Rikidozan was a Korean born wrestler who became "The Father of Puroresu" (Japanese Pro Wrestling) and a national hero in post-World War II Japan. With his fame came glory, crooked associations, and vanity. He would be killed as a result of it.
Rikidozan was born in North Korea under Japanese rule in 1924 and was the youngest of six children, according to his family’s registry. The name given to him at birth was Kim Sin-rak.
In 1940, he was persuaded to leave for Japan by a man named Minosuke Momota, who supported the Nishoneseki stable of sumo wrestlers in Omura, Nagasaki. Once joining the stable, Rikidozan would fight his first sumo match in June of 1940. But due to his listing in the rankings as being from Korea, he began to be bullied and racially discriminated against by his stablemates. A story that he was born in Japan had to be invented, and he became the adopted son of Minosuke Momota. Rikidozan’s name became Mitsuhiro Momota, with his birthplace now Omura. But for this story, he will always be referred to by the sumo name given to him: Rikidozan, which means "Rugged Mountain Road."
His quick rise in the ranks began to cause envy amongst his senior stablemates and thus began his troubles with the stable-master.
According to the book Japan: The Rikidozan Years, 1951-1963 (The Great Wrestling Venues Book 4) by Haruo Yamaguchi with Koji Miyamoto and Scott Teal, "Rikidozan took pride in his substantial contribution to the stable up to that time while Tamanoumi (his stable-master) became annoyed at his selfishness."
Rikidozan’s application for financial support from the stable was refused after a heated argument ensued. Rikidozan decided to retire from sumo and cut off his topknot to officialize the leave. He competed in 23 Grand Sumo tournaments and rose to the third-highest rank of Sekiwake, but because of his non-Japanese heritage, there would always be a glass ceiling he could not surpass.
As early as 1950, Rikidozan involved himself in side businesses that sometimes crept into the law’s gray areas. During this time, when the Korean War broke out, he began to work for Americans as a black marketeer selling appliances, furniture, and even cars from U.S. soldiers departing for the front. Rikidozan would, in turn, sell these goods to fellow Japanese. Later though, he left this venture and searched for a proper job.
Rikidozan tried to return to sumo, but he was not permitted. His only means of support was from Shinsaku Nitta, his patron during his sumo days. He got Rikidozan a blue-collar job as a supervisor at his construction site, but behind the scenes, Nitta was a boss of the mobsters involved in the sumo world. They would take big cuts from the shows’ box-office, and this modus operandi was replicated later in boxing and wrestling during post-war Japan.
Rikidozan Enters Wrestling
Rikidozan was first invited to join a wrestling tour headed by promoter and wrestler Bobby Bruns, hoping that people would be enticed to attend the shows by including Japanese wrestlers. The story of Rikidozan meeting Harold Sakata (Tosh Togo and Odd Job) in a cabaret and that being the reason he joined wrestling has been disproven.
The tour consisted of mostly foreign wrestlers and the appearance of two Japanese judo experts. After only one month of training, Rikidozan made his debut on October 28th, 1951. He later admitted that he "had been out of breath during the whole match and really expected to die at any moment before it ended." This was when he realized that wrestlers needed more stamina and endurance instead of instant power like in sumo.
From late 1951 to early 1954, American-style pro wrestling became dormant in Japan, and in early 1952, a "Japanese Heavyweight Title" belt was created worn by Rikidozan for publicity photos before he embarked on a trip to Hawaii and San Francisco, California.
In a now proven exaggerated account of his trip to the United States, Rikidozan told reporters when he arrived back in Japan, "I had more than 200 matches in America, and only three wrestlers defeated me: Leo Nomellini, Fred Atkins and Tom Rice. In fact, I lost to Tom Rice only by disqualification. That ‘rice’ was not good to eat."
In a tournament in Hawaii headed by promoter Al Karasick in November of 1953, Rikidozan, with his still limited skills, was given the opportunity to challenge for the NWA World Heavyweight title by facing a true master of grappling in Lou Thesz.
Although he went the distance in a "61-minute time limit", Rikidozan was no match for Thesz on this occasion. Thesz recounts, "Because of his sumo background, Riki was very good on his feet. He had great balance, but he was not good on the mat. He could compete with me in a standing position. Riki used his hands well and scratched a few places on my face. He won the battle standing up, but as soon as I took him off his feet and got him on the mat, I cut him up with a few front crossfaces and front facelocks."
