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#12 Jumbo Tsuruta
A natural athlete and one of the largest Japanese wrestlers of all-time, Jumbo Tsuruta would revolutionize professional wrestling in route to becoming one of the biggest stars of the 1980s and 90s. Tsuruta took puroresu and transformed it from a clone of American wrestling to a completely different entity, one that would keep professional wrestling on the forefront of sport in Japan in a way that wrestling in North America would fade away from.
Born Tomomi Tsuruta, the 6'6" 300lb Tsuruta excelled in many sports in high school, including basketball, sumo wrestling and swimming. How good of an athlete was he? While studying at Chuo University he took up amateur wrestling on a whim and would go on to win national championships in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling. His success as an amateur led to a trip to the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where he represented Japan in Greco-Roman wrestling, a mere 18 months after picking up the sport.
Unlike most wrestlers, who seek out professional wrestling, professional wrestling worked hard to get Tsuruta. Giant Baba tirelessly recruited him and was able to sign him on October 31, 1972, just ten days after he had officially founded All-Japan Pro Wrestling. While Baba had stars coming over from the Japan Wrestling Association, signing the top prospect in all of wrestling was an important step forward for the fledgling company, as Tsuruta would became a pillar for AJPW during a terrific boom period.
At the time, the Funk brothers were responsible for training new recruits for AJPW, and when Baba would sign a new talent they would move to Texas to train with the Funks and work in their Amarillo promotion. For all intents and purposes, Tsuruta was the fastest learner in professional wrestling history. A wrestler receiving a world title shot during their first year in the industry is pretty much unheard of; even men like Kurt Angle had to wait two years before receiving a WWF World Heavyweight Championship shot. Tsuruta would get his first world title shot just eight weeks after beginning his training. Eight weeks! After eight weeks of pro wrestling training most students barely know how to run the ropes and lock-up, but Tsuruta was already a title contender. After beginning his training with the Funks in March of 1973, he would go on to challenge Terry Funk for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in May at a show in Albuquerque, New Mexico, losing a 2 out of 3 falls match that went a whopping 52 minutes.
Since AJPW and New Japan Pro Wrestling both had working agreements with different promoters in North America, there were a lot of young Japanese wrestlers touring around the continent and gaining some seasoning. Nearly all of the Japanese wrestlers were portrayed as sneaky, underhanded heels who tried to cheat the American wrestlers out of their victories. Wrestling has always been warped with a plain narrative of stereotypes, and even today that still holds true in a lot of cases. The early-70s were no different, and since the most famous moment Japan ever did involving the US was a sneak attack (Pearl Harbor), many Japanese wrestlers were forced to play the role of a villain from a bygone era.
Tsuruta proved to be an exception to the rule, as he began to get over as a babyface with American fans. As Terry Funk told the Wrestling Observer "He was the only Japanese wrestler that I knew that was really well accepted as a good guy here in America. All of the fans really liked him…He worked for me in Amarillo and when I was booking in Florida and when I was in Mid-Atlantic, he was accepted very well in each place as a babyface. That's at a time when all the Japanese were working as heels over here." Thanks to his size, athleticism and hard working style, Tsuruta would enjoy a fair amount of success in America, his biggest victory coming over Billy Robinson in a match for the NWA United National Title in a match in Florida in 1977.
Late in 1973 he would return to Japan and immediately got a push as a top name. He was paired with Baba and they formed the top babyface tag team in Japan. Their second match as a duo was a 60-minute classic against the Funks on live television, which immediately established the young Tsuruta as a household name in Japan. In February of 1975, Baba and Tsuruta would travel to Texas to challenge the Funks for the NWA International Tag Team Championships, defeating the Funks and bringing the titles with them back to Japan, where they would remain for the remainder of their existence.
The rest of the 1970s saw Tsuruta mainly take a backseat behind Baba as the number two babyface in the promotion. They would continue to team up and defend the NWA International Tag Team Championships, eventually ending up with six title reigns, and defending them against the likes of Kintaro Ohki and Kim Duk, Abdullah the Butcher and Ray Candy, and Tiger Jeet Singh and Umanosuke Ueda.
By the early 1980s, Baba began to reel back his role in the company and began to push Tsuruta as the top babyface star. In 1980 he became the first wrestler other than Baba or Abdullah the Butcher to win the prestigious Champion Carnival, defeating Dick Slater in the finals of a tournament that saw top names compete in it, like Ted DiBiase and Abdullah the Butcher. While Baba was the still the most prominent name and the biggest star in the company, Tsuruta took over for him as AJPW's ace, a guy who would challenge imported champions and would often have the best match of the show.
Before the 1980s, wrestling in Japan, otherwise known as puroresu, was not all that different from wrestling in the United States. The pacing, structure of matches and style was very similar to the rest of the territories in wrestling; it is no surprise that AJPW was under the NWA banner and recognized the NWA World Heavyweight Championship as the one true world title. Today, puroresu is notably different from its American counterpart, in fact, puroresu has impacted American wrestling over the last 25 years much more than American wrestling has impacted puroresu.
