top of page

1.2 | Puroresu Roots in Japan | Under the Learning Tree

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

Under the Learning Tree Season 1: Jericho & (mostly) Guevara

1.2 | Puroresu Roots in Japan

1.8 | Taproots of Pro Wrestling

Under the Learning Tree is a series that follows the story of professional wrestling backwards from a current star performer in AEW Wrestling, back in time to their trainer, to their trainer's trainer, ad infinitum. The first stars we've been giving this treatment to have been kayfabe mentor and mentee Chris Jericho and Sammy Guevara. Explaining Jericho's Tree only took a couple of paragraphs, but Sammy's is in the midst of taking several installments, (weekly, every Saturday!) If you have time, the story is better appreciated from the start, so please follow this link: part 1, and from there, follow links forward at the bottom of each page to each successive installment.

Scott Casey (cont'd)

Learning To Bleed

The story of Sammy Guevara's Training Tree has so far taken us back as far as the 1930s while remaining almost entirely in Texas, other than a few small detours to Mexico, New York City, Oregon, and Indiana—not exactly the "4 continents and 140 years" promised last week. (If you missed it: Link!) And that would be the end of it, if the impromptu workout in Duke Myers's yard had been the end of Scott Casey's training. But Casey's disaster of a first match led him down a different path.

Likely enough, the reason for Casey's impromptu training was that Senior wanted a fresh new face for a televised match right away—a fresh new face to mess up. While green trainees would often work several untelevised "dark" matches before being put on TV, Senior wanted the new kid to have a match with Dick Murdoch on television immediately, and the word came down: Murdoch was to make Casey bleed "hardway." This meant that Murdoch was supposed to hit Casey in the eyebrow with un-pulled punches at a practiced angle and impact in order to make Casey bleed from his eyebrow all over his face—"get color." (This was as opposed to the "easy," usual way—"gigging": using a hidden razor blade to make a small cut just above the hairline.) As one might imagine, this does not always go as intended. Murdoch kept peppering Casey's eyebrow with real punches, but the blood would not flow. Eventually. Murdoch gave up and led the rookie to a bloodless finish. [1]

Casey later learned to bleed

Senior was livid backstage over his orders being ignored, and gave Murdoch and Casey a dressing down afterward. Murdoch explained that he really tried, it just wasn't working tonight—maybe something to do with the kid being green as grass. Senior countered that it didn't matter if your opponent knew what he was doing for hardway to work, and he intended to prove it by punching Casey in the same spot one more time. Casey has no personal recollection of what exactly happened after Dory punched him, but says that when he ran into Lord Alfred Hayes, (who was also present for the brouhaha,) over a decade later when they both ended up in the WWF, Hayes still remembered the incident vividly, (being the funniest thing he had ever seen,) and filled him in that not only did Casey's eyebrow still not bleed, but Senior swung so wildly that he punched Murdoch and Terry too! And everyone laughed. [1]

Dory Funk, Sr. was not a man who appreciated being laughed at, so Scott Casey needed to go—preferably somewhere both unpleasant and somewhere he could get trained up more thoroughly. Luckily or unluckily, there was a perfect place available to send him for simultaneous punishment and training—Eddie Graham's promotion in Florida, with Graham's infamous right-hand-man and trainer: Hiro Matsuda. [1]

Murdoch and Duncum warned Casey that if his conditioning was good enough to impress H. Matsuda, he'd go relatively easy on him, but if he couldn't do 500 jumping squats, he should be prepared to be murdered with intense training. [1] H. Matsuda had been trained by, (among others,) Karl Gotch, who had nicknamed the gym he had once trained in "the Snake Pit," and H. Matuda so greatly admired the intense, strenuous workouts he had done with K. Gotch that he took the "Snake Pit" name for his own gym in Florida, as well. [3] So Casey worked with the guys on his cardio, and once he was sure he was ready, he headed to Florida to train under the dreaded H. Matsuda. [1]

Hiro Matsuda

The Man Who Broke Hulk Hogan's Leg

Hiro Matsuda had sought out the training of the most legendary wrestling stars all over the globe in the course of his world-spanning travels. The influences of these disparate traditions flow together in him, and then flow on from him in the many stars and workers he prepared for the rigors and challenges of the wrestling life. But he also saw himself as a gatekeeper with the mission to keep out of the business anyone lacking both the ability and the genuine commitment required. Matsuda was already notorious for the harshness of his methods when Casey was sent to him from Amarillo in 1970, with the twin goals of ensuring he was well trained and of hazing him for the fiasco of his first match. But the most famous example of the extremes Matsuda would go to to ensure that only the best got past his training and into pro wrestling happened several years afterward.

