Earthquake John Tenta and Kōji Kitao – When Things Turned Real!

Wrestling isn’t always what it seems. When it’s at its best, the scripted nature of the bouts can become indistinguishable from real. However, when Earthquake John Tenta and Kōji Kitao faced off in 1991, what was depicted in the ring was very real. This was a case of exposing the business, endangering the lives of those in the ring, and it would soon become headline news all over Japan.

When "Earthquake" John Tenta faced off against Kōji Kitao on March 30th, 1991, things turned real!
When “Earthquake” John Tenta faced off against Kōji Kitao in 1991, things turned real!

The Troubles Between Earthquake John Tenta and Kōji Kitao

On March 30th, 1991, in a co-promoted show between Super World of Sports and the then-WWF, Wrestlefest took place at the Tokyo Dome. One of the matches pitted a battle between two former sumo wrestlers when "Earthquake" John Tenta faced off against Kōji Kitao.

Kitao was always known to have a bad boy image and turned to pro wrestling after a controversial stint in sumo and a later falling out with the association. In wrestling, he soon got himself into hot water in 1990 after being fired from New Japan Pro Wrestling after disrespectful conduct and racism towards Korean-born wrestler Riki Choshu.

Dave Meltzer reported on Tenta and Kitao’s first match at Wrestlefest, "Believe it or not, this match got the most heat of the card, and it was the best match from a crowd standpoint, but not from a wrestling standpoint."

But things didn’t go as smoothly between the former sumo wrestlers at Wrestle Dream in World Hall in Kobe, Japan, on April 1st.

The Rematch That Turned Into a Shoot

The rematch between "Earthquake" John Tenta and Kōji Kitao started normal enough but with Kitao seemingly a little perturbed at whatever John Tenta tried to do. The match looked to be your typical realistic Puroresu-style work, with psychology, proper pacing, and tests of strength.

The match quickly went to heck after Tenta grabbed hold of Kitao in a waist lock, but when Kitao seems to want to reverse or escape, Tenta’s grip didn’t loosen.

In a worked match, Tenta must make this look real by working snugly against his opponent. There then needs to be a transition from this hold, with Kitao having an opportunity to maneuver into something else.

To escape, you must widen your opponent’s grip by getting your thumbs inside, between your body and his arms. Then you must squat down and pop your hips. Kitao tried to tear apart Tenta’s grip, using only brute strength, not technique. To his increasing frustration, Tenta’s unrelenting clench had little give.

As Kitao continued to struggle, Tenta "helped him out" by lifting and slamming him onto the mat for a takedown.

Giving Kitao barely room to breathe, Tenta proceeded to lay all 400+ lbs on him and then attempted to grab one of Kitao’s legs amateur style, just before the flustered former Japanese sumo wrestler escaped to the outside.

Most accounts relate John Tenta to have been a happy-go-lucky fellow, but the 400+ Earthquake is not a man you would want to antagonize.
Most accounts relate John Tenta to have been a happy-go-lucky fellow, but the 400+ Earthquake is not a man you would want to antagonize.

A stone-faced but flustered Kitao then grabbed a table and recklessly lunged it towards Tenta. Fortunately, it hit the ropes and bounced back to the outside. At this moment, it was easy to perceive the shock from the announcers’ voices as they witnessed Kitao’s tantrum.

The Japanese crowd now began to let its presence known with loud boos hurled in Kitao’s direction.

Back in the ring, Kitao consulted with his three cornermen whispering amongst themselves. Now with his strategy in hand, he proceeded to close in on Tenta, slowly.

The tension in the air was palpable. Soon, an unforeseen shoot fight would evolve.

After another test of strength, Kitao managed to get one of Tenta’s extremities into an armlock, but he was quickly slapped hard across the face by the bear of a man. If he still wasn’t convinced Tenta wanted to shoot before, this slap probably confirmed his suspicions. It was on!

The referee noticed the situation coming to a boil and repeatedly tried to intervene and separate the wrestlers, presumably telling both competitors to maintain their composure.

Tenta began to seethe and breathe through his mouth like a wild, angry bear. Kitao then attempted a couple of low kicks, causing minimal damage, serving only to annoy the burly Canadian further.

The team of Kōji Kitao (left) and Genichiro Tenryu, seen here with Regis Philbin, defeated Demolition (Smash and Crush) at WrestleMania VII. A week later, Kitao would get into a shoot fight with John Tenta in Japan.
The team of Kōji Kitao (left) and Genichiro Tenryu, seen here with Regis Philbin, defeated Demolition (Smash and Crush) at WrestleMania VII. A week later, Kitao would get into a shoot fight with John Tenta in Japan. [Photo: solowrestling.mundodeportivo.com]
Soon, Kitao adopted a stance you might see in a ’70s martial arts movie. He had two fingers sticking out, communicating that he now wanted to target Tenta’s eyes.

