It isn’t easy to overstate how entrenched Fumi Saito has been in the wrestling industry for the past four decades. Here’s his unique and unforgettable story!
Fumi Saito: No Boasting
Fumi Saito is Japan’s leading wrestling historian and journalist and has been for some time. So why isn’t he a household name in the wrestling industry and among its millions of fans, à la Dave Meltzer or Conrad Thompson?
Fumihiko Saito admits that he doesn’t promote himself nearly enough as he should. And before appearing on several podcasts in the last couple of years, Fumi had remained an almost anonymous figure in the business for most outside Japan.
However, the innumerable wrestlers he’s championed, true insiders, and the Japanese wrestling media recognize his extensive contributions.
Fumi Saito has interviewed a slew of wrestlers from around the globe, written countless articles, and published multiple books. And yet, he remains unassuming and humble.
Uninterested in putting himself over, he follows his childhood hero Karl Gotch’s wisdom when referring to people always talking about themselves: “That plain stinks! You’ve got to be humble.”
Of course, one of Fumi’s specialties is diving deeply into Japanese wrestling history. The geyser of fascinating info flows once he gets started.
So inevitably, he veered our conversation away from his life and career and instead focused on the two iconic centerpieces of Puroresu: Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba.
Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba
After “The Father of Puroresu” Rikidozan tragically died in December of 1963, former associates Yoshino Sato, Kokichi Endo, Michiaki Yoshimura, and Toyonobori continued running Nihon Puroresu Kyōkai (Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance).
As a three-year-old boy at his grandfather’s house from his mother’s side, the remnants of Rikidozan’s Japanese wrestling empire are Fumi Saito’s earliest wrestling memories.
Like clockwork on Friday evenings, a mass of people faithfully assembled around the television to watch Puroresu’s larger-than-life heroes.
Fumi remembers everybody intently observing the proceedings in glorious black and white at a time when televisions were not yet a household commodity available for all.
Fumi fondly reminisced about B-I Cannon, the hot team comprised of future Puroresu pillars Shohei “Giant” Baba and Kanji “Antonio” Inoki. They held the NWA International Tag Team Championships on four occasions, becoming a sensation with their crowd-pleasing wrestling moves.
Fumi describes them as the “top pro wrestler employees” under the JWA umbrella.
The Start of All Japan and New Japan
In December 1971, Antonio Inoki tried implementing changes within the company’s structure, and they saw him as a threat. As a result, Inoki was punished for his defiance and future endeavored.
Inoki was now free of JWA’s constraints and founded New Japan Pro Wrestling in March of 1972. He shaped it into his vision of how pro wrestling should be and became one of Japan’s most iconic stars and personalities.
The summer of 1972 saw the unique-looking Giant Baba also test the waters. With the support of Nippon TV, better known as Channel 4 on the dial, he founded All Japan Pro Wrestling.
TV exposure eluded Inoki’s new promotion for a year, but he soon got a network contract in April of 1973 with Channel 10, TV Asahi, and tangled with Baba’s All Japan for decades.
Inoki and Baba establishing their respective promotions shook the Japanese wrestling landscape and devastated the struggling JWA. Rikidozan’s former company floundered and called it quits that same month.
A new brighter era of Puroresu commenced that saw countless stars formed and many venues filled with a new generation of fans. Now two major league companies competed for Puroresu supremacy.
Many others came and left, but these two have overcome challenges, adapted, and remained standing. The spirit of their founders continues to live through their work ethic and philosophy.
Coincidently, this interview was conducted in 2022 and marked the 50th anniversary of these two key wrestling promotions.
“Thinking about Giant Baba today is very nostalgic, but he passed away in 1999 and didn’t make it to the 21st century,” Fumi sadly noted.
“But in turn, Inoki decided to show himself through YouTube videos until his last dying days while at the hospital. So, Inoki’s legacy lives on.
“He recently passed,” Fumi continued, “but there isn’t a day when people don’t talk about him.
“To me, Inoki was like Hulk Hogan and Vince McMahon in one package. Producer, promoter, and boss. He became an almost religious figure even after retiring. But, he was more than wrestling; he was ‘The [making air quotes] Antonio Inoki.'”
Fumi’s latest book, “Inoki and Baba” chronicles the careers of both icons and can be purchased here.
Fumi Saito’s Journey Begins
For his senior year of high school, Fumi Saito became a foreign exchange student instead of taking the conventional route like most students.
He’d seen wrestlers such as Jumbo Tsuruta, Seiji Sakaguchi, Riki Choshu, Tatsumi Fujinami, and Genichiro Tenryu sent to America for three to four years to hone their craft and, upon returning to Japan, become main eventers. So even though he wasn’t a wrestler, he envisioned traveling a similar path.
His chance came when earning a scholarship to attend school in Minneapolis, Minnesota. With the news, he loudly proclaimed to his homeroom teacher, “I’m going to the AWA!”
His teacher was puzzled.
But, no matter, Fumi’s excitement would not be extinguished.
He was inexorable in his tunnel vision. He saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to somehow get into wrestling despite others not comprehending the appeal.
Fumi dreamed about somehow entering the coveted wrestling circle.
First, he had to remain in America, so instead of finishing up his senior year of high school and returning to Japan, Fumi was determined to attend college in the United States.
Once he’d attained this goal, he was hell-bent on making inroads with the AWA. He then wrote to a wrestling magazine in Japan and offered to do anything that needed doing- taking photos, writing articles, or simply reporting results.
Fumi suspects that the magazine editor didn’t believe in the then-19-year-old Fumi but encouraged him.
Fumi Saito on the Ever-Present Kayfabe Curtain
In the early ’80s, peeling the kayfabe curtain was challenging and still very restricted for outsiders. But promoter Wally Karbo saw something in Fumi and graciously allowed him into the backstage area to roam the halls. That didn’t guarantee access to the dressing rooms, however!
Verne Gagne was also skeptical, but with lots of persistence, Fumi mustered the courage and found himself at ringside and backstage with his Cannon camera he barely knew how to use.
He admits that he still hates using the darn things to this day.
Fumi refuses to call himself a photographer but capturing the moment and providing a visual aid to card results was how Fumi was going to prove himself to the magazines.
The first card he photographed was Nick Bockwinkel challenging Verne Gagne for the coveted AWA World Title.
Veterans like Verne Gagne, Bockwinkel, Mad Dog Vachon, Baron von Raschke, and The Crusher, who for years represented the AWA’s old guard, weren’t eager to allow an outsider into their inner sanctum of half-truths, sleights of hand and worked exhibitions.
So, at first, his early work for the Japanese wrestling magazine involved sending in the results and attaching a couple of photos and not whole articles. But this soon changed.
Unexpected But Welcome Friendships
The unlikely pairing of Adrian Adonis and Jesse Ventura, who formed the East-West Connection at the time, befriended Fumi and helped him break the protected wall of kayfabe back in 1981. Adrian Adonis, whom we lost too soon in a tragic automobile accident on July 4th, 1988, was incredibly accommodating with him.
Fumi then found himself speaking with Nick Bockwinkel and going to his house. “Jumpin'” Jim Brunzell welcomed him into his gym, and so did Jesse Ventura. He remembers Hulk Hogan’s first run in the AWA as a babyface from ’82 to ’83, where he also spent several months working in NJPW for Antonio Inoki.
Hogan’s intense promos are not lost on Fumi either. He saw how he was starting to develop into the Hulkster that fans would grow to love.
In his previous heel run in the WWF, Hogan had already filmed Rocky 3, the film that helped solidify his mainstream stardom. Hogan was very friendly with Fumi and already living with his future wife, Linda Marie Claridge, the mother of his two children- Brooke and Nick.
While familiarizing himself with the inner working of the business, he’d get sent on assignment with paid airfare and lodging to different shows. So not only did he cover the vast AWA but also the NWA.