Rikidozan did not leave Hawaii with the NWA World Heavyweight belt, but he would soon become a legend in his own right.
Formation of the Japan Wrestling Association
Rikidozan’s former sponsor, Shinsaku Nitta, provided a part of his estate for Rikidozan to build a training gym at Nihonbashi Naniwa-cho in Tokyo.
Even though he had saved most of his money from tours of Hawaii and northern California, Rikidozan still needed to raise vast amounts of funds to bring North American wrestlers to Japan. He pleaded with influential people for help until they finally agreed. The key person was Sadao Nagata, one of the most powerful promoters in the entertainment industry. He saw great potential for success and decided to take a chance with the new business.
During his time in the U.S., Rikidozan learned how important television coverage was for the success of pro wrestling and was able to persuade Matsutaro Shoriki, the president of Nippon Television Network Corporation, to televise his first card throughout Japan.
Working through the booking office of Joe Malcewicz and Al Karasick, Rikidozan secured the services of Ben and Mike Sharpe for Japan, knowing that it would probably cost a good fortune to bring them in for the tour. As a tag partner, Rikidozan chose Masahiko Kimura, who was a popular judo expert who, at one point, had been undefeated for 15 years. Kimura had been training in the American-style of pro wrestling and was more polished than the few other choices available. Unfortunately, it is said that he was hard to deal with and asked for more money until the very last moment.
Rikidozan – The Birth of a Hero
Ben and Mike Sharpe against Rikidozan and Masahiko Kimura introduced American-style pro wrestling to a national audience. After Japan lost the war, the people and the whole country felt an inferiority complex that they were slowly able to dispel by pitting themselves against "The Americans," who were actually Canadian. Rikidozan, their newfound hero, was Korean!
Television was a luxury few could afford in their homes, so 220 giant TV screens were set up in open spaces in Tokyo and near the capital while others went to restaurants or appliance stores to watch the opening match. It’s estimated that 45,000 people attended the first three shows, and thousands more watched wherever they could. Some went ahead and bought their first TVs to watch the matches at home.
Rikidozan became a hero overnight as the tour continued and was named "the founder of Japan pro wrestling" by wrestler/promoter Bobby Bruns who added, "The Sharpes were a sensation, and we turned thousands away at the gate at every show, I’ve never seen anything like it. We had the sumo crowd tearing out their hair, and boy were they glad to see us go!"
WATCH: The Sharpe Brothers Ben and Mike Sharpe vs. Masahiko Kimura and Rikidozan
Although Masahiko Kimura gained a lot of attention and was paid generously as Rikidozan’s partner, he grew tired of having to endure the constant punishment by the Sharpe Brothers and having Rikidozan become the hero every match. So with his earnings, he established the International Pro Wrestling Promotion in his hometown of Kumamoto.
The Sharpe Brothers did not relinquish their World Tag Titles (NWA San Francisco version) in the tour, and so Rikidozan felt he needed to obtain a tag title in his second tour to raise his prestige. The Pacific Coast tag team title was created, and the holders and eventual losers of them were Hans Schnabel and journeyman Lou Newman. Kokichi Endo was Rikidozan’s partner at this time. The title would be defended in later tours, but shortly afterward would disappear, only to reappear a few months later when needed. Several former sumo wrestlers began to join the wrestling ranks by taking up the new sport, and female wrestlers headlined by Mildred Burke, Mae Young, and Rita Martinez visited Japan for the first time in November of 1954.
Masahiko Kimura Challenges Rikidozan to a "Legitimate" Fight
Although the second U.S. tour by Rikidozan was considered a success, Kimura continued to feel disgruntled and broke kayfabe by telling a reporter in Gifu, "We should determine who is the best (wrestler) in Japan. Riki works only for show, and he’ll be no match if I fight seriously."
The newspapers, of course, went with it. Some supported Kimura, and the ones who sponsored Rikidozan made write-ups more in favor of him instead of the former judoka. Rikidozan wanted to be recognized as "Japan’s #1 athlete," and Kimura was hard-pressed for money because of his newly formed but floundering wrestling promotion that used a good amount of U.S. servicemen still trying to collect their payment.
