SoCal and Puroresu: Southern California’s Early Connections To Japanese Wrestling (Part 1)

With New Japan Pro Wrestling making their way to Long Beach on July 1st and 2nd, I take a look at the history of Southern California’s wrestling connection to Japan in a three part series.

In the first part of the series, I take a brief look at the start of the connection of SoCal wrestling and Japan starting in the territory days starting with Rikidozan, then a look at FMW‘s ventures to Los Angeles 25 years ago today, a quick look at Atsushi Onita‘s XPW run, and Antonio Inoki‘s World Wrestling Peace Festival.

The Territory Days: Rikidozan and the early days of Japanese wrestlers in the Los Angeles territory

Since the early days of Puroresu, Japanese pro wrestlers and promotions have had ties to the Southern California area. In the 1950’s, the father of Japanese pro wrestling, Rikidozan, performed multiple times at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles for the LeBell family’s NWA Hollywood Wrestling/Worldwide Wrestling Associates, while also working in other areas of the Los Angeles territory. Rikidozan performed in Hawaii in the beginning of his professional wrestling career as well as the San Francisco territory prior to making his debut in Southern California, which occurred on on February 4th, 1953 when he went to a draw with Chris Zaharias.. He would return five years later in 1958 to defeat Jim Larock on August 23rd, 1958 in Long Beach, CA, would go on to defeat Lou Thesz on August 27th, 1958 in Los Angeles to become the NWA International Heavyweight Champion. The NWA International Heavyweight Championship would later go on to be merged with the PWF Heavyweight Championship and NWA United National Championship on April 18, 1989 to create the AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Rikidozan also had a feud with Freddie Blassie where they would exchange the WWA World Heavyweight Championship in 1962. Rikidozan would defeat Blassie on March 28th, 1962 at the Olympic Auditorium. Blassie would later regain the title when he would defeated Rikidozan at the Olympic Auditorium on July 25th, 1962.

Throughout the territory years, the LeBell family promotion would bring in many Japanese workers to perform in the Los Angeles territory thanks in part to former LA territory booker Jules Strongbow’s ties with Rikidozan’s JWA. Along with Japanese workers making their way to America, American workers such as Freddie Blassie, Dick “The Destroyer” Beyer, John Tolos do tours of Japan. American wrestlers who would go on tours of Japan during the JWA days would also often do stints in the Los Angeles territory The LeBell’s would also have working relationships with New Japan Pro Wrestling, and All Japan Pro Wrestling throughout its years of operation. Some notable names from the world of Puroresu that had performed at the Olympic Auditorium include Giant Baba, Antonio Inoki, Tatsumi Fujinami, Seiji Sakaguchi, Jumbo Tsuruta, Seiji Sakaguchi (Strong Kobayashi), the Great Kojika, Hiro Matsuda, Masa Saito, Riki Choshu, and Masanobu Fuchi. Japanese-based promotions such as JWA, AJPW, and NJPW had several of their recognized championships defended at the Olympic Auditorium, with the All Asia Heavyweight Championship (JWA/AJPW), the NWF Heavyweight Championship (NJPW), and the WWWF/WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship (recognized by NJPW and WWF) all having been defeated at the legendary venue. Matches that took place at the Olympic Auditorium involving Japanese stars would also be taped and later broadcast in Japan.

The connection between Japan and Southern California wasn’t just limited to male performers. In an article published on September 22nd, 2016, SCU’s own Steve Bryant wrote an article entitled “The Mildred Burke School for Lady Wrestlers” that gives good insight of the impact of Mildred Burke, her students, their connection to All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling, and the WWWA World Championship.

FMW comes to Los Angeles, Onita and XPW

Years after the fall of the territory system, several Japanese-based organizations and promoters would begin to hold events in the Southern California area.

In 1992, Atsushi Onita’s Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling co-promoted a pair of events with Mexico’s World Wrestling Association. The first night of FMW’s North American tour took place in Tijuana, Mexico at the Auditorio Municipal Tijuana on May 15th, 1992. The very next night, FMW and WWA would hold another event at the campus of Cal State-Los Angeles in front of a reported attendance of over 5,000 people. The event would feature FMW stars such as Atsushi Onita, Tarzan Goto, Megumi Kudo, Miwa Sato, Ricky Fuji, Sambo Asako, Yuki Morimatsu, Combat Toyoda, Shark Tsuchiya, Crusher Maedomari, Mr. Gannosuke, Eiji Ezaki (Hayabusa), and more. FMW’s Los Angeles event also featured Lucha Libre stars such as El Hijo Del Santo, Negro Casas, Tiniblas Sr. & Jr., Mando Guerrero, Blue Panther, and more.

