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#27 Keiji Mutoh
The first Japanese wrestler to become a national star in the United States, Keiji Mutoh, otherwise known as The Great Muta, is perhaps the most internationally well-known Japanese wrestler in history. Mutoh enjoyed a decorated career that spanned multiple world title reigns in various different major promotions and has one of the most impressive resumes in wrestling history.
Mutoh came to wrestling after training in judo and was trained by the legendary Hiro Matsuda in the New Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo. Mutoh made his in-ring debut in the fall of 1984, facing off against another NJPW trainee that the company had high hopes for, Masahiro Chono. Mutoh would go on his first excursion in the United States before returning to NJPW in 1986. Mutoh began to climb the ladder in NJPW and eventually won the IWGP World Tag Team Championship in 1987 along with Shiro Koshinaka before quickly losing the titles to Akira Maeda and Nobuhiko Takada. Mutoh would then align himself with Antonio Inoki as part of the babyface team that took on the heel stable led by Riki Choshu in the NOW vs NEW feud that main evented many shows for NJPW throughout the late 1980s.
By 1988 Mutoh found himself wrestling in Puerto Rico for Carlos Colon's World Wrestling Council. Wrestling under the name "Super Black Ninja" Mutoh feuded with local star Miguel Perez Jr., eventually losing a hair vs hair match to Perez in April of 1988. It was in WWC that Mutoh began to team up with two other Japanese stars, Shinya Hashimoto and the aforementioned Chono. Together, the trio formed the The Three Musketeers and would eventually lead NJPW to unprecedented heights of success during the 1990s.
In 1989 Mutoh debuted in World Championship Wrestling. The idea was that he would be managed by Gary Hart and go by the name "The Great Muta." Hart had previously managed The Great Kabuki in different NWA territories and the gimmick was that Muta was Kabuki's son. Like Kabuki, Muta came out wearing face paint and spit green mist, something that would remain a staple for Japanese wrestlers in the United States.
Despite prior premonitions that a Japanese wrestler couldn't be a top star in the United States, Mutoh immediately became a top star in the company, feuding with top stars in WCW such as Lex Luger, Arn Anderson and Sting. It was with Sting that Mutoh would forge his best rivalry in the United States. Both wrestlers wore face paint, had a lot of charisma and were really good athletes. They would have a series of matches over the NWA World Television Championship, with Mutoh taking the championship from Sting in September of 1989 and eventually losing it to Anderson later that year.
Mutoh's success in the United States made him one of the most memorable Japanese wrestlers in American history. If you don't know that many Japanese wrestlers, chances are one of the handful names you recognize is The Great Muta. While Mutoh's excursion to America made him a bigger international name and gives him an advantage over some other Japanese stars, I don't think his success would have been unique to only him. Mutoh got over in America because he was given a strong gimmick that any other Japanese wrestler could have gotten and he was really good in the ring. If any of Mutoh's contemporaries, like Hashimoto, Mitsuharu Misawa or Kenta Kobashi got the same treatment, I'm sure they would have gotten over just as well.
Although Mutoh left WCW and returned to NJPW in early 1990, he would still carry the Muta gimmick with him, regularly changing between normal Keiji Mutoh and the The Great Muta during different parts of his career. After his success in the US, Mutoh quickly ascended to the top of the card in NJPW as the company looked to build a new generation of wrestlers. Mutoh and Chono won the tag titles for a second time, this time holding onto them for six months before dropping them to Hiroshi Hase and Kensuke Sasaki in November of 1990.
The 1991 G1 Climax marked a pivotal moment in NJPW history. The tournament saw Mutoh, Chono and Hashimoto all advanced to the semi-finals, with Chono defeating Mutoh in the finals in a 30 minute classic. After the match all three men celebrated in the ring and the name "The Three Musketeers" was brought to Japan. The moment was the beginning of the new generation of NJPW, with the three surpassing the stars of the 1980s, like Inoki, Choshu and Tatsumi Fujinami.
Mutoh would continue his success throughout 1992, eventually defeating Chono for the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship while under the Muta persona. Mutoh would defend the championship throughout the last few months of 1992 in a feud with Hase. The clashes between Hase and Mutoh would become the stuff of legend, as the two engaged in a series of violent and bloody brawls. In December, Hase busted Mutoh open during a match where Mutoh cut himself extremely deep in the forehead. Mutoh would bleed profusely for the remainder of the match in one of the goriest moments in mainstream wrestling history. From then on, a particularly deep blade cut would often be referred to as "Pulling a Muta."
Note: Mutoh cuts himself at 14:55
Mutoh's greatest accomplishment would arguably come during the annual January 4 Tokyo Dome show in 1993. In front of over 63,000 fans, Mutoh defeated Chono for Chono's NWA World Heavyweight Championship, making Mutoh one of only two men (Tatsumi Fujinami is the other) to hold the IWGP and NWA World Heavyweight Championships at the same time. Mutoh would return to the United States to defend his championship, losing the NWA World Heavyweight Championship to Barry Windham at SuperBrawl III. Mutoh would defend his IWGP World Heavyweight Championship against top names such as Chono, Sting, Hulk Hogan and others before dropping the title to Hashimoto in September of 1993.