In 1976, one of the top stars and champions of the Florida territory at the time, Jack Brisco, was at a nightclub and he saw a young man with the size, striking look, and charisma to be a natural for the wrestling business playing bass in the rock band on stage. His name was Terry Bollea, and when Jack got to talking with him. he discovered that he'd always dreamed of being a professional wrestler, like he'd seen on television. So Brisco offered to introduce Bollea to their trainer the next morning. [2]

Terry Bollea in his rock band Ruckus

There is no official record of the incident, and it wasn't mentioned in Matsuda's biography written posthumously by his daughter, so many have speculated that the stories told about Bollea's time training with Matsuda may have been an exaggeration on the part of the man who was by then famous worldwide under the name Hulk Hogan. But later Matsuda's daughter confirmed that although she had not known of the incident when she wrote the bookhe had never told her the storyshe found out later from her mother that he had confirmed the veracity of the story to her. But he did not discuss his motivation, so we can only speculate. [2]

Here was a man who considered himself the gatekeeper for the tight-knit fraternity of professional wrestling, working with a kid from a rock band with terrible cardio and no athletic background, who Jack Briscoa top star and recent world championwas touting as a future major drawing attraction. And this was also the days of total kayfabe—even though everybody over the age of 10 was aware that there was more to it than what they would admit, everyone inside the professional wrestling business kept up the facade that it was a legitimate sporting competition at all times. So, if this kid didn't have the heart for the rigors of this career, better that he should go out not-wised-up with a story of how tough and dangerous—and definitely not fake—the pros really are. And if he did have the right stuff, he'd heal up and come back. So: after a few weeks of drills to work on his conditioning, Matsuda "graduated" Bollea to showing him the moves of a real wrestling match, put him into a genuine hold, and promptly snapped the future superstar's lower leg bone in two. [2]

Hiro Matsuda


Hero to Japan, but not OF Japan

Sometime in the 1950s—when Matsuda was a young man still known by the name he was born with, Yoshihiro Kojima—he saw something unprecedented on his television: the first man of Asian heritage to play the wrestling hero on Japanese TV. This was the man who the world knew as Rikidôzan, but to Kojima, he represented a possibility of escape from the privation and strictures of life in post-war Japan. He and a couple of buddies sought out Rikidôzan's house and knocked on his door. Seeing that he had the size to have some potential, Rikidôzan invited him in, and he joined his household and began to train in pro wrestling under members of Rikidôzan's troupe: Yoshihara & Yoshinosato. Kojima spent the late 50s wrestling in Japan, but he harbored dreams of the USA, and he also resented the perception that his sensei saw a ceiling on the potential for a wrestler who didn't have a background in sumô or jûdô. So he quit. [2]

Ironically, Rikidôzan himself had struggled and chafed under similar barriers and ceilings in his original career as a sumô wrestler on account of being Korean. It should be noted that the word for "wrestling" in the Japanese language is "sumô," which is why they use the loan word "puroresu" for Western-style pro wrestling. Sumô has its roots in the Edô era of Japan's history, and in many ways, remains stuck there. Sumô wrestlers are required to always dress in public in traditional Japanese costume, and to grow their hair out into the traditional chonmage topknot style. They also are known by a shikona, or ring-name, that is chosen for them by their shishô, or stable-master. [4]

Born Kim Sin-rak in Northern Korea, the massive, athletic young man was scouted and encouraged to relocate to Japan to pursue sumô. He adopted the name Mitsuhiro Momota to attempt to pass for Japanese, but was bequeathed the shikona Rikidôzanmeaning "Rugged Mountain Road"by his shishô. [5]

Rikidôzan in Sumô days

Rikidôzan had significant early success in sumô, but was dogged by his perception that he was underappreciated and underpaid for his contributions due to his Korean heritage. In a heated argument with his sishô about payment, he decided to quit sumô immediately, and made his rash decision irrevocable by impulsively cutting off his chonmage then and there.

