Masahiko Kimura is probably the most skilled fighter in the world. Masahiko Kimura is also a pro wrestler. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
Rikidōzan knows all about Kimura. A black belt in jūdō before his teens, multiple-time All-Japan Champion, unbeaten in the sport for nearly two decades. Equally adept against jūdōkas, boxers, Greco-Roman wrestlers and just about any martial arts style you could care to name. Three years previously he had travelled to São Paulo to fight Hélio Gracie, the undefeated jiu-jitsu champion. Twenty thousand Brazilians, including the President, filled the stadium, pelting the challenger with eggs as he made his way to the ring. A coffin, provided by Gracie for Kimura’s benefit, laid at the side of the mat. Kimura broke the champion’s arm in two places.
His submissions are feared across the globe. One hold, the gyaku ude-garami, has destroyed hundreds of strong men, including Gracie. The right hand grabs the opponent’s wrist, the left arm snakes behind their radius, and their arm is bent behind their back. The opponent either submits, or their arm breaks. Their shoulder and elbow are wrecked too, if they’re particularly unlucky or foolhardy. Nowadays this technique is simply known as a ‘Kimura’. So adept is he at inflicting pain, that Kimura has become his submission, his submission has become Kimura.
Of course, none of this bothers Rikidōzan. Why would it? Kimura isn’t here to break arms, to break people. Kimura is here tonight to put on a show. He is being paid very handsomely. Kimura is aware of his fame and its worth. This attitude has made him enemies. The desiccated grandees at the Kōdōkan have requested that he return the flag with which he was presented as national jūdō champion. They wrote him a terse letter explaining that his rank was being frozen at seventh dan black belt, due to “conduct unbecoming of the sport”. They wrote him a second letter revoking his right to award belts of his own. Kimura understands. The stringent honour code of the amateurs. To accept money as recompense for one’s skill is grubby. But Kimura has a son to put through school and a wife suffering from tuberculosis. He wonders if the faceless men of the Kōdōkan have had to look as their loved ones suffer for want of food, heat or medicine. If they watched them wither and die, sacrifices on the altar of pride. The amateur ideal could go rot. Honour couldn’t feed his family or keep his wife, chest rattling, from coughing up blood. And his ostracism from the world of jūdō didn’t mean he wasn’t still the best. All the honourable men in Japan couldn’t beat Masahiko Kimura.
The last time Kimura visited the Kōdōkan these explanations had fallen on deaf ears. Kimura had waited patiently at the side of the dōjō while Risei Kanō, toad-faced and wearing circular glasses absurd on a man so skilled in hand-to-hand combat, put a group of teenagers through their paces. Kanō, relatively new to the post of Kōdōkan leader, was part of the establishment. His father Jigorō had invented jūdō. Kanō saw it as his duty to preserve the good name of the sport, and thus to preserve the good name of his father. This meant zero tolerance for such affronts as professionalism, for such affronts as Kimura.
After the students had wiped the sweat from the mat and returned to their homes, the two men knelt opposite each other. From the moment he opened his mouth Kimura regretted coming. Every attempt to justify his actions was met with a disdainful shake of the head or a patronising sigh. Kanō spoke curtly and in clipped tones, only looking Kimura in the eye when necessary. Receiving money for jūdō fights and exhibitions was unacceptable. Continuing to claim the title of national champion was unacceptable. But Kanō reserved particular ire for wrestling. If being a professional made Kimura a disgrace, this went double for working as a professional wrestler. Wrestling, explained Kanō, was an abomination. At best it was an attempt to con the Japanese public, at worst it was a slap in the face of every jūdōka in the land. The winner of a fight should be determined by strength, determination and inner balance, not by who pleases the crowd or who will make more money for the bookmakers. Kimura was prostituting his skill, and that the Kōdōkan could not forgive.
Kimura rose to his feet and bowed almost imperceptibly, before turning and beginning to walk out of the dōjō. “Eventually this wrestling will do you harm, mark my words,” called Kanō after him. Kimura, seething, paid no heed.
Risei Kanō was right.
The bout will take place ten days before New Year. The winner will be declared Japanese Heavyweight Wrestling Champion. Speculation as to the outcome is feverish. The brief history of wrestling in Japan has so far been an echo of the war. Rikidōzan has gained fame and fortune fighting Americans and exacting a measure of revenge for the defeated nation, as has Kimura, to a lesser extent. In the first wrestling match ever televised in Japan the pair teamed up against the conniving Sharpe Brothers, an event which decades later will form part of every History syllabus in the nation’s education system. Among the growing ranks of wrestling aficionados in the country’s bars, cafés and schoolyards, the question of who is the strongest competitor among the Japanese wrestlers has remained unanswered. Until now.
