies were still cast in very sterotypical (and in retrospect, somewhat offensive) roles by the promoters of the day. However, the young and athletic Tsuruta managed to avoid being typecast, and he actually became quite popular with the Texas fans during his six months in the region. After only a handful of professional matches to his credit, the spectacular rookie wrestled a classic 2 out of 3 Falls match against the NWA World Heavyweight champion Dory Funk, and even took one of the falls from the respected champion during the heated match-up.
Once Tsuruta’s inital training was completed, and he was ready to return home and begin wrestling for All Japan, which turned out to be the only Japanese wrestling promotion that he ever competed in during his storied 26 year career. Jumbo made his AJPW debut on September 6, 1973, defeating the disliked gai-jin (i.e. non-Japanese wrestler) Moose Morowski at a AJPW television taping.
Immediately upon his debut, Tsuruta was pushed as the protégé of Giant Baba, and their team was one of the greatest in Japanese wrestling history, both in the ring and behind the scenes in the AJPW offices.
Together, the duo of Baba & Tsuruta enjoyed no less than six separate reigns as the NWA International Tag Team champions between 1975 and 1983, as well as capturing the NWA World Tag Team title (Detroit version) in 1980. While the more experienced and well-known Baba was the clear leader of the towering duo, it was the talented, powerful and skilled Tsuruta who was invariably the team’s M.V.P.
Baba and Tsuruta worked together in All Japan for more than a quarter-century all total, and, in addition to it being one of the longest lasting, their inspired business relationship was also one of the wrestling business’ most succesful. Still, despite all of the success he had with Baba in the ring, Tsuruta also formed several other championship caliber teams…
In July of 1987, Tsuruta teamed with Tiger Mask (Mitsuhara Misawa) to defeat Stan Hansen & Ted Dibiase for the PWF Tag Team title. Later, Jumbo Tsuruta would also team with The Great Kabuki and Akira Taue to win the prestigious PWF Tag Team championship.
However, aside from Baba, Jumbo’s primary partner was, much like himself, a talented and hard-hitting former Olympian by the name of Yoshiaki Yatsu. The highly skilled and very popular duo of Tsuruta & Yatsu won five separate PWF Tag Team championships together and then, on June 10, 1988, they defeated the reigning NWA International Tag Team champions, The Road Warriors, to unify the two titles into AJPW’s first World Tag team championship.
Yet, in addition to wrestling as part of several very successful teams, Tsuruta also excelled as a singles competitor, and, in terms of perceived stature within AJPW, he was perhaps second only to All-Japan founder Shohei Baba in the eyes of the fans. Not surprisingly, he wrestled in main-event title matches against NWA World champions such Dory Funk, Jack Brisco, Terry Funk, Harley Race and Ric Flair, competing against essentially every noteworthy NWA champion throughout the seventies and eighties.
In August of 1976, AJPW presented a tournament to crown the first All-Japan United National champion. The United National title had actually been part of the old JWA, and was being revived by AJPW as one of the most prestigous championships in the company. On August 28, Tsuruta added to his growing aura by defeating U.S. representative (and former World champion) Jack Brisco to become the new United National champ, and the first-ever U.N. titleholder in All-Japan history. In all, Jumbo Tsuruta would go on to hold the United National title six different times between 1976-1983, defeating the likes of Billy Robinson, Dick Murdoch, Abdullah the Butcher and Harley Race to win the coveted championship.
Another major AJPW title that the nearly undefeatable Tsuruta held with an iron-clad grip was the International Heavyweight championship. Over the course of his three reigns as the International champion, he carried the title for more than four and a half years. Then, when Tsuruta, the reigning United National & International Heavyweight champion defeated PWF titleholder Stan Hansen on April 18, 1988, the unified Triple Crown championship was created, with Tsuruta serving as the first-ever unified Japanese champion.
Tsuruta proudly defended his unified World championship for the next several months, before being upset by his bitter rival Genichiro Tenryu (pictured) in June of `89. However, the popular Tsuruta would regain the Triple Crown from Tenryu the following September. He then held the championship for eight months before losing to Terry “Bam Bam” Gordy on June 5, 1990.
Jumbo Tsuruta’s final reign as the unified Triple Crown champion came when he defeated longtime rival Stan “The Lariat” Hansen on January 19, 1991. After holding the highly prestigious unified championship (which was considered by most Japanese observers to be even more important than the New Japan version of the World title) for more than a full year, Tsuruta lost the three belts that formed the unified championship back to Hansen, which ultimately marked the end of his association with the Triple Crown.
In America, Jumbo Tsuruta is probably best remembered for his victory over hated AWA World Heavyweight champion Nick Bockwinkle (pictured) on February 22, 1984. Although he won the AWA World title in Tokyo, Tsuruta defended the title frequently in AWA cities throughout the United States in addition to putting his title on the line against Japanese competition.
While he was not the most marketable champion (certainly not when compared to the NWA’s Ric Flair or the WWF’s Hulk Hogan) the AWA was nevertheless able to exploit Tsuruta’s stiff ring style and present him as a legitimately dangerous, yet honorable, world-class competitor who was completely deserving of holding the World championship.
Then, after three successful months as the AWA World champion, the highly credible Tsuruta delivered the AWA title to the promotion’s most popular young babyface, Rick Martel, on May 13, 1984.
