The Top Fifty Japanese Wrestlers Of All Time (PART II)
The land of the rising sun has always been synonymous with great professional wrestling action. The country of Japan has undoubtedly produced some of the best athletes and entertainers the sport has ever seen. So, listing such a talented group of individuals in a numerical way really isn’t fair, as almost all fifty of the Japanese stars you’ll find within could be interchanged with one another (depending on who you ask). I approached putting this list together with almost every facet of each person’s accomplishments, transcendence power, character, skills, talents, cultural status, and over-all popularity in mind. So, without further ado, here’s the second half of a ranked list of the fifty greatest Japanese wrestlers of all time!
Just as a reader’s note, If you have yet to read my previous article containing the first half of this list, please refer to this link before continuing: https://wrestlingrecaps.com/2016/10/26/the-top-fifty-japanese-wrestlers-of-all-time-part-i/
Now, with that out of the way, onto the next batch of Japanese legends!
#24 / JINSEI SHINZAKI
As one of the most recognizable faces of Japanese wrestling in the nineteen nineties, Jinsei Shinzaki became a household name in Puroresu style after wrestling for almost every notable promotion and making waves in each. Shinzaki was originally trained in Lucha Libre, but quickly debuted for Michinoku Pro Wrestling as a stark contrast to what the company’s crowds were used to. Jinsei Shinzaki would develop a very slow and calculated style which he partnered with a unique look and after only two professional years, Shinzaki landed himself a deal with the WWF. For two years, Shinzaki would work with the likes of Bret Hart, Owen Hart, 1-2-3 Kid, and Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw, under the fresh and mysterious character ‘Hakushi’. Following his famed run in the WWF, Shinzaki bounced between New Japan Pro Wrestling, All Japan Pro Wrestling, Michinoku Pro, Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling, and even a brief appearance for Extreme Championship Wrestling all the while having great and memorable matches with some of Japan’s and America’s best talents. Although, becoming wise to the fact that his best matches were behind him and that his friend and then company president had to step away from the company, Jinsei settled with the company that made him, Michinoku Pro and became the company’s president by 2003 (a position he still holds today). Over the course of Shinzaki’s career, he has become one of the most well-versed, well-respected, and well-skilled wrestlers of his generation. He made memorable moments for every promotion he worked for, co-founded a Joshi promotion, became president of one of the most successful Puroresu companies of all time, and had one of the most badass movesets of all time. For all that and more, Jinsei Shinzaki is listed as number twenty-four on my list.
#23 / JAGUAR YOKOTA
In the early nineteen eighties, Jaguar Yokota was easily considered one of the greatest wrestlers in the world, irrespective of gender. After debuting at only fifteen years old in 1977, fans of All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling knew Yokota would become something special. Just three years later, she would become AJW Junior Champion and begin blazing a trail for many women around the world who aspired to be a great wrestling champion. One of her greatest claims to fame would come in early 1981 when, at the still very young age of nineteen, she captured the WWWA World Heavyweight Championship from the women who originally inspired her, Jackie Sato. Yokota continued to have solid and later legendary feuds with Devil Masami, Lioness Asuka, and several others. After an early retirement at twenty-four years old (which she would later on come out of for sporadic appearances), she became responsible for training future Joshi legends Manami Toyota, Toshiyo Yamada, Megumi Kudo, Kyoko Inoue, and Takako Inoue. In the mid to late nineties should also go on to form her own promotion to a warm reception, had a family of her own, and retired from wrestling once again. He last stint occurred in 2004, for the HUSTLE promotion. For her far reach in wrestling, becoming one of the greatest wrestlers in the world at a very young age, training several future Joshi Puroresu legends, several championship accomplishments, innovation of such moves as the Suplex Powerslam and Kneeling Spike Double-Underhook Powerbomb, formation of her own successful promotion, and overall business staying power, Jaguar Yokota blazes in at number twenty-three.
#22 / THE GREAT SASUKE
If this guy isn’t on your list of greatest Japanese wrestlers of all time, my respect drops greatly for you. Sasuke is Puroresu in every sense of the the spirit, and is a wrestler that I feel is greatly under appreciated. He is solely responsible for owning and founding Michinoku Pro Wrestling, the first Puroresu company not to be based in the Tokyo area! Originally working in Mexico, Sasuke would quickly return to Japan to form Michinoku Pro and begin setting one of the greatest examples for a wrestling career any Japanese (or otherwise, for that matter) ‘cruiserweight’ wrestler could ever dream of. Sasuke would climb up the ranks of the world as a sensational performer, so much so that he’d broker a deal with the WWF which allowed Michinoku Pro stars appear on WWF programming. Between making deals with a billion dollar company and running a growing one on his own, Sasuke was having some of the greatest matches people around the world had ever seen. In fact, his work led him to being the first ever J-Crown champion, which was a distinction that unified eight of the most prestigious world junior heavyweight and cruiserweight championship into one honor! Talk about leaving a legacy! Not to mention Saskue became one of the most influential Puroresu stars of all time, regardless of weight class. He could do it all, mat-based wrestling, high-flying, American style, and even was a staple of the deathmatch genre. After competing in several notable promotions across Mexico, Japan, and America, Sasuke shifted his focus and really proved his reach with the people of Japan after he was elected as a legislator for the Iwate Prefectural Assembly for four years beginning in 2003. Not too shabby for some little masked wrestler! Sasuke is known the world over in the professional wrestling world and you will still hear his name dropped by someone in the business every now and again. Not to mention, the guy still hasn’t fully retired from the sport. Mind you, among other injuries, Sasuke has sported a cracked skull on two separate occasions. After competing in a handful of internationally ranked five-star matches, starting one of the most famous Japan-based wrestling promotions of all time, having a championship accomplishments list a mile long, innovating such moves as the Michinoku Driver and Senton Atomico (that’s right, Jeff Hardy can thank Sasuke for the Swanton Bomb), wrestling for top promotions around the world, and being one of the most well-known masked wrestlers of all time, The Great Sasuke easy earns his place on my list of greats.
