All Japan Pro Wrestling took a very long time to form its own identity. Between the long shadow of the Japan Wrestling Association, a comfortable reliance on big foreign names to sell tickets, the sensibilities of ace and booker Giant Baba, and the influence of Americans such as the Destroyer and the Funks, their 1970s product was so Americanized that if you sit down and watch it now, it can feel less like an early form of puroresu than a colonial extension of the NWA. Moreover, that was the point.
Forty-five years ago, though, Jumbo Tsuruta and Mil Máscaras wrestled the Idol Showdown. This match inspired future legends, defined an era of fan participation, and offered glimpses of the future, if you know where to find them.
I Gave You Love
“At that time, professional wrestling magazines and some of the mass media wrote that, with the advent of Máscaras and myself, a new style of wrestling was about to begin; one that was not only stronger, but also made full use of more spectacular and flexible techniques.”
– Jumbo Tsuruta, 1981
Long before he was the grumpy ace of All Japan’s early 90s, Tsuruta reflected its early complacence. In some ways, he was revolutionary. No one had been pushed so hard so fast, no one threw so many suplexes, and certainly no man had been so popular with women. But Jumbo’s newness was also part of All Japan’s identity crisis, as none had been groomed so deliberately as an American-style wrestler. Jumbo was a Japanese farmboy’s take on Dory Funk Jr., albeit with some Jack Brisco for seasoning and an open-source moveset. By the time of this match, Tsuruta had grown immensely, and a string of technical epics against top foreigners had garnered significant acclaim.
Mil Máscaras debuted in Japan after a fan poll, bringing lucha libre to a market who only knew it from photographs of his work in Los Angeles. Long before he set foot in the country, he had been a frequent feature in Gong magazine due to editor Kosuke Takeuchi, making him the hardcore fan’s favorite. In early 1977, AJPW used “Sky High”, the theme of a two-year-old action movie, for Máscaras. The song shot atop the charts, made Mil bigger than ever, and made entrance music take off in Japan.
I Thought that We Could Make It to the Top
There’s a special atmosphere to the outdoor Denen Coliseum, which was built for tennis and rarely booked for wrestling before; this match’s success would change that for several years. The glint of a day’s rain hangs over the match. Each wrestler is carried partway to the ring by a trio of fans who have front-row seats. Mil’s masked team is headed by El Amigo fan club president Tsutomu Shimizu, whose zine was putting out better lucha coverage than the magazines.
In an early flex of the “fan club boom”, Takeuchi had placed a call for fans and “female fan reporters” to support and interview Máscaras in Gong. Cutaways reveal his true purpose, as cheer squads for each man stand on opposite ends. The influence of this match would reverberate through the big-match crowds of the next couple years. These squads may have been the product of a hypercompetitive, toxic scene which sought their guru’s favor, but even knowing how the sausage was made, the Jumbo cheers still make me crack a smile.
Both squads represented the future of mens’ puroresu fandom: the fanatics, and the women. After Tatsumi Fujinami returned to Japan in 1978, he picked up where Jumbo left off. In the early 90s, the Super Generation Army stable became beneficiaries of idol culture, and AJPW catered heavily to young women, booking meet-and-greets, talk events, and trips to Hawaii; this was also why they revived the Champion Carnival tournament in 1991. In the 21st century, hunks like Hiroshi Tanahashi completed the tectonic drift that Jumbo had begun. In his time, though, Tsuruta struggled to get over with puroresu’s core demographic.
I Gave You All I Had To Give
Tsuruta shakes hands with Máscaras before the first fall, their bodies basked in what Jumbo later called a “rain-slick cocktail” of lights. They go for twenty-three minutes, two-thirds of the match. In some regards, the match was state-of-the-art, but in form it was still of its time. Two months earlier, Jumbo’s relative spotfest against Harley Race had suggested where he and Ric Flair would take American wrestling. This is more in line with the “horizontal” style that Jumbo had been trained in.
If you are more acclimated to spot-based wrestling, it can be difficult not to see much of this as restholds, but that’s something that you need to unpack if you’re going to take this form on its terms. It might help to frame this not as an epic battle towards the match’s finish(es), but as physical checkers in their avoidance. Notice how referee Joe Higuchi keeps the crowd engaged by using his motion to contrast their stillness, while conserving his movement when the wrestlers are standing.
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Jumbo’s early struggles with core fans are too complex to explain here, but his matches were probably part of it. While he was framed as a successor to Antonio Inoki, teaming with Baba and having an old Inoki title revived for him, Tsuruta’s booking showed the sensibilities that had gotten Baba over. In the Baba-Inoki tag formula, Baba hit the home run while Inoki loaded and ran the bases, and this was often the case with Jumbo as well. But Inoki usually got the win with a submission, while Baba saw submission holds as a source of tension and release for crowds, not as finishes in themselves. A couple of top foreigners’ signature submissions were heavily protected — Tsuruta inherited one, the Funks’ spinning toe hold — and since Tsuruta’s title defenses remained ⅔-falls throughout the decade, submissions could be used as a finish, if not the finish. But he doesn’t get the submission tonight, as hard as he may try with the cobra twist.
After two flying cross-chops, Máscaras grabs Jumbo’s arms and wraps his legs around his biceps in a lotus lock. He wins the first fall. Jumbo hits a couple suplexes to get back in the game, but he continues to struggle against Máscaras on the mat. It’s ultimately a missile dropkick which gets him a pinfall. Wrestler and later AJPW booker Akio Sato has suggested that one reason Tsuruta struggled to get over with core fans was that booking made him look like an impotent grappler compared to Inoki, in an era where New Japan’s ace captivated millions with his “strong style” slogan and faux-MMA “different styles fights”. In later years, a Boston crab became part of Tsuruta’s finishing sequence, but he rarely got the win with that crab.
Why Did It Have To Stop?
Over the next several years, Máscaras brought other luchadors to the territory. His brother Dos Caras was most prolific, but for a few years, EMLL legends such as El Halcon and Dr. Wagner (Sr.) also appeared in AJPW. EMLL footage before 1983 is nearly nonexistent, which makes this period of All Japan that much more valuable.
It couldn’t last forever. AJPW’s network took over the company in 1981, concerned with stagnant ratings and a lack of homegrown (cheaper) stars. No matter what you’ve heard about Baba’s grand plan to make Jumbo the ace, it was their appointed booker, Sato, who made it happen. He also mentored young talent, and if not for him, the brightest would not have blossomed enough to save the company after Genichiro Tenryu left in 1990.
But the Sato era is also frustrating in retrospect. Alongside British legend Billy Robinson, Máscaras had redefined what a foreign wrestler could be in the seventies. As Robinson declined, and Máscaras suffered from Sato’s disdain for lucha, All Japan’s foreigner pool homogenized. But by then, lucha had gotten into puroresu’s DNA forever.
You’ve Blown It All Sky High
After a flurry of offense, a Máscaras dropkick has Tsuruta roll out of the ring, and the luchador can’t resist a plancha. It hits, but Mil catches his leg in an empty chair. Puroresu would long lean on the countout victory to protect the aura of top foreigners. Moreover, this finish may read as a hint of Máscaras’ backstage reputation, which Mick Foley and Bruce Pritchard later made infamous to the English-speaking fanbase.
But in 1977, none of the fans knew that, and what they saw instead was sportsmanship. After the match, Máscaras shakes Tsuruta’s hand and the two embrace. As a child, Toshiaki Kawada had hated the crude, bloody wrestling which his grandfather watched, but when he saw this match on TV, it hooked him. Many miles away, a young Kenta Kobashi watched the match and was transfixed. The match would be named the best of the year at the Tokyo Sports awards, the second of a three-year Tsuruta streak.
Part of what made the Idol Showdown special to Kawada and many more was that sportsmanship, but that would not reflect AJPW in the decade to come. As Terry Funk became the company’s top babyface, its product became defined by the Funks’ Manichean battles against Abdullah the Butcher and the Sheik. In the Sato period, pro wrestling’s ultimate outlaws, Stan Hansen and Bruiser Brody, overwhelmed the Funks and natives alike and revamped the ugly-American characters that puroresu had long relied on. Then, Riki Choshu led a splinter company of former New Japan talent into a working arrangement with All Japan. What ensued was brilliant at its best, but always volatile. Finally, Genichiro Tenryu broke up with Tsuruta and formed Revolution, an insurgent faction inspired by Choshu.
And yet, that sportsmanship was something Baba loved too much to let go forever. Nine years after the Idol Showdown, Jumbo defeated Animal Hamaguchi in the thick of the heated AJPW vs. Japan Pro feud. Despite having lost his match in a best-of-five on that show, Hamaguchi showed grace and humility, which moved Baba to remark that he wanted the rest to learn from it. When All Japan found its own “bright, cheerful and violent” identity a few years later, the future that Hamaguchi and the Idol Showdown had promised could come true, while Jumbo’s physicality and Baba’s sensibilities were finally reconciled through the work of a new generation.