#48 Akira Maeda
Perhaps the most controversial wrestler of the 1980s (and that is really saying something) Akira Maeda was also one of the most important figures in both professional wrestling in Japan, and Mixed Martial Arts. Although Maeda was an excellent worker in the ring and a big star for New Japan Pro Wrestling, it is through the development of pseudo-shoot fights and the Universal Wrestling Federation that he will be best remembered.
Maeda was born Go Il-myeong to Korean parents in Osaka Japan. In 1978 when he was 18 years old he enrolled in the New Japan Dojo where he was trained by the legendary Yoshiaki Fujiwara, the innovator of the Fujiwara armbar. After wrestling briefly for NJPW, he was sent on an excursion to the United Kingdom where he wrestled on the British wrestling show World of Sport under the awesome moniker "Kwik-kik-Lee". It was in Britain that he worked with the legendary shooter Karl Gotch who undoubtedly influenced Maeda in and out of the ring.
Maeda returned to NJPW and found moderate success, his biggest accomplishment being that he was one of three Japanese wrestlers (along with Antonio Inoki and Rusher Kimura) to compete in the first ever International Wrestling Grand Prix that was eventually won by Hulk Hogan.
In 1984 Maeda made waves when he left NJPW, along with Fujiwara and several other talents and formed the Universal Wrestling Federation. The idea behind the federation was to present a collection of worked-shoot matches, ones that looked much more like legitimate fights and were far different than the more cartoonish wrestling matches fans were being treated to in mainstream promotions. Another caveat of the promotion was that nobody, not even the top stars, were above doing clean jobs in the middle of the ring.
Despite the promising concept, the company collapsed after a feud broke out between Maeda and Satoru Sayama. Sayama, who wrestled in New Japan as the original Tiger Mask, was arguably the biggest star in Japan at that time. Sayama, a former kickboxer, wanted the promotion to focus more on kicks and strikes, while Maeda, who of course was trained by Fujiwara and Gotch, wanted it to be more ground based and focused on submissions. Maeda was also resentful of Sayama booking himself to seemingly win every match he was in, which disobeyed one of the fundamental standards of the company.
The feud came to a head when Sayama and Maeda wrestled a match in 1985. The match turned into a shoot-fight with Maeda delivering several kicks to Sayama's groin. Maeda was disqualified from the match and Sayama ended up retiring from wrestling after it. Shortly thereafter the UWF folded.
With the UWF gone, Maeda returned to NJPW and ended up becoming one of its top stars. Maeda won the IWGP Tag Team Championships twice and formed a legendary tag team with Nobuhiko Takada. Unfortunately, Maeda got into another feud that prevented him from reaching further heights in NJPW. This time, Maeda refused to work with NJPW head honcho Antonio Inoki, in what have been a big money making feud for the company.
In a lot of ways, Maeda was the perfect wrestler to follow in Inoki's footsteps. Like Inoki, Maeda was heavily focused on maintaining the legitimacy of professional wrestling. They both had a diverse background in martial arts, and ironically enough, when Inoki left NJPW and founded his own promotion, the Inoki Genome Federation, adopted many of the same principles of the UWF. But by 1986 Inoki was past his prime, but still believed he could be the top guy in the promotion. Maeda probably resented that and therefore refused to work with Inoki.
In April of 1986, Maeda was involved in one of the most bizarre matches in wrestling history. Maeda was scheduled to face Andre the Giant, who of course didn't take many pinfall loses. Disgusted by being asked to lose to a past-his-prime Andre, Maeda refused to lose the match. Inoki assured Andre that Maeda would be taking the pinfall, but when they went out to the ring Maeda immediately began to shoot on Andre. The match consisted essentially of Maeda running in, kicking Andre in the leg, and then quickly getting out of the Giant's reach. Maeda knew that if Andre got his hands on him he was dead meat, so he spent the better part of thirty minutes avoiding Andre. Eventually Andre laid down in the ring and told Maeda to cover him, but Maeda refused. Inoki came down to the ring and called an end to the match, leaving all the fans extremely puzzled as to what had happened. Ironically, Maeda was so intent on preserving the reality of pro wrestling, he ended up exposing it to all the fans in the arena and watching at home.
