Remembering Rikidozan, the Sharpe Brothers, Masahiko Kimura and the Destroyer
First in a three-part series
TOKYO — In the history of Japanese sports there has been no more influential and no more fascinating character than Rikidozan, the former sumo wrestler who ignited an enormous professional wrestling boom in Japan in the mid-1950’s, defeating villainous American wrestlers in what were usually carefully choreographed matches, and lifting up the spirits of a nation still trying to recover from the defeat in war. An indication of his popularity at that time is that two of Rikidozan’s matches are ranked in the top 10 TV programs of all time. One of them was his Oct. 6, 1957 sixty-minute draw with Lou Thesz in a match for National Wrestling Alliance world Heavyweight Championship, which earned a rating of 87.0. The other was a match, again a draw, with the Destroyer on May 24, 1963, which garnered a rating of 67.0.
At his peak he was perhaps the most popular, most recognizable person in the land. He consorted with political leaders, rubbed shoulders with gang bosses and squired movie actresses around. He was a larger than life figure who liked to greet night club owners who welcomed him at the door by grabbing their genitalia and laughing uproariously when they doubled over in pain. He drank and took drugs to excess, and had a penchant for getting into fights that left a swath of destruction in their wake. He also attained great wealth, acquiring real estate, condos, and night clubs in Tokyo, while running his own nationwide wrestling and boxing promotions, until his untimely death in 1963, at the age of 39, after being stabbed by a yakuza in the Tokyo night club, The New Latin Quarter. (Although he had survived the attack, complications set in and died a week later.) He was given a funeral befitting a Japanese national hero, with few fans even aware of his origins.
Rikidozan was born in 1924 in South Hamgyong in North Korea, northwest of Pyonyang. He was recruited by a sumo scout and emigrated to Japan in 1940 where he changed his name to Mitsuhiro Momota because of discrimination against Koreans by Japanese at the time, and adopted the sumo name of Rikidozan. He reached the top division in 1946, but retired in 1950 because of financial concerns, sumo not turning a profit in the impoverished postwar era. He worked in construction for a time under a gang boss but a chance meeting with an Olympic weightlifting champion from Hawaii, Harold Sakata, who would later gain fame playing the steel-top hat flinging villain Oddjob in the James Bond movie Goldfinger. The two had gotten into a brawl at the Ginza cabaret Showboat, and Riki got the worst of it. However, the encounter launched a weird friendship. Sakata, impressed with Riki’s strength and fighting spirit, introduced Rikidozan to a group of visiting American wrestlers putting on charity exhibitions in Tokyo. Riki was quickly hooked. He spent a year learning his new craft in the USA, developing a following over the course of 300 matches where he honed a patented karate chop attack.
He returned to Tokyo to set up his own wrestling association and launched his career in Japan in February 1954 with a pair of tag team matches pitting himself and vaunted 10-time national amateur judo champion Masahiko Kimura versus the reigning world tag team champions Mike and Ben Sharpe. Despite a considerable size disadvantage — the Sharpes both stood over 6’5” and weighed about 250 pounds, while Rikdozan was 5’ 10” and 240 pounds and Kimura, even smaller, — the Japan side held the Americans to two draws, with Rikidozan winning two spectacular falls himself behind an onslaught of karate chops. The match made headlines in the Japanese newspapers and the TV telecast was watched by millions across the land, many in outdoor squares, where promotional television sets had been set up.
To cite one example, 20,000 onlookers had crammed into the tiny West Exit Square of Shimbashi Station to stare up at a 27” dais-mounted “General” TV cheering wildly at each Rikidozan attack. The mob was so large that it overflowed onto the main thoroughfare in front of the station, blocking traffic. Unable to move, taxi drivers simply parked their cabs in the middle of the street and joined the raucous throng. In Tokyo’s Ueno Park, enthusiasts had assembled on an incline in front of a truck-mounted TV set. Many had climbed trees, rocks and lampposts to get a better view and several were so overcome with excitement at Rikidozan’s performance they fell off their perches, incurring serious injury and causing ambulances to shuttle back and forth from the park to the nearest hospital for much of the evening.
It was estimated as many at 14 million people watched the match which had the effect of a World cup victory. Said NTV owner and media magnate Matsutaro Shoriki, whose TV network had televised the event, “Rikidozan, by his pro wrestling in which he sent the big white men flying, has restored pride to the Japanese and given them new courage.” It was as if the Pacific War had been refought and this time, won. Overnight Japan had a national hero.
The next night, Rikidozan emerged victorious in a one-on-one versus Ben Sharpe, two falls to one. This time 24 million viewers had watched the match — more than one-third of the entire nation. Prior to the opening gong an NTV announcer took time to make this unusual announcement: “A word to those people watching in street corners and in front of train stations and department stores. Please don’t push. And will those who have climbed up trees, telephone poles and other high places, please come down before you hurt yourself.”
Over the next two weeks, during the length of the Sharpe Brothers tour, the rate of cuts, bruises and broken bones among primary school children jumped dramatically as young boys around the country took to imitating Rikidozan’s wrestling. There were reports of viewers who became so distraught when Sharpe committed a foul they smashed their own TV sets in anger. Other died of heart attacks induced by the ferocious images.
Riki’s performance jump started Japan’s nascent TV industry and for the next decade he ruled the Japanese sporting world, rivaled only by Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh of the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. Few fans noticed, or cared, that the matches had been choreographed and the outcome predetermined.
Riki added wrestlers to his fledgling group, raiding sumo and judo circles by promising higher pay. In August, 1954, he and judoka Koichi Endo took on Lou Newman and Hans “Killer” Schnabel, two snarling, surly veterans villains of the U.S. circuit, in a match that ignited Japan’s first pro-wrestling riot. The ostensible purpose of the encounter was to determine something called the Japan Tag-Team Championship, but the neophyte crowd of 20,000 at Tokyo’s Metropolitan Gym was not ready for the illegal mayhem Newman and Schnabel were famous for back home. After four minutes of watching them kick, bite, gouge, scratch and otherwise maltreat their opponents, with the referee willingly oblivious to it all, the fans became enraged, “Stop them!” they began yelling, “Stop it.” Then somebody in the crowd threw a bottle at Newman. He ducked, the missile sailed overhead and hit an onlooker sitting in the first row right between the eyes. Friends of the felled man raced to the other side of the ring to seek out the offender. Fists flew and a brawl ensued for the next several minutes, bringing to a halt to all wrestling action in the ring.
When police were finally able to restore order, officials declared the two Americans winners and awarded them the victor’s trophy, perhaps by way of apology for the way the audience had behaved. This, however, only enraged the crowd all over again. Angry fans stormed the ring and tired to wrest the silver cup away from the hands of the undeserving gaijin. Ring attendants beat them back, but a flying wedge of policemen was needed to escort Newman and Schnabel through the screaming mob to the relative safety of the dressing room.
As shoulder-to-shoulder police stood guard, fans threw rocks and bottles through the locker room windows. They kept up their assault for over an hour, smashing chairs and yelling curses. Finally, the Tokyo Metropolitan Police riot squad arrived in armored cars, wielding bamboo staves and pistols, to repel the mob and rescue the beleaguered mat men.
Said “Killer” Schnabel, after it was all over, “I have seen a lot of matches in my time. But I have never seen anything as scary as this.” Japanese fans would clearly need time to acclimatize themselves to their new sport.