The Tsuruta & Baba vs. The Funks Match Series

Tag team wrestling has always been a major part of AJPW, and the Funks vs Jumbo Tsuruta and Giant Baba was one of the first great tag rivalries the promotion produced, starting in 1973 and culminating in a series of major tag league bouts at the end of the decade. Here we take a look back at their biggest matches from the 70s into the 80s, and see how each of the characters and the story of their rivalry evolved over time.

A New Star Emerges

Date: 10th September 1973

This is possibly the earliest surviving footage of Tsuruta, who’s going by his real name Tomomi Tsuruta at this point, in action, as the youngster gets a huge opportunity in this NWA International tag title match. The pre-match video brings up Baba’s previous matches with the Funks when he used to team with Inoki, and it’s clear that Tsuruta is Baba’s ‘chosen one’ of sorts. His rookie status clearly makes Tsuruta the weak link here, and the Funks look to isolate him. The norm in Japanese wrestling culture is that youngsters have to spend years eating pinfalls before stepping up to established talent, so when the twenty-two year old Tsuruta shows he can actually hang with the Funks, the crowd are whipped into a frenzy. The Funks are left reeling at Tsuruta’s skill and it all cultivates with Tsuruta scoring the first pinfall with a belly to back suplex, to which the crowd reacts as you would expect if someone just won a world championship.

A confident Tsuruta starts well in the second fall, but the Funks soon take control of things, bar a few comebacks. There is an amazing moment where Terry does an incredible bit of overselling, as he takes a chop from Baba in the middle of the ring and ends up outside after flying over the top rope. Eventually though, Terry brings things back level with a rollup on Tsuruta for the three. The third fall sees both teams getting a lot more desperate, with lots of interference and some risky moves (by an early 70’s match’s standards) from both sides. A cobra twist and a aeroplane spin nearly puts the young Jumbo away but in the end it is the time limit that saves the Funks championships for them.

The big story of this match is really within the first fall, where Tsuruta is established as something of a young phenom. In reality the Funks spend much of the match leading the very green Tsuruta through to a good showing, but it’s clear the youngster has got the goods.

A battle in Texas

Date: 5th February 1975

Dory would end up having several singles matches with Baba and Tsuruta in All Japan following the initial tag team confrontation, but it would be a couple of years before the two teams would have another notable bout, this time in the Funks own backyard of Texas, with the International tag titles once again on the line. The Funks isolate Tsuruta (who is now known as Jumbo Tsuruta) early, but ultimately Giant Baba sways things in his team’s favour with some big boots for the first fall. The Funks try to take the Giant down in the second but despite delivering a lot of punishment, including a big piledriver, Baba stays in it. Instead, they get their first fall with a pin over Jumbo, after each delivers a suplex on the youngster. Jumbo continues to look the more vulnerable in the third fall too, his inexperience meaning he is often outmanoeuvred and out-countered by the opposition. In the end though, it is a mistake from Dory that ends the match as he attempts to suplex Jumbo into the turnbuckle and the rebounding momentum causes Jumbo to fall on Dory and earn the three for the Japanese team, as Terry does a wonderful topple over the top rope as he tries to save his partner. Despite the clean finish and it being a big moment for Baba and Tsuruta, this is actually the weakest match on this list in terms of pure quality.

Defending the Gold

Date: 13th March 1975

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One month after the title change, the two teams meet again, this time back in Japan with the Funks trying to win their titles back. As is the case in most of these matches, Jumbo spends a lot more time in the ring then Baba does. He fares fairly well, until Terry piledrives him on the outside that is, and a brainbuster and elbow drop back in the ring from Dory, has him giving up the first fall. Giant Baba soon has the Funks reeling in the second though, and a big boot to Terry brings it back to 1:1. The Funks try to look for an answer to the Baba problem in the third, resorting to illegally double teaming the Giant and double suplexing him. Baba has the wherewithal to make the tag to Jumbo though, and when Dory goes to suplex Jumbo, Baba grabs Dory’s leg, allowing Jumbo to counter it into a pin and get the victory.

The continuing student-teacher dynamic between Baba and Jumbo throughout this match was very well done, with Baba reassuring and counselling Jumbo between falls and using his experience to help Jumbo turn around fair play on the cheating Funks at the end there. Terry’s antics also continue to be a real highlight, and his post match reaction here is particularly brilliant.

Fighting For Points

14th December 1977

The two teams meet for the first time in tournament competition, which changes the dynamic of things quite a bit here, with Baba and Jumbo needing a win and the Funks only needing a draw. Jumbo is isolated for the first ten minutes of the match before finally managing to get the tag to Baba. Baba and Jumbo then hone in on Terry’s arm for much of the match before Dory brings things back for his team, and then its Jumbo who’s on the defence again. Around the half hour mark, Baba decides to step things up, taking on both of the Funks, giving them a neckbreaker each. The numbers gain proves too much though, and a double suplex from the Funks puts him in jeopardy. He fights back with a russian leg sweep to Dory though, and gets a tag to Jumbo who starts delivering suplexes to the Texan. As the clock begins to wind down, Baba gets himself in a little trouble with the ref, as he performs a diving stomp from the top rope to Terry whilst being the illegal man. Terry struggles to fight back but does manage to get the tag to Dory, who gives Jumbo a big back drop for a two count. He then hits a diving knee drop, but Baba gives him an old boot to the face when he goes for the pin. Baba eventually gets in and turns things into a slugfest, complete with some big boots for everybody! Inevitably though, the Funks survive the forty-five minutes and go into the last day of the Open tag league with a shot of winning the whole thing.