Jumbo Tsuruta and Masa Saito
In 1984, Jumbo Tsuruta came into Minneapolis as the AWA Champion. Tsuruta eventually struck a friendship with Fumi, who showed him around and helped him assimilate.
On his second tour with the AWA, Fumi recalls Jumbo dropping the belt to Rick Martel at the St. Paul Civic Center, an event taped for Japanese television. And although he and Tsuruta got along well, he never told him the finishes of any matches. As Fumi says, Tsuruta and most other wrestlers kept it “old fashioned.”
That same year when Tsuruta dropped the belt, Masa Saito (Mr. Saito) came into the AWA after his tour with the WWF. The intimidating wrestler was built like a bull and remembered for his tag team with Mr. Fuji, where they worked a feud with Chief Jay Strongbow and kayfabe brother Jules. But he also carved quite a career in other territories.
On April 6th, 1984, Saito found himself involved in a strange incident with Ken Patera at a McDonald’s in Waukesha, Wisconsin, involving a boulder, several police officers, and time in the clink. You can read about that wild story here.
Years later, on October 4th, 1987, Masa took on Antonio Inoki in a bizarre Island Death Match on the tiny uninhabited island of Ganryujima. Indeed, one of wrestling’s all-time oddest gimmick matches.
“We did lots of things together,” Fumi smiles when remembering Masa and laughs when thinking about people assuming he and the thickly built former Olympian wrestler might be family.
“People thought we were related because of the ‘Saito,’ but that name is prevalent in Japan! People would ask, ‘Is that your dad’?”
As is often the case, Fumi had to get a job while in college and found himself washing dishes at a Japanese restaurant when not working wrestling shows.
Masa was a frequent customer with a hearty appetite who came in several times a week. Finally, Fumi began picking his brain and talked with Masa about “nothing but wrestling for hours.”
When graduating from college, he told Jumbo Tsuruta that he wanted to work in wrestling journalism for a living. Fumi explains, “As conservative as [Jumbo Tsuruta] was, I expected him to tell me to go back to Japan, get a real job and do this wrestling stuff as a hobby. Instead, he told me, ‘If this is what you want to do, then do it!'”
On the other hand, Masa, being more of a “free spirit and easier going,” as Fumi described him, surprisingly expressed that working in wrestling would be a mistake because Fumi was a “smart kid who graduated from college” and should pursue other means of employment.
Although both had similar pedigrees as former college graduates and Olympic wrestlers, Tsuruta took the safer route for his career by working in All Japan for Giant Baba. Masa chose to go mainly freelance instead. Perhaps that swayed his opinion of Fumi’s possible future involvement in wrestling.
Returning to Japan and Interviewing Stars
Fumi Saito did go back to Tokyo after graduating from college and, for the next thirty-plus years, worked full-time for a weekly baseball/pro wrestling magazine.
But before returning to Japan, he worked in several wrestling territories for almost four years, including Dallas, Montreal, Vancouver, Tennessee, and many others.
Fumi learned to deal with the complicated personalities of some wrestlers and, like most great journalists, navigated those treacherous waters just fine.
“Many wrestlers are misunderstood but also some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
Hawk from the Road Warriors and later Legion of Doom in the WWF is a good example. According to Fumi, he was “so real, friendly, and truthful. He never got carried away with his character and was always talkative [with me].”
Fumi eventually interviewed some of the sport’s biggest stars in Japan, including Lou Thesz, Karl Gotch, Hulk Hogan, Terry and Dory Funk Jr., Harley Race, Bruiser Brody, Stan Hansen, Dynamite Kid, The Road Warriors, Terry Gordy, Steve Williams, Bam Bam Bigelow, Big Van Vader, Bret Hart, Kevin Nash, and Scott Hall (to name but a few).
“I am fortunate to have interviewed so many people. I grew up reading magazines that interviewed American athletes and celebrities for the Japanese reader, and later I did the same.”
The elusive and mysterious Original Shiek Ed Farhat, who for decades rarely permitted to be interviewed and has no shoot interviews anywhere, conversed with Fumi back in 1990, too.
