He is considered the Father Of Puroresu, and the man who established the popularity of professional wrestling in Japan. He became a legend during his life and an even greater one after his untimely death.
Real Name: Kim Sin-Nak
Stats: 5’10” 230 lbs.
Born: November 14, 1924
By Steve Slagle
Although his name might not be easily recognized by many U.S. fans today, Rikidozan was once one of the most influential men in wrestling…and perhaps the most important man in the history of puroresu (Japanese pro wrestling). It is widely acknowledged that had there been no Rikidozan, there would likely be no such thing as pro wrestling in Japan. He is known as “The Father Of Puroresu”, and is a legend in Japan…
Rikidozan (which translates into “rugged mountain road”) was born Kim Sin-Nak on November 14, 1924 in North Korea. Because of the long history of discrimination by the Japanese against Koreans, Sin-Nak used the name Mitsuhiro Momota and claimed he hailed from Nagasaki. While growing up, he encountered that prejudice against Koreans often, and was known to have been quite bitter because of it. He kept his true identity a secret for his entire career, and his true nationality was not revealed until years after his death.
After training as a sumo, the man who would go on to rule Japanese pro wrestling began his career on October 28, 1951 in Tokyo, wrestling to a 10 minute draw against Bobby Bruns. Soon, the athletic and talented Rikidozan would (nearly) single-handedly establish puroresu as a sport for the masses…
After they lost World War II, the Japanese people were understandably in a state of depression, and looking for heroes that could help ease the pain of their everyday lives. The sport of wrestling was, literally, brand new to the Japanese public, and Rikidozan became the biggest wrestling superstar in the country.
By beating American wrestler after American wrestler (who were portrayed as evil villians), Rikidozan helped win back some respect for Japan in the eyes of the Japanese people. In the process, he became a national hero. Rikidozan often expressed his contempt for American wrestlers, whom he saw as overweight cheaters, and he often claimed that they were “soft” compared with their Japanese counterparts. It might not have made him popular with American fans, but the Japanese loved him for standing up to the Americans. But in actuality, it was an American who truly put him over the top as Japan’s #1 wrestler.
When World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz lost the International Heavyweight title (which had been awarded to him by the N.W.A.) to Rikidozan on August 27, 1958 it validated Rikidozan in the eyes of the wrestling world. Lou Thesz — the most revered wrestler in the world at the time — was virtually the only American wrestler Rikidozan would admit to having respect for. The respect was mutual…and when Thesz “put him over” again by losing to Rikidozan in the final round of the 4th Annual World League Tournament on May 25, 1962, he knew he would be building Rikidozan’s reputation at the expense of his own. It was a jesture Rikidozan would never forget, and a lesson he would pass on to his students (which included Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki) when training them for a career inside of the ring…
During his remarkable career, Rikidozan won numerous championships…the Pacific Coast Tag Team title (with one of those “hated” Americans, Dennis Clary) in 1952, the Japanese Heavyweight title in 1954, the Hawaiian Tag Team championship, the All-Asian Heavyweight title in 1955, the N.W.A. World Tag Team title (w/Koukichi Endo) in 1956, the N.W.A. Inernational Heavyweight title (from Thesz) in 1958, the All-Asian Tag Team title four times between 1960-1963, and the W.W.A. World Heavyweight title (Los Angeles) in 1962. He also won 5 prestigious tournament is Japan, defeating the likes of Thesz, Killer Kowalski, and others..
Aside from being Japan’s top pro wrestler, Rikidozan was also a successful businessman…and by the end of his life had acquired a vast empire which included his wrestling and boxing promotions, as well as hotels, golf courses, night clubs, and real estate holdings. However, those business interests would eventually bring him into contact with the violent “underworld” of Japanese gangsters…
On December 8, 1963 he had an argument with one of those gangsters in the restroom of a fashionable Tokyo hotspot, and after having a dispute over mutual “territory”, Rikidozan was stabbed in the torso. He was rushed to the hospital, and the doctors told him that the wound was not life-threatening, and that he would heal properly with some time off. But just one week later, he died of peritonitis after bleeding profusely. He was only 39.
Thousands of mourners attended his funeral on December 20, 1963. The loss of Rikidozan was so shattering that the sport he loved so much nearly died along with him. Puroresu went into a tailspin after his death, and it took 2 of his students — Baba the Giant and Antonio Inoki — to keep Rikidozan’s legacy alive.
Thanks to Rikidozan, wrestling was established in Japan. The sport, which is now viewed by tens of millions of Japanese every year, quite literally, would probably not exist today in Japan had it not been for his tireless efforts. The Ring Chronicle is proud to induct Rikidozan, The Father Of Puroresu, into T.R.C.’s Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame…