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Professional Wrestling In Japan: A Brief History of Puroresu

Professional wrestling in Japan, or “puroresu,” is a popular fighting sport. It had its boom years in the 1960’s and 70’s, but it is still widely enjoyed today.

Rikidozan and the Early Days

Puroresu began in Japan after World War 2. It didn’t really take off until Rikidozan came along. Rikidozan was a Korean-born sumo wrestler. In 1951, he began the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance, or the JWA. It was modeled after the pro-wrestling associations in the United States.

The first 10 years of proresu are dominated by Rikidozan. He helped set up virtually the whole pro-wrestling industry. He was the first to compete internationally, and he began bringing international pro-wrestlers to Japan to compete. He basically put Japan on the map in the pro-wrestling world.

In 1963, Rikidozan died at the age of 39. Although he’d done much for puroresu in the last ten years, he died leaving many projects unfinished. It was decided that the JWA would continue with all the new talent that had emerged.

Rival Camps

In the 1970’s, there were lots of famous puroresu stars in Japan, including Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki. At this time, the unity of the JWA was starting to break up. Both Baba and Inoki started their own wrestling organizations and went into vicious competition with one another. Giant Baba started All Japan Pro-Wrestling and Antonio Inoki started New Japan Pro-Wrestling. The next year, JWA went under.

Puroresu has always been less gimmicky than American pro-wrestling, and Antonio Inoki has done a lot to try to elevate its status to a real fighting form. Throughout the 1970’s, he tried to elevate the sport’s legitimacy by fighting karate fighters, judo fighters and boxers. In 1976 he fought Muhammad Ali in a fight that was very heavily promoted, but not well fought. With all the restrictions on what the fighters could and could not do, it became a joke. Still, he tried to legitimize puroresu with his slogan, “civil rights for puroresu.”

Women in the Ring

Women have always been active in wrestling in Japan. The All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling Association was started in 1955, but women’s wrestling in Japan really began to pick up speed in 1967, with the establishment of the Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling Association. In the early days of the AJW, Japanese wrestlers would fight wrestlers from other countries, in order to try to promote the fights. In 1975, Mach Fumiake won the WWWA Championship, and since that time only 2 non-Japanese women wrestlers have won it.

There were a number of great pro-wrestlers in Japan throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, including Jushin Luger, Manami Toyota, Lioness Asuka and Akira Hokuto. With the dissolution of the major men’s wrestling federations, women wrestlers have taken the main stage. Today, women’s wrestling is much more popular in Japan than men’s wrestling. While the men’s wrestling fighters have generally splintered off into other fighting styles, women fighters tend to stay true to puroresu.

Puroresu Today

As K-1 and other mixed martial arts gain popularity in Japan, the popularity of puroresu has been on the decline. This is due also to the gradual disintegration of both Baba’s AJPW after his death, and the decline of the NJPW.

Although pro-wrestling is not as popular as it once was in Japan, it still draws huge crowds. As it has become mixed with other sports in the new hybrid fighting styles, it has lost some of its purity, but it still remains popular.

About the Author

Are you fascinated by aspects of Japanese culture such as Japan’s take on professional wrestling? If so, come travel to Japan from the comfort of your computer by visiting: right away.

How much has Promoters of Pro Wrestling taking “verbal agreements” from wrestlers affect the business?

It’s a straight forward question that I won’t be putting into much detail. Feel free to use past or recent examples and your insights on how much “verbal agreements” have affected a company or the overall business.

BQ: With the exception of a wrestler’s death, which moment to you, in all Pro Wrestling is a “tear jerker”? I’m basically asking which moment in Pro Wrestling as made you tear up or cry. Don’t be intimidated to admit there was a moment.

All detailed answers are appreciated and helpful.

Pro wrestling, because of it’s origins (the “carnies”) and the fact that it’s based on deception (“fooling” the fans into thinking the whole thing is real), is full of “sharks and guppies” (to borrow promo material from “Ravishing” Rick Rude): those who will cold-bloodedly exploit any- and everybody for monetary gain and those who just want to entertain the fans.