After burning that bridge, the yakuza (gangster) who sponsored his sumô stable helped him out by getting him a construction job. (His owing favors to yakuza would come back to bite him later in life.) He is also reputed to have done some black marketing. But he remained on the lookout for a new way to use his size and fighting skill to make money again. For a long time, it was rumored that he was scouted at a nightclub and trained by Harold Sakata, the actor/pro-wrestler who played "Oddjob" in the James Bond films, but that has been debunked as a kayfabe legend. [5]

Due to his reputation as a sumô fighter who had been excellent, but could no longer compete, an American pro wrestler named Bobby Bruns (whose own trainer is unknown) invited him, along with a few other Japanese fighters, to join a tour of Japan he was trying to make into a profitable concern by adding fighters who would appeal to the Japanese ticket-buyer. Bruns showed him the basic ropes of Western-style pro wrestling, and then Rikidôzan had a few matches in Japan. When Bruns returned to his home base of Hawai'i, Rikidôzan followed along, and there received further training from a Japanese-American professional wrestler named Oki Shikina who, like Rikidôzan, had also once been a sumô wrestler. [5]

Oki Shikina

A "Foreign Menace" in (and of) the USA

Oki Shikina was an American, it must be emphasized. Unlike many of the wrestlers of Japanese descent who worked as sinister foils to the "red blooded" (i.e., white) heroes of the wrestling territories of the US and Canada, he did not come to the West as an adult, with an outsider's perspective. He grew up in Hawai'i and excelled at sumô as a teen, through which he met the jiu-Jitsu master Taro Miyake in 1929. Miyake told him his tales of mixing it up with professional grapplers in North America and Europe, and of the money to be made, and Shikina decided to follow Miyake to New York City and train under him and learn the grift of Western-style pro wrestling. [6]

Oki Shikina

He started wrestling in the Northeast, but spent most of the 30s wrestling high profile matches on the West coast against some of the best of the era, such as the first big gridiron crossover hero Gus Sonnenberg. He played the sinister Japanese menace even before Pearl Harborwhen that trope became a staple for wrestling in the US. [6] But he also worked in Hawai'i, where the racial tropes were reversed and the native and Asian-descended competitors were the heroes, while the objects of the jeers of the crowd were always white. [7] The fact that the money was just as green either way was not lost on Shikina, and the dreadful gaijin (Japanese for non-Japanese "outsider") villain would later become the heart of the storytelling of puroresu for decades, as pioneered by his trainee, Rikidôzan.

Taro Miyake

A Jiu-Jitsu Professor Challenges

Strongmen of Europe and Barnburners of North America

Unlike his protégé, Taro Miyake was born in Japan, and became a jiu-Jitsu prodigy in his youth. He studied and taught jiu-Jitsu, and won tournaments open to both Jûdôka and to practitioners of older styles of jiu-Jitsu such as himself. But in 1904 when he was in his early 20s, he left Japan for Europe, (on the heels of the yakuza, it is rumored.) In the early years of the century he bounced around Europe, teaching jiu-Jitsu to the scions of the continent at acclaimed universities such as Cambridge and Heidelberg while meeting martial artists, boxers, or grapplers in public exhibitions, claiming to be the "World Champion of jiu-Jitsu". [8]

Taro Miyake

He once attempted to goad the celebrated wrestling World Heavyweight ChampionEstonian strongman, Georg Hackenschmidtinto an impromptu contest:

When Hackenschmidt was at the Empire Music Hall in London, I jumped on the stage and challenged him. I offered to make a match with him right then for any stake he wanted, jiu-Jitsu against his wrestling, and to beat him in five minutes or forfeit the money. Hackenschmidt’s men tried to push me off the stage and Hackenschmidt said "No-no." [8]

While it is possible that some of these contests were a "shoot," (legitimate, not pre-determined,) it is almost certain some Old-World groaner introduced Miyake to "the work": establishing the winner beforehand, going easy on one another, and ensuring that moves only look painful or damaging for the enjoyment of the paying customers. He took part in—and made the middleweight finals in—a massive "Catch as Catch Can" tournament in Paris in 1914. He later described this as his first venture into professional wrestling—this despite the fact that he had been engaging in cross-martial-arts challenges for several years. This may have been his way of saying that the Paris tournament was his introduction to "the work." [8]