Following his world title loss Mutoh stepped back for a bit and formed a tag team with his former foe Hase. Hase and Mutoh would capture the tag titles and engage in a successful feud with The Steiner Brothers. In 1995, Mutoh regained his world championship by defeating Hashimoto. Mutoh would dominate 1995, winning the G1 Climax to become the first man to hold the world championship and win the G1 Climax at the same time.
Following his victory at the G1 Climax, NJPW would be invaded by Union of Wrestling Forces International and their leader, the noted shooter Nobuhiko Takada. The UWFi invasion would turn out to be the biggest money making feud in company history, and the invasion would be the inspiration for the nWo that would invade WCW in 1996. Takada would defeat Mutoh at the January 4 Tokyo Dome Show, winning the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship in front of over 50,000 people and a gate that was over $5 million.
Beginning with his loss to Takada, Mutoh would be booked to lose almost all of his big matches. As the UWFi began to fade, a new stable led by Chono would emerge, eventually becoming the nWo Japan. Like the American nWo, the Japanese version dominated the main events of NJPW and waged a war against the babyface stars. Mutoh would begin to tease turning heel and joining the feud, sometimes even going as far as attacking his own teammates and wearing an nWo T-shirt, only to deny any affiliation when questioned. Mutoh would then dust off his Great Muta character and would wrestle for NJPW as Keiji Mutoh and wrestle for the nWo as The Great Muta. In September of 1997, Mutoh finally turned full-fledged heel, joining the nWo as Keiji Mutoh. Making up for the success he was denied as a babyface, Chono and Mutoh formed a devastating heel duo, winning the tag titles from Sasaki and Kazuo Yamazaki.
Unfortunately, the titles would be vacated in the spring of 1998 when Mutoh was forced to take time off due to a knee injury. Later in 1998 Mutoh would return, but soon Chono would be sidelined with a neck injury, vacating the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship. Mutoh would assume the leadership role of the nWo, turning into a babyface stable. Mutoh defeated former nWo member Scott Norton in the main event of the 1999 January 4 show at the Tokyo Dome to capture his third world title. This would set up a long feud between a returning Chono and his Team 2000 stable. Upset with Mutoh turning the nWo into a babyface group, the two battled in a long feud that saw Mutoh drop the world title to Genichiro Tenryu in December of 1999 and then lose the feud decisively at the 2000 January 4 show when Chono pinned him cleanly.
After taking a year off from wrestling to rehabilitate his knees, Mutoh returned in January of 2001 and began to tag with Shinjiro Otani. At the same time, Mutoh got involved with the interpromotional storyline between NJPW and All-Japan Pro Wrestling, eventually winning the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship from Tenryu in one of the most critically acclaimed matches of the 2000s. In January of 2002, Mutoh shocked the wrestling world by defecting to AJPW full-time and taking young stars Satoshi Kojima and Kendo Kashin with him. The move helped re-stabilize AJPW after losing most of its roster earlier in the decade to Pro Wrestling NOAH. Mutoh also gained power behind the scenes, as Giant Baba's widow named Mutoh the new president of the company and transferred all of the Baba family stock to Mutoh, effectively ending the Baba association with AJPW.
Mutoh would remain a figure in AJPW both inside and outside the ring, holding the Triple Crown Championship on three different occasions. While still working for AJPW, he also made appearances for NOAH and NJPW, even winning the IWGP World Heavyweight Championship in 2008. In January of 2009 Mutoh main evented one more Tokyo Dome show, this time dropping the title and passing the metaphorical torch to Hiroshi Tanahashi. In 2011 Mutoh resigned from his position as AJPW president following a backstage incident between two wrestlers that ended with one of the wrestlers involved suffering a stroke due to the beating. In 2012 Mutoh sold his AJPW stock and later resigned in 2013.
Not done with the professional wrestling industry, Mutoh started his own promotion, Wrestle-1 in 2013. Mutoh recruited several AJPW talents who were loyal to him and began the promotion under much fan-fare. However, despite a promising start, the promotion began to sputter as Mutoh continued to push himself on top long after his athleticism had been robbed by multiple knee injuries. Now aged 53, Mutoh continues to wrestle for Wrestle-1 and remains an important figure in the Japanese wrestling market.
Mutoh rose to fame as one of the Three Musketeers, a new generation of wrestlers that would lead NJPW to new heights. Mutoh outlasted his fellow compatriots and has had tremendous success in every promotion he has been a part of, well into the new millennium. Due to his charisma, in-ring ability and consistent championship success, Mutoh goes down as one of the most well-rounded and successful performers of the last 30 years.
Next week #26 will be revealed one of the longest reigning champions in wrestling history and a technical standout.
The Top 50 so far:
50.Ted DiBiase (click link for description of the qualifications of the list)
49. Superstar Billy Graham
47. El hijo del Santo
45. Bruiser Brody
43. Kurt Angle
42. Hiroshi Tanahashi
41. The Sheik
39. Perro Aguayo
38. Ricky Steamboat
37. Toshiaki Kawada
36. Jushin Thunder Liger
35. El Canek
33. Jack Brisco
32. Shinya Hashimoto
31. Roddy Piper
30. Genichiro Tenryu
28. Abdullah the Butcher
27. Keiji Mutoh