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#20 Riki Choshu
One of the most groundbreaking performers in Japan, Riki Choshu also proved to be one of the most brilliant minds in wrestling history, successfully booking himself and other performers to some of the greatest success and biggest gates in wrestling history. A gifted amateur wrestler, Choshu's influence on puroresu may actually usurp his accomplishments in the ring.
Similar to Japanese wrestling legend Rikidozan, Choshu was actually not Japanese at all—he was born in Seoul but grew up in Japan. A standout amateur wrestler at Shensu University, Choshu represented South Korea in freestyle wrestling at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, but did not place. After graduating from college in 1973 he enrolled in the New Japan training dojo and quickly became one of the standout trainees in the program. He made his in-ring debut in August of 1974 and while he remained on the undercard, he won a majority of his matches, something that is rarely done by a young Japanese wrestler. He was even paired up with company founder Antonio Inoki and the pair scored numerous victories over rival tag teams.
In the late 1970s Choshu would head to North America for some seasoning and would make a couple appearances in Madison Square Garden for the World Wrestling Federation. However it was in Mexico where Choshu first became a real top name. Working for the Universal Wrestling Association, Choshu became arguably the biggest heel in Mexico during the late-70s and early-80s. At the time the UWA was having tremendous success booking their company champion, El Canek, against various foreign talent. Choshu first faced El Canek in 1979 in a match for the UWA World Heavyweight Championship and was defeated in front of a sold-out crowd of 28,000 in Mexico City.
While he was never quite able to topple El Canek; Choshu became a top challenger for the title and helped El Canek become one of the biggest draws in Mexican history. The battles between El Canek and Choshu were renowned for their physical, hard-hitting style, something that was not that frequent in lucha libre, which naturally focuses on high-flying maneuvers and genuinely working "light". There was nothing light with El Canek and Choshu and their stiff battles set a new tone of physicality that would flourish in the UWA and later in Asistencia Asesoría y Administración.
Choshu left Mexico in 1982 and returned to Japan full-time. After proving himself to be a full-fledged star in UWA, Choshu was ready for prime time in NJPW and was thrust into the forefront of one of the most important wrestling feuds in history. In 1983, NJPW created a tournament to crown their first ever true world champion and their world championship, the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Choshu was not chosen to compete in the tournament and frustrated by the lack of opportunity that the veterans of NJPW were giving him, he turned on NJPW veteran Tatsumi Fujinami and formed his own villainous stable, Ishingun, which translates to "Revolution Army." The group begin to heat-up and feud with the top names in NJPW like Fujinami, Akira Maeda and Antonio Inoki. The renegade young stars, who included Animal Haguchi, Killer Khan, Kuniaki Kobayashi and Yoshiaki Yatsu formed an iron bond and took on all comers in NJPW.
The significance of Ishingun cannot be overstated, they are widely recognized of the first true heel faction in any wrestling promotion, and set the bar for future heel stables such as The Four Horsemen and the nWo, who would go onto become some of the biggest moneymaking ideas in wrestling history. In addition, Choshu was one of the first true native wrestlers to be a top-level heel in Japan. The major promotions in Japan had mostly patterned their booking philosophy after Rikidozan and the Japanese Pro-Wrestling Alliance, which meant bringing in foreign challengers, usually American or Canadian heavyweights, to take on the native hero. Choshu and his Ishingun stable proved that Japanese fans would be willing to boo a Japanese wrestler, as long as they were given a sufficient reason to do so. Business boomed for NJPW, as their shows carried a 90 percent sellout rate and their television ratings, airing in prime time on Japanese television, aired in the 20-25 range.
However, NJPW was rocked when Inoki was caught up in an embezzlement scandal. During this tumultuous time, All-Japan Pro Wrestling executive Giant Baba swooped in and signed Choshu and the other members of Ishingun, along with some other talent, to lucrative contracts, essentially crippling NJPW.
Choshu and his Ishingun teammates were not signed however to wrestle for AJPW, at least not right away. Instead Choshu formed his own promotion, Japan Pro-Wrestling, and he began to wrestle for that promotion, along with his teammates from Ishingun. Eventually, the members of JPW were brought into AJPW and began to "invade" the promotion, challenging the top stars of AJPW similar to the way they had done in NJPW. Throughout 1985 and 1986, AJPW joined banner years as Choshu worked top matches against AJPW icons like Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu.
As a worker, Choshu is widely regarded as being one of the best in puroresu history. His background in freestyle wrestling contrasted with men with martial arts backgrounds, like Maeda, Inoki and Fujinami. His skill on the mat was his main calling card, and his greatest accomplishment was creating the Sasori-gatame, popularized in America by Sting and Bret Hart as the Scorpion Deathlock and the Sharpshooter respectively. In AJPW he was paired against other skilled mat wrestlers like Tsuruta and Tenryu, and soon AJPW established itself as having the best main events on the planet. In 1986, Choshu and Yatsu teamed against Tenryu and Tsuruta in a match that became one of the most critically acclaimed bouts of the 1980s, generating a perfect five star rating from Dave Meltzer.