Around 1980 a certain wave of new, innovative wrestlers began to come of age in Japan. Up until that point, it nearly mirrored American wrestling; which makes sense when you research the history of wrestling in Japan. Teams of wrestlers from North America and Europe had been touring Japan for decades to minimal acclaim, but it was not until a native star, Rikidozan (Rikidozan was actually Korean) was developed and trained by American wrestlers did the industry take off on the archipelago. Rikidozan (along with several other western wrestlers) trained and developed the next two major Japanese stars, Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba, who would obviously have a hand in fostering professional wrestling in Japan for decades as the leaders of the two most prominent promotions in the country. It is natural that wrestling in Japan would mimic its early influences before it took a life of its own.
It was not until the third generation of wrestlers in Japan did the style of wrestling begin to become uniquely Japanese. A talented group of wrestlers, like Tsuruta and Riki Choshu, would come of age and shape puroresu in their own image. Tsuruta would end up having a larger impact on the industry than Choshu mainly because Tsuruta worked for Baba his entire career while Choshu was forced to often abandon the spotlight in favor of Inoki. Tsuruta would develop a style suited to his own skills, focused on quick pacing, thudding strikes and heavy drama. Tsuruta's size and amateur background, not to mention his almost supernatural ability to pick up new aspects of the sport and further advance his in-ring ability, allowed his style to develop into a unique and transformative presentation of wrestling.
Tsuruta became known for presenting intricate, dynamic matches that were wrestled at a pace normally reserved for junior heavyweights. Before Tsuruta became the ace of AJPW, most "big" matches ended in 60-minute draws. If they were not draws, they went nearly 60 minutes as the idea of each wrestler running out of time to secure the victory added an extra element of drama. Tsuruta matches were wrestled at far too quick of a pace to regularly last 60 minutes (unless they were tag matches) but because they were so quick and full of action, they ended up having more drama than the 60 minute match. It also made wrestling more marketable to the allusive casual fan since it would be difficult to convince someone unfamiliar to wrestling to watch an hour long match, but one that lasted only 30-35 minutes was much more palpable. Slowly, the idea of the 60 minute match began to fade away from the industry and now it is only seen once in a blue moon as a special attraction.
He would win his first major singles championship in 1983, defeating Bruiser Brody for the NWA International Heavyweight Championship. The title would become glued to the waist of Tsuruta, as he would hold the title for over three years. Since Tsuruta was such an imposing physical wrestler, blessed with tremendous strength, speed and stamina, coupled with great technical ability, it was difficult to find opponents for him that could get heat in a convincing way, since Tsuruta was supposed to be the babyface. To counter that problem Giant Baba opened up the purse strings and brought in some of the most viscous wrestlers in the world. His main three opponents were all big men, Brody (6'6" 290lbs) Stan Hansen (6'4" 320lbs) and Terry Gordy (6'6" 300lbs) who also happened to be very agile as well.
Tsuruta, Brody, Hansen and Gordy would redefine what it meant to be a big man in professional wrestling. In the past if you were blessed with great physical size it was common practice to be very statuesque in the ring, not moving all that much and imposing your strength on your opponent. By the time Tsuruta was peaking in AJPW, his style of wrestling would change all of that. There had been big men in the past who moved really well, like Killer Kowalski and Don Leo Jonathan, but they were few and far between. Having two titans go at each other and wrestle fast paced, wild matches that often spilled into the audience was unheard of, but it was what ended up separating AJPW and eventually puroresu from its counterparts. Tsuruta's style would influence the next generation of AJPW talents, sparking what many wrestling critics consider the golden age for in-ring action. It would also open the door for more athletic big men, such as The Undertaker, Akira Taue, Kane and even Brock Lesnar.
Under the steady booking of Giant Baba, Tsuruta would become the most dominant wrestler in Japan. AJPW became the promotion that became known for having the best main event matches anywhere, a reputation it would uphold into the new millennium. In addition to his lengthy reign as NWA International Heavyweight Champion, he would win the World's Strongest Tag Determination League in 1984 and 1986 with Genichiro Tenryu in 1984 and 1986 and with Yoshiaki Yatsu in 1987. Yatsu and Tsuruta would win the AJPW World Tag Team Championships on five different occasions throughout the 1980s as well. He would also wrestling occasionally in the United States, eventually winning the American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight Championship in February 1984. He would defend the title against the likes of Blackjack Lanza, Billy Robinson, Nick Bockwinkel and Blackjack Mulligan before dropping the title to Rick Martel.
His lengthy reign as NWA International Heavyweight Champion would come to an end at the hands of Hansen, who dethroned Tsuruta in July of 1986. Hansen's reign would not last very long, as Tsuruta would regain the championship in October. Tsuruta's second reign as champion would last just over 600 days before dropping the title to Brody in March of 1988. Tsuruta would regain the championship for the final time in April of 1988.