While it is certainly true that Tsuruta was a huge fan favorite both at home and in the States, as well as being one of the most honorable and hard-working performers in the business, it’s also true that for a short time during the early 1990’s, Jumbo Tsuruta experimented with a much more heelish persona…
Far from a run-of-the-mill ‘bad guy’ who would cower in fear or accept tainted victories, Tsuruta’s new attitude and ring demeanor was basically an extension of his hard-hitting, punishing and merciless ring style. Adding to his ‘heel turn’ was the fact that instead of continuing to wrestle against Hansen, Abdullah and the rest of the hated gai-jins or his many Japanese rivals, Tsuruta started competing against AJPW’s more popular young up-and-comers. Tsuruta was now in a what seemed to be a permanently bad mood, and the (now) gruff, stern task-master began battering and bruising his less experienced opponents without remorse, seemingly enjoying the rush of dominating talented athletes who were frequently half his age.
However, the true source of his heel turn was simply to build new young babyfaces to carry on the popularity and tradition of All Japan Pro Wrestling. At the time, Baba’s respected company was experiencing a serious lack of money-drawing young talent at the top of the card, a situation that was allowing Inoki’s New Japan Pro Wrestling to make giant strides towards overtaking them in terms of the ongoing AJPW vs. NJPW promotional battle.
As the premier AJPW competitor, Tsuruta’s matches carried an enormous amount of prestige and media attention, and by extension, his opponents were almost automatically considered by the fans to be on the top tier of the promotion and legitimate superstars. Given the fact that he lost very, very few matches during his prime as AJPW’s number one performer, merely competing against the great Tsuruta was enough to raise the perceived status of a wrestler.
And, as far as defeating Tsuruta goes? Those select few who were able to do the (nearly) impossible and hold Jumbo’s shoulders down for a rare three-count were rewarded with career-long respect from the loyal Japanese wrestling audience. A perfect example of Tsuruta’s clout with the fans was his famous match with heretofore mid-carder Mitsuhara Misawa (pictured).
Misawa (who had actually won the PWF Tag Team title several years earlier with Tsuruta while competing as Tiger Mask) was a fine talent, and the AJPW brass knew that he had the skill and charisma to become a superstar, but he could never quite make it past the middle of the AJPW roster. That is, until he came up against Jumbo Tsuruta.
In the words of Jumbo’s former rival Ric Flair, “to be the man, you gotta beat the man.” And, after defeating the promotion’s (and some would say the world’s) best wrestler, Misawa immediately became the man in AJPW…a position he enjoyed for several years to come, which he owed in great part to Tsuruta putting him ‘over’.
However, soon after passing the torch to Misawa, Tsuruta was diagnosed with hepatitis. Although he continued to wrestle a full schedule of matches, the disease eventually took its toll on the mighty Tsuruta, and both his ring work & appearance clearly suffered. Sadly, he was soon reduced to relatively meaningless, non-title matches with his old tag team partner Giant Baba. Yet, unlike during their previous runs together, this time around it was Baba who was carrying the load of the team, not vice versa. But, despite his marked decline in size and ring proficiency, the fans still held a special place in the hearts for the once-great performer, and they would cheer passionately whenever Jumbo, after delivering his famous flying knee, would raise his fist into the air…which was a trademark gesture of Tsuruta’s, simliar to The Rock signaling his People’s Elbow or The Undertaker raising his arm into the air just before delivering his choke slam.
After announcing his intentions in February of `99, the legendary Jumbo Tsuruta officially retired from the “sport” on March 6, 1999, following a truly remarkable career that spanned some 26 years wrestling exclusively for All Japan Pro Wrestling. Tsuruta was given a hero’s farewell by his loyal fans, and he then faded quitely from the spotlight. However, following the death of Shohei Baba, Tsuruta was essentially forced from his longstanding position as an important member of the AJPW front office. Suddenly, after nearly thirty years, Tsuruta was completely out of the wrestling business.
Content in the knowledge that his place in wrestling history was secure, Tsuruta then completely altered his career path by moving to the United States and taking a position at the University of Portland as an assistant professor, teaching sports physiology.
So, it was a shock to virutally everyone when the knews spread that Jumbo Tsuruta had died on May 13, 2000 at the young age of 49. What most did not realize was that Tsuruta had been ill for quite some time, suffering from cancer of the liver and, later, one of his kidneys. After traveling to Australia to have the cancer removed from his liver, he then traveled to the Phillipines in order to undergo a kidney transplant. However, during the laborious operation, Tsuruta went into shock and, sadly, passed away at a very young age.
Throughout his quarter-century in pro wrestling, Tsuruta consistently proved himself to be man of incredible ring skill, who, at the same time, was so beloved and admired by his audience that he could blow the roof off any arena in Japan simply by raising a clenched fist into the air.
The lasting contribution made by Jumbo Tsuruta to the “sport” of professional wrestling, particularly in his homeland, is truly profound. The innovator of several original holds and manuevers, all of which are now commonplace in wrestling matches throughout Japan, North America and Mexico, he unquestionably left his thumbprint on what wrestling fans now see in the ring. Additionally, by pioneering the highly believable, punishing ‘strong’ style that would go on to characterize Japanese wrestling throughout the eighties and nineties, the skilled goliath played a major role in genuinely reshaping the wrestling business for the better.
HistoryofWrestling.com is proud to posthumously induct one of the greatest competitors in Japanese wrestling history and a true innovator whose unique style changed pro wrestling forever, Jumbo Tsuruta, into the H.O.W. Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame……