In a year that has shaken up the establishment of the WWE structure and shattered many previously held barriers to create new opportunities, it is difficult to predict just what will be the biggest story of 2016. The elevation of A.J. Styles over franchise player John Cena, the ascent of Kevin Owens – despite long held beliefs that he didn’t have the “WWE look,” the initiation of the Cruiserweight classic creating opportunities for wrestlers once considered too small to cross the threshold, or will the story of 2016 be Shinsuke Nakamura.
While the “King of Strong Style” has been a headliner in his native Japan for more than a decade, rarely was his name spoken in the North American wrestling scene until the weeks leading up to his signing to the WWE’s NXT brand at the start of the year. The year, despite a number of big developments at all levels of the company, has been filled with regular coverage of Nakamura’s relationship with the WWE. From footage of him arriving at the Florida Performance Centre for the first time right up to his victory over Samoa Joe for the NXT title.
What we’re wondering now is this: Is Shinsuke Nakamura poised to become the most successful Japanese wrestler to break into the American wrestling market? Will he eclipse the success of the highly touted stars before him?
15. Jumbo Tsuruta
Jumbo Tsuruta is best known for his brief run as AWA World Heavyweight champion, defeating Nick Bockwinkel in 1984 and holding the title for three months before losing it to Rick Martel. However, his relationship with the American wrestling scene dates back to his pro debut in Texas. Tsuruta was an amateur wrestler that represented Japan at the 1972 Olympic Games. Following the games, he was recruited to the pros by Giant Baba and sent to launch his career with the Funk family in the United States. Tsuruta has been commonly acknowledged to be the first Japanese wrestler to be cheered on U.S. soil – a particularly high achievement considering the lingering wounds in America from the attack on Pearl Harbour a generation earlier. Beyond the ring, Tsuruta held a degree in political science and following his ring career returned to America as a visiting researcher at the University of Portland in Oregon.
14. Antonio Inoki
While in Japan, Antonio Inoki is recognized as the architect behind New Japan Pro Wrestling, but he also laid claim to a short reign as WWE World champion, trading the title with Bob Backlund when he toured the far East; a championship reign that went unannounced in the U.S. While Inoki, wrestling by the name Tokyo Joe, did spend some of his formative years in the United States as well in the late 60s, most often when Inoki’s name comes up in American wrestling circles is to debate the boxer vs. wrestler contest that he had against Muhammad Ali. Behind the scenes, fans may not recognize the influence that Inoki has had in shaping the future stars of the WWE who trained in his Japanese dojo – men like Bad News Brown, Chris Benoit, and Vader but his ties to the McMahon family run deeper than most may realize on the surface.
13. Giant Baba
Shohei “Giant” Baba is another Japanese wrestling legend who is in the record books as a world champion, having defeated both Jack Brisco and Harley Race on different occasions to lay claim to three NWA World title reigns. Baba was a professional baseball player in Japan before being recruited as one of the major stars of professional wrestling in the 1960’s. In 1972, he was at the helm of developing All Japan Pro Wrestling which has reigned as one of two major companies in Japan in the decades to follow. However, while he was listed in 2006 as one of the Top 100 Historical Persons in Japan, his impact on American wrestling may have been more as an influencer, similar to his former colleague Inoki. All Japan maintained relationships with the NWA and AWA for decades, contributing to the development of many major international stars. Still, Baba lays claim to two victories over Bruno Sammartino on American soil.
Only two years after debuting as a professional wrestler, Jinsei Shinzaki was signed by the WWE where he was known by the name Hakushi. It was almost unheard of that someone so new to the sport would find themselves under contract and combined with some strong promotion upon his arrival, it appeared that Hakushi was destined for big things under the McMahon banner. His highest profile feud in America was against Bret Hart, who incidentally was introduced to the sport himself by Japanese trainers and not his famous father. After some solid outings with Bret, Hakushi’s mysterious descent to the lower matches on the card mystified audiences until eventually, he was unceremoniously whisked from the company after a television loss to Justin “Hawk” Bradshaw (later John Bradshaw Layfield). He returned to Japan where he wrestled for another six years before retiring to an administrative role which he continues to hold today.
11. Masato Tanaka
In the 1990s, many international influences were introduced to American professional wrestling and for many outstanding wrestlers from both Mexico and Japan, the door to getting in front of American audiences was in Philadelphia – with Extreme Championship Wrestling. It was a path that exposed U.S. fans to Rey Mysterio, Psicosis, Eddie Guerrero and more. Among the most successful of the Japanese wrestlers of this era to capitalize on ECW exposure was easily Masato Tanaka. Tanaka spent close to three years in ECW during turbulent times when the talent roster was regularly raided and wrestlers signed to either the WWE or WCW. During that time, Tanaka was heavily showcased, both as a tag team champion and also as ECW World heavyweight champion. It seemed like he was in the right place at the right time, but the offers never came – he peaked in ECW. Could the same happen to Nakamura? Could he peak in NXT and never make the jump to the main roster?
10. Akio Sato
Akio Sato may never have been a headliner in America during his ring career, but his longevity and the scope of his body of work certainly qualify him for inclusion on this list. As was the custom for most Japanese wrestlers being groomed for success in their home country, Sato was sent to the U.S. in the 1970s where he had stays in the Kansas City territory and with the Funks in Amarillo. He returned a decade later and added Tennessee and the AWA to his resume, including a few title runs along the way. In 1990, he joined the WWE, partnered with Pat Tanaka as the Orient Express for a short run. Interestingly, when the WWE was looking to broker a deal to bring their own show to Japan in the early 1990s, not as a cross promotion with either All-Japan or New Japan, it was Akio Sato who helped to seal the deal.
Sure, Funaki has not been a major player in main events, but his longevity with the WWE and his versatility to be interjected into the company in various capacities is worthy of note. After eight years wrestling in Japan, Funaki was introduced to the WWE as a member of the Kaientai stable alongside Dick Togo and Mens Teioh as antagonists for Taka Michinnoku in 1998. Eventually, with changes in the storyline, Michinoku and Funaki ended up as partners, and even after Taka’s departure, Funaki maintained a visible role with the WWE for 12 years including a reign as Cruiserweight champion and a run as Hardcore champion. Funaki is still regularly seen on programming on the WWE Network closing in on two decades later making him one of the most successful Japanese athletes of all time in the WWE.
8. Bull Nakano
Starting her wrestling career at age 15, Bull Nakano rose to become one of the biggest stars in women’s wrestling in Japan and she would wrestle some of her earliest matches for the WWE in select tag team appearances when she was just 18 years old. However, when she returned to eight years later, she was a full-fledged headliner and she found herself engaged in a series of matches with Alundra Blayze (Madusa Miceli) all around the world, eventually unseating Blayze for the WWE Women’s title in 1994. She held the title for five months. There had been plans to extend Nakano’s run while Blayze was sidelined for some cosmetic surgery and a series of matches against the internationally acclaimed Rhonda Singh (aka Bertha Faye) was discussed, but plans were changed when Nakano was arrested for possession of narcotics and was abruptly fired. She did get to resume hostilities with Miceli in WCW a few tears later as well.
7. Kensuke Sasaki
Kensuke Sasaki’s international campaign during his formative ascent included stays in Puerto Rico for Carlos Colon’s World Wrestling Council as well as Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling promotion. Kensuke would see championship success in both of those regional circuits, but bigger things were on the horizon. He first became a name familiar with American audiences when Road Warrior Animal was sidelined with an injury and living off a Lloyd’s of London settlement, leaving his partner Hawk in need of a new running mate. Sasaki formed the Hellraisers with Hawk, adopting the familiar character that the Legion of Doom had made famous in America. That, combined with New Japan pro Wrestling’s relationship with WCW at that time, opened the door for some American appearances, including a reign as WCW United States heavyweight champion in 1995 – including a victory over the company’s franchise player, Sting. Sasaki made history as the first wrestler to win the WCW United States championship outside of the continental U.S.
6. Taka Michinoku
The hype surrounding Shinsuke Nakamura’s arrival in the WWE reminds many of the hero’s welcome that accompanied Taka Michinoku’s signing in 1997. Michinoku made headlines as one of the first wrestlers in the company’s history to sign a guaranteed contract – which was a significant break from the traditional salary model in the sport. Like others, Taka’s first break in the U.S. occurred under Paul Heyman’s ECW in February 1997 and by the summer of that year, he was debuting on pay per view for the WWE. By the close of 1997, Michinoku was crowned the first WWE Light Heavyweight champion. Surprisingly, despite the huge fanfare upon his arrival, Taka lasted only four years in the WWE before returning home to Japan. Though he has built a reputable career in his home country, we can’t escape the feeling that with all of the hoopla that surrounded his arrival that Vince McMahon had hoped for a longer term relationship.