Despite this “set up” there was “honor among thieves” of a sort. In the “old days” a man’s word defined his reputation. If you made a “gentleman’s agreement” you kept it, otherwise your reputation suffered and you might not get the opportunities you might have otherwise gotten. This worked in the promoters’ favor. They were all-powerful, controlling money and bookings in their individual territories and promotions. The wrestlers were “day laborers” for the most part, part-time employees, completely dependent on the promoters’ whims and mercy. A wrestler could not afford (literally) to go back on any agreement he made with a promoter, because that would get around to other promoters and the wrestler would find it increasingly difficult to get bookings. The promoter had no such constraint. He could do anything he wanted TO anybody he wanted (with some exceptions, obviously. A promoter with any sense at all wouldn’t likely try to screw over a Lou Thesz or a Buddy Rogers, performers who packed their arenas). If a wrestler didn’t like it, screw him, there were dozens more outside the door.

These days of contracts has helped some. The boys are guaranteed a minimum amount of money in exchange for a specified number of appearances. But the promoters still have all of the power. Any wrestler can be fired at any time for any reason, and for no reason at all (the common “we just don’t have anything for you right now”).

To put that into perspective I will use two examples.

The WWE had a “verbal agreement” with Nigel McGuinness, a top-name top-notch indy performer. Nigel “got tired of waiting” (or whatever his “reason” was) on Vince, and instead, signed with TNA. The WWE lost a top-notch performer who MAY or MAY NOT have gotten over with the WWE fans and made Vince money. An irritation to Vince, perhaps, but it had no effect whatsoever on the WWE product. The WWE continues to thrive without McGuinness’ services. McGuinness is an asset to TNA, but he being on the roster did not (and will not) be the “weapon” that puts TNA at the same level as the WWE.

Vince made a “verbal agreement” with Stu Hart. Vince would pay a certain amount of money each year for ten years to purchase Stampede Wrestling from Stu (I am simplifying things here). In exchange Stu agreed to not run any more Stampede shows. Once Vince got Stu to stop running Stampede shows, the Stampede fans were outraged…at STU! For “selling them out”. A few went to WWF shows out of spite, but most just stopped going to live events. Vince paid the first year’s installment to Stu. But business was dead in Stu’s territory by then (Vince’s plan). The next year saw the WWF lose money in Canada, in Stu’s territory. Came time for the next payment, Vince reneged on the deal. He paid Stu nothing. He told Stu he “could have his territory back”. Vince had already killed the territory (as per his plan). Stu was screwed. He tried to re-start Stampede, but the fans were still angry at Stu for “selling them out” and they didn’t come back. That broke Stu, financially, emotionally, and mentally. Vince came back shortly and bought Stampede for a song. Vince’s “verbal agreement” with that old school promoter had cost an old man his reputation, his business, and his money. And Vince walked away, smiling, richer, with his “kingdom” greatly expanded. Vince now “owned” Canada. And a 40+ year-old promotion was dead.

The old “verbal agreements” that did (mostly) work in the past are no longer relevant. With cold-blooded snakes like Vince, Bischoff, Hogan, and lesser names populating the wrestling business, the wrestlers can no longer afford to “handshake” their way through their careers. In this litigious sue-happy nation we live in now, verbal agreements are virtually meaningless. The only thing that matters anymore are “contracts”, legally-binding agreements with everything spelled out clearly. Promoters will sue wrestlers into the poorhouse and kill their chances for future bookings. The wrestlers NEED to protect themselves as much as they possibly can by using those very same “contracts” to ensure their own survival.

BQ: 1984, when Kerry Von Erich pinned Ric Flair for the NWA World Title in front of 45,000 mourning fans in Texas Stadium. Kerry had taken this match for his fallen brother David, who had died in Japan a few weeks prior. Kerry wrestled the match of his life, and won the NWA Title in David’s memory. The reaction was just amazing. Perhaps the biggest pop I’ve ever heard for a wrestling match. As the camera panned around you could see fans (children, women, and men), still grieving for their “Yellow Rose Of Texas” (David Von Erich), openly weeping. Flair was uncharacteristically gracious in defeat, shaking Kerry’s hand and promising to “see him later for a rematch”. The most emotional match I’ve ever seen.

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