The first wrestling match between two top Japanese stars is to be merely the start of a much larger tour. An amiable Rikidōzan tells Kimura that he intends to wrestle him all across Tōkyō, all across Japan, and eventually all over the world. This is music to Kimura’s ears. If he is to be a disgrace to jūdō he may as well be a well-paid disgrace.
Rikidōzan and his representatives meet with Kimura’s crew weeks before the match to flesh out a deal. Rikidōzan cannot help but be a little nervous. Kimura may be a dangerous fighter but, judging by the men in his entourage, whose tattoos can sometimes be glimpsed between the buttons of their expensive-looking shirts, he associates with people who are even more dangerous. Kimura hurts with his bare hands. These men have other means.
The men make Kimura uncomfortable too. But he suffers their presence. When his wife asks who they are he always refers to them as his sponsors. She understands and says no more. Her lungs are slowly healing and the men have been very generous to the family. Their son is always sent to bed when they visit the house.
The contract talks are amicable. Kimura is offered thirty per cent of the money due to the two wrestlers and accepts without hesitation. The first match will end in a draw when the one-hour time limit expires. The winners of any subsequent bouts will be decided by the toss of a coin. Kimura is flattered. Rikidōzan has never agreed to lose in Japan before. Clearly he sees the value in an extended series of matches. Fans will spend hours debating who is the strongest, the action of each fight adding more fuel to their arguments. “Kimura will get him next time!” “He submitted to the gyaku ude-garami in Ōsaka, he’ll do so again!” “No way, man; how can Kimura withstand those chops? You saw what Rikidōzan did to the Americans!” “Kimura’s no American, he’s a brave fighter!” And so on.
Tens of thousands trudge through the Tōkyō snow, huddled in their overcoats, forging a path of greying slush to the doors of the arena. Some have paid as much as twenty thousand yen for tickets on the black market. The chill in the air seems to dissipate as the chatter builds and the masses speculate. The consensus is that the fight will be exciting and that while the fans admire Kimura, the majority expect Rikidōzan to emerge triumphant. The fact that Kimura hasn’t been defeated in jūdō since Shōwa 10 barely registers. Firstly, those who fancy themselves as experts pontificate, wrestling is a completely different sport. The rules will favour the skilled wrestler over the champion jūdōka. Secondly, this is Rikidōzan. How could he possibly lose?
Kimura is out first, wearing a silk robe, grinning. His wife is well enough to be out in public for the first time in months and has brought their son along to see him perform. When Kimura started wrestling she explained to the boy that Daddy wasn’t really getting hurt out there, that it was all an act. He seemed crestfallen at first, then relieved. Kimura waves at him, and he waves back, eyes shining.
Rikidōzan follows, flanked by acolytes in JWA shirts. They hold the ropes open as he steps onto the canvas. The crowd roars for him, as it will continue to do in the years ahead. Rikidōzan knows that in a real fight on a level playing field Kimura would win easily. Rikidōzan fought some tough men in his days as a sumō, but Kimura is a different proposition – not simply a strong, fast physical specimen, but a complete fighter. But this is professional wrestling. This is Rikidōzan’s world. All he needs to do to win a match if he so desires is to will it, and it shall be done. And despite the contract the two men signed agreeing a draw, he is going to win tonight. For this is a real fight. Kimura just doesn’t know it yet.
The two men grapple to begin the match. The initial pace is slow; after all, they need to keep the action up for an hour. The plan is to leave the fast and furious wrestling for the latter stages. Kimura suspects that he could keep up a frenetic speed for the full sixty minutes, but equally suspects that Rikidōzan cannot. Kimura strikes the opening blow with a jūdō toss, hoping that somewhere out there Risei Kanō’s stomach is turning. Rikidōzan gets back up, and soon drags Kimura to the ground, clamping the jūdōka’s neck between his thick thighs.
Already some in the crowd believe Kimura to be done for. The newspapers have been full of articles lauding Rikidōzan’s size and strength advantage. Kimura’s detractors have pointed out that he outweighed Hélio Gracie by eighty pounds, an observation for which Kimura is known not to thank people. Let’s see how he likes facing a bigger man, they crow. These detractors become more gleeful when, after Kimura somehow manages to escape the hold, Rikidōzan picks him up like a ragdoll and slams him to the mat. Rikidōzan then hoists Kimura up over his shoulders and places him on the other side of the ropes as he would a child. The crowd bays, firmly behind their hero, deriding the smaller competitor’s weakness.
