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. Very few however, have impacted the business quite as much as the Korean born Kim Sin-nak, later known as Mitsuharu Momota, and best known as Rikidozan. Here we look at the orphan child who grew to become a hero to the people of war-torn Japan. and who took American Wrestling and turned it into ‘Puroresu.’
Born November 14, 1924, Kim Sin-Nak faced several hardships early on in his life, hardships that, for better or worse, would shape the man he would become. Sin-Nak’s father, Kim Soktee, fell ill early on in Sin-Nak’s life, and with his mother and brothers having to tend to the farm they made their living off, it fell to Sin-Nak to care for him, up until Soktee’s passing in 1939. Following this, Sin-Nak was adopted by a Japanese family and began training as a Sumo wrestler. Life in Japan for a Korean was not easy in the early 1940’s, with discrimination against Koreans being rife in the country during the time. Sin-Nak did his best to hide his Korean heritage, and it was here where he would take up the name Mitsuharu Momota (taken from the family who adopted him). He would later be disowned by his adopted family, and while he found some degree of success and popularity within Sumo wrestling, he would quit the profession following an argument with an official and go on to become a construction worker.
In 1951, an American wrestling show took place in Tokyo, designed to entertain the American troops stationed there. It was here that Sin-Nak would discover professional wrestling, and just two weeks later Sin-Nak and a group of professional Judoka began training as Professional wrestlers. Sin-Nak, now known as Rikidozan, would spend much of his early wrestling career in Hawaii and would also make a name for himself as a heel in mainland America, gaining valuable experience along the way, before returning to Japan where he would become a national star and form Japan’s first true wrestling promotion, the JWA.
Rikidozan was not the first person to try and popularise wrestling in Japan, but he would be the first to do so successfully, and he did this by playing off the political and social climate present in Japan during the 1950’s, and presenting himself as a hero to the masses. 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 to be victorious in matches against ‘evil’ foreign (often 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 pro wrestling. He won a number of Japans first championships and was responsible for the inaugural World Big League (which he won of course), 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 a Japanese wrestler, Masahiko Kimura, in a match that was supposedly meant to end in a draw. However, after what appeared to be an accidental low blow, Rikidozan decided to ‘shoot’ (he stopped fake fighting and began to attack him for real) on Kimura with vicious strikes causing what seemed to be a legit knockout. The true details on why Rikidozan decided to shoot (Or whether it was in fact a true 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 Rikidozan’s students, Giant Baba & Antonio Inoki would revive the pro wrestling scene in Japan, later creating All-Japan pro wrestling & New Japan pro wrestling respectively. Rikidozan’s life was one full of violence, self-destruction and unsavoury backroom deals. Rikidozan’s legacy, however, is still undeniable and he will forever be remembered as a post-war hero to the Japanese people and the father of Puroresu.