The Great Kabuki and Gary Hart remain inextricably linked forever. These two powerful baddies were unstoppable when united in their reign of terror.. until their union abruptly ended in disaster. Uncover their history (and the mysterious green mist that shrouds their tale)!
Jim Phillips, author of this article and one of the great wrestling historians here at Pro Wrestling Stories, is in the challenge of his life after being paralyzed on January 21st, 2023. Learn his story and how you can help him reach his goal of taking his first steps again!
The Story of The Great Kabuki
Born in the aftermath of World War II in Nobeoka, Japan, The Great Kabuki, real name Akihisa Mera, grew up with the Japanese ideals of resolve and honor in battle. This was the building block to the ethos of Sumo.
The traditional sport of Sumo was the foundation for Japanese wrestling, and it is an integral part of Japanese culture to this day.
It was Sumo that brought Mera to the attention of the Rikishi in Japan. He was taken into the Hasegawa stable, which was run by Sumo and wrestling great Junzō Yoshinosato.
Mera began his training at an early age and began to compete in the Japanese Wrestling Association at the age of 16, not long later.
The JWA was founded by another former Sumo, Rikidozan, in the early ’50s to represent the NWA in Japan.
Mera took his training from the future great, Giant Baba, and made his debut for JWA at the age of sixteen on Halloween night, 1964 — a little piece of timing that would befit his later evil, heel nature that would become the scourge of any territory he chose to infiltrate.
Mera took several monikers, including the namesake of his mentor, when he wrestled as Mr. Sato. He worked there for the next six years before taking to the international stage and arriving in America to compete.
Coming to America
During these years, Akihisa Mera made a name for himself and worked most of the major territories in the South, Southeast, and Southwestern areas of the country, capturing NWA gold at every stop along the way.
This was started with his 1970 run in the NWA Los Angeles promotion and his capture of their heavyweight title wrestling under the name Takachiho.
Let’s loosely trace his legacy of gold through the ’70s, during the height of the NWA union of territorial promotions.
In 1972, he won gold at the World Tag League in AJPW as Yoshino Sato. He would soon stop off in his alma mater at the Japanese Wrestling Association to capture the NWA United National Championship.
He popped up on the title radar next in Australia as Hito Tojo a year later and took their NWA title while he was there.
As he built a reputation for his body of work, and not so much a steady name, but that of a capable heel, his value rose.
Takachiho appeared in AJPW to take one half of the All Asia Tag Titles in 1976, and then upped his drawing game and headed to one of the hottest markets for the NWA, the breezy sun-swept shores of Florida.
To say that the CWF promotion wasn’t a magnet for talent would be tripping over the feet of history.
That area of the country was one of the strongholds for the old guard and a place of prosperity for anyone who had the ability to draw, and the Japanese villain had that in spades.
1978 would be a big year for him, and while he was there, he worked the tag team ranks under the name Mr. Sato.
He paired with countryman Masanori Saito, a.k.a. Mr. Saito, and the pair terrorized the tag ranks throughout that summer.
They held both the NWA Florida Tag Titles and the NWA US Tag Titles on several occasions.
The crowd loved to hate the pair, and The Briscos and the team of Steve Keirn and Mike Graham battled them back and forth for the belts. After they finished up there, he went his own way and was bound for the mid-west.
The NWA had chapters across the United States, and the Western States Sports, which was run by The Funks, was about to see a rise in the violence of the tag teams there.
Akihisa Takachiho once again surfaced to take the Tag Titles and team with Ricky Romero and Mr. Sato on separate occasions in 1979 to get it done before heading to the land of Harley Race and the Central States Wrestling promotion run by Bob Geigel.
He worked there into 1980 and, as Takachiho, won their version of the NWA Tag Titles, cashing in on the oriental heat with Pak Song and then again with Killer Karl Kox.
His popularity as a heel would explode the next year as he not only got the gimmick that finally stuck with him and made him the most money but also when he crossed paths with one of the brightest minds in professional wrestling history.
The Story of One of Wrestling’s Greatest Heel Managers: Gary Hart
The winter of 1942 saw not only heaps of snow but the birth of a legend. Born that January, Gary Hart would take in the frigid air and grow up a Chicagoan, but it would be the heat in and out of the ring in Texas that he would be remembered for.
Hart found his love for the business early on, and it was Fred Kohler, with his weekly Wrestling from Marigold program on the DuMont Network, that first exposed the young boy to the art form of professional wrestling.