#21 / ULTIMO DRAGON
That’s right, the man who currently holds the record for most active championships held at one time, Ultimo Dragon. No, you didn’t read that wrong. In late 1996, Ultimo Dragon held the J-Crown Championship (eight different world junior and cruiserweight titles), the NWA World Middleweight Championship, and the WCW World Cruiserweight Championship at once making him the most decorated wrestler in modern recorded history… And that’s just one reason he’s this high on the list! Another reason Ultimo Dragon finds himself at number twenty-one, is unlike many of the other stars mentioned thus far, Ultimo Dragon didn’t just make a few tours across several international borders he stayed in countries and became a star from the bottom up. Originally training in the New Japan Dojo, Dragon found himself in desperate need of finding his own true style, so he’d move to Mexico in the late eighties. In Mexico, Ultimo Dragon would become one of the famous Luchadors in the world. Signing with and wrestling for several major Mexican promotions, including both Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre and Asistencia Asesoría y Administración, Ultimo Dragon would see mainstream success and win several championships. Dragon would move back to Japan by the mid-nineties, where he would work for the Japanese based promotions of WAR and New Japan Pro Wrestling and have some of the greatest matches of his career. Then, America would come calling for the first time, in the form of World Championship Wrestling. Ultimo Dragon would become an overnight sensation in America as he dazzled American crowds across the country as part of a cruiserweight revolution in WCW, having legendary battles with stars like Chris Jericho, Dean Malenko, Eddie Guerrero, Juventud Guerrera, and Rey Mysterio Jr. Following his success in America, Dragon once again shifted his focus to his homeland, where he joined the Toryumon promotion (which would later become Dragon Gate) and trained several future stars like Don Fuji, Dragon Kid, Magnum TOKYO, CIMA, and SUWA (even getting them shots in WCW). Finally, Ultimo Dragon would further cement his legacy in the United States when he’d move there and sign a large contract with the WWE in 2003. With WWE, he’d wrestle in Madison Square Garden and at Wrestlemania, realizing two of his life-long dreams. Over the course of his career, Dragon wrestle heavily in Canada, America, Japan, Mexico, and Spain. He is the innovator of the Asai Moonsault, Asai DDT, and multiple arm drag, Hurricanrana, and strike variations. Ultimo Dragon is a modern living legend who continues to inspire wrestlers across the globe and perform for crowds today.
#20 / NOBUHIJO TAKADA
Over the course of a near thirty year career, Nobuhijo Takada became known as one of the first well-polished, well-respected mixed martial artist and crossover professional wrestling stars. Originally training in the New Japan Pro Wrestling dojo, Takada would quickly move on to pro events for the company. He’d go on an excursion to Canada and help establish the ranks of the WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship scene alongside stars like Bret Hart, Dynamite Kid, and Davey Boy Smith. He would cross paths with several companies, even founded the HUSTLE promotion and became an executive for PRIDE Fighting Championships. Takada would retire a one-time IWGP Heavyweight, Junior Heavyweight, and Tag Team champion. He helped establish and put PRIDE on the map, became a spokesperson for Rizin Fighting Federation, and established the Takada Dojo where he helped train such fighters as Kazushi Sakuraba! A champion, trainer, and Hall of Famer is Nobuhijo Takada.
#19 / AKIRA TAUE
Far before his retired days as an advisor for Pro Wrestling NOAH today, Akira Taue was winning the All Japan Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship, Global Honor Crown Heavyweight Championship, and having fourteen five-star matches awarded by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter! Taue niched in tag team competition later in his career, but became a well-rounded, skilled hand for All Japan before that a few short years following his debut in 1988. By 1990, Taue was one of All Japan’s top stars, teaming and winning gold with the likes of Jumbo Tsuruta and Toshiaki Kawada. Throughout the nineties, he and Kawada, as The Holy Demon Army, would capture the World Tag Team Championship six times before Taue would leave AJPW with Misawa and several other to form Pro Wrestling NOAH. In NOAH, Taue would still tag, but would further establish himself as a great singles wrestler after winning the GHC Heavyweight Championship in 2006. In 2009, following the death of Mitsuharu Misawa, Akira Taue would be chosen to serve as Pro Wrestling NOAH’s new president. To further focus on his newly appointed role, Taue would formally retire from the ring in 2013. In 2016, Taue would no longer be the president of the company, as NOAH would be sold to a parent company. After winning just about all there was to win in All Japan and helping a budding promotion flourish, Taue ended his career as a one-time All Asia Tag Team Champion, one-time Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion, seven-time World Tag Team Champion, two-time World’s Strongest Tag Determination League winner, a one-time Champion Carnival winner, and a one-time GHC Heavyweight Champion… Need I continue?
#18 / CHIGUSA NAGAYO
Rising to mainstream popularity during the nineteen eighties as one half of The Crush Gals, Chigusa Nagayo has been called one of the most popular female wrestlers of all-time. For All-Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling, she had four runs as the WWWA World Tag Team Champions and was in a real sense a pop culture icon. Nagayo also made a brief appearance for World Championship Wrestling in the United States, as well as formed her own promotion, GAEA Women’s Professional Wrestling. With GAEA, she would further inspire a generation of female wrestlers, giving them a platform to showcase their talents to a vast audience. She earned herself multiple title reigns with each company she called her own and was inducted into the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame class of 1997! In light of the insurgence the current-day female wrestling scene, to not know Nagayo’s name and the legacy she left behind would be a great tragedy.
