In 1995, amidst scandals alleging embezzlement and the Yakuza, Antonio Inoki looked to salvage his reputation and spot in politics. He saw an opportunity where most saw an isolationist, authoritarian dictatorship: North Korea. Boasting a crowd of over 360,000 fans across two days, Collision in Korea was the most prominent international event since the Korean War, and Inoki, Muhammed Ali, and Ric Flair would soon become unlikely ambassadors in a bizarre political game.
Collision In Korea – Wrestling For Peace in a Land of War
Antonio Inoki is recognized as one of Japan’s greatest wrestling stars and a protegé of the Godfather of Japanese Puroresu, the soon-to-be North Korean-born Rikidozan. It’s important to note that up to 1945, what is now North Korea used to be part of Japan. Therefore most consider him Korean.
Besides being the founder of New Japan Pro Wrestling, the jutted-chinned superstar had already involved himself in several headline-worthy events.
In 1990, Inoki met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro and later was credited with aiding 41 Japanese citizens held hostage in Iraq under Saddam Hussein’s regime months before the Gulf War broke out in 1991. But in 1995, Inoki was neck-deep in a swirl of controversy, possibly involving the infamous Yakuza and the embezzlement of funds.
Spinning his wheels, trying to conjure up a way to save his political career — and maybe be re-elected — he thought outside the box and envisioned a massive festival held in Pyongyang, the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), all in the name of peace and unity.
Sports at the forefront and professional wrestling as its main attraction.
Inoki took a significant risk even suggesting such an event. Even with the Japanese government unable to guarantee his safety, he became the mastermind behind the scenes with the approval and supervision of Kim Jong-Il, of course.
Such an unprecedented mega-event needed a stately personality to lend credence to the grand festivities. And so Inoki contacted then-WCW president Eric Bischoff to help him secure boxing legend Muhammad Ali, billed the "World’s Most Famous Athlete," for this singular affair.
It would be a card filled with NJPW and WCW talent. 15 total matches, and worthy of any pay-per-view. Two days of massively choreographed dancing exhibitions with extensive crowd participation in the form of coordinated placards and displays of power with soldiers marching alongside tanks awaited.
The spectacle made the Super Bowl Halftime show look like a backyard birthday party with a budget rent-a-clown and someone’s hapless uncle as the magician.
Inoki’s incantation, he had hoped to swoon the world over on this grand stage and was focusing on establishing "peace through sports diplomacy." But to reach this goal, he had one more request for Eric Bischoff, and it was a biggie.
Inoki wanted to work with the face of sports entertainment, the American Icon, the “Immortal” Hulk Hogan in the festival’s last match that hoped to tie everything together.
Unfortunately, this didn’t happen, but instead, the “Nature Boy” Ric Flair readily agreed to make the trip when presented the idea of Collision in Korea.
On his 83 Weeks podcast, Eric Bischoff explained that Hulk Hogan refusing the offer had nothing to do with him not wanting to put Inoki over, as speculated by many fans and reported by Dave Meltzer. And neither did Hulk Hogan becoming a potential target in North Korea influence the decision. It was simply a matter of the "Hulkster not wanting to go to Korea, end of story," affirms Bischoff.
"They [Inoki and Hogan] had a long history that dated back to the ‘80s, so it would have been a great thing for Inoki in many respects. So I asked Hulk, but I might have well asked him to row a boat to Pluto, It was not gonna happen," explained Eric Bischoff in a 2015 Sports Illustrated article.
He also explains that this trip to North Korea was a bonus show to their arrangements and working relationship with NJPW, and they got paid in Japan, not in DPRK.
Other than Flair, the other American wrestlers on the show, including Road Warrior Hawk, Scott Norton, Wild Pegasus (Chris Benoit), Flying Scorpio (2 Cold Scorpio), and The Steiner Brothers, were paid their standard rates.
