Puroresu: Japanese Pro-Wrestling
November 22, 2005 by Ryan Turner
A few years back, I was and still am a big fan of THQ/AKI's line of wrestling games for the N64. Wrestlemania 2000 and No Mercy were amazing games that actually put you in the ring to play out your fantasies as your favorite grapplers. The controls were easy to learn and it had the Create-A-Wrestler option which gave you the ability to make a new superstar. You got to choose moves I had never seen but were amazing to see visually. About this time, one of my best friends came over and he brought over a Japanese import game which was called Virtual Pro-Wrestling 2. He plugged it in and I was floored by what I saw. I was seeing wrestlers I have never seen before but a lot of familiar faces (Vader, Andre, The Funks, Muta, etc.) as well. We started playing and I was introduced to Puroresu (Japanese Pro-Wrestling) for the first time and it was amazing. Thank you Lukacs!
What the following article is going to look at is a brief, and I mean brief, discussion of the history of Puroresu and what are the aspects that set it apart from the rest of the wrestling world. Please keep in mind that I am not an expert on this subject and if I make any mistakes or errors please post them in the feedback section and correct me. The goal of this article is to get people interested in Puroresu and maybe a good foundation of knowledge for this wrestling alternative.
Around the late 40's and early 50's, a few wrestling promotions were started up and failed in Japan because of a lack of interest. That changed when a former Sumo wrestler by the name of Rikidozan entered the world of Puroresu. He would eventually start a promotion called Japan Pro Wrestling (JWA). Rikidozan traveled around the world to learn his craft and make a name for himself and Puroresu in his own country. One of his biggest wins was against the legendary NWA International Heavyweight Champion, Lou Thesz, and gave him world wide attention.
One of Rikidozan's greatest moves in wrestling was hiring two young prospects by the names of Kanji "Antonio" Inoki and a former Japanese baseball pitcher by the name of Shoehei "Giant" Baba. Unfortunately, Rikidozan's life was cut incredibly short because of a run-in with the Yakuza (Japanese mafia) and was stabbed to death. He was only 39 years of age. But his wrestling promotion kept his spirit alive by lasting for many more years after his death.
In the early 70's, Inoki (expelled) and Baba (quit) left JWA and both went on to form the two biggest promotions in the history of puroresu, Inoki's New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) and Baba's All-Japan Pro-Wrestling (AJPW). The JWA folded eventually in the 80's. Puroresu at this time soared to new heights in popularity.
Inoki's NJPW featured Inoki as its star and main-eventer. He fought wrestlers from all over the world, including Hogan, Andre, Flair and even Muhammad Ali. He was one of the first promotions to feature a Junior Heavyweight division. In the early 80's, Tiger Mask and the Dynamite Kid put on clinics of how to put on an exciting Cruiserweight match and influenced many of the stars today. The Junior Heavyweights excelled again when Jushin "Thunder" Lyger and other wrestlers (Benoit, Malenko, Guerrero, and Jericho) hit the stage putting on phenomenal matches and blowing people away. NJPW used a more "entertainment" style of puroresu. They used larger than life characters (The Great Muta, Inoki, etc.), utilized more storylines (Choshu's Army, NWO Japan, etc.) and had more gimmick matches (Ganryujima Island no-audience match, boxer/wrestler shoot match, etc.).
Baba's AJPW prided itself on a more pure wrestling product. Baba was its star attraction until Jumbo Tsuruta hit the scene and the two were the aces in the company at the time. All-Japan made many stars in their organization out of "gaijins" (foreign wrestlers) from North America. These included the Funk Brothers, Stan Hansen, Vader, etc. In the 90's, a new wave of puroresu wrestlers hit the stage and brought the company to new levels of popularity. At the head of this movement were Toshiaki Kawada and Mitsuharu Misawa who put on some of the best matches of the 1990's. AJPW main-events were amazing to watch because these wrestlers put everything they had on the line. Including a number of years without a disqualification or "run-in". Unfortunately, at the beginning of 1999, Giant Baba passed away and AJPW would change forever. Baba's wife took over the company but butted heads with company ace, Misawa. Misawa in a bold move took all but two wrestlers (Masa Fuchi and Kawada) from AJPW and started his own promotion called NOAH. All three organizations are still the top 3 promotions and operate to this day in Japan. Japan has had many independent promotions through the years that were and still are extremely popular. They include:
Frontier Martial Arts (FMW): A popular hardcore federation that heavily influenced ECW. Rules were thrown out the door and many people in Japan refer to it as "garbage wrestling". Flaming tables, barbed wire and foreign objects were on the menu and they served up lots of blood. Gimmick matches included barbed-wire explosion death matches.
Toryumon/Dragon's Gate: A promotion that was founded by the Ultimo Dragon. The matches at these shows were extremely fast-paced and innovative and included a lot of humour. This was the place where I first saw the six-sided ring and something that TNA picked up on.