In the early teens, Miyaki fled a continent for the second time in about a decade, this time escaping the ravages of the Great War to North America. He made his new base in New York City, but traveled up and down North America, fighting the most notable pro wrestlers of the teens and twenties, from Ed "Strangler" Lewis to Jim Londos. [8]

Some unfortunate stereotypes in a poster promoting a Miyake match

In 1928, Miyaki returned to Japan after over two decades of wandering the world, for what was possibly the first attempt to bring Western-style pro wrestling to his countrymen. The time was not right, and he quickly returned to North America. He passed away in 1935, so he never knew that the man that he went on to trainShikina—would decades later go on to train the man who would finally succeed in pioneering what would come to be known as puroresuRikidôzan. [8]

Rikidôzan (pt 2)

Enter Jûdô Legend Kimura

By 1954, Bruns's brief tour of Japan with Rikidôzan as his local hero three years prior may have seemed just as much a flash in the pan as Miyaki's abortive attempt to bring pro wrestling to Japan back in 1928. Since then, Rikidôzan had been touring Hawai'i and California, but obsessively saving all of his earning toward funding his dream of bringing pro wrestling to Japan not just as a short-term attraction, but as an ongoing and self-perpetuating enterprise, with himself both in the role of the top star and the promoter.

With the advent of television, and the resentment and emasculation the Japanese people felt towards their American occupiers, the time was right for Rikidôzan to use the "white devil" angles he had seen Shikina use to generate fan passion in Hawai'i to make professional wrestling the smashing success in Japan that Miyaki was not able to make it 30 years earlier. He brought over top wrestling stars from the US to drive his own popularity and success by being his despicable nemeses.

The top drawing attraction that Rikidôzan was able to immediately entice to make the journey across the pacific were the Sharpe Brothers. They were the top main-event act in San Francisco, and, (although actually Canadian,) they had the skills and star power to portray the villainous American foils to Rikidôzan's (actually Korean) Japanese hero. But in order to face off against them, Rikidôzan needed one more element—a tag-team partner. This is how legendary Jûdôka Masahiko Kimura enters the picture. [5]

All Japan Jûdô Champion Masahiko Kimura

By the time Rikidôzan invited him to join his fledgling promotion and be his tag partner, Kimura was possibly the most legendary legitimate fighter in the world, He had been the Jûdô champion of Japan for 13 years, having retired undefeated in 1950 in order to pursue more remunerative bouts. In 1951, he traveled to Brazil to face the godfather of Brazilian jiu-Jitsu Hélio Gracie. Gracie had established the reputation of the Gracie style of jiu-Jitsu by defeating challengers from all fighting disciplinesincluding many Japanese Jûdôkasthroughout the 1930s. Now he had come out of retirement wanting to face the greatest Jûdôka. Kimura met with him, but when he saw their size difference, did not want to be chalked up to only beating him because of size advantage, and propose that Gracie meet a smaller member of his troupe. When, after a first match-up that ended in a draw, Gracie defeated Kimura's man, Kimura agreed to meet with him. The brief and brutal confrontation that followed was as dramatic as any predetermined pro wrestling, but with a gruesome outcome that would only ever occur in a shoot. [10]

Kimura with Gracie in a headlock

There were rumors that the Gracie family had intended this battle to be a predetermined affair, with Kimura taking the loss to further build the mystique of Brazil's sports hero, except for the Japanese embassy warning Kimura that if he lost to the scrawny gaijin, he needn't plan a return trip to Japan. [10] There were 20,000 spectators for the confrontation, including the President of Brazil. It was extremely hostile territory, with a coffin to symbolize Kimura's impending defeat and the crowd hurling eggs at him. After being held off by Gracie's excellent defense for a dozen minutes, Kimura finally captured him in the ude-garami hold, also known as the double wristlock, or the chicken-wing hold. This dangerous hold usually leads to an immediate surrender, but Gracie was too proud, and refused to submit. As Kimura increased the pressure, a loud snap was heard throughout the arena, but Gracie still wouldn't quit, with his now-broken arm in the hold that just snapped it. As Kimura tells the story in his memoir, he broke the Brazilian's arm a second time before his corner-men finally threw a white towel into the ring to symbolize giving up before more damage could be done. [11] Disciples of the Gracies' style of fighting would go on to establish the foundation of today's Mixed Martial Arts, and from then on would refer to the hold that broke their maestro's forearm as the kimura lock, a call that anyone who follows MMA or pro wrestling has certainly heard from the commentary desk.

