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5 Yrs Ago: Zavisa on the 25th Anniversary of New Japan Pro Wrestling

Sep 15, 2002 - 11:11:00 AM
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The following is a reprint of Chris Zavisa's Torch Newsletter column on the 25th Anniversary of New Japan Pro Wrestling from five years ago this week.

-Jason Powell, Torch assistant editor

* * *

Torch Newsletter Archive
By Chris Zavisa, Torch columnist
ZAVISA: New Japan's 25th Anniversary
Originally published: Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly newsletter #457
Cover dated: September 13, 1997


One of the major differences between American and Japanese professional wrestling has been each nation's acknowledgement of its history. For what only seems like forever, U.S. promotions have existed in a nether-world where there is no recorded past. There is only the present and if there is a future, it goes only as far as promoting the next major card. Lately, some cracks have appeared in this stance and history, albeit selective history, has been prominently utilized by Mike Tenay of WCW and Jim Ross of the WWF.

In Japan, a large part of pro wrestling is its storied history. No better evidence of this can be found than in this year's New Japan 25th Anniversary celebration. The world's most successful wrestling promotion is holding a series of major spectacles in domed arenas around the nation. The first three did phenomenal business despite having a rather lackluster line-up and having to make a last minute substitute in its main event in the last two. The hot summer months will see one more in Nagoya and in the fall another in Fukuoka. It is possible that yet another could be scheduled for Tokyo before the year is over.

Five domed shows will bring in approximately 25 million dollars and that does not include money from merchandise sales. If they can squeeze in a third show at the Tokyo Dome, you can add another six million to the pot. The third Tokyo show is based on rumors that Akira Maeda may have finally accepted the opportunity to wrestle New Japan fixture Riki Choshu. It was ten years ago - Nov. 19, 1987 - that Maeda threw his infamous "shoot kick" to the face of Choshu breaking bones and shattering the annual tag tournament. Maeda has not wrestled in New Japan since that time.

With both Choshu and Maeda making plans to retire, this may be their final chance to cash in. It would be a main event that could truthfully be advertised as ten years in the making. It would also be sure to sell out the Tokyo Dome.

New Japan has a warehouse filled with special merchandise aimed at fans who want a piece of the anniversary celebration. Their programs earlier this summer featured three pages of items for sale. Among the items were the usual assortment of t-shirts ($25 -30), hats ($25), rings with the company logo ($50-70), and even a commemorative Zippo lighter with the profile of Antonio Inoki for $75. While I will personally pass up the various keychains, wallets, fannypacks, jackets, bumper stickers, stamp sets, phone cards, ashtrays, clocks, pocket watches, and jogging suits, I do enthusiastically recommend one item which every serious New Japan fan should own.

The promotion has published a gorgeous hardcover book entitled "25 Years of New Japan Pro Wrestling: 1972-1996." The book is in a 9-by-12 inch format and even comes contained in its own protective slipcase. It is a custom made, deluxe package that has many features not seen in most mass-produced books. It opens with a two page foldout reproducing the signatures of 50 of the comany's stars. While these are not the actual personal autographs of Inoki, Choshu, and company, it does give you something to compare to if anyone ever offers you a signed copy of a New Japan program and you wonder if it really was signed by Tatsumi Fujinami.

The book totals 242 pages and has a variety of sections with differing information. There are color profiles of all the New Japan mainstays giving career statistics and information. The presentation is similar to profiles contained in major show programs. New Japan reveals what the front office believes to be the group's pecking order by the treatment given each wrestler and the order in which they are presented. The nine men who receive a full page are Antonio Inoki, Seiki Sakaguchi, Tatsumi Fujinami, Riki Choshu, Shinya Hashimoto, Keiji Muto, Kensuke Sasaki (Power Warrior), Jushin Liger, and Masahiro Chono. Some U.S. fans will find it odd that four legends would be placed in front of their world champion. However, it underlines the point in Japan that the history of pro wrestling is often more important than what is currently happening. Lesser stars such as Shiro Koshinaka and Hiroyoshi Tenzan have to share a page with one or two others.

There is a color section profiling stars from the past who are no longer New Japan employees. Among those honored with full page treatment are Akira Maeda, Tiger Mask (Sayama), Nobuhiko Takada, and Hiroshi Hase.

Fifty of the book's 242 pages are devoted to a year-by-year history of New Japan. Each year receives two pages complete with many photographs of classic moments. My personal favorite is from 1976 with Antonio Inoki sitting atop the left shoulder of a standing Andre the Giant attempting to place an armlock on him. It looks as if a scene out of Spielberg's "The Lost World" with Inoki the size of a raptor trying to take down a gigantic T-Rex. A 1977 photo reveals a young Stan Hansen with long hair and a beard looking as if he just flew in from Woodstock. The infamous Maeda shoot kick is shown from 1987 and there is a great shot of The Great Sasuke with his eight J-Crown belts. There are scores of other pictures that chronicle just about every major moment in New Japan history.

