The Best Anime And Manga About Wrestling That Fans Will Want To Check Out

We may receive a commission on purchases made from links.

Wrestling, as some Twitter users love saying, is anime for rednecks. Well, we'd actually dispute that statement, but only insofar as wrestling fans and wrestlers alike are a far more diverse group, ethnically and economically, than the term "redneck" is usually thought to encompass. There are plenty of parallels between the two forms of entertainment, though, over and above the fact that both are huge in Japan.

Back in the early days of WWE, perhaps a better parallel for pro wrestling would have been mainstream superheroes — just watch Sergeant Slaughter standing up for truth, justice, and the American way by beating the snot out of Iron Sheik with a combat boot, or Hulk Hogan taking on the forces of evil in the person of the Undertaker. Nowadays, though, the stories are so much more complex, nuanced, and in some cases, just plain WTF, that sometimes you practically do need to read from back to front in order to figure out what the hell's going on. Nonetheless, you tune in for the action, but stay for the stories, and soon you find yourself craving the latter even more than the former. In that case, you could do worse than to check out a few wrestling-based anime/manga stories while you're waiting for Monday, Wednesday, or Friday night to roll around.

Baki the Grappler

"Baki the Grappler" may not be the best example of purely wrestling-inspired anime as it involves a variety of different combat arts, but we're going in alphabetical order here, so live with it. The premise of the series is that a young man named Baki (obviously) practices and competes in multiple martial arts with the goal of mastering them. Not only is he aspiring to be the world's best fighter, but YouTuber Wrestling Colin notes that there's also some type of backstory about him wanting to defeat his own father. (Shades of Dominik Mysterio after Rhea Ripley got her claws in him). The story started out in manga form, and the manga (via Anime News Network) was more-or-less ongoing from 1994 at least through 2001. As per IMDb, it has been adapted into anime form twice, once in 2001 and again in 2017. 

Fun fact about "Baki the Grappler" — there's a character there who will seem very familiar to fans of New Japan Pro Wrestling: Antonio Igari, a wrestler whose name and character are an obvious homage to NJPW's legendary founder Antonio Inoki. In fact, at one point in the series, Igari even takes on a boxer called "Mohammad Alai" — bet you can't guess who that's supposed to be.

Cutie and the Beast

If Sammy Guevara and Tay Melo don't make you want to barf, then "Cutie and the Beast" may be the manga for you. Even if you can't stand AEW's gruesome twosome, you might still want to check out this sweet story of a high school girl in love with a monster heel. Yes, this is shojo manga, meaning it's aimed at a readership that skews younger and girlier than the average pro wrestling audience, but if you find yourself reading it on the sly ... well, that's probably just what Kuga (the aforementioned heel) would do.

Kuga's really a big ol' mush at heart, and when starry-eyed fan Momoka confesses her crush on him, he can't help but reciprocate. Fair warning: There is an age difference (as per Al's Manga Blog, he's 29 and she's 18), but Kuga does have the decency to be bothered by the gap. (Such things are hardly unknown in the three-dimensional wrestling world, as well, what with the 15-year difference between Undertaker and Michelle McCool.) How will the story play out? Well, "Cutie and the Beast" is still ongoing. As per publisher Seven Seas Entertainment, to date there are three volumes of the manga, but a fourth one's set to release in 2023.

Giganto Maxia

"Giganto Maxia" is a manga taking place in a post-apocalyptic world, 100 million years in the future, and in this particular version of the future, they're less into shiny new technology and more into a Greek mythology/pro wrestling mashup. The story line concerns a gladiator named Delos who teams up with a spirit named Prome. Delos also wins a cage match with a beetle person and becomes the next big star of beetle wrestling. Yes, it's a great big mess, but a fun one. It's also clearly illustrated by someone who really knew his wrestling moves.

The problem with "Giganto Maxia" is that it was strictly a one-shot deal with seven volumes released between 2013 and 2014 (via My Anime List). It was the first new project creator Kenatro Miura had worked on since beginning his better-known "Berserk" in 1989, but although fans hoped for more "Giganto Maxia," his death in 2021 probably put an end to any possibility of that happening.

Wanna Be the Strongest in the World

"Wanna Be the Strongest in the World" started as a manga published between 2011 and 2013, while the anime series, as per IMDb, aired from 2013 through 2014. The premise is one that might seem a bit far-fetched, at first: a couple of teenage J-pop idols are doing some kind of promo with members of a women's wrestling stable, but one of the idols annoys a heel, who challenges her to a shoot match and pretty much knocks the stuffing out of her. The other idol — our heroine, whose name is Sakura Hagiwara — decides that the best way to get revenge is to quit her day job of idoling and train to become a wrestler herself. Cue the training montage straight out of "Fighting With My Family," and soon she's a legit wrestler.

