We have to lead with Rikidōzan, as while the MMA community is more familiar with Masahiko Kimura, the truth is, Rikidōzan is the main character of this story.
Born November 14th 1924, Rikidōzan is a legend of Japanese wrestling. In the twelve years he was active as a professional wrestler, Rikidōzan became a mega-star. He was one of the most famous and beloved men in all of Japan, which was particularly impressive at the time, as Rikidōzan was Korean.
Rikidōzan was born Kim Sin-rak, in Kankyōnan Province in Japan occupied Korea, in a part of the country that would today be considered North Korea. Japan occupied Korea from 1910 until 1945 when the second world war ended. The youngest son of a farmer, Rikidōzan first left for Japan in 1940, to become a sumo wrestler. Joining the Nishonoseki stable, today known was the Hanaregoma stable, Rikidōzan wrestled for ten years.
For the un-initiated, the idea of being a sumo wrestler might sound quite funny. Western media perception of sumo often comes down to two morbidly obese men in peculiar underwear slapping each other. The reality, however, is that sumo wrestling is one of the most demanding combat sports on the planet and has probably the most selective talent scouting of any sport outside of Formula 1.
While today, sumo wrestling is dominated by Mongolian wrestlers, in the 1940s, being ethnically Korean, competing in the Japanese national sport led to harassment and racism. The abuse Rikidōzan faced was so much that he fabricated a Japanese identity.
In sumo, it is custom that each wrestler gets a ‘rikishi’ name, an identity they are known by as a wrestler. For young Kim Sin-rak – it was Rikidōzan.
Despite the hardships, Rikidōzan got close to the top of sumo wrestling, reaching the rank of Sekiwake, before retiring. While he was a strong wrestler, his being Korean prevented him from reaching the highest possible ranks in the sport. That, and his stable’s refusal to give him financial support, caused him to quit Sumo.
It was at this point that Rikidōzan would go from sumo wrestler to professional wrestler. Although not before working as a black market dealer for the Americans during the Korean War.
Travelling to Honolulu, Hawaii, Rikidōzan would train the art of professional wrestling under Harold Sakata and enter matches with fellow legends like Lou Thesz. It’s important to remember that at this point in time, more often than not, professional wrestlers had legitimate catch wrestling training, such was the case of Lou Thesz. Wrestlers could fight for real, and chose to put on a show instead. After two years, Rikidōzan returned to Japan, bringing professional wrestling with him.
The Japanese Wrestling Alliance
Rikidōzan founded the Japanese Wrestling Alliance, of JWA, in 1953 as Japan’s first professional wrestling promotion. In a classic pro wrestling move, Rikidōzan placed himself at the top of the card, as the JWA’s big star, and it worked.
Rikidōzan was huge, and his popularity would help launch the stars of future talents, such as the legendary Antonio Inoki, who founded New Japan Pro Wrestling. Perhaps out of pragmatism, much of the roster of the JWA were former sumo wrestlers and Judoka, one of which is the now legendary Masahiko Kimura.
Born September 10th 1917, Masahiko Kimura is considered one of the greatest Judoka of all time. While Rikidōzan entered the world of sumo after travelling the sea following his father’s passing, Kimura’s life in judo was propelled by a stranger reason; his teacher beat him up.
Following an incident in school, Kimura was repeatedly slapped and thrown to the ground by his teacher. This abuse infuriated him, to the point where upon learning his teacher had a 1st Degree black belt in Judo, Kimura pledged to become a 2nd degree black belt.
It’s fair to say that Kimura had issues. When his older brother was bitten by a dog, he went out, found three dogs and violently kicked them. An act which he described as ‘building his confidence’ to fight humans.
Most of Kimura’s early life was fairly normal, with the main exception being that he was quickly becoming one of the best Judoka in the world, reaching 5th dan (truly one upping his abusive teacher) and winning the All Japan Judo tournament in 1937. He then won this a second time, and a third time.
