Quick question: Who is the most influential and important wrestler in the history of the sport? The answer that undeniably first came to you was Hulk Hogan. Hogan was the man who was at the forefront of the wrestling boom of the late 80's, the man who made wrestling mainstream. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, endorsed countless products and became one of the most well-known celebrities of the era.
This is all very true, but the answer isn't Hulk Hogan. It isn't Ric Flair, John Cena, Randy Savage, Stone Cold Steve Austin or any other of the names that get tossed around as being the biggest wrestling star. It isn't even Lou Thesz. The correct answer is Rikidozan.
Ok, how many wrestling fans actually know who Rikidozan is? I would put it at under 10%, and that is being generous. Rikidozan is more of an icon than any other professional wrestler on the planet, yet here in the United States, only students of history know him.
To give a brief history of his career, Rikidozan was born in Korea and immigrated to Japan to become a sumo wrestler. Eventually he gave up and switched to the professional ranks, making his in-ring debut in 1950. Rikidozan quickly became the largest star in the country, as he portrayed the courageous Japanese star who defeated the villainous American gaijins in post-WW2 Japan.
Rikidozan is responsible for helping launch the television in Japan, as his matches with Lou Thesz and The Destroyer gained the largest television ratings in Japanese history. His match with Thesz drew a mind-numbing 87.0 rating (take that Monday Night Wars) and his match with The Destroyer drew a 67.0, but with a larger viewing audience because more people had televisions at that point.
Rikidozan's greatest accomplishment was probably the foundation of the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance in 1953, the first pro wrestling organization in Japan and the godfather of both New Japan and All Japan. Rikidozan also trained the two most well-known stars in Japan during the last 40 years, Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba. His influence over those two wrestlers and the promotions they were a part of can still be felt today.
Rikidozan is almost incomparable to any American sportsman. The closest I can think of is baseball star Cap Anson, who was the most popular player in the National League during the 1870s and 1880s, and also managed its cornerstone franchise in Chicago. Of course, to reach Rikidozan level, Anson would have to do all that and invent a new way to play the game, and would have to introduce and educate Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth on the sport. Rikidozan's accomplishments are almost inconceivably tremendous.
Despite all of the above, Rikidozan never gets any credit from American wrestling fans. If you were to ask 100 average wrestling fans to name their top-10 wrestlers of all time, how many of them would choose Rikidozan? How many of them would even know who Rikidozan is?
What it comes down to is that Japanese wrestling stars are just not appreciated in the United States. This is odd because American wrestlers in Japan have been a huge part of the success of puroresu over the past 40 years. American grapplers like Terry Funk and Stan Hansen are amongst the all-time greats of the sport and are borderline icons in the land of the rising sun. However, when Japanese stars come to America, they never get over anywhere beyond the indy circuit.
The only Japanese star to achieve big-time success in the US was the Great Muta. Muta's character and move-set lent him very well in WCW in the late-80s/early-90s and he was one of the company's biggest stars. Outside of Muta, no Japanese star has really gotten any higher on the totem pole in WCW or the WWE then light-heavyweight champion.
Probably the main issue in getting Japanese stars over is the language barrier, and that it would be difficult to get someone over if they couldn't speak English very well. The other is that puroresu is vastly different from the American style of wrestling, and adapting to what the fans would like to see would be a challenge. Taka Michinoku was performing incredible wrestling maneuvers in 1998, but fans couldn't care less. They just wanted to see Austin give everyone the finger, stun some chumps and toss back a few. There is nothing like that in Japan, where wrestling is seen as more of an art-form and a legitimate sporting competition.
Could a Japanese star get over today if he was used correctly? I think there is more of a chance then there was in 1998. Wrestling fans overall are more appreciative of actual in-ring ability then they were back during the Attitude Era. If a top Japanese wrestler, such as Hiroshi Tanahashi came to the WWE and was given an excuse to not talk, like he wore a bad-ass mask or something, I think that he could eventually become a main-event guy if they used him correctly.
Because Japanese stars never really go over in America, not a lot of fans consider Japanese wrestling stars to be amongst the greatest ever. Going back to the 100 fan survey, if you asked them to construct a list of the top 50 wrestlers in history, how many Japanese names would pop up? You might see Inoki and Baba one quite a few, and Misawa might crack a couple. Important figures who drew huge crowds for decades such as Riki Choshu and Jumbo Tsuruta would hard pressed to make anybody's list.
Appreciating Japanese stars can be difficult, as the style of wrestling is so different then American wrestling, and many fans would indicate it as being boring and stiff. The fact that almost all the videos are in a foreign language doesn't help either. However, these variables shouldn't prevent some of the most talented, important and influential figures in the history of wrestling from being recognized by the general wrestling public.