Zero-One: A wrestling company founded by Shinya Hashimoto who has just passed away recently. The company has several good wrestlers but with the stunning loss of Hashimoto this promotion could be in some major trouble.
Joshi Puroresu: This is not a specific company but rather it is Japanese women's wrestling. They have a few organizations spread out through Japan. I mention these women because they are not your typical women's wrestlers that we are accustomed to. These women put on amazing shows and have spectacular matches. They are not divas; they are wrestlers to be respected. Check them out.
I realize I am leaving out a lot of information and many other wrestling organizations but I just wanted to give a brief look at puroresu. I am by no means an expert but there are many people who are. The best place where you can get lots of information on puroresu is www.puroresupower.com. This site is updated many times throughout the day. The also have the Puroresu Power Hour Online Radio Show which is one of the only English shows that talk about Puroresu in-depth. Also, if you scroll down to the bottom of their home page they have some great articles for the wrestling challenged and are great to help build up your knowledge of puroresu.
I also suggest you get some videos and dvd's to get an idea of what you are missing. The place I use a lot is www.ivpvideos.com/main/ and they have an amazing deal at the moment. 10 dvds for $30.00. I suggest you start with the best of/compilation dvds so you can see what you like and then go from there. I now want to talk about what makes Puroresu stand apart from other wrestling products in my eyes.
Training: The wrestlers in puroresu involve themselves in a great amount of training. A young wrestler will not be wrestling a month into training. These wrestlers start out as ring crew and have to work their way to the top of the card. For example, Kawada, one of the best wrestlers in the 90's, served under Giant Baba as an assistant, of sorts, but over time mastered his craft and became one of the top stars of All-Japan. Just because you have the right look and build doesn't mean you start in the main-events.
Inter-promotional Matches: In Japan, even though you have competing promotions they work together to put on dream matches. One of the things that always stuck out in my mind, was when Misawa left All-Japan and took everyone was that All-Japan's biggest rival, New Japan, sent their wrestlers to help out and keep the promotion afloat. If that was North America, All-Japan would have folded to the joy of the other promotions.
Strong Style: This term is used to describe the hard hitting style of puroresu. It adds a sense of legitimacy and realism to their matches. When they kick, they kick. Although it increases the risk of injury, these wrestlers work through the pain to put out the most realistic product they can. There is a lot of debate over this subject because of the risk but when puroresu is trying to compete with Mixed-Martial Arts, the wrestlers take the matches to the extreme. A match that was a co-promotional show between New Japan and All Japan between Stan Hansen and Vader showed what happens when you choose the Strong Style approach. A few minutes into their match Hansen hit Vader in the head. The shot was so hard that Vader's eye popped out of his socket and he had to remove his mask. Once the mask was removed, Vader pushed his eye back into the socket, which swelled shut and finished wrestling the rest of the match. Yikes!!
Media Coverage: If you watch any Japanese match you will see photographers surround the ring taking thousands of photos, running to get into position for the perfect shot. These guys don't work for the promotion; they work for the papers. Puroresu is covered by all the major newspapers. All the current angles are reported on and treated with a great deal of respect. Japanese promotions hold press conferences after matches and all the major media outlets are there. This lends credence to the sport. Here in North America, the sports press treats wrestling as a joke and the only people who watch it are rednecks.
Puroresu Tours: The wrestling schedule is totally different from North American wrestling. In Japan they wrestle three week tours. Usually, each tour has a concept or tournament to draw the fans in and not weird gimmicks. The wrestlers enter the tours trying to prove they are the best and win. Big novelty checks and enormous trophies are handed out to winners who bask in their triumphant glory. Another great aspect of the tour system is that wrestlers get to take a mini-break in between them allowing wrestlers to rest and recover from injuries.
Commentating: One of the first things that I thought I was going to have problems with was the commentating. I have no idea what they are saying and I am going to be lost. I was wrong. The commentating is one of my favorite parts of puroresu. These guys make the match even better. I have watched wrestling enough to know exactly what they are saying and what is going on in the ring (and so do you). They do the exact same thing J.R. and Styles. If you listen closely, you hear familiar names and moves being said in English.
Japanese Audience: The Japanese wrestling fans are a different breed than the North American ones. Not that one is better than the other, they are just different. When listening to them during a match they are very quiet. If it was North American wrestling we would think that the match was boring but over there the quiet is a sign that they are totally into the match. They clap when the wrestlers have a good exchange of moves and by clapping show their respect. One thing that is also visibly absent is crowd signs. Thank goodness. But when the matches near their conclusion or they are rallying a wrestler, watch out, they are deafening.
30+ Years of History: One of the major reasons I was drawn to puroresu was because everything was new to me. I have watched North American wrestling for over 24 years and pretty much know everything that has happened during that time. The Japanese wrestling offered me a way to start from scratch and I love doing the research part of learning about puroresu. It also was refreshing to watch wrestling and not be aware of all the backstage crap. I wasn't jaded and cynical about these wrestlers because I had no idea who they were and what they have done. As they say, ignorance is bliss.