In a pre-match meeting, it was agreed that the winner would become the first official Japanese Heavyweight champion and would take 70 percent of the prize money. The winner would go on to face Toshio Yamaguchi (also a former judoka) the following month. Kimura secretly handed Rikidozan a letter asking for this first match to end in a draw so that they could make more money off their rematches, but Rikidozan had other plans.
Rikidozan humbles Masahiko Kimura and later Haruo Yamaguchi
In December 1954, a card featuring talent from Rikidozan’s Japan Wrestling Association faced off against wrestlers from Kimura’s much smaller International Pro Wrestling Promotion. The match between the two headliners was billed as Sumo vs. Judo, but it was, in fact, under pro wrestling rules.
Fortunately, footage of the Rikidozan-Kimura match survives. Haruo Yamaguchi fills in the details and delves into the aftermath of this historic bout.
"After 15 minutes passed," Yamaguchi began, "Kimura gave Rikidozan a subtle foul kick in the groin, and from there, it turned into a total shoot match. Rikidozan won when he retaliated with a series of hard, open-handed blows and a few kicks, sending Kimura crashing to the mat and bleeding. After the match, the new champion was so excited that he disclosed their secret to the press in the dressing room. Rikidozan said Kimura had asked him to go broadway (to a draw), and he claimed that he refused to follow such a predetermined path. To verify that what he said was true, he handed Kimura’s letter to a reporter, and the next evening, a picture of the letter appeared in a newspaper as irrefutable evidence."
Before the match, newspapers ran stories questioning the legitimacy of wrestling. It is believed that the match was planned to be a work from the start, but Rikidozan later decided to take extreme measures against Kimura to disprove the allegation of "wrestling being fake."
The first 6 minutes of the almost 16-minute match has been lost over the years. Some Kimura backers say the first half of the match is unavailable because Kimura was dominating. At the same time, other theories state that perhaps the first half was rather dull and not worth showing.
It is the opinion of the authors of Japan: The Rikidozan Years that Kimura was a terrible worker, and a 60-minute bout would have probably hurt future business by having the fans turn on them. So Rikidozan ending the match prematurely was seen as beneficial in the long run.
Watch Rikidozan shoot on Masahiko Kimura:
Rikidozan did reinforce the supremacy of his promotion, but the questionable ending of the bout caused the temporary wrestling boom to begin to cool down. Kimura’s reputation as a wrestler dropped substantially while Rikidozan’s career continued to skyrocket.
A month later, Rikidozan defeated Toshio Yamaguchi in Osaka and claimed there were no more worthy opponents in Japan. He never accepted another challenge by a Japanese wrestler.
Rikidozen – Allowing Success To Go To His Head
It is said that Rikidozan began to have a rather "haughty attitude" even towards people that had helped him fund his promotion and helped him get things off the ground when he had nothing. He was also accused of assaulting a Dutch Airlines employee in a nightclub. The news report described him as "twice as big as most Japanese policemen" and "short but with arms like elephant legs."
As a national hero, Rikidozan was given leading roles in several films, but some reporters described a different picture of him behind the scenes.
"His fame was only a false image. In his actual life, he was nothing more than a bad drunk. He sometimes got tangled up with thugs in a bar or argued with taxi drivers over a trifle. In those cases, he often resorted to violence. More than likely, the police were under pressure from influential politicians who supported Rikidozan, who told the police to overlook his follies, most of which were kept from public knowledge."
Rikidozan became the first Asian Heavyweight Champion by defeating King Kong (Emile Czaja) of Hungary. His previous Japanese title was quietly taken out of the picture and never mentioned again.
In 1956, one of Rikidozan’s major backers in Shinsaku Nitta passed away, allowing Rikidozan practically full-range of handling the promotion.
"Rikidozan lost one of his major backers, but he had a remarkable talent for building up a network of connections and succeeded in winning the favor of such big-name figures as Bamboku Ono (a rightist politician rumored to receive huge donations from underworld syndicates) and Yoshio Kodama (a shadowy ultra-rightist and a backstage power-broker). Rikidozan offered them very important posts in the JWA. Their existence behind him enhanced his power base."