#17 / SHINYA HASHIMOTO
In the late eighties and early nineties, New Japan Pro Wrestling showcase three heavyweight talents that the company and fans heralded as the best in the wrestling world. Shinya Hashimoto was one of those men. Know for his stiff kicks and particularly violent fighting style, Hashimoto was a feared as equally as he was decorated. He, much like Satoshi Kojima who I highlighted further down this list, is one of three men to ever hold the NWA’s World Heavyweight Championship, New Japan’s IWGP Heavyweight Championship, and All Japan’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Not only that, but his IWGP Championship reign is the third longest of all-time! By the mid-nineties, Hashimoto was the measuring stick for New Japan. He was both IWGP Heavyweight and Tag Champion and riding a career high for a very profitable time for the company. He would top off his New Japan career with a famed G1 Climax win in 1998 before moving on to establish Zero-1 with fellow NJPW star, Shinjiro Otani. Zero-1 would flourish as a large-brand independent promotion, with Hashimoto steamrolling ahead with talent from all over the world. However, nagging injuries and his untimely death would end “Hakaiou” Hashimoto’s famed career. His Hall of Fame worthy contributions to Puroresu and reign of terror over the New Japan heavyweight scene are stuff of legend.
#16 / YUGI NAGATA
A Japanese wrestling icon like “Blue Justice” rightly deserves to be in the top twenty for a couple of reasons. He is a two-time IWGP and Zero-1 Heavyweight Champion, one-time GHC Heavyweight Champion, owner of the fourth longest reign as IWGP champion of all time, and the only man to have won the three most established and important singles tournaments (New Japan Pro Wrestling’s G1 Climax, All Japan Pro Wrestling’s Champion Carnival and Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Global League Tournament). Nagata would also land on American television in the late nineties for World Championship Wrestling as a very important piece of the talent exchange between themselves and New Japan. He has remained fairly loyal to New Japan, only leaving the company for brief-yet-successful periods of time. Yugi Nagata became a multiple-time World Tag Team and World Heavyweight champion across all the most notable promotions in Japan. He continues to teach and entertain inside the squared-circle today for New Japan Pro Wrestling and is widely respected and considered to be one of the most well-known Japanese stars of the modern era.
#15 / HIROSHI TANAHASHI
With the dawn of the new millennium, came a wrestling resurgence in Japan. One of the frontrunners of the early two-thousands, was none other than Hiroshi Tanahashi. With a nickname like “Once in a Century Talent”, Tanahasi has since earned his spot and then some. Originally training in the New Japan Dojo under some of the most respected Japanese heavyweights of all time, Tanahashi quickly began to polish his skill. Soon after his debut, he’d be considered as one of the new “three musketeers” for the promotion alongside fellow young lions Shinsuke Nakamura and Katsuyori Shibata. Within a few short years, Tanahashi would be the in the right place at the right time for a Brock Lesnar no-show and a sub-sequential tournament for the newly vacated IWGP Heavyweight Championship. He would double down and win his first G1 Climax and thus begin second reign as IWGP Heavyweight Champ to following that. Through his career thus far, Tanahashi would become a two-time New Japan Cup Winner, All Japan Pro Wrestling Champion Carnival finalist, seven-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion, two-time G1 Climax winner, the holder of six five-star matches and wrestler of the year three years running (per Wrestling Observer Newsletter), just to name a few! He’s made himself a name in New Japan, All Japan, Pro Wrestling NOAH, CMLL in Mexico, and even the United States… The guy is a bonafide shoe-in for several Hall Of Fames and is a star anywhere he goes in the world today. Tanahashi is one of the greatest hands New Japan has ever scene and when they needed him to come through the most, he was and always has been there to deliver and then some! Now, queue up the air guitar solo…
#14 / TOSHIAKI KAWADA
When talking about the greatest Japanese wrestlers of all time, every list should have this man on it. He is arguably the greatest heavyweight wrestler to help launch All Japan Pro Wrestling into the elite stratosphere of premiere, big-time matchups in the nineteen nineties. Known for his stiff offense and martial arts style, he also happens to lay claim to eighteen five-star rated matches and even holds a six-star match according to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter! After being trained professionally by Giant Baba and Genichiro Tenryu, it is pretty easy to imagine how Kawada became one of the greats. Early in his career he would travel to Texas and Calgary to pick up on several further styles around the world. Kawada would stay loyal to Tenryu for several years, even leaving behind three separate reigns as All Asia Tag Team Champion to help Tenryu’s newest Super World of Sports promotion survive. All Japan and Tenryu’s promotion would stat close and this would launch Kawada to head of the pack alongside bitter enemies like Mitsuharu Misawa, Akira Taue, Jumbo Tsuruta, Stan Hansen, and Terry Gordy. Over the next couple of years, Kawada would capture the World Tag Team Championship a handful of times, win the 1992 World’s Strongest Tag Determination League, have two Match of the Year winners, and contend for the All Japan Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Kawada would win 1994 Champion Carnival and the Triple Crown later in the year. By 1996, Kawada was undoubtedly the ace of All Japan Pro Wrestling. He’d again clinch a win at that year’s World’s Strongest Tag Determination League, win the Carnival Championship for a second time a year later, and become a two-time Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion in 1998! Following his storied career in All Japan, Kawada would wrestle for several other promotions as a freelancer before stepping away from the sport in 2010. Toshiaki Kawada, “Monster K”, was a force unlike any other before or after that was able to become one of All Japan’s most decorated and celebrated superstars!
