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Rikidozan – The Unlikely Hero

Anyone who knows anything about puroresu knows that Rikidozan is it's greatest hero. He is arguably the most important figure to his respective genre of wrestling. Many argue that El Santo is greater, but Lucha Libre would have existed in spite of him, puroresu was born on the big shoulder of Rikidozan. His story is definitely one of Japan's classic examples of a cultural "hero." Like the Greeks, Japan's heroes had admirable qualities and a tragic element that sees them fail in the end. Rikidozan's story is that of an unlikely man doing incomparable tasks in a relatively short period.

First a brief history lesson. The conflict between the Japanese and Koreans is deep rooted. While I could site many examples, I will choose two. First that of the Yamato State's disputed origins and Japan's ruthless expansion in pre-WWII East Asia.

The earliest hero in Japanese history is the warrior prince Yamato Takeru, who is an embodiment of several rulers in fourth century Japan. The Yamato State, which was an important transitional one in early Japan, has a much-debated history. Some believe it was named for the Yamato leaders, who are descendents of the militant rulers, which prince Yamato Takeru represented. The opposing side is the "Riding Horse Theory," which proposes the Koreans that successfully invaded Japan with horses (which the native armies did not have) and established a new kingdom that just kept the name Yamato. The flaw is in that early Japan had no written language and archeological research of tombs is limited. The ones (of lesser tribal leaders) that have been opened appear to of Korean origin. To this day, the biggest tomb is yet to be unlocked and put an end to the controversy.

As the Twentieth Century began, so did forty years of Japanese dominance of the Korea following Japan's victory over Russia. A governor-general was sent in and the country was reduced to an "agricultural appendage." Imperial Japan controlled the people by improving their lives and teaching Japanese culture, but these people were still second-class citizens. Korean Nationalists fought back and Japan answered viciously, which suppressed some and fueled others. Others had no choice but to embrace the militant conquerors.

Kim Sin-Nak, born in 1924, was one such man. Taking the name of Mitsuhiro Momota ("bright child of the hundred ricefields") and claiming he was from Nagasaki (a major Korea-Japan port city) was what was necessary for this man to make his way. He was deserted by his parents and peers and ran away to Tokyo at the tender age of thirteen. Momota began training in sumo and this accounted for his incredible strength and excellent balance, which was forged through a difficult training regiment. He was nearly three-hundred pounds, but could run a hundred yards in eleven seconds. The years of punishment seemed on the verge of paying off as Riki was ready to enter the "Ozeki," which would make him eligible for the Yokozuna crown. After a technical loss and a heated argument with an official, Riki quit sumo.

Momota found work in Tokyo, but expanded his training to karate and took the name Rikidozan ("rugged mountain road"). Riki tried his hand in American pro wrestling, which he enjoyed and began promoting on a small scale. Post-WWII Japan needed heroes and this big former rikishi seemed to be it as he vanquished American after American in the ring. He even traveled to Hawaii and the mainland US, and only suffered 3 losses in singles bouts. Returning to Japan, Riki was an even bigger star and started the Japan Wrestling Alliance in 1953.

Rikidozan had really life contempt for Americans, but it took one to make him a god in his homeland and a recognizable name in the wrestling world. This man was Lou Thesz, perhaps the greatest pro wrestler to ever live. Thesz was the NWA World Champion and met the rising star for the first time in Honolulu, where Riki was already a star. After winning a eight-man tournament to earn the title shot, Riki fell to Thesz after a piledriver at the 43-minute mark.

Back on the island, the JWA continued to skyrocket, now with television exposure and major venues. Riki even became the first Japanese Heavyweight Champion beating a man he broke in with, Masahiko Kimura. Controversy followed as Kimura later claimed Riki began shooting on him, but the match was supposed to be a draw. Rikidozan's accolades continued as he defeated King Kong of Singapore to become the first All Asian Champion.

As the wrestling phenomenon continued, Riki traveled to ST. Louis, Missouri and signed a contract to meet NWA World Champion Lou Thesz yet again, but this time in Japan. Six months later, Thesz became the first world champion to come to Japan where he and Riki drew 30,000 to see their historic draw in Korakeun Stadium. The rematch would come though, just under a year later in Los Angeles, where Rikidozan won and captured the NWA International Championship. The World Champion had put over this Japanese star in his the United States, which immortalized Rikidozan in his own homeland. He would never forget this and regarded Lou Thesz as the only American he respected.

The fame allowed Rikidozan to become a millionaire as he began a business domain comprising of everything from nightclubs to apartment complexes. In the ring, Riki was reaching great success with his NWA International title. He even vowed to beat Thesz in America and bring back the NWA World title, though he wanted to retire to be with his wife and children. Unfortunately, he did not have a single disciple to pass his legacy onto, though two of students, Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki, would replace him after his untimely death.

Rikidozan's final days started on December 8, when he was in an altercation with a gangster. Riki's business ventures had made him enemies in the night world of Tokyo. This particular Yakuza member approached him in the bathroom of a nightclub and warned Riki to stay out of his territory. Rikidozan's unwillingness to back down and things turned to a fight, in which he ended up on the losing end of due to a switchblade stab. After being hospitalized, the wound was considered minor. Riki failed to take it easy though and was stricken with peritonitis (an abdominal infection that is treatable) within the week, killing him at the age of 39.

It was not revealed, until after his death, that Mitsuhiro Momota a.k.a. Kim Sin-Nak, was a Korean. This was indeed a shock to the people who had embraced someone, who if had let his true identity be known, than pro wrestling in Japan may have never begun. This is similar to Jackie Robinson, except Rikidozan was the top star and his minority status was hidden. Unfortunately, Kim Sin-Nak could never become a civil rights hero, but he is definitely a hero in the classic sense.

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