Rikidozan began to execute his plan to unify the wrestling groups under his Tokyo-based JWA to monopolize the Japanese market. Later, during a special trip to St. Louis, Missouri, he was finally able to secure a long-time goal, to have an NWA World Heavyweight title match in Japan. It was agreed upon that in 1957 Lou Thesz would appear in five matches from October 7th to the 25th. Since Rikidozan’s JWA was not an NWA affiliate, he was required to post a $10,000 bond with its president Sam Muchnick for the champion’s tour.
Having only been confined to wrestling in Hawaii and California, Lou Thesz was the best pure wrestler Rikidozan had ever faced. The televised match drew an unbelievable 87% audience rating, according to an unofficial ratings survey. It was reported that 27,000 people attended the stadium.
Thesz was genuinely shocked to have been greeted by 15,000 people at the airport when he arrived. Thesz recounts, "We agreed to wrestle to a draw in our (eight) title matches. Carrying Riki for sixty minutes was a tough job. We did that in Tokyo (on the first night of the tour), but I suggested that we should not do the same in Osaka (or the other cities). We took one fall each, and then we were both counted out of the ring in the third fall. Our last match was held in [Naha] Okinawa because we were able to get big U.S. dollar cash only in Okinawa in those days. Riki paid me $10,000 for each title match in Tokyo and Osaka and $5,000 for all the other bouts. That made $25,000 in all."
Rikidozan is quoted to have said, "Now that I fought with Lou Thesz, the best wrestler in the world, I don’t want to meet any other average wrestler in the ring. I’m feeling drained out."
The business did improve for a while, but in later tours, Rikidozan was obligated to borrow large sums of money to keep JWA afloat to bring foreign talent and be able to pay them. Again, many times these funds came from people involved in other, sometimes shady businesses.
In 1958, he had to leave Japan for a month because, according to the book Japan: The Rikidozan Years, his secretary Yoshi Yoshimura wrote, "Rikidozan had used black-market dollars to pay them." In turn, many of the Japanese wrestlers were unhappy with not getting compensated fairly. "When word got out that Rikidozan had sunk a great deal of money into his upscale apartment-rental business, which caused further delay in making back payments to them, the wrestlers were furious."
On the positive, future stars Shohei "Giant" Baba and Antonio Inoki debuted in 1960. They would later lead Japanese puroresu once Rikidozan was gone. Hiro Matsuda, also a student of Rikidozan, had already left for America to pursue his dream of success in the U.S. He later would challenge his former teacher.
A recommended read: Hiro Matsuda: The Man Who Broke Hulk Hogan’s Leg!
The Controversial International Heavyweight Title
On August 27th, 1958, in Los Angeles, California, Rikidozan challenged Lou Thesz for his International Heavyweight title and defeated him by disqualification. The match was billed a "non-title" match, so the belt did not change hands.
When back in Tokyo, Rikidozan had to explain to reporters that it really was a title match, and he did win the International title by disqualification. When asked why he didn’t have the belt, he said the physical belt belonged to Thesz and that he could not afford to buy it. Lou Thesz did return to Japan for one more tour in 1962. The one match they faced each other in singles competition during that tour was not for the International title, but Rikidozan won, taking two out of three falls on May 25th.
Japan Wrestling Association Recovers After Several Tours
Despite several rocky years, Rikidozan, after several successful "World Tournaments" and "International Leagues," completed the Riki Sports palace on July 30th, 1961. It was built to resemble the Honolulu Civic Auditorium and would be the new venue for TV wrestling. It was also equipped with 12 bowling alleys, a sauna, and a restaurant. "As his wrestling days drew to a close, Rikidozan had many other businesses, including a luxury apartment rental business, a night club, and he presented a grand plan for a golf course to the press."
Rikidozan also set up the first professional boxing promotion to train heavyweight boxers. His unfulfilled dream was to produce a heavyweight champion in his boxing gym. When he opened the boxing gym in Tokyo, the people who controlled the Japanese boxing world thought he would damage their market by promoting heavyweight boxing matches with foreign boxers. As a result, they refused to allow him to join them if he followed through with his intentions to be a boxing promoter. He gave in to their demands but continued his quest to train a top-flight-heavyweight boxer. In 1962, he hired Eddie Townsend, a former fighter, and brought him to Japan. In all, Townsend trained a total of six world champions.