#13 / TATSUMI FUJINAMI
The original “Dragon” of professional wrestling was Tatsumi Fujinami. Innovating such moves as the Dragon Suplex, Dragon Sleeper, and Dragon Screw, Fujinami single-handedly inspired a generation of wrestlers that would follow his steps to success and branching out in the business. Fujinami is a Hall Of Famer in three different distinguished halls, and rightfully so, as he has continually wrestled around the globe since the early seventies! Early in his career, Fujinami would break off from the dying Japanese Wrestling Federation and forge a new company that would sweep the nation and the imaginations far beyond Japan’s borders. In 1972, alongside his friends Antonio Inoki, Osamu Kido, and Kotetsu Yamamoto, Tatsumi Fujinami would help develop Japan’s newest company, aptly titled New Japan Pro Wrestling. Fujinami would take his new career highs to the United States and Mexico, where he would compete as a Junior for the Universal Wrestling Federation and the then World Wide Wrestling Federation. By 1978, Fujinami would win the WWWF Junior Heavyweight Championship and bring it back to Japan were it would become the most prestigious belt of its class. A few short years later “The Dragon” would graduate to the heavyweight ranks and be known as the first to do so successfully. As a heavyweight, Fujinami’s career would skyrocket as the premiere Puroresu star for New Japan Pro Wrestling. Through the late eighties and early nineties, he would battle with legends of the sport such as Inoki, Choshu, Vader, Flair, Tenzan, Chono, Mutoh, Hase, Fujiwara, and many more. Fujinami truly became a star to watch and won all there was to in New Japan, including being a six-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion, five-time IWGP Tag Team Champion, 1993 G1 Climax winner, 1991 Super Grade Tag League winner, and 1974 Karl Gotch Cup winner. He’s been both the NWA Heavyweight and Junior Heavyweight Champion, as well as International Heavyweight and Junior Heavyweight Champion for the WWWF! Now, Tatsumi Fujinami continues to take independant bookings across Japan as well as doubles as an ambassador fot the WWE following his induction into their Hall Of Fame. Simply stated, Fujinami was and should be recognized as an innovator, well-respected icon, and international wrestling talent.
#12 / GENICHIRO TENRYU
After being scouted by Giant Baba and All Japan Pro Wrestling following his professional Sumo career, Tenryu was immediately hired and shipped off to Texas to further his professional wrestling training with both Dory Funk, Jr. and Terry Funk. Tenryu would debut in Texas but soon returned to Japan where he would finish his training under Baba himself. During the flagship days of the newly coined AJPW Triple Crown title, Tenryu would become the first challenger for the distinction, taking on his biggest rival at the time, Jumbo Tsuruta. Their series of matches most definitely set the standard for all All Japan Pro Wrestling championship matches and feuds to follow. Tenryu continued to push All Japan to the forefront of the Puroresu scene, famously pinning his former mentor Giant Baba which, in turn, cemented his legacy as a made-man in Japan. Shortly after, Tenryu would again venture to the United States where he would compete for the World Wrestling Federation, even making it to 1991’s Wrestlemania VII, 1993’s Royal Rumble, and 1994’s Royal Rumble events! Meanwhile, Tenryu was responsible for forming the Super World of Sports promotion which would preceed his much more successful Wrestle Association R promotion. Genichiro Tenryu would use WAR as a platform to further promote himself as a top Japanese talent, as he challenged and defeated the likes of Muta, Hashimoto, Chono, Takada, Ontia, and Inoki. As a matter of fact, Genichiro Tenryu is the only man to hold a pinfall victory over both Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki! WAR also helped prove Tenryu as a man with an eye for foreign talents, as the promotion was quick to give stars like Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, Ultimo Dragon, Bam Bam Bigelow, and many others a platform to showcase and hone their skills in front of a Japanese crowd. Following the decline and eventual closing of WAR in the later half of the nineties, Tenryu would head to New Japan Pro Wrestling in the comeback effort of a lifetime. First winning the IWGP Tag Team Championship, Tenryu would then go on to become the first native Puroresu star in history to win both the Triple Crown and IWGP Heavyweight Championships. His New Japan stint was short as Tenryu would quickly jump back to All Japan when they needed him the most after the formation of the NOAH promotion. Tenryu would only reach higher career points as he’d become a Triple Crown Champion twice more and capture the World Tag Team Championship during his stay this time around. By 2005, Tenryu would make major appearances for Pro Wrestling NOAH and the HUSTLE promotions up until after the age of sixty when he retired in a match against Kazuchika Okada for New Japan Pro Wrestling in 2015. Listen, you don’t just get the nickname “Mr. Puroresu” for nothing… Genichiro Tenryu has won all there is to win in Puroresu and them some. He lays claim to four five-star matches deemed by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and was inducted into their Hall Of Fame in 1996. To say Tenryu made a major impact in professional wrestling in the three major markets for the sport in the world would be an understatement.