In the late 1980s Baba became frustrated with the NWA. Since the NWA was under assault from the World Wrestling Federation and their attempts to become a national promotion, they began to promote the Mid-Atlantic territory as the premiere territory under the NWA banner. Slowly, the NWA began to restrict the NWA Heavyweight Champion (usually Ric Flair) to the Mid-Atlantic territory. Flair was pulled off of several tours of Japan, which angered Baba because the dates that saw the NWA champion battle the AJPW champion, most likely Tsuruta, were the most lucrative dates on the calendar for AJPW.
To solve that problem, AJPW withdrew recognition of the NWA World Heavyweight Championship as the one true world title. AJPW had three different versions of their own world title, essentially the equivalent of a territorial championship. They were the NWA International Heavyweight Championship, the Pacific Wrestling Federation World Heavyweight Wrestling Championship and the NWA United National Championship. The logical solution would be to unify all three titles into one, true world championship. Tsuruta was the NWA Internaional Heavyweight Championship; and PWF World Heavyweight Champion Stan Hansen took the NWA United National Championship from Tenryu, which set up a mega-match to unify three titles, which going forward would be called the Triple Crown Championship. On April 18, Tsuruta defeated Hansen to unify the titles to become the first ever Triple Crown Champion.
Tsuruta would drop the championship to Tenryu in June of 1989 but he would regain the title in October and hold it for more than 230 days before losing to Terry Gordy in June of 1990. At that same time, AJPW was rocked by the departure of Tenryu, who left the company to form Super World of Sports. Baba needed to find new stars to replace Tenryu, so he turned to a trio of young wrestlers, Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi and Toshiaki Kawada. Since Tsuruta was the top veteran in the company, he was counted on to help put over the new stars.
In June of 1990, Tsuruta met Misawa in a well-hyped bout at the Nippon Budokan. According to legend, Tsuruta was scheduled to win the match but right before the start of the event Baba stuck his head through the curtain, noticed that the crowd was very pro-Misawa and decided that Misawa would be going over. Tsuruta tried to convince Baba to do a double-countout, but Baba was adamant that Misawa would go over. Misawa would win the match with a beautiful roll-up in one of the most acclaimed matches of 1990 as the two exchanged vicious strikes and near-falls. The match was given a perfect five stars from the Wrestling Observer and the feud between Misawa and Tsuruta would develop into the top feud of the early-90s.
Misawa's victory over Tsuruta would change the landscape of wrestling in Japan. Tsuruta would accept his role as the cunning veteran and for the first time in his career became a true heel. He teamed up with fellow veteran wrestlers Akira Taue and Masanobu Fuchi and formed Tsuruta-gun in hopes of staving off the rising Misawa. Misawa aligned himself with Kawada and Kobashi and the trios would engage in several important six man tag matches. Trios matches in October of 1990, April of 1991 and May of 1991 all received five stars from the Wrestling Observer and raised the bar for what a multi-man tag match could be. While the Triple Crown Championship was still the most prominent title in Japan, it was the trios matches between Tsuruta-gun and Misawa & Co. that would launch AJPW into the top promotion of the 1990s from an in-ring perspective.
Meanwhile, Tsuruta would win his third and final Triple Crown Championship, defeating Hansen in January of 1991. He would hold the championship for just over a year, dropping the title back to Hansen in January of 1992. While now 41 years old, Tsuruta was still in his prime as a professional and was in the midst of having one of the most impressive runs of match-quality in history when tragedy struck. In October of 1992 Tsuruta was diagnosed with Hepatitis B, which put an end to his career as a legitimate main event wrestler.
Tsuruta would take more than a year off from wrestling before returning in 1993. He would become a babyface, mostly teaming with Baba and Rusher Kimura in comedy matches. The disease would slowly whittle away at Tsuruta and he would go from one of the most physically imposing and skilled wrestlers in history to a shell of his former self. He would continue to wrestle with Baba and Kimura against other old-time wrestlers for the rest of the decade. His last match was in September of 1998 and he announced his retirement in February of 1999. Following his retirement he was diagnosed with kidney cancer and he scoured the Pacific looking for a suitable donor. Eventually he found one in the Philippines, but complications from the surgery led to heavy internal bleeding and he passed away in the Philippines in May of 2000 at age 49.
Although his career ended prematurely, Tsuruta still enjoyed one of the most prominent and extraordinary careers in puroresu. He essentially redefined the industry in Japan and the style of his matches are still the prevailing methodology behind most of the major companies in Japan. Tsuruta became a great wrestler almost from the moment he first stepped through the ropes and continued to be one of the best in the world until he was diagnosed with Hepatitis B. While talking to Dave Meltzer and comparing Tsuruta to another big man who had the best matches of his career after they turned 40, The Undertaker, Meltzer expressed that Tsuruta was not only the equal to The Undertaker, but that "the Tsuruta who fought Tenryu & Misawa & Kawada was as good as anyone ever." I think that is enough to make the case that Tsuruta was one of the top wrestlers in history.
Next week #11 will be revealed, an imposing brawler whose longevity outlasted the rest of his peers.
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
19. Dusty Rhodes
18. Dory Funk Jr.
16. Harley Race
15. Andre the Giant
14. Kenta Kobashi
13. The Rock
12. Jumbo Tsuruta