Alright, this series wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t talk about the wild world of (predetermined) fighting for a bit. Since I’m a giant dork for this stuff and Tokyo is still in many ways the world capital of rasslin’, this obviously played a big part of making it over. However, I’ve gotten progressively cynical about and disinterested in this stuff for years, and I thought I would never make it to Japan anyway. And even if I would and attended some shows, it would probably be really depressing and not all that good and just bum me out, right? Well, I was wrong as usual. In fact, I couldn’t have been more incorrect.
Shootboxing (March 2nd):
Alright, let’s get the real fighting out of the way. There was no decent MMA going on, so I figured that I would just not get the chance to see any fisticuffs, only to find out that there was a Shootboxing card going on. Sweet! Shootboxing is…difficult to explain. Basically, Japanese kickboxer turned cult leader Caesar Takeshi just invented his own new kickboxing ruleset. I’d like to imagine that he just got frustrated with the strict ruleset, thought “man, I really wanna be able to throw and suplex dudes and stuff!” and then thought “fuck it, I’ll just make my own promotion with my own rules where I can do whatever the hell I want!”. No clue how close to the truth that version is, but that story just feels right, so I’ll go with it. So yeah, it’s kickboxing with throws and suplexes allowed, as well as standing submissions. Weird as hell, but makes for a really intriguing dynamic where dudes can win against wildly superior kickboxers by throwing them around. Here’s a little video explaining the rules.
We stood in the bleachers at Korakuen, which was definitely a unique experience. Couldn’t ask for a better view. The show was headlined by the retirement of long-time Shootboxing staple Hiroki Shishido after 18 years of pro fighting and over 80 fights. The fights were pretty damn fun in general, but the real star of the show was Caesar Takeshi. When I called him a cult leader before, I meant that in the nicest way possible. A real larger-than-life character. He made a 5+ minute entrance after intermission, coming out to his custom theme song (of course), a bad ass tune that basically just shouts his name the entire time (of course). Shaking hands and kissing babies. Talking for what felt like 20 minutes. Being treated like a religious figure by all the fighters. I guess that’s what you get for literally inventing the promotion and its rule set. And of course they sold “I am proud to be with Caesar” shirts and I’m really bummed out I didn’t buy one.
Shishido’s retirement fight was a real nail-biter that brought the crowd to an absolute frenzy. He started out well, but started to fade against a more physically imposing opponent. You could sense that he needed to pull off something big to get the win. When he went for a standing guillotine – mind you, the first submission attempt of the entire night – the roof nearly blew off the building. But then he ended up losing, which is probably appropriate given his career arc. It was bittersweet. What followed was the typical 30 minute Japanese retirement ceremony featuring about 500 buquets of flowers, dozens of officials paying their respects, and so on. I had never even heard of the dude before, but being there, it felt like your best friend just ended his career and you couldn’t help but get emotional. You would have figured that the emotional highlight was reached when he was welcomed into retirement by his own kids, but of course Shootboxing saved the best for last: Caesar Takeshi had to come in one more time and cut yet another promo. Oh Caesar.
Tokyo Love VI (March 4th):
I’m not even gonna try to explain the weirdness of NOSAWA and this promotion in general. Just…it’s weird. The pairings for this card just seemed completely whacky and absurd in the best possible way, so I was really looking forward to it. And it ended up being a ton of fun. I got to see Daisuke Ikeda, Kazunari Murakami, and Yoshiaki Fujiwara live (who still looks like the most frightening dude in the world at age 67), which I never would have imagined in a million years. Kikutaro is probably the best comedy wrestler of all time, so seeing him live was an absolute treat. Even better, seeing him do his impeccable Stan Hansen impression.
The weirdest part was definitely an 8 men tag featuring NOSAWA’s group of outcasts versus Team Dory Funk Jr (including Fujiwara). It’s hard to explain how big of a deal Funk is, or more accurately was. Dory Funk Jr. was basically the heavyweight champion of the world for multiple years until he lost the belt in 1973. No, that’s not a typo. Nineteen seventy three. He is seventy-five years old today. And I saw him wrestle. That really is one of the most bizarre things that I have ever witnessed. On top of all that, the main event between Masaaki Mochizuki and Minoru Tanaka was a real treat.
Furthermore, we were all welcomed with a handshake and a gift basket by NOSAWA and hung out with Kikutaro. Fantastic. And apologies to Kiku in the name of Germany for your poor experiences with the Autobahn.
NOAH (March 5th):
I really had to be convinced to even attend this show. NOAH was my favorite promotion for a bit, but I pretty much gave up on following it (and then wrestling in general soon afterwards) in…08? 09? because it just got way too depressing. And from everything that I had heard, it only got worse from there. Aging talent with not much in the way of upcoming talents, dead crowds, fully driving the remains of the King’s Road style into the ground, and so on. There’s not much to be optimistic about with NOAH it seems, and there has not been for years. So yeah, I fully expected to be royally bummed out by this show. But it was super fun! I don’t know if I just got lucky, or if it’s just that much better live, but it was really really great.
