"Death of a Hero"
by Gavin Marshall

Wrestling Revue, April 1964

    There was a damp chill in the December air as the mourners murmuring in hushed tones of reverence and disbelief, clustered forlornly in the compound of Tokyo's Ikegami Honmonji Temple. Wreaths in such profusion as to suggest a state funeral lined the compound walls. Fashioned like giant flowers and mounted on stilts, the puffs of color contrasted brilliantly with the gray sky. All through the long afternoon the mourners came. They filed in by the thousands, crowding the pagoda-like temple and then moving restlessly around the compound, looking solemn and stunned and lost. They had come to honor a man they regarded even more highly than the storied samurai warriors of old-a man whose very name, Rikidōzan (meaning "rugged mountain road"), attested to his towering strength. It was a mighty tribute to Rikidōzan, who almost single-handedly had fathered and nurtured modern wrestling in Japan. But the homage was even more impressive in view of his background.

    Though born in Nagasaki in Kyushu, Rikidōzan was of Korean descent. And in Japan, Koreans are usually objects of contempt, often discriminated against. Rikidōzan fought hard to overcome this stigma. In the process he developed a trigger-like temper, rebelled constantly, against authority. "Nobody tells me what to do," he used to boast. In later years, after he had become a millionaire through extensive business interests, he contributed lavishly to charities. Yet he continued to thrive on violence both in and out of the ring. Characteristically, he met death in the same way-in the chrome-striped restroom of a plush Tokyo night club-when he defiantly refused to knuckle under to a knife-wielding gangster. It was an ignominious end for a national hero who had battled to success from an impoverished childhood. Riki, who was given the Japanese name of Mitsuhiro Momota (literally, "Bright Child of the Hundred Ricefields"), never dwelled on his early years. But he was known to have been a sullen, bad-tempered youth who, shunned by his prejudiced schoolmates and deserted by his parents, left home at the age of 13 and journeyed 800 miles to Tokyo.

    Seeking a living-and an outlet for his repressed hostilities-he enrolled in a sumo training gymnasium and after three years of incredibly arduous training was ready for his first match. All the bitterness erupted out of him as he tackled his opponent. Riki now weighed 300 pounds, with the big, blubbery but tough-as-steel belly characteristic of sumo wrestlers. Despite his weight, blown up from downing 18 rice bowls and four cases of beer at a single sitting, he was as fast and agile as a cat. He could run the hundred yards in 11 seconds flat and was so superbly trained that he could write a letter by holding a pen between his powerful toes. Riki pounded his foe savagely. with every blow, every kick, he avenged the hardships he had suffered in the gymnasium-getting up at 2 A.M. to work outside in the freezing cold...smoldering at a thousand humiliations...absorbing insults and beatings from advanced classmates... Well, things were going to be different from now on, he vowed, as the fans hailed his victory. With dynamic drive, he battled his way up in the sumo ranks. At 23, he made the sekiwake grade and was on the verge of entering the ozeki domain which would put him in line for the grand championship. Then he destroyed a brilliant future by quarreling with a gymnasium official over a technical decision. In a rage, he quit sumo forever.

    Out of a job and missing the adulation of the fans, Riki was at a loss in the big metropolis. But not for long. Tokyo was starting to boom-it was during the MacArthur occupation-and he easily found work as a construction laborer. Swallowing his disappointment, he worked for a year. In his spare time, he continued to train hard, concentrating on karate, the deadly art of open-handed fighting that later became his trademark. Then, with a small nestegg, he rented a hall for wrestling exhibitions. In no time he built up a rabid following. As his fame spread, he accepted an offer from promoter Al Karasick in Honolulu. Riki was a sensation there. He followed with other triumphal tours, capturing a fistful of titles all over the world, beating Haystacks Calhoun, Fred Blassie and even the great Lou Thesz. He was now down to 250 pounds. A siege of illness had melted off 50 pounds and Riki decided to stay that weight after he saw what happened to Tamanishiki, a prominent sumo wrestler. Tamanishiki, a 400-pounder, joined his honorable ancestors when doctors were unable to cut through the mountain of blubber during a stomach operation. Except for Thesz, Riki had nothing but contempt for American grapplers. He sneered at their hippodrome showmanship, called them soft compared with the Japanese. He called Blassie the "dirtiest wrestler" he had ever met. In the boxing and wrestling stables that formed part of his vast business empire which also included hotels, night clubs, golf courses and apartment houses, Riki was a hard taskmaster, demanding the utmost from his men and whipping them with a bamboo stick when they failed to measure up to his stringent standards.

    By December of 1963, Riki had successfully defended his "International Title" 19 times. A few days before his death, he had told reporters: I am going to the United States again in a few weeks to wrestle Lou Thesz. I hope to bring the world title to Japan. Then, on the night of December 8, tragedy struck. Riki, whose business interests brought him into contact with one of the numerous gangs which dominate Tokyo's night life, was in the restroom of the New Latin Quarter when a gangster approached him. The gangster reportedly warned Riki to "stay out of this territory." Riki, who never took any lip from anybody, told him to go to hell. The tussled. A switchblade flashed,,. And Riki collapse, spilling blood. Rushed to the hospital, Riki was told the wound was minor and would soon heal. But a week later, after bleeding copiously, he died of peritonitis at the age of 39.

    Thousands streamed in from all parts of Japan to attend his funeral on December 20. Heading the mourners were his second wife, Keiko, and his two sons from a former marriage. Keiko said Riki had planned to retire so he could be with his family. Ironically, he kept delaying the move because he couldn't find a successor he deemed worth enough to take his place.

End of article


Wrestling Revue
Official Wrestling Ratings for April 1964:

Male:
  1. Lou Thesz
  2. Bruno Sammartino
  3. Verne Gagne
  4. Fritz Von Erich
  5. Eddie Graham
  6. Ed Carpentier
  7. Gene Kiniski
  8. Dan Hodge
  9. Wilbur Snyder
  10. Bearcat Wright
Female:
  1. June Byers
  2. Fabulous Moolah
  3. Judy Grable
  4. Penny Banner
  5. Kay Noble
  6. Jessica Rogers
  7. Anne Casey
  8. Karen Kellog
  9. Fran Gravette
  10. Verne Bottoms
Tag Teams:
  1. Pepper Gomez and Jose Lothario
  2. Art and Stan Neilson
  3. Killer Kowalski and Gorilla Monsoon
  4. Mitsu Arakawa and Kinji Shibuya
  5. Bobo Brazil and Dory Dixon
  6. The Kangaroos
  7. The Von Brauners
  8. The Medics
  9. The Daltons
  10. The Scufflin' Hillbillies
Article provided by Mike Rogers.


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