This notoriety as the greatest judoka in the world attracted the attention of a certain family that MMA fans will know all too well; the Gracie’s. Known for their teaching and modification of Kosen Judo, now known as Gracie (or Brazilian) Jiu Jitsu had a habit of challenging renowned martial arts to prove that their style of Jiu Jitsu was the best martial art.
And so the challenge was issued to Kimura. In 1951, The same year Rikidōzan debuted in professional wrestling, Masahiko Kimura had his claim to fame in the MMA world. Fighting and besting Helio Gracie.
There is a lot of revisionist history from the Gracie’s regarding this fight, including that Kimura outweighed Helio by 80lbs and that the Gracie’s went into the fight knowing Helio would probably lose but wanting to test themselves. This is of course nonsense, as neither fighter was weighed before the bout, and while Kimura likely was the heavier of the two men, he was certainly much shorter and the 80lb weight gap is simply impossible.
Being greeted at the fight with a coffin (for when Helio killed him), and being pelted with fruit by Brazilian fans, Kimura stepped onto the mat and in a brief grappling match proceeded to break Helio Gracie’s arm with the submission hold we now call the Kimura lock.
Around this time, Kimura entered the world of professional wrestling. The reasons why aren’t completely known. Despite being a world renowned Judoka, Kimura didn’t make money from his martial arts skills, instead working as a police instructor to make ends meet. It’s been opined that his decision to go into wrestling may have been to pay for treatment for his wife, who would be diagnosed with tuberculosis in the early 1950s. Whatever the reason, Rikidōzan invited Kimura to join the JWA and thus began his wrestling career.
The Sharpe Brothers Feud
While most only know of their now infamous match, which we shall discuss later, Rikidōzan and Masahiko Kimura shared three times, as tag team partners.
A common thing in all pro wrestling, is to pit local talent against foreign ‘invaders’. In post-war Japan, American wrestlers made for the perfect villains for the local Japanese talent to defeat. We see this in Japanese wrestling to this day, with factions like Bullet Club and United Empire.
In 1954, The Sharpe Brothers filled that role. With Masahiko Kimura and Rikidōzan teaming up to best the villainous Americans. During the JWA’s International Big Competition Series they wrestled the Sharpe Brothers seven times (although Kimura wrestled them eight times during that tour).
This feud saw the Sharpe Brothers achieved draws in the first few matches, before actually winning in the later stages of the feud. Narratively it makes sense to build up the villains with draws and wins to build more heat – so that they team could eventually be over thrown.
For Rikidōzan it was another day at the office as the big star of the company. For Masahiko Kimura however, this was a big deal. In a few short years he had gone from working as a police instructor to tag teaming with the most popular wrestler in the country. A strong vote of confidence for him from the JWA.
The two wrestlers’ popularity could mean only one thing. When the JWA had its first heavyweight title match, it had to be contested between Kimura and Rikidōzan. On the 22nd of December 1954, The Japanese Heavyweight Championship would be contested for the first and only time.
We all know what happened in this match. It started out as a normal professional wrestling contest, but then it inexplicably turned into a shoot with Rikidōzan legitimately attacking Kimura and knocking him out. What we don’t truly know is why it happened. There are all sorts of accounts, from Rikidōzan being jealous of Kimura’s rising stardom, to Kimura claiming that Rikidōzan only fought for show and wouldn’t best him for real.
It was clear that there was animosity between the two wrestlers, with Kimura having already founded his own wrestling company at the time, possibly being unhappy with Rikidōzan hogging the spot light during their tag-team matches.
It had been claimed that Kimura wished to go to a 60 minute draw, and then wrestle for the title again to make more money. It’s also been said that Rikidōzan took this, and Kimura’s comments about wrestling being fake as an insult (given how dangerous wrestling actually is) and took it upon himself to attack him.