5. Masa Saito
Masanori Saito may be as accomplished as he is notorious in the annals of professional wrestling history. Another former amateur wrestler to compete at the Olympic Games, Saito’s emergence in the professional realm of the sport saw him travel the world. His exploits during the territory days of wrestling included stays in California, Florida, and British Columbia before he was signed by the WWE. With Mr. Fuji, Saito won two WWE tag team titles in 1981 and it appeared that his career was still on its ascent. Though his career was interrupted by an infamous incident alongside Ken Patera resulting in the assault of police officers which landed him in prison for two years, Saito resumed his climb in the sport, winning the AWA World heavyweight title in 1990. In all, Saito competed for more than 25 years in North America over the course of his active career.
Would it surprise anyone to learn that “The Japanese Buzzsaw” got his earliest break in North America competing for Extreme Championship Wrestling? Tajiri was 28 years old when he debuted for ECW and spent the next three years carving out a reputation for himself as a solid performer. While there, he would lay claim to the ECW Television title and the tag team championships on separate occasions. Upon signing with the WWE in 2001, over the following four years he would become one of the most decorated Japanese wrestlers on American soil of all time. This includes three times as Cruiserweight champion, one reign as United States champion, a run as Light Heavyweight champion, and two reigns as tag team champion. And, while Yoshihiro has enjoyed an extended absence while becoming a significant influence on wrestling in Japan, his recent inclusion in the WWE Cruiserweight Classic might suggest that his legacy hasn’t been concluded yet.
3. Masa Chono
Masa Chono will no doubt be recognized as one of the greats of his generation. Certainly, his international resume will factor into that success when one considers that he enjoyed stays in Germany, Kansas City, Alabama, Puerto Rico and the Canadian Maritimes as he worked his way up the ranks in the sport. In 1992, he reached main event status in North America with a win to claim the vacant NWA World Heavyweight title. While he would make select appearances in the U.S. after that time, perhaps his most significant connection to the American wrestling scene was as a member of the Japanese version of the NWO, which rose to become one of the most popular and marketed properties in professional wrestling as the 1990’s drew to a close. In 1997, Pro Wrestling Illustrated magazine rated Chono #28 in a listing of the Top 500 wrestlers of the PWI years (1979-1997).
2. Jushin “Thunder” Liger
In the history of Pro Wrestling Illustrated Magazine’s annual “Top 500” list, Japan’s Jushin Liger holds the distinction as being the only wrestler in the world to be rated every single year since that list was first published in 1991. With international influences that included lengthy stays in England and Canada in the 1980’s, Liger’s first big push in the U.S. came in 1991 where he was pitted in a series of matches against Brian Pillman over the first WCW Light Heavyweight title. He would make semi-regular appearances for WCW over the following decade, but his body of work has also included appearances for Ring of Honor, TNA, Pro Wrestling Guerilla as well as independent promotions. Astonishingly, Liger’s first appearance in the WWE occurred 24 years after his first American match with a debut win over Tyler Breeze in August 2015. Liger remains one of the most recognized and celebrated Japanese wrestlers of all time in North America.
1. Great Muta
When the Great Muta arrived in the National Wrestling Alliance under Jim Crockett in 1989, he was immediately earmarked as one of the handful of wrestlers who were expected to have a major impact on the organization over the coming decade. Others on the list included Brian Pillman, Sid Vicious and Lex Luger. However, despite an express pass up the ladder to find himself in matches against company headliners including Sting and Ric Flair, Muta was only in the NWA for a year before returning to Japan to become one of the biggest stars in the history of that country. He would later defeat Masa Chono for the NWA World title among his achievements and has made appearances for WCW and TNA Wrestling as part of talent exchange agreements with his Japanese home promotions. Muta, while not having a strong American presence, continues to be one of the most iconic legends to ever appear on U.S. soil.