It clicked with him immediately, and like so many, he was hooked.
Hart also had the inside rub with his uncle, who was doing the booking for Kohler, and when he was of age enough to satisfy the NWA officials, whom the Chicago promotion ran under, he took to the ring to learn the trade.
Hart had his first match on the Saturday night program at age eighteen and never looked back.
Watch the In-Ring Debut of Gary Hart:
Gary Hart worked in the Chicago market for the next few years and then headed to the World Championship Wrestling promotion run by Detroit promoter Jim Barnett down in Australia.
Following the sale of WCW, Barnett returned stateside to invest in Georgia Championship Wrestling, and Hart came with him to help in the office and get more involved in the business.
Becoming a Manager
Until that time, he was an in-ring talent, but the eager-to-learn protégé knew the opportunity that was there and went with it.
Gary Hart would make his move out of the ring and started to work as a manager. This is truly where he found his calling in front of the cameras.
Behind the scenes, Hart was learning the effectiveness of proper booking and how to build the audience to the main to keep them coming back for more.
Florida was booming in the mid-’70s, and it was there as a manager for Pak Song that he worked the locals into a frenzy and mastered the art of getting heat.
Being in the company of the brain trust in their creative team was also a big jump on the learning curve for him.
It was also during his time there, in 1975, that he was involved in one of two plane crashes that rocked the wrestling world. Hart proved himself not only a great friend during the ordeal but also a true hero in the face of tragedy. Take the time to read about this incident here, where Hart himself recounts the horrific event.
Gary Hart would leave a year later, heading to Big Time Wrestling, the NWA-affiliated promotion in the Texas market that would soon become World Class Championship Wrestling.
He initially took on the job as booker and helped turn the company into a giant in the ’80s professional wrestling game.
There was WWF, GCW, CWF, MACW, AWA, and the WCCW, and they held sway over more of the market than the rest of the NWA during these years, before Vince Jr. took it all for himself.
WCCW was one of the companies that not only held off the buy-out advances of McMahon but grew during this time.
Hart saw the Von Erich brothers’ drawing power and knew that if he kept a steady flow of villains for them, they would continue to thrive. He started this by pitting them against their most prevalent and long-time rivals, the Fabulous Freebirds.
The Team of Gary Hart and The Great Kabuki
It was during 1981 when Mera Akihisa made his way to Dallas, and the two crossed paths, though not for the first time, as they had met during Hart’s time in Australia.
Seeing the potential in Mera, Hart developed The Great Kabuki gimmick specifically for him and became his manager.
Growing his hair long, painting his face, and saying nothing while Gary Hart laid out the challenges and did all the talking was one of the keys to their success.
Combined with his pre-match nunchaku exhibition and the feared green mist that he originated, The Great Kabuki quickly became a feared opponent, turning reputation to myth as he laid one victim after another down for the three count.
The Great Kabuki took on all the faces that WCCW had to offer, including one particular pair of runs of matches against Chris Adams and Bruiser Brody, who was working a short stint as a babyface and cashing in on his popularity as a brawler in Texas.
Kabuki was so over at one point that Gary Hart worked out a special contract that had another wrestler appearing under the gimmick when Hart and Kabuki were double-booked in different cities.
Kazuharu Sonoda, who wrestled as The Magic Dragon and teamed with Kabuki at one time, had the gimmick down so good that, as long as no one saw his face beyond the hair, the difference was negligible.
Chances are very good that if you saw The Great Kabuki wrestle without Gary Hart in his corner in the early ’80s, it was Sonoda working in his stead.
Gary Hart detailed this in his book ‘My Life in Wrestling’ (which you can purchase for a hefty price tag here!):
“Fritz Von Erich was upset was because he resented that I had another source of income via Jim Barnett. I was guaranteed $2,000 a weekend in Georgia, so by going four times a month, I was making an extra $8,000 a month.
“When Fritz learned that, he screamed, ‘How much money do you need to make?’
“Since it upset Fritz so much, I cut back on outdates – just to appease him.
“As hard as it was for me to decline bookings from Jim Barnett, I wanted to show Fritz that – aside from my family – Texas wrestling was the dearest thing in my life.
Soon after, Ole Anderson called me asking if he could book The Great Kabuki for The Omni that upcoming weekend.
“When I told him that there was no way I could accommodate that, Ole begged, ‘I already advertised him! I have to have him!’
