Views From The Turnbuckle: Japanese Stars In America

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.

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