Rikidôzan (pt 3)

A Partner Brutally Betrayed

In the early 50s, while Rikidôzan was learning the craft of professional wrestling on the islands of Hawai'i, Kimura was also there, doing the same. In February and March of 1954, the newly formed sumô / jûdô alliance between Rikidôzan and Kimura faced off against the Sharpe brothers in the main events of a series of shows that started Rikidôzan's Japan Wrestling Association with a bang. The obvious next step would be a confrontation between sumô and jûdô for superiority. Kimura started the ball rolling with whispers in the press that they ought to find out who was really the best in Japan. Kimura proposed to Rikidôzan a series of matchesstarting with a draw, and then trading off wins as long as the fans could be strung alongto make the most money possible from the series. But Rikidôzan had a different plan. [5]

In late December of 1954, Rikidôzan met Kimura in a two of three falls match to determine the inaugural JWA Champion. Kimura, by all accounts, was expecting a drawn-out affair with a fall to each man with the deciding fall ending indecisively. According to Kimura:

We came to an agreement on this condition. As for the content of the match, Rikidôzan will let me throw him, and I will let him strike me with a chop. We then rehearsed karate chop and throws. However, once the bout started, Rikidôzan became taken by greed for big money and fame. He lost his mind and became a mad man. When I saw him raise his hand, I opened my arms to invite the chop. He delivered the chop, not to my chest, but to my neck with full force. I fell to the mat. He then kicked me. Neck arteries are so vulnerable that it did not need to be Rikidôzan to cause a knock down. A junior high school kid could inflict a knock down this way. I could not forgive his treachery. [11]

Rikidôzan betrays Kimura

Kimura could not return to his feet or defend himself, so the match was called for Rikidôzan despite only one fall. Perhaps a draw and a series of matches would have made them more money in the long run, but Rikidôzan's abrupt and decisive win over such a respected legitimate fighter made his reputation, and set his JWA on the path to a decade of success. [5]

Kimura, meanwhile, retreated to his home island of Kyushu and ran a small local wrestling promotion as a satellite to Rikidôzan's national monopoly. But this was not the last time Kimura would make history: in 1956 he would be the first promoter to bring luchadores from Mexico to Japanspecifically, the tag team of Yaqui Rocha and Raúl Romero. El Profesor Romero has already appeared in the story of this Learning Tree as one of Rapid Ricky's trainers, and has a role yet to play in the parts of this story not yet told. [12]

Raúl Romero (in cape and mask) & Yaqui Rocha arriving in Kyushu in 1956

Rikidôzan (concluded)

Hubris and Downfall

After so dispatching his partner and rival, Rikidôzan had the momentum and drawing power to now attract the best singles stars in North America as his villainous foils, and over the next decade that's exactly what he did, with each rivalry building his own mystique, which in turn made him a better attraction for his promotion.

In 1957 he brought in the biggest name audiences in Japan had ever seen—iconic World Champion, Lou Thesz. Thesz would be shocked by the celebrity mobbing he received when landing in Japan. His showdown with Rikidôzan made television history with 87% of Japan's sets tuned to it. A few years later in 1962, the latest rival, "Classy" Freddy Blassie, would go on to become the most hated villain in puroresu historydubbed Kyuketsuki, meaning "Vampire." [5]

Rikidôzan vs Blassie

But success professionally was matched by troubles in his personal life. Rikidôzan drank to excess regularly and got into fights, avoiding consequences with his fame. It has long been rumored that Rikidôzan was assassinated due to a disagreement with the yakuza, but the circumstances of his death point more to picking a drunken fight with the wrong guy. A life which blazed so brightly ended prematurely of infected knife wounds from a nightclub brawl in 1963. His last match, against the masked "Destroyer" Dick Beyer was refereed by his mentor, Oki Shikina. [5]

And there we come to the end of one of the major roots of Hiro Matsuda's—and, by extension, Sammy Guevara's—Learning Tree. A root that traversed the globe while remaining fundamentally Japanese. If the man who would later take the name Hiro Matsuda had not chafed under the leadership of Rikidôzan and harbored dreams of an American Promised Land, the story would end there. But next time our story continues in the unlikely locale of Peru!

Hiro Matsuda

Link to: Part 3

Learning Tree Lineage Diagram

Work-in-Progress Learning Tree Hypertext Document



bottom of page