An Unforgettable Clash When Wrestling’s Illusion Was Shattered
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.
The Troubles Between Earthquake John Tenta and Kōji Kitao
On March 30th, 1991, in a co-promoted show between Super World of Sports (SWS) 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.
The Battle of Technique Over Strength
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.
Poking The “Bear”: Never A Good Idea
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 Dangerous Dance: Eye Gouges and Escalating Tensions
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.
Tensions Explode: Kitao’s Assault on the Referee
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.
A Chaotic Conclusion: Kitao’s Outburst and Tenta’s Survival
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.
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 ******* 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 *****. Considered himself a shooter, but he was just kind of an ******* really."
Behind the Scenes: Prichard’s Insights on Kitao and Tenta’s Clash
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.
Kitao’s Career From Wrestling Rivals to Teaching Sumo
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.
Reconciliation: The Legacies of Kitao and Tenta
Kōji Kitao died on February 10th, 2019, from chronic renal failure at the age of 55.
The SWS promotion fronted by Genichiro Tenryu, but founded and bank-rolled by top eyeglass company Megane Super in Japan, folded in the Summer of ’92. Then several of the stars broke away to form their own promotions, most notably Tenryu and his Wrestle and Romance (WAR), later rebranded Wrestle Association R (WAR). He maintained alliances with NJPW, Frontier Martial-arts Wrestling (FMW) and even the WWF.
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.
Rick Rude: A Ravishing Man with a Tragic End
“He refused to budge.”
Rick Rude was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime kind of wrestler. He went by the nickname “Ravishing” — and rightfully so. He had a solid moveset, great looks, and unbridled arrogance with the in-ring skill to back it up. He played hard in the ring but even harder out of it.
Mr Perfect Curt Hennig – A Great Life with an Unfortunate End
On camera, Curt Hennig was arrogant, and he backed up his Mr. Perfect persona brilliantly. However, outside of the ring, it was a different story.
Doink The Clown – A Troubled Life For the Man Behind the Paint
Doink the Clown found fame in early 1990s WWE, but there was, unfortunately, trouble along the way for Matt Borne, the man behind the paint.
Secret Life and Tragic Passing of WWE Wrestler “Crush” Brian Adams
Hailing from Kona, Hawaii, “Crush” Brian Adams was a dominant force who underwent many striking transformations over his 17-year career.
After retiring from the ring, he worked as a bodyguard for “Macho Man” Randy Savage and was excited about opening a fitness spa alongside Marc Mero in Florida. Instead, sadly, tragedy struck.
Owen Hart’s Death: What Really Happened, From Those There
VINCE McMAHON: “Earlier that day, I was shocked and surprised by what Owen said.”
On May 23rd, 1999, the wrestling world mourned the loss of Owen Hart. People behind the scenes on this unthinkable day reflect on the tragedy, answering the all-important questions.
Want More? Choose another story!
Got a correction, tip, or story idea? Reach out to our team!
This post may contain affiliate links, which means we may earn a commission at no extra cost to you. This helps us provide free content for you to enjoy!