New Japan operates its own gym/dojo and there is an extensive article on it and how it trains its wrestlers. Lots of behind the scenes photos accompany the article. There is a detailed article on one of Inoki's favorite promotional tools - the mixed match against various martial arts specialists. Among the bouts shown are the famous Muhammed Ali 15-round draw and Don Nakaya Neilsen's excellent series against the UWF style fighters.

It was New Japan that helped put the junior heavyweight division on the map and that story is covered in five pages. There is an extensive section on the annual tag team tournament with charts of every match from each year. The various IWGP G1 Climax and junior tournaments are also covered in the same format.

Recently New Japan sent two of its stars - Keiji Muto and Masahiro Chono - to work in America as part of WCW's NWO angle. They are not the first and will not be the last. The Japanese have always attempted to use the American wrestling scene to build up a wrestler hoping he will be even more popular after his eventual return. There is a six-page section on this with photo's from both the U.S. and Mexico over the last two and a half decades.

The only section of the book which I do not care for is 18 pages reproducing newspaper articles from the various Japanese sports papers. The intent is obviously to show that New Japan is mainstream news just like a Sumo tournament or baseball game and that does come across. However, the reproduction is muddy and blurred and contrasts sharply with the high quality of everything else in the volume.

The highlight of the book for me is a spectacular three page foldout measuring 12 by 23 inches. It reproduces in color 55 classic show posters advertising historic New Japan house shows. In Japan, one of the more desirable collectible items are the colorful posters that the various groups issue to advertise their house shows. They usually measure 20-by-28 inches and sell for three to five dollars in Japan. They can be very difficult to obtain if you do not have a friend in Japan who can get them for you. The older ones, especially from important shows, are nearly impossible to obtain.

New Japan issued hundreds of these over the 25 years and only the best are shown here. Many promote matches that are now among the most revered classics in New Japan history. Among the ones included are:

-The very first New Japan card from March 6, 1972 at Ota Ward Gym in Tokyo. This poster, and many others, features the unmistakable visage of Antonio Inoki . On that historic card Inoki battled Karl Gotch and lost.

-Oct. 14, 1973 Inoki teamed with Sakaguchi to defeat legends Lou Thesz and Karl Gotch.

-Dec. 10, 1973, Inoki defeated Johnny Powers to win the National Wrestling Federation Title in Tokyo.

-Aug. 8, 1974 Inoki battled Gotch in a classic rematch.

-Dec. 11, 1975 Inoki battled Billy Robinson to a tremendous 60 minute draw. The bout was featured on the Inoki laser disc set a few years back and is one of the best Inoki bouts ever. It showcased wrestling at its best with Robinson showing the skills that made him one of the all-time greats.

-Feb. 6, 1976 Inoki battled Olympic gold judo medalist Wilhelm Ruska and won on a TKO.

-June 26, 1976, Inoki vs. Muhammad Ali - a match which was easily the most ambitious ever undertaken and one of the most disastrous in its execution.

-Aug. 26, 1979, the Tokyo Sports Newspaper "Dream Card" combining wrestlers from New Japan, All Japan, and IWE. Main event was the reuniting of Inoki with former partner Giant Baba defeating Abdullah the Butcher and Tiger Jeet Singh.

-Apr. 23, 1981, Inoki vs. Hansen for the NWF Title and the debut of Saturo Sayama as Tiger Mask against Dynamite Kid.

-Oct. 8, 1981, New Japan against the IWE in a precursor to the recent NJ vs. UWF series.

-June 2, 1983, Hulk Hogan defeated Inoki to claim the very first IWGP World Title. This match nearly ended the career of Inoki and proved to be an embarrassment to the promotion since Inoki was supposed to win but was knocked cold by a Hogan clothesline.

-Aug. 8, 1988, Inoki and Tatsumi Fujinami fought to a great 60 minute draw.

-Apr. 24, 1989, the very first New Japan Tokyo Dome event took place featuring the debut of Jushin Liger.

Dozens of other posters are shown, many featuring shows from the Tokyo Dome, G1 Climax tournaments, and even the Super J Cups. If you are a fan of New Japan or the posters, it is a dream come true. The book sells for $50 in Japan and is worth twice the price.

By the way, All Japan is also celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year. There are no Dome shows or historic books planned for Baba's group. Baba may have the three best men's workers in the world and main events whose quality cannot be matched, but when it comes to pure promotion, are light years behind.

The winner of our last "Film-Wrestling" trivia contest was Barry Traegar of Deerfield, Ill. who correctly identified a quote from the film "Network." The winner of this month's quiz will win a New Japan show poster advertising their recent May Osaka Dome show. The first correct answer e-mailed to me at cgnz@oenline or cz7749@aol will win. Here is the question: A very famous U.S. film star made his lead debut in a film which featured him making his living fighting in squared circle. The name of his character is one of the Four Horsemen. Name the film, the factor, and the character's name.


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