It’s hard to know what exactly caused such tension leading up to the match, but to my eyes it seems it was all sparked by a kick in the groin. Midway through the match, whether it was intentional or accidental, Kimura throws a kick up at Rikidōzan which strikes him straight in the groin. From there Rikidōzan immediately lashed out with full force chops to the neck, knocking the Judoka out. There was no rematch, not only did Kimura never get a chance to wrestle for the title, the title itself would never be contested for again.
For Rikidōzan his stock went up, after all he looked like a tough guy, a legitimate fighter that fans would pay to see. For Kimura on the other hand, his stock was badly hurt. He had just been beaten up after all.
The story goes that Rikidōzan became increasingly arrogant and dismissive towards his co-workers as the success got to his head. He went on to have a successful career, with a rivalry against old foe Lou Thesz being one of his major career highlights.
Then one day, the news broke that Rikidōzan had died.
The Murder of Rikidōzan
On December 8th 1963, Rikidōzan was drinking heavily in Tokyo’s New Latin Quarter Club. At some point during the night and altercation began between Rikidōzan and Katsushi Murata, a member of the Sumiyoshi-kai Yakuza family.
There are multiple accounts ranging from Murata asking for an autograph, causing Rikidōzan to drunkenly berate him, leading to a stabbing. Other accounts state that Rikidōzan was angry at Murata for allegedly standing on his foot – which resulted in a brawl in which Murata stabbed Rikidōzan in self defence.
It’s not really clear what happened. The result is fully known however; Rikidōzan went to hospital. Eventually, it’s rumoured he partied a little more than he should have. After surgery, he went home and then continued to drink more. Over the next week, his health deteriorated and after making peace with Murata and his boss, over the stabbing (Murata had himself been attacked and hospitalised by a Yakuza gang associated with Rikidōzan) and after a second surgery, died of peritonitis.
There are many myths and legends surrounding his death. One common ‘fact’ you’ll hear, is that Rikidōzan was stabbed with a urine-soaked blade, which caused his peritonitis. So often is this reported that, before writing this article, I myself had just assumed it to be true. There isn’t actually any record of this being the case however, and the peritonitis was far more likely caused by Rikidōzan’s reckless drinking. A urine-soaked blade would imply intent – and even when Murata went to court he was found guilty of manslaughter, not murder.
The most common myth surrounding his death is usually circulated by Kimura fans along with hardcore MMA fans aware of Rikidōzan. That Kimura either orchestrated or otherwise knew about Rikidōzan’s death ahead of time. The myth would go that Kimura himself contacted the Yakuza to get revenge for the time he was attacked in the ring and embarrassed publicly.
This myth seems to be cited by people who simply don’t understand the timeline of events. It had been a decade since the match-gone-wrong and both had very firmly moved on since then. Kimura himself has implied involvement in Rikidōzan’s death by saying that he received a phonecall from the yakuza before it happened – but honestly, from all research. It just seems like he was lying. Kimura was clearly quite a troubled man and a lot of what he claims should be taken with a grain of salt.
The Legendary Footnote
Masahiko Kimura and his match with Rikidōzan are just a small part of his history. Kimura himself is far more famous for his conflict with Helio Gracie and with Rikidōzan than he is in his own right. Despite being such a successful martial artist, his legacy has always been tied to other people.
Perhaps this is why articles detailing Rikidōzan’s life rarely mention Kimura. There’s a sense that something unjust happened to Kimura, and rightly so. Regardless of whether the kick to the groin was intentional, Rikidōzan was wrong for attacking him, running the risk of killing him.
Yet, when it comes to the death of Rikidōzan, Kimura has quite literally nothing to do with it. There isn’t even tangential evidence to suggest that he was involved. Instead it simply comes from online rumour mills that more often than not come from people who are simply unaware of who Rikidōzan even is outside of the match with the martial arts star.
Despite this bout being infamous, there is an irony in how unimportant it really was to the lives of both men in the grand scheme of things. It had nothing to do with the death of Rikidōzan, nor did it really tarnish Kimura’s legacy. Kimura would forever be known as the man who bested Helio Gracie, and Rikidōzan would forever be known as Japan’s greatest wrestler.
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