Undoubtedly, the Collision in Korea event would be deemed historical and presented on the grandest of international stages. But even more significant, but rarely spoken of, is the women’s tag match between Akira Hokuto and Bull Nakano versus Manami Toyota and Mariko Yoshida.
To the crowd’s astonishment, there would be a second women’s match on day two as well.
These matches were akin to, but decades prior, the first time Saudi Arabia hosted a women’s professional wrestling match pitting WWE’s Lacey Evans and Natalya in late 2019.
Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium was now ready to host the International Sport and Culture Festival for Peace.
Would it be the touted political and cultural success the organizers hoped?
For two days, as many as 355 thousand people witnessed the Collision in Korea events which planned to showcase North Korea to the world community. But what the contracted wrestlers experienced internally was a different story.
A Memorable Yet Scary Flight for the Wrestlers
As those traveling from the U.S. could not fly directly to North Korea, they gathered in the Pacific coastal city of Nagoya in central Japan, where North Korea sent a weathered and beaten wreck of a plane to retrieve them.
Once again, this belies the glamour often thought of as a professional wrestler’s life in a major promotion.
Sonny Onoo remembers many freaking out because the plane seemed to be as old as the Korean War and stripped of most seat belts.
"It was a prop and transport plane, so it was not the most comfortable. For someone like Scott Norton, who weighed close to 360 lbs, it was a little uncomfortable," Bischoff remembers.
"This thing looked like it flew in World War II, man," laments the muscular Scott Norton when recalling the treacherous flight. "It was a mess, old and rickety. It was just a heap. We tried to order a beer and they’re all hot. Nothing was refrigerated. The flight was terrible."
"It was shaking, rattling, air pockets," Rick Steiner added. "There wasn’t much being said except a few prayers."
Although Muhammad Ali needed to whisper to communicate, many fondly remember how his charisma and upbeat personality kept the mood somewhat positive throughout the flight and entirety of the trip.
He sat next to Bischoff on the plane and told him that he’d modeled his persona after professional wrestler Gorgeous George.
Ali also took a particular liking to Hawk because of his outrageous and energetic promos.
Unfortunately, Ali had Parkinson’s disease, and his hands would visibly shake when signing autographs. But this didn’t diminish the aura he exuded and the respect shown by all around him.
All passengers had been warned not to speak ill of North Korea and to assume that there were listening devices monitoring them everywhere they went. But nothing could have prepared them for the lack of scenery that awaited in this totalitarian dictatorship masquerading as a socialist state.
Not in Kansas Anymore
Eric Bischoff described DPRK as the most barren, stark, void of any life — plant life, animal life, birds, anything — that he’d ever seen. "I literally thought we were landing on Mars," he says.
North Korea was suffering through a severe famine in 1995, partially due to the fall of the Soviet Union, which frequently funneled financial aid to the country.
All the buildings had a depressing gray tone as if they were in a colorless land but tinged with paranoia. It seemed that many of the buildings were abandoned and only remained as a facade for their visit.
"We went in this airport and they were turning lights on and half of them didn’t work," remembers Scott Norton. "There was dust caked everywhere. Nobody [it seemed] had been through this airport in years."
Almost immediately upon arrival and proving who was in control, everyone’s passports got confiscated. They were then split into pairs and assigned handlers or “minders,” as they called them, which were part of their secret police.
Although Ric Flair is known as an adventurous person who isn’t afraid of trying new things, both former North Carolina senator Jesse Helms and former South Carolina Governor Carroll Campbell advised him not to travel to North Korea.
Because there was so much of the country kept in the dark, Flair became weary of the upcoming trip. His concerns then heightened when his passport was no longer in his possession.
They soon herded everyone into these small greenish-yellow Mercedes Benz’ for the country’s obligatory tour, accompanied by members of the state press who carried decades-old cameras, antiques in most parts of the world but not in North Korea. They’d constantly crank them to film, and they wore these obscenely large packs upon their backs presumably for power.