Upon returning to the ring Kimura retaliates by attempting to get Rikidōzan into the submission hold that now bears his name. Rikidōzan escapes easily and slams Kimura again. Kimura attempts another jūdō toss, which is met by a swift movement from Rikidōzan’s upper arm. Kimura flinches, but the expected strike does not arrive. Rikidōzan chuckles to himself. Only teasing. The crowd laughs, and becomes giddy with anticipation. Even at this early stage in his career Rikidōzan’s harites are renowned. The audience knows that it will see plenty of them before the night is done.
Kimura decides that now is the time to begin his fightback. Rikidōzan has dominated the early going, so it is time to turn the tables. Kimura is relatively new to wrestling, but knows how to tell a story in the ring. The more times the advantage passes from man to man, the more heightened the excitement becomes. Ideally, by the time the hour is up, the crowd will be drained of every last drop of energy. Kimura wants to get paid, but he also wants to put on the best show possible. The result may be predetermined, but there is honour in the performance.
Kimura aims a kick at Rikidōzan’s burly midsection and accidentally catches him in the groin. Normally this would be grounds for disqualification, but the match is not meant to end that way and so the referee waves off the infraction. What follows is attributed by many to be the result of that errant kick. In truth, Rikidōzan feels little pain. He is wearing protection, and when he was a sumō his stablemaster was not averse to doling out kicks to the lower regions as punishment for indiscipline. Rikidōzan has experienced many such punishments. When Kimura catches him low he is not sent into a rage, but is calm and collected. Kimura’s fate had been sealed the moment he signed that contract.
Rikidōzan finally unleashes his famous harites, striking Kimura again and again. Kimura slumps against the ropes, and Rikidōzan kicks him twice in the face with all of his force, making two dull thuds. He pulls Kimura into the centre of the ring and stomps on his head. Kimura backs into the corner, confused and angered. He has experienced such violence in real fights, but never before in wrestling. It was meant to be a show. It was physically gruelling and tough on the body, but serious harm was never a risk. And yet here it was. If it had been anyone else assaulting him, Kimura would have fought back. Hélio Gracie would have hit the deck faster than you could blink. But this was Rikidōzan. Imagine the headlines if he roughed up a national hero. And besides, this was surely a mistake. They had an agreement. Didn’t they?
Rikidōzan moves in for the kill. The crowd roars its approval. Another harite is followed by a clubbing blow to the back of Kimura’s head. A final harite hits Kimura in the neck, square in an artery. Kimura drops like a felled oak. He tries to get to his feet but is unable. The referee counts to ten. The bell sounds. The bout was scheduled to go sixty minutes. It has lasted less than fifteen.
Kimura struggles to his feet, dazed. Rikidōzan walks over and shakes his hand as the two men are quickly surrounded by officials and photographers. The victor, beaming, waves to the rapturous thousands. Kimura, through slightly blurred vision, can just about make out his wife and son. Both seem unconcerned. They know it isn’t real.
The recriminations start as soon as the two men return backstage. Fingers are pointed, oaths exchanged, weapons thankfully remain sheathed. One of Kimura’s representatives brandishes the contract at Rikidōzan, shouting that his client had agreed that the match would be a draw, and that there would now be no further bouts between the two. Rikidōzan is privately terrified of Kimura’s people, but outwardly unflustered. Taking deep breaths, he reminds himself of the greater good. Yes, he has just flushed millions of yen down the drain in the short term. But the legend of Rikidōzan is worth much more in the long run. He is already a national icon for his battles with the Americans, but this win will really put him and the JWA on the map. He is now not just Japan’s talisman, but has the reputation of an all-time great fighter. He has just done what nobody in jūdō could, succeeded where even Hélio Gracie failed. He has defeated the unbeatable Masahiko Kimura. He envisions children ripping up their jūdō club membership cards and resolving to apply to the JWA as soon as their parents let them. He almost salivates at the prospect of increasing crowds and greater fame, his renown and adulation spreading from Kyūshū to Hokkaidō like the cherry blossom in spring. Let Kimura rage. This was a cut-throat world.
It is the small hours of the morning. Kimura and his sponsors are drinking in a dingy Akasaka bar. Kimura has not spoken a word since the fight ended, except to wish his family a safe journey home. The looks of pride on their faces had almost made him cry out. His more moderate associates are suggesting he sue Rikidōzan and the JWA for breach of contract. The others advocate a greater punishment. Kimura decides against the first course of action. He plans to continue wrestling in the future, and ripping apart the edifice of the sport’s legitimacy in a lengthy court battle will not do him any favours, nor his family. He knows he will now never see the riches Rikidōzan promised, but he will have to do what he can in the business. He doubts they will ever let him back in the Kōdōkan after this. As for the other idea, Kimura tells his sponsors he wants some time to think. Rikidōzan stole his future, his wife’s future, his son’s future, all in the name of his own glory. If revenge is to be served, it will all happen in good time. Life is long.