Like I said at the beginning of this article, I hope I can bring some new fans to puroresu and that was the whole point of this article. I want to thank everyone who took the time to read this article. I also want to personally thank Zack Arnold from puroresupower.com and Chris Schoen from ivpvideos.com for there help and assistance with writing this article. These two gentlemen really promote and love puroresu and you should really check their sites out.
Throughout this article, I have put names, incidences, and storylines to try and get you hooked and to do some research on your own. To me, that is the most fun part of getting into something new: learning about it. It was extremely hard to try and condense this article and include everything that I wanted. There is so much to talk about. Thank you for your time.
Note: Since completing this article we lost another amazing performer: Mr. Eddie Guerrero. Most of us knew Eddie by watching him on WCW and WWE programming. But that is only part of his amazing legacy. He was loved worldwide because he did entertain the entire world. In Japan, he wrestled under his own name and under the mask of the Black Tiger. I strongly suggest picking up a copy of, "The Best of Eddie Guerrero in Japan V1 and V2" from IVP videos. You will not be disappointed. Thank you Eddie, for all the memories.
by Ryan Turner ..
I am so happy to have read your column. I sincerely believe that after watching Japanese puroresu, you will absolutely feel cheated when you go back to the "entertainment" style of Raw and Smackdown! Storylines don't have to be soap operas, they can play themselves out in the ring with, wrestling moves and athleticsm. wow. what a concept. WWE doesn't even say "wrestling" any more. They say "performer", "character", "this business" as opposed to "this sport". All this is actually in their company profile. It is a shame that in our American minds, we feel that WWE is representative of all pro wrestling on the planet when it is simply USA "entertainment" style AKA rock concert/circus sprinkled with a couple of body slams and muscle poses. And Joshi pro" My goodness watch Toyota Manami, Akira Hokuto and look me in the eye and say Trish Stratus is the good. Divas are a complete joke. Japanese wrestling makes me proud to say once again that I love pro wrestling. Not necessarily WWE. I recommend checking out Vader in the 90's in Japan especially in UWFI. I can never imagine Batista or John Cena coming out of Japan other than with their tails between their legs, they wouldn't last.
GUy Rugged wrote:
I just wanted to say well done to Ryan Turner for this great column. I have
been a fan of Japanese strong style for a long time and think that NOAH is
probably the best promotion in the world today.
Anyone who ever read the Dynamite Kids book, "Pure Dynamite", will know that
in Japan, the wrestlers are taught how to wrestle properly, then taught that
they have to follow through with a punch, kick, etc. which gives very
realistic, believable matches.
Up until the late 1980's, very few wrestlers from the USA came to the UK for
two reasons, one, the British wrestlers could actually wrestle, not just
punch, kick and clothesline and two, if you came over with a title belt, the
British Wrestler would "shoot" and beat you on the night. This is one of
the reasons that the NWA had representation and tours in Australia, Japan,
New Zealand, Canada, but not Europe. The Japanese had the opposite view,
because one of the leading trainers in Japan was Karl Gotch, an Olympic
Wrestler who spent 8 years learning Submission wrestling at the infamous
Billy Riley "Snake Pit" gym in Wigan, England, and so any young Japanese
wrestler who was picked out as a future star had to spend time in the UK,
learning proper submission wrestling. Three of the most famous names that
learned their wrestling skills in England were Satoru Sayama (the original
Tiger Mask) who wrestled as Sammy Lee, Akira Maeda who wrestled as his
"brother" Kwik Kick Lee and Fuji Yamada, who went on to become Jushin Liger.
These men were so impressed with the British Wrestlers they worked with that
they made sure that promoters in Japan brought over British Wrestlers to put
on spectacular matches. Everyone knows about the incredible series of
matches between Dynamite Kid and Tiger Mask (both Sayama and Misawa) but
many do not know that Tiger Mask built a lot of his career on facing British
Wrestlers such as Steve Wright (father of Alex Wright in WCW), Marty Jones,
Pete Roberts, Chris Adams, and the original Black Tiger, who was Mark
"Rollerball" Rocco from Manchester, before Eddie Guererro took over.
I would say to anyone who thinks they have seen a tough wrestling match to
try and get a copy of Kenta Kobashi against Jun Akiyama in NOAH, every
punch, chop, kick, throw and submission is delivered as hard as possible, I
cannot imagine hardly any WWE wrestler surviving that match!!
I think Riki Dozan was Korean. Zero One is still strong now but is called Zero One Max and is controlled by Shinjiro Otani.They had a strong showing at the NJPW show that Brock won the title at.I also think Tokyo Magnum runs Dragons Gate and Toryumon is Ultimo Dragons gym and is in Mexico.Instead of being called Toryumon in Japan it is now called Dragons Door.Your article is very thorough and informative.Hopfully this adds good info to your site.
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