The handlers chaperoned the guests 24/7, answered questions, and never failed in attempting to indoctrinate them with propaganda whenever possible about the greatness of the recently befallen "Great Leader" Kim Il-Sung and the superiority of North Korea’s way of life and government.
Often, blatant lies were spread in North Korea (that the people there seemed to believe as accurate) like Hiroshima and Nagasaki never happening and Korea being the undisputed victor in World War II.
As part of their endless propaganda, they shared many fictitious political scenarios with their guests. They’d observe the reactions of the American and Japanese visitors closely.
Everybody could only listen and nod their heads in agreement, especially when visiting the grave of their recently beloved fallen leader.
North Korea teaches its children from an early age about the "American imperialist bastards" and their "lackeys" in Seoul and Tokyo. Now the visitors who thought they were only there to wrestle were learning how deep their host’s scars ran.
On the other side of the coin, North Americans are trained to forget great swaths of history. Still, North Koreans are reminded daily about the Korean war in 1950 that split their peninsula politically and ideologically.
Cities got leveled when the United States dropped half a million tons of bombs. Napalm and chemical weapons deployed, leaving approximately three million dead.
Ric Flair, in his recommended book, To Be The Man, recalls how his handler was stunned to learn at how expensive his Rolex watch was. Something unreachable to most of the people he encountered.
He and the rest also witnessed extremes when almost seeing starving people plowing the fields with oxen, but they as guests would later enjoy a fancy meal in what looked like a palace.
Eric Bischoff and Sonny Onoo were taken aback by the directness of their handler’s comments when they were told in explicit terms that "This is not America." When asked to explain, the handler continued, "You must not touch our women. You must leave our women alone."
Asia Society’s Orville Schell, who reported on the Collision in Korea event with CNN correspondent Mike Chinoy, explained why North Koreans feared Americans to that extreme.
"They were the incarnation of exactly the nightmare North Korean version of an American: big, strong belligerent and aggressive. Our collection of North Korean original poster art (at the Asia Society) has depictions of Americans and they’re horrendous pictures of American G.I.s with babies at the end of bayonets and stuff like that."
The Koreans understood that they were in the presence of famous people but were constantly conflicted with how animalistic and unforgiving Americans were portrayed in their propaganda. So how to treat the Americans now that they’re on their soil?
As the beleaguered wrestling troupe ventured back into the city, Bischoff remembers it looking like “one big concrete box.” The wide streets were built not for cars but for fighter jets to land in a war. “That’s just crazy,” he recalls.
Once at the hotel, everyone had these large rooms with a canopy bed and a television with two channels. One was showing 24/7 anything and everything about the "Great Leader" and Kim Jong-Il, and the other channel had just for them, old black and white wrestling matches.
In the hotel lobby, ABC’s Deborah Wang half-kiddingly approached the wrestlers and blurted out, "Really, the only reason I get to come here is covering you guys? Are you serious?" She’d be trying to gain access to DPRK for years.
The guests found themselves continually monitored and confined to their rooms and only able to eat meals together, but always within the hotel. Eric Bischoff got reprimanded after returning from his morning jog. And Scott Norton got the scare of his life after an international phone call.
Scott Norton Almost Gets Executed By North Korean Authorities
For days, Scott Norton had been trying to get through to his wife, but to get a line, you had to ask the operator downstairs who connected the call through China, and then you picked up the phone that was ringing in your room.
Norton had tried this for two days, but he was on the seventh floor and missed the phone every time because the 360 lbs Norton would run up the stairs instead of using the slow elevator.
On the day that he finally got to the phone in time, he spoke with his unhappy wife at a rate of $17 a minute ($29 today). Instead of an amicable conversation, Norton claims she accused him of partying with the boys and going crazy in North Korea.
Unable to speak because his wife’s berating took over the conversation, Norton, in desperation, exclaimed, "You don’t understand what kind of shithole we’re in!" and the phone went ‘click’ as if she’d just hung up.