#11 / ATSUSHI ONITA
Without Onita, there is no deathmatch in professional wrestling. For a hardcore wrestling style that is now synonymous with Japan, Onita wrote the book. Not only that, but Onita is respectfully hailed as one of the most giving performers of all time. As the first recognized graduate of the All Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo, Onita was held to a high standard early on in his career. Debuting in 1974, Onita would quickly be sent to the United States to further his prowess in the American Wrestling Association where he’d win the Southern Tag Team Championship three times with a fellow dojo mate. In the early eighties, when the junior heavyweight scene in Japan began to explode, All Japan quickly found itself in need of a decently talented division to hold up against the likes of New Japan’s spectacular stars. Onita was an essential part of this new division in All Japan, and his feud with Chavo Guerrero, Sr. was a comparable alternative for Japanese fans. However, the flourishing of the new division would come to a screeching halt when Onita would be forced into an early retirement in 1985 due to injury. After years away recuperating from his injury, Onita would spark a revolution with the formation of Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling in 1989. FMW built upon the deathmatch style Onita had witnessed in the South in the United States and really redefined the genre. Onita would lead a band of misfits and death defiers on a crusade of beauty through violence, as Onita defended the FMW World Brass Knuckles Heavyweight Championship against the likes of Tarzan Goto, The Sheik, Terry Funk, Mr. Pogo, and even world famous athletes like Leon Spinks! As the company ace, Onita would pass the torch to “The Flying Assassin” Hayabusa in 1995. This decision would lead the promotion into the stratosphere as Onita fell down the card to make room for the new arial sensation. However, after years in control, Onita’s pull within the company would shift and ultra-violent matches would begin to fall by the wayside, leading to Onita’s departure from FMW in late 1998. Promoting his own ventures for the early part of the 2000’s lead him to the Tokyo Dome for one more All Japan appearance to team with other hardcore icons Terry Funk and Abdullah the Butcher in 2001. Around this time, Onita was also elected to serve as a representative of the Liberal Democratic Party in the Japanese National Diet after winning the nineteenth House of Councilors. He would serve a term and then was forced out of politics on scandalous terms. From there, Onita would long for the days of his deathmatch prowess, as he’d continually bring such matchups to Osaka Pro Wrestling, Zero-1, and Pro Wrestling NOAH. In 2015, Onita, Haybusa, and several others were able to finally resurrect a spiritual successor promotion to FMW, called Super Battle FMW with many of the original FMW’s stars returning to compete in the new incarnation. It has been a relative success since then, still upholding Onita original ideology of deathmatch wrestling as its focal point. Atsushi Onita continues to kick ass and take names in today. For all his far reaching contributions to Puroresu and the entertainment value of what professional wrestling can provide, Onita is a man that every fan of hardcore wrestling should know and any fan of the history of professional wrestling should respect. Thank you, Mr. Onita!
#10 / KENTA KOBASHI
I’ll be honest, I don’t even know where to start with Kobashi… He has to be, hands down, one of the greatest all-around professional wrestlers of all time (regardless of country). Kobashi was one of All Japan Pro Wrestling’s greatest stars, Pro Wrestling NOAH’s real ace, and a man all of Japan truly admires. After being accepted by the All Japan Dojo in 1987, Kobashi would be trained by Giant Baba, Dory Funk, Jr., Kazuharu Sonoda, and Masanobu Fuchi. Kenta Kobashi would begin his career in 1988, where a major angle would be formed for him that would see the rookie lose his first sixty-three bouts only to shine and draw out his never-say-die perseverance. As an underdog, Kobashi would form tag teams with main event stars and capture the All Asia titles on a few separate occasions. After a few matches of the year, Kobashi’s first shot at the Triple Crown Championship would be a losing ever, but the final boost he needed to superstardom. Working through knee injuries proved to be a wise decision, as Kobashi continually rose in stock wresting in some of the most highly regarded wrestling matches of all time against some of the most respected talent in Japan, and by 1996, Kenta Kobashi would win his first Triple Crown. Before breaking off from All Japan in 2000, Kobashi was a four-time All Asia Tag Team Champion, three-time Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion, six-time World Tag Team Champion, the 2000 Championship Carnival winner, and a World’s Strongest Determination Tag League winner in 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998, and 1999! Needless to say, he had done it all and with the formation of Pro Wrestling NOAH, a new company to conquer was on the horizon. Struggling with nagging knee injuries would keep Kobashi from helping the blossoming promotion stay afloat as one of their top draw during the first few years of its existence. After holding out for a year, Kobashi would be forced to take time off and rehab his injuries. After nearly three years, in 2003, Kobashi would best his long-time friend and rival Mitsuharu Misawa to capture the Global Honored Crown Heavyweight Championship for the first time. The reign would span two years and thirteen notable defenses. The mid 2000’s would see Kenta Kobashi branch out to the United States to make several appearances for promotions like Ring Of Honor and World League Wrestling. As the years caught up to Kobashi, injuries would become more common, and by 2013, he would announce his retirement match to take place at NOAH’s “Final Burning” event. The event would attract 17,000 fans, former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, several of Kobashi’s most famous wrestling friends, and a nation television audience. In 2002, Kobashi was inducted into the Wrestling Observer’s Hall Of Fame with a record twenty-three five star matches to lay claim to, the second highest amount ever! Also, Kenta Kobashi is widely known as one of the greatest in-ring innovators of all time, with moves like the Burning Hammer, Diamond Head DDT, Orange Crush, Black Crush, and Kobashi DDT being all of his own creation. I could easily fill up this entire article with Kobashi credibility, and the fact that I couldn’t have him and the rest of the top ten as number one on this list is highway robbery. “Zettai Oza”, the absolute champion, was no nickname… Kobashi was and forever will be known as one of the greats.