This was a really decent match between these two teams, with Jumbo having notably improved from the previous outings. The biggest takeaway this time though is Terry, whose in-ring antics are getting very over with Japanese audiences by 77, and Terry’s resiliency near the end of the match gains him a lot of cheers. This would actually be the Funks last match as heels pretty much, as their Open tag league final victory against Abdullah the Butcher and the Sheik would get the duo (especially Terry) over as super-babyfaces within AJPW.

A De Facto Final

15th December 1978

This match essentially serves as the final of the Real World Tag League, and in something of a switch from last year, Jumbo and Baba only need a draw while the Funks now need a win. Terry comes in with a bandaged waist and gets a huge amount of sympathy from the crowd when Baba and Jumbo target this. In fact the majority of this match is the native team playing heel, as Terry tries to make the big tag to his partner, which is a very unique dynamic for a 1978 match. Terry does eventually make the tag to Dory, who, with his brother injured, leads a one man charge against the native team, with Terry only coming back in for the occasional heroic burst of offence. The teams trade a number of strikes and suplexes and the Funks nearly pull things off with some roll-ups near the end. Ultimately though, Baba and Jumbo survive the Funks this time around to claim the tournament.

The deadlock continues

12th December 1979

Another tag league match and once again one team can get by with a draw (although a win is preferable) whilst the other team must win (Can you guess the result yet?). The one big difference this time though is the time limit, which stands at thirty minutes, instead of forty-five or sixty. What this essentially means is they more or less skip all the matwork stuff and get straight into the action, as evidenced by Terry hitting a big backdrop on Jumbo within the first four minutes. Terry continues to be the most over of everyone in terms of crowd reaction, and he once again plays the babyface in peril for large stretches of the match. As the match wears on though it is Jumbo who becomes the babyface in peril, though not eliciting the same kind of sympathy heat as Terry. A tag to Baba later and its Terry on the defence again, as he goes through a trial by fire of sorts, surviving multiple near falls as the natives suplex, punch and piledrive him as they look for the win. The Funks comeback once more as the clock winds down, and go try to make Jumbo and then Baba submit with some nasty spinning toe holds, but the natives hold out for the draw. Neither team looks happy with the result in the end, but the Funks would go on to win the whole thing, once again defeating Abdullah and the Sheik in a de facto final.

Tensions boil over

11th December 1980

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For the fourth time Baba and Jumbo and the Funks meet near the end of the tag league, this time in the final. Neither has gained a win over the other in a tournament setting yet, and the tensions are reaching a boiling point. The Funks go after Jumbo’s leg in a big way early on, with Jumbo having to survive spinning toe holds and boston crabs aplenty. The Funks then both try tiger suplexing Jumbo, but Jumbo doesn’t have any of it and body drops Terry out of the ring and gets the important tag to Baba. Baba dominates for his team for some time, nearly getting the win with a big dropkick on Dory, but Dory catches him with a backdrop to turn things around. Terry starts hitting some jabs on Baba, at which point Jumbo just loses it for some reason, interfering and stomping the hell out of Terry. Dory and Baba have to calm down their tag partners and we essentially get something of a restart almost. Momentum shifts often from here, until Jumbo loses his temper again and him and Terry go back to a hate fuelled brawl. This all leads to a dramatic angle near the end, where Terry jumps on his brother to save him from a Jumbo diving kneedrop, and is seemingly taken out of the match. This leave Dory at the mercy of Jumbo and Baba who hit him with everything they have, from tiger suplexes, to big boots, piledrivers and flying knee’s but Dory just keeps kicking out, much to the adoration of the crowd. The injured Terry refuses to be taken to the back and returns for the hot tag which leads to another big brawl between Jumbo and Terry. The brawl leads to the action spilling outside of the ring and Terry ends up getting counted out, giving the native team the victory and the tournament. The crowd nearly rushes the ring at the announcement of this, and the Funks essentially have to make peace with the Natives there and then to avoid a full-scale riot from breaking out.

What’s great about watching this series of matches is seeing the development of each of the competitors, especially Terry and Jumbo, with the prior going from evil Gaijin to heroic babyface, and the latter going from a complete rookie to a grumpy veteran. The many draws and long matches mean it is quite the slog to get through for any modern wrestling fan, but the attention to storytelling, and the evolving personalities make it worth watching, with the final match being the best of the bunch.

Of course that wouldn’t actually be the final match between these two teams, though pretty much all of their matches going forward would not make tape and be of little consequence, with the Jumbo and Baba partnership all but ending in the mid 80’s as Jumbo stepped up as the ace of the promotion with Baba’s blessing, his ascendancy to the top, of which his matches with the Funks was a vital part of, now complete.

By @MikeGrindle

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