Earlier this month, former American professional wrestler The Destroyer, a popular figure in Japan for decades, received the esteemed Order of the Rising Sun at a ceremony in Buffalo, New York.
As a tribute, the following is the second of two articles — the first is here — based on an interview with The Destroyer in Tokyo in 2001.
TOKYO (TR) – On a winter night in Tokyo in 1963, professional wrestler The Destroyer and fellow grappler Ilio Dipaolo exited an Italian restaurant after a few beers and dinner.
“Out front they were building the Shuto Expressway to go to Haneda [Airport] for the Olympic Games in ’64,” The Destroyer says during an interview in the back storeroom of Tanny Enterprise Co., an electrical shop and dealer for his merchandise. “It was wintertime, December, so it was cold. And all these Japanese workers were sitting around a coal fire. They were hitting something with a sledgehammer. So Dipaolo, who was big and strong, grabs that sledgehammer and busts it down.”
The Destroyer was in the middle of a return trip to Japan after his initial confrontation with Japanese wrestling hero Rikidozan in May of the same year. As with those construction workers, The Destroyer would go on to befriend Japan while forever linking himself with its wrestling hero.
The Destroyer and Dipaolo participated in six-man team matches that pitted Japanese wrestlers against foreigners in Tokyo, Osaka and Hamamatsu City, Shizuoka Prefecture. Buddy Austin rounded out the card for the foreign side with Michiaki Yoshimura, The Great Togo, and, of course, Rikidozan representing the Japanese. Unknown to the Japanese fans though was that The Great Togo wasn’t Japanese at all.
A number of wrestlers born in the U.S., including Mr. Moto and Kenji Shibuya, became wrestling stars in the U.S. because of their Japanese roots. The Destroyer says of The Great Togo, “He was from L.A., but he lived in Texas. In the early ’50s [in the U.S.], he was a big star because he was [of] Japanese [ancestry]. Guys that were Germans and Japanese were the heels.” Thus, the appeal of watching a native son battle a wrestler from a former WWII enemy country was not just appealing to the Japanese. Still, when The Great Togo came to Japan to wrestle, he checked his U.S. passport at the door.
Rikidozan threw a sayonara party thrown for the three foreign wrestlers after the final match in Hamamatsu. “The Great Togo wasn’t allowed to come into the room,” The Destroyer remembers. “We [the foreign wrestlers] were inside with Rikidozan, drinking beer and eating sushi. On the edge of the room were the Japanese wrestlers, kneeling. Even Togo, just watching.”
This military-like discipline was a characteristic of Rikidozan’s philosophy concerning wrestling. “He was a very tough and mean individual,” The Destroyer says of Rikidozan. “He wanted wrestling — and his wrestlers — to be tough like he was.”
Giant Baba, another legendary Japanese wrestler, told The Destroyer that Rikidozan would sit in the Japanese dressing room with a whip-like stick and he’d make the Japanese wrestlers stand in a circle and do 1,000 squats. “Japanese always had great thighs because of this,” The Destroyer claims. “Then if someone did something wrong, he’d make them do 2,000. Then some nights they’d do 3,000. Baba told me how they used to cheat on him. The guys that were behind him [Rikidozan] would just count: ichi, ni, san, shi…But they weren’t doing them [the squats].”
Strict demands from Rikidozan, however, were not just reserved for the Japanese wrestlers. The Destroyer found this out first hand when Rikidozan told him he could only drink the beer of his sponsor — Kirin Beverage Co. “So I only drank Kirin,” The Destroyer says. Also, he also told The Destroyer, “I don’t want you coming out on the streets without a mask. I pay you big money to come over here, so you wear a mask.”
On that tour, The Destroyer, with his mask firmly attached to his head, wrestled Rikidozan three times, with each wrestler taking one match and the third ending in a draw. The matches would prove to be Rikidozan’s final bouts.
The last days of Rikidozan
“We had a train. It was a mule bumper. We picked up the milk and dropped off the cows. It took us 6 hours. We got back to Tokyo at 7:00 the next morning,” The Destroyer recalls of his long trip to Tokyo from Hamamatsu on December 8, 1963. That same trip today only takes two hours on the Shinkansen bullet train.
That night, The Destroyer went to meet Rikidozan at a Japanese restaurant for a final farewell and his share of the “big money” before his 9:00 P.M. flight from Haneda Airport back to the U.S. “It was at a Japanese [place] with sliding doors. He [Rikidozan] clapped his hands and they [other Japanese] scattered out of the room,” The Destroyer recalls.
Rikidozan began the party by asking him in English, “Cocksucker-son-of-a-bitch! You want drink? You want girl?” The Destroyer politely declined the offer of a woman but readily accepted the drink. With his English ability now fully taxed, he demanded through their interpreter, Mr. Q, “You stay tonight and we go to cabaret! Kampai!” At that, they clinked glasses and chug-a-lugged a full glass of Kirin. That was followed by some Korean rotgut and three cups of sake.
With both of them properly lubed, Rikidozan once again encouraged, “Come on, now we go to cabaret!” But The Destroyer had a tight wrestling schedule ahead of him back in Portland, Oregon and had to decline the offer. He took his pay and caught his scheduled flight from Haneda. At the airport the next morning, he was met by his wife. “She showed me the newspaper that Rikidozan had been stabbed in a nightclub. It happened an hour later [after I left him],” he remembers.