#9 / KEIJI MUTOH
Again, I find a place to start very hard. Where do you start with a guy like Keiji Mutoh? I’m just going to keep i simple. If you are even remotely familiar with Japanese pro wrestling, you know who The Great Muta is. If you’re remotely familiar with World Championship Wrestling, the National Wrestling Alliance, or the WWE Network, odds are, you know who The Great Muta is. Keiji Mutoh is responsible for the creation of one of the most iconic, intriguing, special, and recognizable wrestling characters of all time. Everything from his over-the-top entrance masks and gowns to his signature face paint, Muta’s look and style has been one of the most revered in the business for the better part of three decades. As far as championship accomplishments, Mutoh’s list is pretty much second to none. He is one of three wrestlers in business history to hold the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, the AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship, and the IWGP Heavyweight Championship over the course of his career. Speaking of which, he is a well-decorated tag team wrestler as well, being a former five-time AJPW World Tag Team Champion, six-time IWGP Tag Team Champion, and three-time G1 Tag League winner! Other accomplishments including being a three-time Champion Carnival winner, one-time G1 Climax winner, and a one-time World Wrestling Council Puerto Rico Heavyweight Champion! Debuting in 1984 in New Japan Pro Wrestling, it wouldn’t be long before the United States and Puerto Rico would come calling. In the States, Mutoh would begin to develop the legendary character he would cement his legacy as. By 1989, Mutah would be in the National Wrestling Alliance wrestling as the mysterious “Great Muta”, the supposed son of The Great Kabuki. This would supercharge Mutoh’s career and he would go to have lengthy and equally fabled careers in Japan’s big two, New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestling. Mutoh spent sometime as the president of AJPW, helping the company’s resurgence period to stay afloat against the much stronger New Japan product. Following his career in the big two, Mutoh would branch off and form Wrestle-1, giving many former disgruntled All Japan stars a home. Not only that, but Mutoh was also savvy enough to successfully co-promote his new organization in the United States with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling in 2013 and 2014. Aside from his promotion work, over the course of his career, Mutoh was the innovator of the Muta Lock, Flash Magic Shining Wizard, and the Flashing Elbow drop. Listen, the amount Mutoh has contributed to the business is immeasurable. His name and Puroresu go hand-in-hand, and I’ve believed Mutoh really helped to bring the Japanese style to the States and vise-versa. His wrestling translated so well in both worlds of wrestling, he should be on every greatest wrestlers of all time list, regardless of origin. Wrestling Observer Newsletter inducted Mutoh into their Hall Of Fame in 1999, but his career means so much more than any mere Hall Of Fame honor. The Great Muta’s mystique, look, innovations, movements, in-ring accomplishments, and overall name are eternal. When Mutoh was on your roster, your stock rose automatically. If there ever was a Puroresu ’roundtable’, Mutoh would have to be there.
#8 / JUSHIN LIGER
Speaking of immeasurable contributions to the Puroresu world, Jushin “Thunder” Liger may be one of the most giving of all. Simply put, Jushin Liger not only put the junior heavyweight Puroresu style on the map in a big way in the nineties, he was also one of the divisions biggest supporters who helped many other stars form and shine in Japan as well as in the United States. Responsible for putting together such legendary tournaments like the Super J-Cup and booking some of the most famous juniors in the world over the course of his career thus far. Liger has also managed to stay pretty loyal in Japan, working almost exclusively for New Japan Pro Wrestling for the better part of the past thirty years! Originally, Liger was turned away from New Japan for his size. Following this crushing news, Liger strived to survive in places like Mexico and Canada, where he would cut his teeth as a man with talent far larger than his physical stature. Again, the young junior would try to get into New Japan, who accepted him on the condition that he don the Jushin Liger persona. He agreed, and like they say, the rest is history. During the nineties, he was responsible for bringing a fast-paced, highly technical style to the United States of which the they had never really seen before. Thus far, Liger has worked for almost every notable promotion past or present in Mexico, Japan, and the United States. Such promotions include New Japan Pro Wrestling, World Championship Wrestling, World Wrestling Entertainment’s NXT brand, Stampede Wrestling, Michinoku Pro Wrestling, Ring Of Honor, Pro Wrestling Guerilla, Jersey All Pro Wrestling, Chikara, Pro Wrestling Syndicate, Consejo Mundial de Lucha Libre, Pro Wrestling NOAH, Dragon Gate, and Osaka Pro Wrestling (just to name a few)! Not to mention with such an iconic, well-traveled, recognizable look it is no wonder fans around the world attend shows that Liger is scheduled to appear for dressed as his doubles! In an attempt to avoid going off on a tangent, Jushin Liger is an eleven-time IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, been crowed a light heavyweight or junior heavyweight champion in almost every company he has worked for, and is credited with innovating the daring Shooting Star Press after taking inspiration from a famous anime hero! Inducted into the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Hall Of Fame in 1999, Liger has since then been busting his tail to make sure the next generation of juniors carry the heavy torch he and many others have left behind. In his early fifties, Liger continues to tour, train, wrestle, and provide commentary for the sport he has dedicated his life to. He is arguably one of the most influential wrestling stars of all time, and a man that really revolutionized the sport for the smaller, highly talented wrestling athlete of today.
#7 / JUMBO TSURUTA
Wrestling for All Japan Pro Wrestling for most of his career did not limit the reach Jumbo Tsuruta garnered over his almost thirty years in the business. Originally an Olympic-class, Greco-Roman wrestler, Tsuruta was scouted by Giant Baba and immediately sent to Texas to train under the Funks (per usual for any All Japan prospect) and ultimately debut in 1973. However, unlike most Japanese newcomers in the States at the time, Tsuruta would be cheered for his size and work ethic. Tsuruta would return to All Japan and take on some of the company’s most popular and famous stars in world-class matches including Stan Hansen, Bruiser Brody, Genichiro Tenryu, Abdullah the Butcher, The Funks, Harley Race, Ric Flair, Verne Gagne, Jack Brisco, and Nick Bockwinkel. However, Jumbo is probably most known for defeating Stan Hansen on April 18, 1989 to become the first-ever All Japan Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion. This newly formed title combined the Pacific Wrestling Federation, National Wrestling Alliance United National, and National Wrestling Alliance International Heavyweight Championships into one vastly important distinction for Japan. Other than being a three-time Triple Crown champion, Tsuruta captured several Heavyweight Championships for a handful of different NWA territories, was a seven-time World Tag Team Champion, three-time Champion Carnival winner, five-time World’s Strongest Tag Determination League winner, one-time American Wrestling Association World Heavyweight champion, and a two-time Hall Of Famer (Wrestling Observer Newsletter class of 1996 and the Professional Wrestling class of 2015)! Jumbo Tsuruta also lays claim to seven five-star rated matches per the Wrestling Observer Newsletter and many more in the hearts of his fans and peers. In fact, Jumbo is one of the most respected and beloved wrestlers by wrestlers within the business because his style and honor was a throwback in many ways to wrestling heavyweights who laid the ground work for what we now know today as professional wrestling. He was a master of multiple Suplex variations, dropkicks, lariats, and Piledrivers, delivering each with grace and expert craft. When going though the history books of professional wrestling in Japan, Jumbo Tsuruta’s name jumps from the pages as one of the most beloved, respected, and sizable heavyweights of all time.
