Editorial Columns

The Life And Death Of Rikidozan

Adam Van Winkle looks at the life and death of Japanese wrestling icon Rikidozan.

November 14th marked what would have been the 95th birthday of perhaps the most important figure in modern wrestling history, Rikidozan.

December 8th and 15th will mark the 56th anniversary of the stabbing and subsequent death of the legendary Japanese wrestling icon.

In looking at the life and death of Rikidozan, one can only conclude that no figure had more of an impact on the modern product of pro wrestling, save perhaps the combined Frankenstein’s monster of Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan of the 1980s.  Sadly, his murder is also the kickoff to the modern tragedy of wrestlers not only dying too young (of which the list is countless), but wresters that die young and violently. 

While McMahon and Hogan had the 80s media machine, Rikidozan created the machine.  The WWE always points to the Hogan-Andre the Giant matchup on Saturday Night’s Main Event in 1988 and its 33 million TV viewers as the most watched wrestling match of all time, but that’s just pro wrestling exaggeration.  They are really a distant second to Rikidozan’s match with the Destroyer (Dr. X, Dick Beyers) in 1963 on Japanese television which drew 70 million TV viewers!  Many Japanese families got their first TV set to watch the match.  Sadly, Rikidozan did not live to see 1964.

Rikidozan, true to pro wrestling’s roots, is a work.  The father of modern Japanese wrestling wasn’t even Japanese.  He was born Kim Sin-Rak in North Korea in 1924.  However, after his father died when he was fifteen, and he was already disowned by his parents at 13 (though the reason in unclear to this author) Sin-Rak was adopted into the colonizing Japanese prefecture.  He changed his name to his adopted Japanese family name, becoming Mitsuhiro Momota.  Now in Japan, he also began training to be a sumo wrestler.  For his sumo character he chose the name Rikidozan, which means “rugged mountain road.”

While he was mildly successful in his early twenties, Rikidozan faced racial discrimination for his Korean roots, and was not always agreeable to his coaches.  Eventually, unable to live within the strict bounds of the sumo lifestyle or get a desired pay raise, he left sumo wrestling despite some mild fame in Japan.  Afterwards, Rikidozan bounced around “construction” jobs illicitly gotten through Japanese mob connections he made as a sumo star (generally working as a blackmarket dealer of appliances and other such mundane household items).  After seeing an American pro wrestling show in 1951, Rikidozan decided to turn his sumo fame into a push for a professional wrestling promotion in Japan, booking himself as the star.

He was wildly successful.  Still stinging with shame from the Allied defeat in World War II, post-empire Japan was reading by the 1950s for a Japanese pop culture hero that could take on American “invaders.”  At least, this was the narrative masterfully crafted by Rikidozan’s JWA (Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance) promotion, as Rikidozan was booked as the homegrown star face to go over foreign heels time and again (never mind his not actually being born in Japan).

Rikidozan rose to international fame when Lou Thesz wrestled the Japanese stars in a series of matches, and allowed the rising Japanese star to trade wins in the rivalry.  With victories over Thesz, Rikidozan could claim for the Japanese home crowd to be one of the best in the world.

To grow his wrestling promotion, Rikidozan continued to work with the Japanese mob members he formed connections with back in his sumo days.  Through bad loans and laundering, Rikidozan grew his wrestling promotion and acquired several nightclubs, hotels, and other hot properties.  No doubt he over-extended himself and kept a lot under the table; in fact, when he died his companies were in massive debt.

Despite his shady business practices, Rikidozan became a national star.  Time and again he sold out venues and drew massive ratings by taking on the biggest names in wrestling from America and around the world, such as the Destroyer, Freddie Blassie and King Kong (look up this Australian-Indian born in Hungary for an interesting online read).  He was cast in more movies than Hulk Hogan could dream of.  He was a gossip rag and tabloid darling.  In so many ways, he became a prototype for the high flying, lavish lifestyle, kiss-stealing, suit wearing heel champion (see Nick Bockwinkel, see Ric Flair, see Chris Jericho) in real life.

His success, though enormous, was short lived.  On December 8, 1963, Rikidozan got in a fight with a lower-level mafia member in one of his night clubs.  By some accounts, one stepped on the other’s foot (though who did so switches).  By other accounts, Rikidozan was always ready to go at the drop of the hat, especially when he was drinking.  Some would say Rikidozan was the type to start a fight when drunk.  Whatever happened, he brawled with a gangster who pulled a knife and stabbed him in the stomach.

In a noir as noir gets move, Rikidozan had a friend take him secretly to a women’s clinic in the middle of the night.  He had a gynecologist he knew meet him there and perform the surgery he would need to survive to keep the altercation out of the press.  This, by all accounts, was successful.  Rikidozan simply needed to go home and rest and avoid agitation to this stomach (including drinking).  Rikidozan did no such thing.  Eating and drinking in his usual fashion and having visitors.  Mafia members, including his assailant, reportedly visited Rikidozan to apologize for the incident during these days, an apology which Rikidozan accepted.

Everyone in the know of the incident assumed he would recover.  However, after a week of his heavy drinking, Rikidozan developed internal bleeding that could not be helped.  He died seven days after that attack, on December 15th.

In this way, he became the first in a long line of modern pro wrestlers to die at the hands of violence in suspicious circumstances.  While I’m sure the carnival days of wrestling and pre-television promotions saw a number of illicit deaths, even murders, Rikidozan seems to be the first TV wrestling star to die in such a way, a sad precursor to the likes of Bruiser Brody, Gino Hernandez, Chris Adams, Dino Bravo, Neil Superior, Ricky Lawless, and Alberto and Alejandro Perez Jimenez.  Media coverage, as with all tawdry things, exploded.  His funeral was attended by over 12,000 people and covered internationally.

The story of Rikidozan does not end there however.  In fact, despite his sad demise, and untoward behaviors in life, Rikidozan did what he set out to do.  While he only saw the first decade of growth in pro wrestling in Japan, it did go on to become a national sensation, and his promotion and training were directly responsible for that.  Rikidozan’s two most famous students, Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba, would continue running JWA into the 1970s.  Eventually, the two legends in their own rights created their own promotions, with Inoki forming New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) and Baba forming All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW), both of which continue to go strong, putting out some of the best Japanese and international wrestlers going.

In that way, Rikidozan is in a class by himself.  No wrestler achieved the level of stardom Rikidozan was able to achieve as well the success in promoting.  While the story of Cody Rhodes is certainly still be written, Rikidozan is alone in this feat for now.  Hulk Hogan nor Lou Thesz nor Nick Bockwinkel ever ran their own ships at the peak of their fame.  While Vern Gagne did, and was certainly one of the most famous wrestlers of his day, he did not quite achieve the iconic status of a Hogan or Rikidozan outside of Minnesota.

To that end, it’s hard to say any single wrestler or promoter had a bigger impact on both the product of modern pro wrestling (ask any wrestler who spent time in NJPW or AJPW) and the dark narrative of “untimely demise” so often associated with the modern wrestling icon.  The story of Rikidozan’s life and murder in many ways a parable of the light and the dark in pro wrestling, a cycle of fame and demise common to our wrestling fandom experience.

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You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.

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