Rikidozan Claims That Freddie Blassie’s WWA Title is The Ultimate Goal
"I would like to meet [Buddy] Rogers in the ring in the future, but Rogers’ title is not a legitimate title. I’m aiming at the world title Fred Blassie holds."
Jules Strongbow, a part-owner of the Los Angeles territory, had resigned his membership with the NWA and had created his own "world title," the WWA world heavyweight title. Knowing the NWA would never allow him to win the NWA title, Rikidozan made a deal with Strongbow, reportedly paying $25,000 for the opportunity to defeat current champion Freddie Blassie and wear the belt for a specified amount of time. It is said that Rikidozan made a deal with Great Togo, who worked in the LA office, but when Togo presented the deal to matchmaker Jules Strongbow and got his approval, he told him Rikidozan had offered to pay him $10,000. The remaining $15,000 went into Togo’s own pocket. Rikidozan defeated Freddie Blassie in Los Angeles on March 28th, 1962, to win the title.
Freddie Blassie – A Vampire Loose In Japan
To set up Blassie’s later tour of Japan, a video was sent of him filing his teeth and biting his opponents. Once he arrived, he was more over than any heel in the history of wrestling in Japan. He was given the nickname "Kyuketsuki," which translates to "vampire," after a reporter spotted him filing his teeth in the airport.
On April 22nd, 1962, Blassie teamed with Lou Thesz and Mike Sharpe and made an impression with the audience watching on TV.
"During the six-man tag team match in Kobe, which aired live on television, Blassie bit his opponent’s forehead, and the NTV TV cameras zoomed in for a closeup. It was reported that the sight of blood pouring from Great Togo’s forehead caused six elderly men to die of heart failure (other papers reported four). That news was reported in every newspaper the following day, and it became an important social issue. One media report said eleven people had passed away, and more than fifty were taken to hospital."
Kosuke Takeuchi of Weekly Gong Magazine wrote, "In Japan, which is an orderly society, we didn’t understand this maniacal kind of man. […] Only 50 percent of the population had TVs, so big groups of people sat together to watch wrestling. There still wasn’t an understanding of the distance between yourself and the television. It was like Freddie Blassie was coming into your house."
Blassie was unable to recover the WWA belt while in Japan, but on July 25th, 1962, in Los Angeles, Blassie defeated Rikidozan after referee Johnny "Red Shoes" Dugan stopped the match because of excessive bleeding on Rikidozan’s part. Rikidozan had defeated Blassie nine times in a row during the tour before this loss.
Did you know? Freddie Blassie was one of the most hated heels in wrestling history. Death threats were frequent, and according to Blassie, he triggered over 100 heart attack-related deaths in Japan, was stabbed 21 times, and was even once doused with acid. All the while, he reveled in his role as a bad guy. You can read more about these stories in our article, Freddie Blassie – The Truth (and Somewhere In-Between).
Two weeks later, "The Destroyer" Dick Beyer unthroned Blassie. A couple of weeks after that, Rikidozan’s loss was shown in Japan, but upon his return, Rikidozan claimed that he had been mistreated in Los Angeles. The newspapers also helped preserve his legacy.
"The WWA is a den of iniquity," one local paper would write. "They contrived a clever plot to strip Rikidozan of his world title, and our champion was caught in their trap. Jules Strongbow was at the bottom of the scheme."
One of Rikidozan’s best matches late in his career was against "The Destroyer" Dick Beyer on May 24th, 1963, in Japan. Unfortunately, no footage of the match has survived. The Japanese fans were sold on the idea that it was for the WWA championship, but "The Destroyer" had already dropped the title two weeks before to Blassie.
"The match became a rough-and-tumble one, with Rikidozan accidentally breaking two of The Destroyer’s teeth when he hit him with a series of karate chops. The Destroyer, whose mask was stained with blood, used his favorite finisher, the figure four leglock. Rikidozan refused to concede and even turned his body upside down. After six minutes passed, referee Fred Atkins conferred with the sub-referee, Oki Shikina, and halted the match, ruling it a deadlock."
