Throughout the history of wrestling there have been certain figures whose popularity rose them to such great heights, they became cult-icons and folk heroes. Others such as Toots Mondt or Vince McMahon have influenced the sport to such a degree that it was left changed forever. There’s a strong argument however that none have been quite as impactful as the Korean born Kim Sin-nak, later known as Mitsuharu Momota, and best known as Rikidozan. An orphan child who became a hero to the people of war-torn Japan and who took American Wrestling and turned it into ‘Puroresu.’
Born November 14, 1924, Rikidozan faced several hardships early in his life, including the sickness and death of his farther, being adopted and later disowned by a Japanese family and dealing with the discrimination many Koreans faced in Japan at the time, despite his efforts to keep his Korean heritage a secret. He trained for a career as a Sumo wrestler. While he was popular and achieved some success he would quit following an argument with an official and become a construction worker.
In 1951 an American wrestling show took place in Tokyo, designed to entertain troops stationed there. Two weeks later Rikidozan and a group of professional Judoka began training as Professional wrestlers. Rikidozan would spend much of his early career in Hawaii, and would also make a name for himself as a heel in mainland America, gaining valuable experience along the way.
In 1953 Rikidozan formed the first major Japanese wrestling promotion, the JWA. Japan at the time was in a state of disillusion following World War two, people craved some form of escapism and for heroes to make the country feel proud again. Rikidozan would provide both of these things, booking himself in matches against ‘evil’ foreign (namely American) talent. Matches against the likes of Lou Thesz, Bobo Brazil, The Destroyer, Ben & Mike Sharpe, Fred Blassie and others drew huge crowds and some of the biggest TV audiences ever in wrestling. He won a number of championships and was responsible for the inaugural World Big League, the predecessor to the many Japanese wrestling leagues held later such as the G1 Climax and the Champion Carnival.
His most infamous match, however, would come against Masahiko Kimura. A match that was supposedly meant to end in a draw. However after what appeared to be an accidental low blow, Rikidozan unloaded on Kimura with vicious strikes causing a (believed to be legit) knockout. The true details on why Rikidozan decided to shoot (or whether it was in fact a shoot at all.) on Kimura will never be fully known, although it seems likely to have more to do with backstage politics and Rikidozan protecting his ‘spot’, then simply because of the low blow.
Like many great icons, Rikidozan was a much different man off-screen then he was on. His success was heavily tied to the Yakuza, and he was a heavy drinker with a terrible temper set on the road to self-destruction. This all culminated in 1963, when he was stabbed by a urine soaked blade after an altercation in a nightclub. From this he contracted peritonitis, ultimately leading to his death. His funeral would be attended by thousands and Japanese wrestling would not be the same again for some time. Thankfully, two of his students. Giant Baba & Antonio Inoki would revive the pro wrestling scene in Japan creating All-Japan pro wrestling & New Japan pro wrestling respectively. Whilst a third student Kintaro Ohki, another Korean born pro wrestler in Japan, would return to Korea and raise the profile of wrestling there. Rikidozan’s life was one full of violence, self-destruction and unsavoury backroom deals. His legacy, however, is undeniable and he will forever go down as a post-war hero to the Japanese people and the father of Puroresu.