#6 / MITSUHARU MISAWA
Mitsuharu Misawa is who many pro wrestlers, far and wide, aspire to be viewed as. Misawa is widely considered to be the greatest professional wrestler of all time, bar none. Misawa lays claim to the most five star rated matches of all time, with twenty-five, as well as being a five-time All Japan Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship and three-time Global Honor Crown Heavyweight Championship! Early in his career, Mitsuharu Misawa was given the honor of donning the legendary Tiger Mask gimmick, as the second incarnation of the character, in the second half of the 1980s. This jumpstarted Misawa’s career as a junior heavyweight, however he would graduate to the heavyweight ranks due to his skill and popularity by 1990. Following Misawa gaining steam in the heavyweight tag team ranks, he would abandon the Tiger Mask II persona and began his rise to superstardom. During this time, Misawa would battle for the Triple Crown and World Tag Team Championships. Throughout the 1990s, Misawa was the ace of All Japan, wrestling top foreign and domestic talents and putting on some of the most famed wrestling matches of all time. As a matter of fact, in 1996, Misawa was inducted to the Wrestling Observer Newsletter’s Hall of Fame halfway through his career! However, by 1999, Misawa would find himself as the shoe-in for All Japan Pro Wrestling’s new president following Giant Baba’s death. He would serve for a about a year before breaking away from AJPW to form a new promotion, Pro Wrestling NOAH. Since 2000, NOAH has flourished and attracted talents from all over the world to compete in the new, hot promotion. Misawa would be the inaugural Global Honor Crown Heavyweight Champion and set the standard for the belt and company moving forward. Through the 2000s, Misawa doubled as the top star and president for the company that he built from the ground up, helping co-promote with companies in the United States like Ring Of Honor. His final reign as GHC Heavyweight Champion lasted almost a year and a half. Tragedy would strike in 2009, and after suffering a fatal injury in the ring, Misawa would pass that same day in the hospital on June 13th. Misawa’s legacy is a mile long, among distinctions previously mention, he innovated the Emerald Flowsion, Emerald Flowsion Kai, Tiger Driver, Tiger Driver ’91, Tiger Suplex ’84, and the Tiger Suplex ’85! To add to his championship accomplishments, Misawa ended his career also as a six-time World Tag Team Champion, one-time NWA International Junior Heavyweight Champion, two-time Champion Carnival winner, and a four-time World’s Strongest Tag Determination League winner. Mitsuharu Misawa is number one on the list of many as the greatest of all time, and rightfully so. As an inspiration to a generation who is seen as the embodiment of fighting spirit, Misawa was a once in a lifetime talent and mind for the business of Puroresu. Period.
#5 / SATORU SAYAMA
Satoru Sayama was born to be a mixed martial artist, but was destined to be a professional wrestler. Revolutionizing the athleticism in Puroresu was only one thing Sayama has been credited for. As the original Tiger Mask, Sayama brought a spectacular, legitimate, strike-heavy offense to Puroresu unlike any seen previously or since. Put it this way, if there was ever a ‘Bruce Lee of wrestling’, Sayama was it. He is the only man in history to carry the WWF Junior Heavyweight Champion and NWA World Junior Heavyweight Champion at the same time. To start his career, Sayama was trained by an all-star team of legends, Antonio Inoki, Karl Gotch, and Yoshiaki Fujiwara. With his training behind him, Sayama was sent abroad to put on weight and cut his teeth as a polished wrestler. In 1981, the stars aligned and New Japan Pro Wrestling decided brought Sayama back to Japan as Tiger Mask, a character based on a then-popular anime hero. After Tiger Mask’s debut and sub-sequential pinning of Dynamite Kid, Sayama was a made star. Kid and Tiger would battle back and forth for the span of a few years, blazing a body of work unmatched by anything in the world at the time. In 1982, Tiger Mask would make a few tours for the United State with the World Wrestling Federation. He had several high-calibre matches with a few of the top juniors the company offered, only further adding to the credibility and recognition of Sayama’s Tiger Mask. Sayama looked to an early retirement due to injuries and creative disappointments and stepped away from the ring for a brief time. During this period, Sayama opened the Tiger Gym and began training. He made a brief return to wrestling for the Universal Wrestling Federation that would only further sour him on the sport at the time. He would again step away and founded Shooto, a combat sports and mixed martial arts organization derived from shoot wrestling. Shooto would host the Vale Judo Japan event in 1986 which would help introduce Brazilian jiu-jitsu to Japan on a mainstream scale. Finally, in 1995, Antonio Inoki would challenge his former student to a math bringing Sayama back to Puroresu under his new Tiger King monicker. For the rest of the nineties and early 2000s, Sayama toured the independents until 2005, when he formed Real Japan Pro Wrestling, a hybrid of professional wrestling and mixed martial arts contests. Working agreements with Toryumon Mexico, Battlearts, and Dradition helped Real Japan pick up steam quickly and attracted stars from top promotions to come and compete. Sayama continues to wrestle today, despite doctors recommendations following heart surgery in recent years. Over the course of his career, Satoru Sayama was responsible for the innovation of the Turning Moonsault, Tiger Feint, and the Tiger Spin. In total, Sayama has won the WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship three times, NWA World Middleweight Championship once, NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship once, and was inducted into the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame class of 1996! Though, on paper, Sayama’s championship accomplishments seen lacking compared to other men and women on this list, his contributions to the legacy of Japanese wrestling and Puroresu and far more vast than most. The original Tiger Mask brought spectacle to Japan and showed fans that even character-based Puroresu stars should be taken seriously. Through his deadly strikes and virtually unlimited stamina, Satoru Sayama revolutionized the way a professional wrestling match looked, felt, and was paced. The man is as respected as can be and to say he has played a pivotal role in the formation of Puroresu history would be a drastic mistake. To sum it up, Sayama, the original Tiger Mask, was a trailblazer about twenty years ahead of his time.