You might be thinking, isn't this pretty much the Maki Itoh story? Itoh, who wrestled for AEW in 2021, is quite the star in Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling, but she, like Sakura from "WBTSITW," started off as an idol with the J-Pop group LinQ. While Ito, unlike Sakura, first tried to balance her two careers, LinQ eventually let her go and she embraced her identity as the badass wrestling "Fired Idol." At any rate, if you like Maki Itoh, you'll love "Wanna Be the Strongest in the World" — or vice-versa.

Jushin Liger

While Maki Itoh may be a Japanese wrestler whose life just happens to parallel a popular manga, Jushin Liger is a wrestler who adopted his name and his gimmick from an anime/manga series. In fact, it's entirely due to the fame and longevity of the real-life Liger that most of us have even heard of his eponymous cartoon. Liger, also known as Jushin Thunder Liger, is now retired, but he's one of the biggest stars ever to wrestle for NJPW, and even his brief tenure with WWE was enough to earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame.

But enough about Jushin Liger the man, what about "Jushin Liger" the anime? It's kind of weird and cheesy in an '80s/'90s way. The plot, in brief, revolves around an army of biomechanical baddies who try to take over the world, but are vanquished by a 16-year-old boy who throws his hand in the air and yells "LIGER!" This transforms him into some kind of super-warrior clad in hairy armor. Go figure that, with such a premise, this short series only lasted from March 1989 to January 1990 (via Otaquest). It returned for a reboot in 1995, however, with "Jushin Thunder Liger Fist Of Thunder." This movie probably owed most of its audience to the fact that it starred the masked wrestler who was by that time synonymous with the name.

Kemono Michi: Rise Up

"Kemono Michi: Rise Up" is one of the newer titles on this list — as per Kadokawa, the first volume of the manga came out in 2017 and the tenth and most recent (as of time of writing) in 2022. There was also a short-lived anime version whose single, 12-episode season aired in 2019 (via Funimation). It falls under the genre of isekai, or portal fantasy, as the main character is a pro wrestler who gets transported into a different world.

Our hero Genzo Shibata, as the series begins, is about to retire from the ring, where he wrestles as Animal Mask. He is not injured, nor is he particularly old, but he wants to fulfill his lifelong dream of owning a pet store. Before he gets to do so, though, he somehow winds up in a world populated by animal people. He gets off to a great start right away by meeting a princess and promptly giving her a one-way trip to Supplex City. No, he's not a bully — he's just very, very upset because she wants him to kill the cute little animals. Instead, he sets out into the wilderness to live amongst his new furry friends. 

According to the reviews on Anime News Network, "Kemono Michi" is either really cute or kind of creepy.

Kick-Heart

"Kick-Heart" is a short anime film that was crowd-funded by Kickstarter. As per My Anime List, the campaign, well, kicked off in 2012, and the Kickstart page was last updated in 2015.  Some versions have no English dub or subtitles, but it's not too hard to figure out what's going on, plus the Kickstart page has a short promo film by animator Masaaki Yuasa explaining what's going on.

So what will you see, should you be able to spare a scant quarter-hour to watch the film? It's a sweet, yet slightly bizarre, story of a pro wrestler/orphan benefactor by the name of Romeo Maki (aka Masked Man M) who falls in love with a novice nun whose name, of course, is Juliet. Turns out she also wrestles (as Lady S), and both wrestlers are hiding big secrets behind their respective masks. Plot twist: the nun's a closet sadist, while the "M" in Masked Man's name might as well stand for masochist. So, boy meets girl, girl beats boy in the ring (she even does the Cesaro swing).

Kinnikuman

"Kinnikuman" (which is Japanese for Muscleman) is one of the most venerable of wrestling mangas, as Anime News Network reports that the first version came out in 1979 when creators Takashi Shimada and Nakai Yoshinori were still attending high school. The premise is pretty much a slam-dunk: a band of wrestlers called the Muscle League Champions take on assorted evildoers and repeatedly save the world. Over the years it has spawned numerous offshoots and reboots, including the second-gen "Ultimate Muscle: The Kinnikuman Legacy." In this version Kid Muscle, son of the original hero King Muscle, takes over where his dad left off after overcoming initial reluctance and lack of fitness with a good workout regime. "Ultimate Muscle" was also adapted into an anime that first aired in 2002 and lasted for two seasons (via IMDb).