After FMW’s only event in Los Angeles, Japanese video game company SNK presented several exhibition matches at their booth at the 2000 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) at the Los Angeles Convention Center on May 12th, 2000 to help promote the release of FMW upcoming home video releases by TokyoPop, a distribution company that releases and publishes various anime, manga, and manhwa content for audiences internationally in various languages. The matches at E3 2000 included Kodo Fuyuki and Koji Nakagawa going over Ricky Fuji and Flying Kid Ichihara, as well as Hayabusa, Tetsuhiro Kuroda, and Hisakatsu Oya going over Mr. Gannosuke, Hideki Hosaka, and Yoshinori Sasaki. This would end up being Hayabusa’s final performance in the United States before he ended up suffering a tragic career-ending accident on October 22nd, 2001 at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, Japan during a match against Mammoth Sasaki. Hayabusa would make a special appearance to Southern California in 2008 when Japan’s Dragon Gate made their American promotional debut in Bell Gardens, CA.

FMW would continue to have a presence in Southern California when the company’s founder Atsushi Onita (who had been running another group called Onita Pro at the time) participated in an angle with the San Fernando Valley-based promotion Xtreme Pro Wrestling in 2000. The angle saw XPW owner Rob Black bring in Onita to take on the reigning XPW World Champion at the time, Sabu, in an Electrified Barbed Wire Exploding Cage Deathmatch in a continuous effort to bring the championship to his on-screen stable, The Black Army, while also trying to rid XPW of Sabu. The angle would involve a promo from Onita, various segments with Rob Black playing with a gift from Onita of a Japanese doll named Sulu that he also talked to, and a press conference angle that was filmed at the Airtel Plaza Hotel in Van Nuys, CA in October of 2000. The promotion would also involve Japanese stars Nozawa and Kikuzawa (also known as Kikutaro) in the angle before it was eventually be dropped, much like Onita’s many other ventures when trying to bring matches involving explosions to America. Nozawa would continue to be part of XPW after the angle as part of Rob Black’s stable until he left the promotion in 2002. The promotion would also air a segment on their weekly TV show on KJLA with Rob Black and Kevin Kleinrock providing commentary on an Electrified Barbed Wire Exploding Cage Deathmatch match that took place in FMW between Onita and Hayabusa,

At the time, Nozawa and Kikuzawa were also performing on Revolution Pro shows.

Antonio Inoki’s World Wrestling Peace Festival

After co-promoting the Pyongyang International Sports and Culture Festival for Peace in North Korea (or as it is commonly referred to as, Collision in Korea) in 1995, New Japan Pro Wrestling founder Antonio Inoki would hold the World Wrestling Peace Festival at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena on June 1st, 1996, an inter-promotional event that would feature matches from various major promotions around the world. Inoki’s NJPW would represent Japan along with Michinoku Pro, as well as performer’s from All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling. Other promotions that were part of the event included World Championship Wrestling and National Wrestling Alliance representing the United States, and Asistencia Asesoría y Administración and Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre representing Mexico.

The event was reportedly attended by around 5,000 fans and featured 14 matches. The World Wrestling Peace Festival would be headlined by a tag team match with Antonio Inoki and Dan Severn defeating Yoshiaki Fujiwara and the UFC 6 Tournament Champion Oleg Taktarov, with a WCW World Heavyweight Championship Match between The Giant (WWE’s Big Show) defending the title against Sting as the co-main event match. The card would also feature a “NJPW vs. Michinoku Pro” match between Jushin Thunder Liger and The Great Sasuke, which received a **** rating from Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer. Other Japanese wrestlers that appeared on the event included Akira Hokuto, Bull Nakano, Masa Saito, and Tatsumi Fujinami. The event would also feature a tag team match with Rey Mysterio Jr. and Ultimo Dragon facing Heavy Metal and Psicosis, which received a ****1/4 rating from Dave Meltzer. The event would also feature stars such as El Hijo Del Santo, Chris Benoit, Negro Casa, Dos Caras, Chris Jericho, Atlantis, Bam Bam Bigelow, Konnan, Dr. Wagner Jr., Lex Luger, Black Cat, Jim Neidhart, and more. EWF promoter and SoCal Wrestling Hall Of Fame inductee Jesse Hernandez was also part of the event, having refereed several matches. In the months following the event, Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio Jr. would eventually get hired by WCW after meeting Eric Bischoff during the weekend of the event.

Inoki’s venture into the American didn’t stop there, but I’ll get into that in Part 3.

Ultimo Dragon vs. Negro Casas

On July 9th, 1994, Japanese wrestling star Ultimo Dragon defended the UWA World Middleweight Championship against Lucha Libre star Negro Casas at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles, CA. The title was originally recognized by Mexico’s Universal Wrestling Association, and had been defended several times in Japan in the Universal Wrestling Federation. After the UWA went out of the business, the title would go on to be defended in Japan’s Wrestle Association-RBig Japan Pro Wrestling, Michinoku Pro and Toryumon Japan promotions. Today, the title is defended at the Kaientai Dojo (K-Dojo) promotion.

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In Part 2, I look at the modern history and connection of the SoCal scene and Japan with looks at Joshi performers making their way to SoCal, the numerous partnerships between Japanese-based promotions and Southern California promotions, and Dragon Gate’s venture into the American market. In Part 3, I take a look at the Inoki Dojo and NJPW-USA.

Articles and works used in the research of this article:

Special thanks to Steve Yohe for helping provide information and research materials.

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