Robert Whiting writes in “Tokyo Underworld” that in that one-house span a drunken and disorderly Rikidozan got into a scuffle at the New Latin Quarter, a club in Tokyo’s Akasaka district, and was eventually stabbed by gang member Katsuji Murata. Though details were a bit cloudy, the fight possibly had its origins in a bit of business betrayal. Murata’s gang had been supplying goods and services to some of Rikidozan’s wrestling matches. But a recent deal for the concession, brokered between separate rival gangs, wound up “leaving young Murata’s organization out in the cold.”
Following emergency surgery at a hospital in Tokyo, Rikidozan died seven days after the stabbing as a result of complications from peritonitis. He was 39 years old.
The Destroyer was surprised by Rikidozan’s death but not of his affiliation with mobsters. “Some of the towns we wrestled in were promoted by gangsters,” he says. “The yakuza would buy up all the tickets and then go out and go to a shop [in the town]. They’d say, ‘Buy 10 tickets.’ So they’d buy 10 tickets. If not, the next morning, a few lights [in the front of the store] would be gone. That’s the way a lot of the towns were.”
With Japan’s wrestling hero gone, it would take a giant to fill the void, and The Destroyer would stand by his side.
In the mid-1960s, Giant Baba, Antonio Inoki and Oki Kintaro formed Japan Pro Wrestling. During the years leading up to 1971, The Destroyer left his job as a line coach for the Syracuse University football team two or three times a year and came to Japan to wrestle for the organization.
But in the late ’60s and early ’70s, divisions started to form in the ranks. Separate wrestlers left Japan Pro and formed Kokusai Pro Wrestling and New Japan Pro Wrestling. “I maintained my loyalty to Giant Baba,” The Destroyer emphasizes of those days. “That’s where I got my start. He helped me in the early days in L.A. So I kept coming back for Japan Pro Wrestling.” That is, until Japan Pro folded.
“I was here in December of 1971,” he remembers. “That was the last match that Japan Pro had. They went down the tubes. Giant Baba finally went out on his own. So that left me free to choose.”
What he chose was to challenge Giant Baba during a television interview in December, 1972. The Destroyer said, “If I can’t beat Giant Baba, I’ll join him.” They wrestled the next day on live television to a draw. Afterwards, The Destroyer said, “I’m a man of my word, I’ll join him.”
All-Japan Pro Wrestling was result of the union, with Jumbo Tsuruta becoming the final pillar in their wrestling triumvirate. “So the next night in Korakuen Hall, he [Giant Baba] and I were tag team partners against two gaijin [foreigners]. One was Moose Morowski and the other was Cyclone Negro. And we beat ’em two straight falls,” The Destroyer remembers.
All-Japan Pro Wrestling had a new masked man, who would go on to fight in Japan full-time between 1973 and 1979.
“World’s Greatest Masked Man”
During this period, evening tabloid Tokyo Sports gave The Destroyer the title “World’s Greatest Masked Man” after he defeated ten of the world’s greatest masked men, including Mil Mascaras, The Tornado, The Avenger, The Black Devil and The Blue Shark. From there, his legend would only get bigger.
From 1973 to 1977, The Destroyer starred on “Uwasa No Channel,” a variety program similar to “Laugh-In.” The weekly live show aired on Friday evenings. “I wore shorts, my wrestling shoes, the mask and a German helmet,” The Destroyer remembers. “They used to hit me on the head with everything,” he says of the origins of the German helmet. As the show started, we’d come out in a line and I was the last one. [One time] the prop man put the helmet on [me].”
“Uwasa No Channel” made him a star. Making the cover of Japan’s version of TV Guide in late 1973 only boosted his popularity further. “That’s when I figured that I’d made it,” he waxes proudly. “When you get your picture on the front of TV Guide — anywhere — it’s good.”
However, Giant Baba wasn’t pleased with his partner’s new persona. “I was already popular from wrestling,” The Destroyer says. “But after this show, I was funny. So when I got into the ring, I had to be careful not to do something that would make the people laugh. It was a challenge.”
Giant Baba, like Rikidozan before him, took his wrestling very seriously. He said to The Destroyer, “Oh, you make the people laugh!” The Destroyer though would maintain his innocence with Giant Baba because he, too, took wrestling seriously. So he tried his best to keep from turning the match into the silly shenanigans that dominate today’s World Wrestling Federation.
“I am very thankful that All-Japan Pro has kept as much wrestling as they have,” he says. “It was always my perspective and knowledge of the game that people love wrestling — the wrestling end of it. The kicking, the punching and this and that can be used occasionally, but the fans will still buy wrestling. Especially the Japanese, they like a contest.”
The Destroyer’s retirement match came in 1993 at the Budokan in Tokyo. The match featured The Destroyer, his son Kurt, and Giant Baba taking on a team of three Japanese. Though The Destroyer had wrestled alongside other Japanese wrestlers as tag team partners many times before, it was at this point that he was able to reflect back on how far Japanese wrestling had come.
“In the early days, wrestling stayed healthy here [in Japan] with Americans wrestling against Japanese,” he says. “Now they’ve gotten to where they go Japanese against Japanese, just like back in the days in the States when I would wrestler Killer Kowalski or Freddie Blassie.”
Things were indeed different in those days. Heels were heels and baby faces were baby faces. Today, heels can become legends.
Note: All photographs used with permission of The Destroyer.