The best part of "Kinnikuman" for wrestling fans is the amount of real-world crossover in the show. For one thing, The Sportster notes that several characters were obviously inspired by WWE superstars: Dynamite Piper, God Von Erich, and Beauty Rhodes (the last-being based on the original Son of a Plumber, not the guy with the hideous neck tat). For another, Samoa Joe has admitted on the "Steve Austin Show" podcast that his Muscle Buster was borrowed from the anime. Best of all, though, there was even a live-action event called Kinnukumania in 2009 where wrestlers performed in the Tokyo Dome costumed as characters from the franchise.

New Japan Academy

If you want a real-world/manga crossover, then "New Japan Academy" is a must-read. The series, which runs to two volumes so far, revolves around the life and times of Tetsuyo Naito, who is currently signed to New Japan Pro-Wrestling and is part of the Los Ingobernables de Japon faction. While Wrestle Joy says reading this manga is a great way to get familiar with Naito and with NJPW, it is still a work of fiction — there's no actual "New Japan Academy" that trains wrestlers as they attend high school.

While Naito may be the main character, plenty of other Japanese wrestlers play a significant role in "New Japan Academy." Hiroshi Tanahashi makes multiple appearances, as do Kazuchika Okada, Katsuyori Shibata, Kazuchika Okada, Gedo, Yujiro Takahashi, and Kota Ibushi. In Volume #2, even Kenny Omega shows up in the role of a foreign exchange student. To date, there's no anime version of "New Japan Academy," but then, perhaps that would be redundant since you can always watch the real deal by tuning into NJPW.

Plastic Model Wrestling Sanshiro

While "New Japan Academy" may go in for realism, "Plastic Model Wrestling Sanshiro" — or "Plawres Sanshiro" for short — veers off in an entirely different direction. This totally '80s manga-turned-anime tells the tale of a boy named Sanshiro Sugata who looks an awful lot like Ash Ketchum from Pokémon. Instead of trying to "catch 'em all," though, he and his pocket rock-em-sock-em robot Juohmaru battle other plastic wrestlers. Who doesn't love a good story about action figures come to life?

"Plawres Sanshiro" isn't going to be the easiest series to catch up on, though. The manga ran from 1982 to 1985, as per DBPedia, while the anime aired between 1983 and 1984 (via IMDb). You may be able to find a few random episodes on YouTube (most likely without dubbing or subtitles), but to delve any deeper into the manga, the anime, or all the cool collectible action figures they spawned, you'll probably have to drop big bucks on eBay.

The God of Pro Wrestling

"The God of Pro Wrestling" gets off to a real bummer of a start. The main character, Junho Kim, never really made it in the world of pro wrestling, which is something he blames on racism. He eventually winds up as an embittered middle-aged construction worker, telling tales of his not-so-glory days as a jobber, but in the midst of one such narrative he slips and falls to his death. He wakes up back in his younger body, on the eve of a very important tryout to join a WWF developmental territory (kind of a pre-NXT deal). It seems he'd bombed the audition in his first life, but he's determined not to do that again.

Spoiler alert: he doesn't. Instead, all of the knowledge Kim has gained from watching years of wrestling that have yet to happen in his back-to-the-future trip make him a top prospect. He befriends soon-to-be-famous wrestlers, "originates" a number of gimmicks, and basically makes the best of his second chance. How it all ends, we do not know — the serialized web comic has had 67 chapters translated into English at time of writing (via Manga Puma), but appears to be still ongoing, particularly as the latest episode doesn't end with anything even vaguely resembling a wrap-up.

Tiger Mask

"Tiger Mask," just like Jushin Liger, is another manga/anime that inspired a real-life pro wrestler. While the first wrestling Tiger Mask had his debut just a few years earlier than that of Liger (WWE says the former got his start in the early '80s, while the latter emerged later in the decade), his eponym originated in a 1968 manga that was adapted into anime form the following year (via Last Word on Sports). The character has been licensed by several companies including New Japan Pro-Wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestling and has been portrayed by four different wrestlers over the years, although the best-known will always be the first Tiger Mask, Satoru Sayama.

Unlike the Jushin Liger backstory, though, the Tiger Mask gimmick didn't need too much tweaking. The anime character Tiger Mask was already a pro wrestler, and he was also the benefactor of a children's hospital (shades of "Kick-Heart," although it's likely the latter may have been paying homage as it came along some five decades later). In his spare time, though, he battled evil in the form of the Tiger Cave -– not a place like the Bat Cave, but a league of supervillains like G.I. Joe's Cobra. While the original anime went off the air in 1971 (via IMDb), a second-gen sequel "Tiger Mask II" ran from 1981 to 1982, while yet another reboot, "Tiger Mask W," came out in 2016.

Comments