“‘I’ll do something for you, but don’t tell anybody,’ I told him. ‘I’ll send you The Magic Dragon instead.’
“Ole nearly blew his top, insisting, ‘No! I need The Great Kabuki!’
“I explained to Ole that I would send The Magic Dragon as The Great Kabuki – and assured him that nobody would be able to tell the difference. And that’s exactly what we did.
“In fact, The Magic Dragon went to Georgia many times at The Great Kabuki – and no one ever knew he wasn’t the real deal.
“If you’re reading this, and saw The Great Kabuki during the early ’80s in Georgia, the way you can tell who you saw is if I was there or not. If I wasn’t, then you saw The Magic Dragon.
I managed The Great Kabuki on every one of his appearances, save for that one time with Roddy Piper at The Omni.
The Great Kabuki and Gary Hart worked through Mid Atlantic Championship Wrestling and in other territories during this time and continued together for several years to follow.
Hart eventually introduced The Great Muta and billed him as the son of Kabuki, crediting the passing on of the green mist secrets to him.
Towards the end of the decade, Kabuki moved on, and the two parted ways, though according to Gary Hart, it was not on the best of terms.
The Bitter Disbandment of The Great Kabuki and Gary Hart
In his book, Gary Hart further discussed what led to disbanding his partnership with The Great Kabuki.
“[Then WCCW booker] Ken Mantell gave me his idea for a Great Kabuki’s match one night by saying, ‘It’s going to be The Fabulous Freebirds against Kamala, The Missing Link, and The Great Kabuki, and The Great Kabuki will lose the fall.’
“‘Kamala and The Great Kabuki just wrestled each other at David’s Memorial,’ I reminded him. ‘Now you want them to be tag team partners? On top of that, we were promised a win tonight, and now you’re telling me that you want The Great Kabuki to drop the fall? No, Ken, this doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.’
“Ken insisted that this was the match he wanted, so I reiterated my stance by saying, ‘Skandor Akbar and I were just in a big fist fight at Texas Stadium, and now we’re supposed to stand in the corner together and watch my guy get beat? There is no way this will happen.’
“‘Well, you guys are from the Carolinas,’ Ken argued. ‘So it doesn’t really matter if The Great Kabuki gets pinned.’
“‘World Class Championship Wrestling plays in the Carolinas,’ I pointed out. ‘So I’m nicely telling you no – we won’t do it.’
“‘What if Killer Khan runs in and attacks The Great Kabuki so Michael Hayes can cover him?’
“At that point, I got in Ken’s face and said, ‘What part of ‘No’ don’t you understand? We’re not doing it.’
“Now, I don’t want you to think I was acting like a big shot who refused to do jobs, or that I acted out of arrogance or anger, and that it was just sour grapes on my part. It’s actually quite the contrary.
“When The Great Kabuki and I went to Texas for the week, we were with Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling – so Jimmy Crockett was loaning us out for those shows. We went with his graces, and he had my assurance that we would do the right thing for business.
“Jimmy Crockett had time and money invested in us in the Carolinas, and for us to go to Texas and diminish The Great Kabuki on World Class Championship Wrestling – which played in major markets throughout the Carolinas – would have been bad for Jimmy Crockett’s business.
“A few minutes after I let Ken know where we stood, The Great Kabuki pulled me aside and said, ‘Gary-son. Maybe it makes no difference if I lose. This way, everybody happy, and better for business.’
“I just looked at him and said, ‘I’m going into the dressing room to take off this three piece suit I have on, get into my khakis and T-shirt, and then I’m going back to the hotel. Are you coming with me?’
“The Great Kabuki looked down at the ground and said, ‘I think maybe I should stay. That way Fritz won’t get mad.’
“‘Kabuki, if I leave this building without you, it will never be the same between us again.’
“‘Gary-son, just this one time I stay.’
“I left the Sportatorium without The Great Kabuki that day, and he did the job on World Class Championship Wrestling – all because he didn’t want ‘heat’ with Fritz, since he was afraid that he would say ‘bad things’ about him to Giant Baba.
“Early on in my career, I learned that if you take care of your gimmick, your gimmick will take care of you.
“I always had The Great Kabuki’s best interest at heart, but after that experience with him, my whole attitude about protecting and taking care of what he and I built went out the window. If he didn’t want to take care of his gimmick, then why should I?