Maeda also feuded with NJPW ace Riki Choshu, which led to one of the most controversial moments in pro wrestling history. On November 19, 1987, Maeda was involved in a six man tag match that pitted his team against Choshu's. During the match, Choshu had his back turned to Maeda while he worked on Maeda's partner Osamu Kido, when Maeda promptly walked up behind Choshu and delivered a legitimate kick to Choshu's face, breaking Choshu's orbital bone. The moment, known in Japan as simply "the shoot kick" is one of the biggest acts of cowardice ever caught on videotape. Choshu was out of action for over a month and Maeda was suspended. It says something about Maeda's ability to draw a crowd that he wasn't immediately fired for being clearly dangerous to work with. The final straw came for NJPW in early 1988 when Maeda refused to go on an excursion to Mexico, a move that was probably designed to make him quit, NJPW finally fired him.
With nowhere else to go, Maeda, along with Takada and a few other wrestlers, founded the Newborn UWF. The principles of the company were going to remain the same as the original, but this time Maeda was going to be the unequivocal top star. Maeda had been one of the top stars in NJPW when he left, and he was immediately able to legitimize the company. In addition, the company promised that every fight on the card would end in a clean knockout or submission, which was far different then the disqualifications that plagued NJPW and All-Japan Pro Wrestling at the time.
The UWF drew huge audiences throughout the late 1980s, and in 1989, only Hulk Hogan main evented more big events. Maeda was the biggest star in Japan and it culminated on November 29, 1989, at the first true super show in Japanese wrestling history, UWF U-Cosmos. U-Cosmos was the first wrestling event to ever take place in the Tokyo Dome, and 60,000 fans watched Maeda defeat Willy Wilhelm in the main event. Only WrestleMania III and perhaps The Big Event (originally announced as 74,000 but definitely lower than that as the stadium could only hold 54,000 at the time) can claim a bigger audience for a wrestling show in the 1980s. That was all Maeda, Willy Wilhelm is not exactly Andre the Giant when it comes to having a big name opponent.
Despite the success he was having, Maeda once again got into disagreements with other members of the company, which ultimately led the downfall of the Newborn UWF. This time, Maeda got into a feud with Shinji Jin, a non-wrestler who served as the chief administrator for the company. Jin was interested in working with other professional wrestling companies, particularly the new Super World of Sports promotion, which had been founded by Genichiro Tenryu after he left AJPW. Maeda, spiteful of any other wrestling promotion getting involved, resented the idea and a rift grew between the office and the wrestlers. At the same time, the Japanese economy experienced a terrible recession caused by the bubble economy and inflated stock and real estate prices, which crippled the economy for most of the 1990s, garnering it the nickname "The Lost Decade." Due to the rift between Maeda and the office and the poor economy, the UWF quickly collapsed and held its last show on December 1, 1990.
Maeda would then begin his own MMA promotion, Fight Network RINGS, which went on to have a complicated history. Originally, RINGS was a professional wrestling promotion not unlike the UWF, but they promoted themselves as a MMA promotion and not a pro wrestling company. In 1995, it switched to being a full-fledged MMA promotion similar to the UFC. Maeda would have his official debut in MMA in 1995, and would fight for RINGS until 1999. Maeda would have his final fight, losing to Greco-Roman wrestling icon Aleksandr Karelin.
Maeda leaves behind a complicated legacy in professional wrestling. Unquestionably he was one of the biggest stars of the 1980s and his style was one that would be influential to generations of wrestlers. Equally unquestionable is the fact that he was a nightmare to work with, constantly clashing with his fellow wrestlers and having no problems taking advantage of his opponents in the ring, without warning. While that is true, this isn't a list of the greatest people to work with over the last 50 years, it is of the greatest wrestlers, and undoubtedly Maeda was one of the top wrestlers of a generation. Not only was he an excellent and well-trained professional wrestler, he was a huge draw and proved to society that fans will come out in droves to see highly skilled shoot-style fights, which paved the way for the success MMA would have over the next 25 years. Maeda might not be the most iconic wrestler to ever come from Japan, but he might have had the biggest impact on athletics in the country.
Next week #47 will be revealed, a second generation star who succeeded in living up to his father's lofty legacy.
The Top 50 so far:
#50. Ted Dibiase
#49. Superstar Billy Graham
#48. Akira Maeda