#4 / RIKI CHOSHU
In the 1970s, Riki Choshu was the heart and sole of New Japan Pro Wrestling. NJPW would find themselves in a bitter war with AJPW for wrestling superiority in Japan and Choshu was a large factor in helping keep NJPW neck-and-neck with Giant Baba’s All Japan Pro Wrestling. As a three-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion, Riki Choshu would have classic matches against Tatsumi Fujinami, Antonio Inoki, Jumbo Tsuruta, Vader, and several others across three decades which would boost the promotion forward and help to strengthen his own status as one of Japan’s biggest and brightest stars. He would shockingly jump to AJPW and back again to NJPW taking a legion of wrestlers and fans with him each time, showing that his talents were huge in the success of both companies at the time. By the early nineties, Choshu would begin to fade himself out of the main picture and help take up a backstage role within the company that believed in him most, New Japan Pro Wrestling. Under Choshu’s guidance, New Japan became the hottest promotion in the world and an example of true in-ring proficiency. His booking would sell out the Tokyo Dome two to three times a year. Choshu would become directly responsible for booking show that would gross more million dollar gates than any other promoter in history. In fact, he was responsible for the very angle that would inspire the New World Order faction and turn WCW around in the mid-to-late nineties! His best show raked in over six million dollars, breaking the all-time gate record for a wrestling event. After a brief final run, Choshu would retire in 1996 and step away from his position in New Japan by 2002. Being remember in the wrestling world for becoming a selfless pioneer behind the camera and a world-class wrestler in front of it ins’t something that very many have been able to pull off, Riki Choshu was able to do that and then some.
#3 / GIANT BABA
Giant Baba was much more than just the founder of All Japan Pro Wrestling, he was a cultural icon. His honesty backstage, stature, ring presence, and love for the business defined Baba. A decade before Andre was world-famous, Baba’s freakish size made him a standout. His enormous stature and matching character would prove to be a box-office’s dream and by the late sixties, he would become the first Japanese wrestler to become a legitimate main event star in North America. Rising from the ashes left by Rikidozan’s death, Giant Baba would now hold the same championship as the fallen hero and take the people of Japan on his back with him as he traveled and defeated all that America could throw at him. In his prime, Baba would stand across the ring from several legends like Jack Brisco, Anotio Inoki, Harley Race, Abdullah the Butcher, and a handful of others. Though, much like his mentor, Rikidozan, Giant Baba would be lost too soon. After booking and working history-making wrestling cards across Japan and America, his health would rapidly decline. In 1999, Japan, America, and the entire pro wrestling world would mourn the loss of Baba. AJPW would falter without Baba and wrestling fans around the world were left with a giant-sized hole in their hearts.
#2 / ANTONIO INOKI
Antonio Inoki deserves to be recognized on every wrestling list there ever has been or ever will be. Anything less would be a disservice to this legendary Japanese professional wrestler. Know for his large frame, good looks, ability to really hurt a guy if he wanted, and mind for the business that would become the pro wrestling we all know and love today, Inoki would set the standard for what Japanese wrestling would become. Antonio inoki stands as one of the most revered stars in wrestling history, earning a larger name in Japan than that of Elvis Presley or The Beatles. Largely considered the best shooter in the world in his prime, Antonio Inoki would push his limits beyond that, roughly nudging the world of sports entertainment before that was even a phrase. In his quest to become the “king of sports”, Inoki would challenge big-time athletes from all walks of life, most famously Muhammad Ali and Willem Ruska (gold medalist in Judo), to wrestling matches! At the tail-end of his career, Inoki would take on “Nature Boy” Ric Flair in North Korea in front of a staggering 170,000 people, shattering all-time attendance records! Tangling with wrestling legends like the Funks, Johnny Valentine, Karl Gotch, Bob Backlund, and a countless number others across four decades, Inoki further cemented his legacy as one of the greatest of all time. Putting New Japan Pro Wrestling on the map, helping the wrestling scene in Japan to recover after the loss of the beloved Rikidozan, becoming a world-famous athlete and icon, and establishing his land as one of the toughest in the world all make Antonio Inoki one of the most elite wrestling figures in the sport’s history!
#1 / RIKIDOZAN
When considering the top pro wrestling talent a country has to offer, one must take into consideration every decade and era of the sport. With that said, we look all the way back to the early fifties and sixties! In the twelve short years between 1951 and 1963, Rikidozan, Japan’s most-cherished pro wrestling talent of all time, leave a lasting impact on the culture and landscape of the nation. Coming off a very successful career as a sumo wrestler, the monstrous Rikidozan would transition very smoothly into the top pro wrestling ranks of Japan, and the world. At the height of his career, he wrestled Lou Thesz to a one-hour draw for the NWA World Championship marking the first time the title would be defended on Japanese soil. The event would draw an awe-inspiring 87.0 television rating, the greatest rating for a wrestling event in history! Over sixty years later, his matches are shown on television regularly in Japan to this day. Following his early death, the Japanese wrestling market would fall into darkness for a handful of years. Through his talents, character, and connection with the people, Rikidozan was able to transcend his homeland and cement his legacy by have his name known by millions and millions of pro wrestling fans around the world forever.
And so we come to the end of my list of the top fifty Japanese wrestlers of all time. Ranking such talent was far from easy, and truth be told, anyone in the top ten or fifteen could be considered the best. How did my list measure up to yours? Did I miss anybody? What does your list look like? Be sure to let me know in the comments below or on any of Wrestling Recaps Social Media outlets!
And as always, thanks for reading.