A couple of minutes passed, hardly giving Norton a chance to understand what had just gone wrong when he heard a deafening pounding on the door as if someone was trying to break it down. "I thought it was Hawk next door kidding around or something," offered Norton.
When he opened the door, it was his handler but now with armed guards and a mean disposition that gave Norton a sinking feeling of what was to come. They proceeded to tell him that he couldn’t speak about North Korea like he just did and to "Come with us."
They rushed him downstairs, past the undistinguished operator, who’d connected his call and led him into a basement. Soon another person joined them who made the big man frightened, something he admits doesn’t happen often. He began speaking to the others, and while listening, gave Norton deathly stares that could’ve killed him.
Norton explained in a Hannibal TV interview, "I’m just sitting there thinking, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ Nobody knows I’m down here, nobody knows where I’m at, and I’m thinking, ‘This is it, I’m dead.’ I still believe that if Muhammed Ali and Inoki hadn’t been on that tour, I’d be gone."
They finally heard him repeatedly say that he’d just gotten into an argument with his wife, and they quickly retorted, “We don’t argue with our women and they don’t argue with us.” Finally, they warned him about what he couldn’t say about North Korea.
He couldn’t speak with his wife after that, and his phone was dead when he got back to his room. Norton wanted to leave the country immediately.
"Here we are, May Day Stadium. Can you be more American than Ric Flair? Star-studded robes, and his entrance music ("Also Sprach Zarathustra," most famously used in the film 2001). If you can imagine that music playing, him marching to the ring. The audience probably had never seen anything like that. Blond hair, blue eyes, guy wearing a star-studded robe. I would like to know what they thought."
– Sonny Onoo
Fans at Collision in Korea: Forced to Attend, Forced to Watch Wrestling
In a country where everything from music, literature to what’s on television is state-controlled and highly monitored (internet access in North Korea is almost nonexistent and highly censored), the people, in 1995, were about to witness a form of entertainment they’d never experienced before with the Collision in Korea. The hero Antonio Inoki (North Korean-born Rikidozan’s protegé) versus the villainous American Ric Flair would be the main attraction on the second day.
Luckily, from whatever country you’re reading this article, you’re probably not forced to watch something you don’t understand or enjoy.
WrestleMania 32 in Arlington, Texas, drew an astounding 101,763 rabid fans. But no wrestling event has attracted more people than the Pyongyang International Sport and Culture Festival for Peace or now dubbed Collision in Korea (still one of the few pay-per-views unavailable on the WWE Network or Peacock).
May Day Stadium accommodated 150 to 165,000 people on its first day and an estimated 165 to 190,000 on its second day, which featured Inoki versus Flair.
Ric Flair and Scott Norton soon found out why they had drawn so well those two nights, as Norton recounted to Sports Illustrated in 2015.
"Me and Flair were taking this little crappy limo to the Collision in Korea event the first day. I said, ‘Ric, man, we’re really drawing. Look at this.’ The driver looked back and said, ‘Excuse me, what do you mean by draw?’ I answered, ‘That’s a term we use when a lot of people are coming to see us.’ He replied, ‘No, nobody really wants to come. It’s forced attendance. If they don’t show up, they get a bullet in the head.’ And I went, ‘…all right then.’"
A festival preceded the wrestling matches, and the coordination between the thousands upon thousands of people in the stands and the images they were showing as they flipped over their placards were, according to Bischoff, "the most amazing thing" he ever saw.
Sonny Onoo found out that the coordination of everything had taken six months of practice.
Asia Society’s Orville Schell offered the following observation. "It really was an astounding feat of coordination, but it bespeaks the enormous waste of human energy- but also of the incredible craving North Korea has for respect and admiration."