“He worked for FMW in Japan and brought along his nephew Sabu. I’ve noticed that often the bigger star a wrestler is, the nicer they are. But, on the other hand, the middle carders are mediocre and can be a**holes.”
Fumi Saito Meets his Hero
Fumi Saito fondly recollects visiting Hiro Matsuda in Florida and meeting his childhood hero Karl Gotch, whom the Japanese fans call Kamisama, translated in English as “The God of Wrestling.” Gotch reportedly was uncomfortable with such high praise; he never saw himself as worthy of worship.
Fumi becomes very emotional when speaking about Gotch and remembers when he was ten years old and glued in front of the television watching Gotch vs. Inoki. “So dignified!” he exclaims.
Fumi Saito did the production and voice-over work for the Japanese home video version of WrestleMania I through X. After buying the rights to the event (in this case, Coliseum Video), Fumi was hired to go into the studio to edit the format into a shorter two-hour version and do the Japanese color commentary. He also did color for Japanese versions of various WCW and ECW cards and the All Japan Women’s Wrestling promotion.
Freelancer Fumi Saito
In 2014, Fumi quit the weekly pro wrestling magazine he worked for and has been on his own ever since. Every year, content is increasingly going digital, with him adding, “Nobody reads paper magazines anymore.”
He continued, “Back in 2007, ‘Weekly Fight’ went out of business. ‘Weekly Gong’ also. Many of the daily newsstand publications covering wrestling ceased operations. And now the wrestling stories you read online are not from the older wrestling writers; they’ve moved on too. They’re all young people that do the writing. Most are at least 20 years younger than me.”
He still enjoys wrestling and goes to all the G1-Climax shows, Tokyo Dome, and Wrestle Kingdom.
Even though the wrestlers he grew up with are either retired or gone, he enjoys today’s wrestling. His passion has not faltered one bit. And although his focus is not writing about the current product, he will if hired. For example, out of all the writers available to do a long piece on Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tanahashi specifically said he wanted Fumi to do the job, which Fumi gladly accepted.
“You can never learn everything about pro wrestling,” Fumi declares. “I still learn something every day. So let’s not be arrogant. It’s an art form and more real than people realize.”
A Health Scare That Made Fumi Saito Diversify His Skills
“Back in 2007, I got stomach cancer and had to recuperate for six months,” Fumi Saito revealed suddenly during our interview.
That’s when he questioned whether the daily grind and minimum sleep plus the stress that came with trying to keep a deadline for a weekly magazine was worth it.
“I asked myself, ‘Will I be doing this forever?’ When you’re thirtysomething, you don’t think about it, and I was making good money, too. I didn’t even picture myself being forty or fifty.”
He continued, “I’ll be watching wrestling forever, but I then decided to get my master’s degree in Sociology, and then I took three years to get my Ph.D.”
Fumi also spoke about the differences in perception of wrestling in America and Japan.
“Real or fake isn’t even an issue for me at all,” promises Fumi. “I just love what I see, and I’m glad I’m a wrestling fan. It’s too late to start liking anything else. No regrets. None. And I’ll be watching wrestling until the day I go.”
In 1992, Fumi produced and directed a short documentary featuring Karl Gotch and a host of cameos of other wrestlers, including Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Yuki Ishikawa, Boris Malenko, and Madusa. It is called “Karl Gotch: Kamisama” and can be found for free online viewing below:
Fumi’s other works include “Showa Pro-Wrestling Official History Volume 2,” “Forgotten Story of Foreign Wrestlers,” “Recommendation for Pro-Wrestling Sociology,” and many more. His latest book called “Inoki and Baba” is available here.
Fumi still writes about wrestling for mostly online publications, regularly appears with Jim Valley on the Pacific Rim Pro Wrestling Podcast by WON/F4W, and Write That Down! with Justin Knipper of Fight Game Media.
His anxiously-awaited next book will be about Rikidozan.
While a humble man, his resume is most impressive, and clearly, there’s much more to come from Mr. Fumi Saito.
Wrestlers with Fumi: Cherished Photos from the Personal Collection of Fumi Saito
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