“Takachiho had been wrestling for fifteen years as an underneath guy and a put-over guy before I chose him for The Great Kabuki. Where was Fritz when he was starving in Kansas City? Did Fritz send him money and offer him a job? No. I did.
“I invested $5,000 of my own money for all his outfits, and helped him become a giant star in wrestling. He was one of the hottest wrestlers that the ’80s had, and he made hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks to me – including $10,000 in one night for Starrcade!
I bought him his stuff, I gave him his gimmick, and I made him a major attraction in wrestling, and this was how he repaid me.
“After all the success we had achieved, that was the way The Great Kabuki and I ended our run. I cut him loose, and that was it for us.
We had planned to go back to North Carolina and finish our program with Jimmy Valiant, in which Jimmy would beat The Great Kabuki in the Greensboro Coliseum and I would get my head shaved.
“However, I told Jimmy Crockett that I didn’t want to do it anymore, because The Great Kabuki and I were through. Jimmy understood, and in time – surprise, surprise – The Great Kabuki went to Japan and became a gigantic star for Baba.”
Gary Hart continued, “By 1985, The Great Kabuki was back in Texas. Since The Great Kabuki needed a manager, and he and I as a team were kaput, Ken put him with Sunshine – which I thought was the most ridiculous thing I ever saw in my life.
“He took one of the most vicious and scary attractions that had ever been created and de-balled him to the point that he had a one-hundred-and-twenty pound girl leading him around.
“In short, I was the guy who created and developed The Great Kabuki, and Ken Mantell was the one who destroyed him. I shouldn’t just fault Ken, though.
“The Great Kabuki deserves some of the blame, as well. When I was managing him, I used to tell him over and over, ;Whatever I give you and we develop – you have to protect, because if you don’t, you’ll end up where you were before, and nobody will care about you.’
“Unfortunately, The Great Kabuki was just not sophisticated enough on his own to understand who he was and what he had become.
“I would see The Great Kabuki in the dressing room and we would talk occasionally, but I didn’t do business with him, and never gave him any more suggestions on his gimmick.
“Of course, anytime Ken would tell him to do something preposterous, The Great Kabuki would come to me and ask, ‘Gary-son, what do you think?’
“I would just tell him, ‘Don’t do anything you don’t want to do.’
“When The Great Kabuki finally left Texas, he couldn’t draw 3,000 people at The Sportatorium because of what Ken did to him with Sunshine and all that silly stuff.
“If it wasn’t for his new-found success in Japan, The Great Kabuki would have been opening matches around the United States within a year. I really and truly believe that.”
Life After the Paring of The Great Kabuki and Gary Hart
Gary Hart continued with WCCW and formed another heel stable there, called the J-Tex Corporation, with most notably Terry Funk and Great Muta, among other members.
Hart eventually made his way back to Texas in the mid-’90s and started a few different promotions in the years that followed, including an attempted revival of the WCCW banner, even running at the Sportatorium in Dallas.
It never got the feet under it that the original had, but as many would agree, the original WCCW was lightning in a bottle, and those planets align few times in entertainment, let alone professional wrestling.
The drawing power they had in their size market was rivaled by few promotions in the history of the business, and Gary Hart was key to that.
He also worked with MLW in his later years and cultivated them in their formative ones. He passed away in 2008 from a heart attack at his home. He was sixty-six years old and taken much too soon.
The Great Kabuki moved to the promotion side of the business with only high-profile matches in his later years of competition.
He helped start the Super World of Sports and the International Wrestling Association in Japan in the ’90s and even appeared at the 1994 Royal Rumble as a surprise entrant.
While he worked a series of retirement matches at the end of the decade, The Great Kabuki has had sporadic appearances over the last few years in NJPW, where he participated in both the 2015 and 2016 Rumbles there but was disqualified consecutively for the use of the mist.
There was something truly memorable about the pairing of The Great Kabuki and Gary Hart. They knew how to play those roles to the utmost, and Hart was arguably at his best alongside Kabuki and later Muta.
The mist, the heel glory, the mask The Great Kabuki wore during his entrance, and the fact that you could barely see his painted face through the hair.
Couple that with the venom spat by Gary Hart that was so representative of its counterpart in the ring, it was hard not to get roped into anything they were a part of.
They were a huge part of my early wrestling exposure, and I still enjoy watching their matches to this day. That’s the thing about art. The best never grow old; they live timelessly.
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