When Muhammad Ali was introduced to the crowd while he waved from his box seats next to Korean officials, he certainly got a good reaction, but they didn’t have access to his bouts and certainly didn’t have ESPN or were familiar with the Thrilla in Manila. So, it was impossible to know what reactions were genuine. This confusion repeated itself for the wrestling matches on both evenings.
To the wrestlers’ dismay, there was little reaction from the enormous crowd. Japanese crowds are intense in their particular way but are often silent throughout most of the matches. But these spectators were catatonic.
"They didn’t clap. They didn’t do nothing. I’ve never been through anything like that. So it was a totally new experience all around," says Rick Steiner.
Schell believed that "they were dumbfounded," because even he as an American was confused as it was unbelievable to watch these athletes in action.
Eric Bischoff remembers feeling like he was watching the matches atop Mount Rushmore because he was sitting up high in the stadium like Muhammed Ali and found himself sitting close to Flair and Onoo during the first night.
Ric Flair believes that they thought they were getting Greco-Roman wrestling, but instead, they got a spectacle that often defied what was realistic and possible in a legit competitive bout. He’d have to act dumb when asked questions about the match’s ongoings.
"The first show, it was the hardest match I’ve ever had in my life," admits a dejected Scott Norton. "Me and [Shinya] Hashimoto went out there and beat the living crap out of each other and they just sat there and looked at us. We went 20 minutes. They kind of booed once in awhile, but it was terrible."
Most North Koreans are relatively small, compact, and conservative in how they handle themselves. When it was time for the Japanese women to wrestle, they didn’t know how to react.
"These female wrestlers were just completely from another planet," remembers CNN correspondent, Mike Chinoy.
"Bull Nakano had hair dyed blue, and it went straight up about six or eight inches. She was wearing a white sleeveless shirt over a leotard with half-calf boots. Manami Toyota sported a black leotard with partly opened arm coverings and looked like a dominatrix from some S&M movie. And these North Korean men were sitting there staring. Whether they had any idea what this was about is entirely beyond me."
Unbeknownst to the crowd, the second day saw two legends face each other for the first time. But the "Nature Boy," used to being the center of attention, unsurprisingly didn’t get much love from the crowd. It’s as if he was indifferent to them.
"The crowd didn’t respond to anything that I can remember until [Inoki] came out there," remembers Flair. "It certainly wasn’t because I was overwhelmingly [popular] with them. They probably said, ‘Who’s this guy?’ But Inoki appealed to them."
The 15 bouts presented in the two days of festivities failed to incite reactions from the capacity crowd. Only the appearance of Antonio Inoki seemed to shake off their apathy.
The Collision in Korea event should have been one for the ages, but it didn’t nearly generate WCW the publicity it sought. It seemed to have happened and then was quickly forgotten, even by the people in North Korea.
It remains a curious footnote in wrestling history but continues to fascinate as we continue learning more about this one-of-a-kind event.
In the end, peace was not garnered between North Korea, Japan, and the United States, but the Collision in Korea event sure gave us plenty of good stories!
"They’re the two biggest-attended pro wrestling shows ever. They were not the two biggest paid, but they were the two biggest—by a huge margin, actually," offers Dave Meltzer. "Every record’s always broken, but I can’t imagine how this one would be."
When a relieved Flair landed on Japanese soil on the trip back, he got down to his hands and knees and kissed the ground.
Inoki was not re-elected to his seat in the Japanese Diet. In 2013, he returned under the Japan Restoration Party and always encouraged dialogue with North Korea. In June 2019, Inoki retired from politics altogether.
As for the wrestlers who participated in the tour, they’ll always have memories they might not cherish, but ones they’ll certainly never forget.
Watch Collision in Korea in its entirety:
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- Great Antonio vs. Antonio Inoki – A Match That Almost Proved Deadly
- Muhammad Ali, Antonio Inoki, and the Controversial Birth of MMA
- The Time Big Van Vader and Antonio Inoki Incited a Riot in Sumo Hall
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