Honestly, it would have been worth it just for finally seeing Minoru Suzuki live anyway. It’s hard to explain what a multi-sport legend this guy is, so I’m not even gonna try. Experiencing Kaze Ni Nare and his facial expressions and supreme dickishness live was just fantastic. And when I saw him standing at the merch table, of course I had to approach him. And that interaction played out in the most Minoru Suzuki way imaginable. He first dissed my beloved Akira Taue shirt, then made me buy his shirt for a ridiculously overpriced sum. Fair enough.
The show was a ton of fun in general too with a surprisingly entertaining and heated undercard and a fantastic junior tag title match on top. Yay!
Sendai Girls (March 8th):
Time for some Joshi! I did not know a single person on the card except for the two ladies in the main event, and those two names alone were enough to make this the most hyped show of the entire trip. Aja Kong is definitely in my all-time top 15 favorites list, and Meiko Satomura is a legend in her own right. These two had a fantastic feud in the early 2000s that was reinvigorated for one night, and those two really were able to turn back the time and deliver an absolute classic.
The undercard was really fun too. It featured a ghost lady, some fun action, a wild weapon’s brawl featuring a giant club, and some other fun stuff. I was especially fond of rookie Chichiro Hashimoto. Keep an eye out on her, she’s going places.
And then there was Aja motherfucking Kong. To quote her own bad-ass entrance song (notice a trend here?): ‘God made the devil just for fun. But when he wanted the real thing, he made Aja Kong.’ That about sums it up. Imagine Godzilla or a video game boss come to life with the sole intention of proving that rasslin’ isn’t fake after all by trying her darndest to kill her poor opponents. And also she’s an amazing wrestler that somehow has not aged in the last 20 years and channeled her mid 90’s career high, if only for one night. And I saw her live! I still cannot fully comprehend this.
Going in, I knew this would be good, maybe even very good. But I was completely unprepared for how fantastic it would be. Stiff as hell, crowd brawling right in front of us, incredibly tense action and a perfect ending. You really cannot ask for any more than that. One of the most amazing matches I’ve ever had the privilege to see live. Take a look for yourself. That was the last match I saw on this trip, and I could not have asked for a more perfect conclusion.
Shops and assorted other items:
I’ve already talked about the magical Budokan hall. Of course, going to Tokyo Dome was high on the agenda as well. Didn’t get to explore it as much as I would have liked, but it was a surreal sight regardless.
There are also a bunch of shops nearby. The NJPW shop is tiny but it’s definitely a cool experience to see the signatures of a bunch of dudes you’ve been watching for 8+ years in Germany on the walls (hi Walter).
Notice the collection of important historic wrestlers like Maeda, Chono, Dory Funk Jr…and Majin Boo.
I was really afraid that Toudoukan would completely ruin me, and it nearly did. I went three times, but showed superhuman restraint and only spent about 50 bucks. It’s a shop that feels like it has every single piece of merchandise that has ever been produced in the wild world of Japanese wrestling, kickpunching, and assorted other forms of fighting. Event programmes? Magazines from the 80s and onward? Figurines? Hundreds of shirts? VHS tapes? Toudoukan has you covered. I spent ages just browsing, losing my mind over obscure merchandise and taking tons of pictures, and could have spent hours more there. I was pretty tempted to buy a poster of the nutty Peace Festival Antonio Inoki ran in North Korea of all places, but in the end my sanity prevailed.
Ribera’s steak house was also a great visit even though everybody probably thought I was crazy for ordering a salad (‘…that’s it?!’). Definitely a cool if tiny place with hundreds of pictures all over the walls.
Speaking of food: I also had some ramen…dangerous ramen. So yeah, Toshiaki Kawada cooked me dinner. NO BIG DEAL, YOU GUYS.
That was about as surreal an experience as I can imagine, complete with me ordering the wrong item, sitting around awkwardly, and asking for a picture even more awkwardly. I tried to limit the weirdness and fanboy-ing to the absolute minimum, as Kawada really does not seem like the kind of guy that would be into this thing. I’ll never forget his confused look when I asked for the picture. He just looked at me, then pointed at himself with a bewildered look. This weird Westerner wants to take a picture….with me? Priceless.
I also staked out Hideo Tokoro’s gym, because of course I did. He wasn’t there, and I didn’t want to be too creppy and stalk around or whatever, so I just took a picture and was back on my way. After all, he had to prepare for his big …whatever that was at RIZIN.1.
All in all, this was definitely the trip of a lifetime. Mostly because of all of the awesome people I met along the way. It’s been a blast hanging out with you, and I hope we run into each other again at some point. Big thanks to Alan, Sarah, Alice, Joey, Matt, John, Shio, Ai, Dean, jae, Jamie, and everybody else I may have forgotten (sorry!!).
Farewell, Tokyo. It’s been an absolute blast. We shall meet again.