The Stabbing and Murder of Rikidozan
"Hard Boiled" Haggerty shared a story with Scott Teal about Rikidozan two months before he died. "The night I wrestled Rikidozan in Tokyo (October 1st, 1963), a group of men walked up to me before the match and said, ‘If Riki loses, you’ll never leave Japan alive.’ Let me tell you, Riki never looked as good as he did that night!"
On April 8th, 1963, Rikidozan had been drinking with Takasago, a sumo stable-master asking for Rikidozan’s contacts to help promote their upcoming Honolulu and Los Angeles tour scheduled for February of next year. Later, he made a guest appearance on a radio program for popular female actress Yukiji Asaoka. He talked a lot and sang a popular song but was thick-tongued due to excessive drinking.
Later that evening, he went to the New Latin Quarter club in the Akasaka district and continued to drink. After throwing insults towards musicians on the stage, Rikidozan encountered Katsushi Murata, a young, 24-year-old, and member of the ninkyō dantai Sumiyoshi-ikka, a sub-branch of the Yakuza (Japan’s largest crime syndicate), near the men’s room. They had an argument that led to Murata stabbing him. The police were called, and Murata was arrested.
Many versions of what happened exist, but the following is from the Tokyo High Court transcript, "About 11:10 p.m., Rikidozan was talking with a club hostess. When Murata pushed past them, Rikidozan said, ‘Hey, you bastard! You stepped on my foot!’ Murata denied the charge but admitted, ‘My shoulder may have touched yours. You’re a big man, and it couldn’t be helped in such a narrow space.’ Rikidozan, who had been drinking quite heavily, got angry. He shoved Murata, kicked him in the abdomen, and knocked him down near the doorway to the lobby. He sat astride the accused and struck him on the head relentlessly. Murata pulled out a mountain knife (which was 13.5 centimeters, or 5.3 inches, in length) and stabbed Rikidozan in the left side of his abdomen. Holding his bleeding belly, Rikidozan went up onto the stage and, using the microphone, said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, be careful. There’s a killer in this club. You’d better go home right away.’"
His entourage persuaded him to see a surgeon, but he did not want to attract attention. Instead, Rikidozan went to an obstetrics and gynecology hospital near his apartment. Four parts of Rikidozan’s small intestine were pierced. The wounds were so serious that they asked a nearby hospital surgeon to perform an abdominal operation on him.
Murata later confessed that he had gotten into a fight with another wrestler named Ricky Waldo in Tokyo the previous year and came close to dying. The incident made Murata aware of just how tough wrestlers were, so he defended himself by saying he only resorted to excessive force only because he was scared for his life.
Rikidozan’s wound did not seem to be life-threatening, but his condition, however, took a sudden turn for the worse, and he died on December 15th, 1963, of internal hemorrhage and peritonitis.
Five days after his death on December 20th, about 12,000 people attended Rikidozan’s funeral at Ikegami Honmonji Temple in Tokyo. A section of Honmonji temple in Ota-Ward, Tokyo, is dedicated to him. There is a bronze sculpture that represents Rikidozan’s upper body. In front of the stone monument on the left is the tomb where he is buried. It was reported that he was 39 at the time of his death. Others believe his true age was 41.
WATCH: Lou Thesz says Rikidozan "Was like a God!"
Masahiko Kimura (the opponent Rikidozan ended up having a shoot fight in the ring with) commented about Rikidozan’s death, saying, "It was not Murata, but me who killed Rikidozan. I cursed him to death."
In the last years of Rikidozan’s life, he became more of a businessman than a wrestler. He continued to associate himself with people on the fringes of the law to support his financial projects and mend his large debt problems. Japan puroresu has seen tremendous growth after Rikidozan’s death and will be forever grateful for his contributions.
Katsushi Murata was found guilty of murder and served a seven-year prison sentence. Years after he was released, he said he never failed to pay a visit to Rikidozan’s grave in December of each year. Eventually, he became the boss of his own mob gang and died in 2013. His daughter, Hikaru Shinohara, who became a pro wrestler and MMA fighter, said she had been an object of contempt as "the daughter of the killer of Rikidozan" in her early teens.
All quotes (unless noted otherwise) in this article come from the highly recommended book: Japan: The Rikidozan Years, 1951-1963 (The Great Wrestling Venues Volume 4) by Haruo Yamaguchi with Koji Miyamoto and Scott Teal.
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