In 1987 however, Choshu decided to return home to NJPW, and left AJPW to go back to the company he came up with, taking a majority of the talent that originally jumped with him to AJPW back with him. Choshu had only become a bigger star during his excursion in AJPW, and his presence helped swing NJPW back into the war with AJPW. Choshu immediately became a top star in the company, which angered Akira Maeda, who was forced to take a back seat to Choshu. Maeda responded to this infraction by delivering an infamous "shoot kick" to the face of Choshu during a tag team match. The kick shattered Choshu's orbital bone and sidelined him for six weeks and Maeda was immediately suspended and eventually fired. Ironically, the shoot kick became the talk of the Japanese wrestling world and Choshu's star only grew while he recovered from his injury.
Choshu would win his first world title in 1989 when he won the IWGP World Championship, defeating Russian amateur star Salman Hashimikov in under ten minutes to capture the title. Choshu's reign on top would be short-lived however, as just a month later he dropped the championship to Big Van Vader. Choshu would regain the title about a year later, defeating Vader in August of 1990 and enjoying a lengthier title reign, eventually dropping it to Fujinami in December of 1990.
In 1989, Inoki was elected to the Japanese House of Councillors, the Japanese equivalent to the United States Senate. With Inoki stepping away from many of the day-to-day operations of NJPW, Choshu stepped in and became the head booker of the company. As a booker, Choshu is recognized as being one of the most innovative and consistently great bookers in modern wrestling history. His first great idea came in 1991, when he envisioned a lengthy, round-robin style tournament that would showcase the top heavyweights in the company. Since 1974 NJPW had held a tournament in some form, going under different names, but Choshu took the event and turned it into a spectacle.
The first ever G1 Climax was held from August 7 to August 11, 1991 and involved eight of the top names in NJPW. Choshu, who booked the entire event, had himself go 0-3 in the tournament, selflessly putting over Bam Bam Bigelow, Masa Chono and Shinya Hashimoto, a move rarely seen in wrestling where a veteran star who was still in their prime, successfully put over younger stars that would eventually replace him at the top of the card. Chono, Hashimoto and Keiji Mutoh would go on to lead the company throughout the 1990s and would go on to become some of the largest box office attractions in wrestling history.
Choshu as a booker should be viewed as a separate entity from Choshu as a wrestler, which is what he is being evaluated for here. However, Choshu's selflessness as a booker when it came to booking himself should be viewed as a credit to him as a performer. Choshu never had any problem putting over other talents and his ability as a wrestler to successfully put over those talents and establish them as top stars, is a major reason why he ranks this high on the list. It takes a special type of performer to elevate other talents, and unfortunately many of the top names on this list did not have that quality. Choshu never let his ego get in the way of telling a good story and eventually making NJPW a much better company.
Choshu would capture his final world championship, defeating Tatsumi Fujinami in front of 50,000 people in January of 1992. Choshu would enjoy his longest world title reign, successfully defending the title against the likes of Scott Norton, Mutoh and Chono. Choshu would drop the championship in August to Mutoh.
While it appeared Choshu's career was winding down in the ring, his run as a top name was given a second wind when he became a part of the watershed UWFi vs NJPW feud. The feud involved a rival promotion "invading" NJPW and challenging all of their top stars, including Choshu. Unlike his feuds in the past, this time Choshu was on the side of the group that was being invaded, and he defended the NJPW name with honor.
Up until that point in history, the UWFi vs NJPW feud was the single greatest moneymaking storyline in wrestling history. The battles between the two promotions lasted throughout 1995 and delivered unprecedented business to NJPW. Throughout a five-month period, the promotion hosted three consecutive sell-outs of the Tokyo Dome, drawing in a combined crowd of 195,000 and bringing in a gate of over $17 million. The largest show was in October of 1995, when 67,000 fans watched Choshu defeat Yoji Anjo and Mutoh defeat Nobuhiko Takada.
In 1996 Choshu enjoyed his last real run as a top singles wrestler, winning the G1 Climax of that year, becoming the first wrestler in history to win every single one of their matches under the round-robin style tournament. He won his final major title in 1997, teaming with Kensuke Sasaki to win the IWGP World Tag Team Championships. At the end of 1997 he announced he was retiring after the 1998 January 4 Tokyo Dome Show. Choshu wrestled five brief matches in front of 65,000 fans, winning the final match against Jushin Thunder Liger.
His retirement lasted until 2000, when he wrestled Atsushi Onita in a No Rope Explosive Barbed Wire Death Match, defeating Onita. Eventually, Choshu formed his own promotion, Fighting World of Japan Pro Wrestling, which was later changed to Riki Pro. Choshu ran the promotion, occasionally wrestling. Currently he still wrestles the odd match and remains a pivotal figure behind the scenes in Japan.
Choshu may not have received the amount of tangible singles success that other wrestlers did in their history, he only had three world title reigns and none of them were outstandingly long. However, Choshu was undeniably a top worker throughout the 1980s and 1990s and was one of the biggest draws during that time period as well. His presence in a promotion usually meant box office success and despite all of that, he ended up being one of the most unselfish bookers in wrestling and phased himself out at the right time and used his star power to build new stars.
Next week #19 will be revealed an iconic babyface who changed professional wrestling forever.
The Top 50 so far (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
26. Bob Backlund
25. Mil Mascaras
24. Nick Bockwinkel
22. Shawn Michaels
20. Riki Choshu