As both continued their dangerous dance, Tenta continuously slapped Kitao’s fingers away. His fingers eventually connected but just below Tenta’s eye socket, averting severe damage.

When an incensed Tenta realized just how close he came to losing an eye, he answered with a sturdy kick to the midsection.

Now enranged and not caring what the affair’s outcome might be, John Tenta began threatening his opponent with eye gauges of his own. Kitao, still rather expressionless, seemed unfazed at the raging Canadian behemoth but had no option but to defend himself.

From here, the match transitioned into a series of staredowns with neither man trying to show fear. Then Kitao’s frustration spilled over, and he took it out on the person who least warranted it: the referee.

The tiny Japanese official took a rough tumble after Kitao delivered a powerful kick at him, and the ref ended up crumpled against the nearest ropes.

Now the only authority figure who may have had a chance to get the match back on track was calling for the timekeeper to ring the bell.

The match was officially over, leaving everyone in a dazed state of confusion as to what they had just witnessed.

Tenta raised his arms in victory because of Kitao’s disqualification. But before retreating to the dressing rooms, Kitao had what he thought was a brilliant idea.

He grabbed the microphone and vociferously proclaimed wrestling was a farce, announcing that the chances of him losing to Tenta in a real fight were impossible. He spat on the ground and was escorted away by half a dozen men who quickly took away the microphone.

Kitao perhaps assumed he’d have his way with Tenta and embarrass him because Tenta was involved in that “fake wrestling world for too long.” He was wrong.

Tenta raised his arms once again in victory. He had survived the attack and didn’t lose an eye.

Watch Kōji Kitao Expose the Business:

Aftermath

Some stories suggest Kitao not wanting to sell for Tenta, but to others, the footage may disprove this theory which shows Tenta unwilling to work with Kitao. Bruce Prichard offered his opinion on Kōji Kitao in his Something to Wrestle podcast.

"He was a sumo champion we had brought over with [Genichiro] Tenryu. Green as grass but had a f***ing chip on his shoulder you wouldn’t believe.

“[Kitao] walked in thinking he was tougher, bigger, better than anyone we had on the roster. He carried himself that way in the locker room. He was green, stiff and sh**ty. Considered himself a shooter, but he was just kind of an a**hole really."

With that attitude, according to Prichard, Kōji Kitao had many people willing to fight him. He believes that the problem was Kitao and not Tenta.

"John was actually willing to do business,” admitted Prichard. “I’m sure he would’ve done anything that was asked of him to do. When Kitao was asked to do business, Kitao balked at it and said, ‘I could kill this guy in real life,’ and John took exception to that, saying, ‘If you want to go out there and shoot, we can shoot.’

“I think when they got in the ring, Kitao tried Tenta a little bit, and realized, ‘If you’re gonna go out there and shoot, you’re gonna lose, motherf***er.’"

According to Prichard, Kitao tried to shoot on Tenta in their first encounter as well. He claims that the boys in the locker rooms had been whispering in each wrestler’s ear, riling them both up. By match time, both had something to prove.

Watch “Earthquake” John Tenta vs. Kōji Kitao – The Match That Turned Into a Shoot:

Kōji Kitao continued working in wrestling for a variety of Japanese promotions. When working for UWF-I, he displayed a much more respectful attitude when facing and losing to Nobuhiko Takada.

He formed his own promotion called Kitao Dojo, which was later changed to Bukō Dōjō. Among the wrestlers that came out of the dojo were Masaaki Mochizuki, Yoshikazu Taru, and Takashi Okamura, who later became business partners of Último Dragón.

After a brief MMA career, he went back to teaching Sumo in 2003.

Kōji Kitao died on February 10th, 2019, from chronic renal failure at the age of 55.

Fortunately, Tenta and Kitao managed to mend their relationship, like most superstars with beef seem to do eventually. They would have a third match five years after things turned into a shoot. In this match, things went smoothly, and each managed to make the other look good.

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Javier Ojst is an old-school wrestling enthusiast currently residing in El Salvador. He's been a frequent guest on several podcasts, has a few bylines on TheLogBook.com where he shares stories of pop culture and retro-related awesomeness, and his work has also appeared in G-Fan magazine. He can be contacted by e-mail at jojst1@gmail.com.