To the outsider, pro wrestling fans are a group with a common defect: a love of watching melodramatic, shirtless fake-punching in smelly, cramped venues. The truth is that pro wrestling begets many different kinds of devotees. From the jaded to the wide-eyed, from the young to the elder, from the chaste to the horny, from the “argues on the internet about why a certain performer was better when he used to hit dudes harder for real back in Japan” to the “will never tire of watching their favorite quinquagenarian zombie wizard stick out his tongue after mumbling incoherently in the ring for twenty minutes,” to any combination thereof and beyond, the palette of pro wrestling is broad in the beautiful shades of lunacy it can appeal to.
While it’s not uncommon to see performers try on a few different styles or gimmicks throughout their careers, most find their best fit in one particular time, or style, or promotion. Keiji Mutoh, a 35-year veteran of the ring who got his pro wrestling start in the famous New Japan Pro Wrestling Dojo, has proven to be one of the few who can do it all. Under his given name, he is known as one of the original Three Musketeers of NJPW, typifying their hard-hitting strong style throughout the 1990s. He also helped carry All Japan Pro Wrestling during their rock-bottom business moment of the early aughts, and to this day owns and performs in Wrestle-1.
However, it is not simply as a stoic puro striker that Mutoh is known. International fans (particularly in America) know him largely through his decades of work as his memorably bizarre, occasional demonic alter-ego, The Great Muta. The Great Muta was created in 1980s NWA when, in attempting to recreate the success of Mutoh’s (kayfabe) mentor the Great Kabuki, wrestling’s marble-mouthed, problematic grandpa Jim Ross mispronounced “Mutoh,” thus invoking Dark Magics beyond any of the players’ comprehension.
The Great Muta would elevate a tasteless “exotic foreigner” gimmick to such a degree that it made him a singular, title-holding mainstay on American television for years. Following that run, Mutoh would take the gimmick back home with him to Japan, where Muta would serve as an outlet for the performer’s most frightening, most violent, and most downright bizarre creative impulses over the course of an epic career that, in spite of multiple knee replacements and over three decades getting the shit kicked out of him in some of pro wrestling’s stiffest promotions, continues to this day.
Be it gratuitous bloodbath wrestling, bizarre pseudo-fetish pregnancy subplots, supernatural in-ring happenings, or just particularly wacky displays of costume work, an appearance by The Great Muta is a portent that you’re about to see some awesome, crazy shit. In an online discourse that is too often centered around who does the MOST or the BEST moves, let’s take a moment during this Spooky Season to reflect on the powers that manifest when a guy who CAN do all of that decides to let his inner goth art-kid shine through. These are the greatest supernatural powers of THE GREAT MUTA.
THE ABILITY TO BLEED INHUMAN AMOUNTS WITHOUT DYING
Blood has an indelible place in professional wrestling. Planned and unplanned, real and staged, it can elevate a so-so match to exciting, it can make an intense match scary, and it can mean something has gone very wrong or very right.
The Great Muta’s match with Hiroshi Hase is an iconic one: Muta comes to the match in all of his flourish and flower, entering the ring with a red variant of his demon facepaint. Hase spends the first part of the match trying to rip/scrape/tear away Muta’s demon visage, in an attempt to expose the man underneath. In desperation, Muta brings a weapon to the ring, but it’s him who gets cut open, as Hase attempts to further humiliate his opponent. What happens as a result is that The Great Muta ultimately BLEEDS HIS RED FACEPAINT BACK INTO EXISTENCE, powers up, and pushes through the injury to a win. We are left to wonder if the REAL demon was inside of us all along.
From this match and its copious, dramatic, and very highlighted bloodshed, pro wrestling developed the long-running in-joke called the Muta Scale. A 0.5 match on the Muta Scale, for example, would include some color, but only half that seen in Muta vs Hase. A 1 on the scale would feature equivalent human suffering. A 1.5 would include just way too much blood, just hella blood, Jesus Christ guys don’t do this.
At the risk of sounding preachy, the performers put themselves at considerable risk to do any version of this pro wrestling thing. I want to stay away from the simple implication that “bleeding a dangerous amount during what amounts to an intense cardio workout while you’re getting hit repeatedly” is inherently a good thing that should be commonly recreated or revered. But Muta’s incorporation of the spectacle of it with his gimmick belies a performer who really understands both the danger and the art of his form, and at great risk to himself, found a way to marry the two in an unforgettable way.
And anybody who bleeds so much that the very concept of bleeding in his field is henceforth measured by his name absolutely deserves to be known as a demon.
THE ABILITY TO UNLEASH DEMONIC ENTITIES IN OTHER WRESTLERS
Jushin Thunder Liger is an internationally famous, 35-year veteran Japanese wrestler. He got early international attention for practicing his distinct, exciting gimmick on American wrestling television, but the majority of his career has been as a pioneer and practitioner of distinctly Japanese pro wrestling, where he serves now as something of an elder statesman in the NJPW junior division.
Perhaps it’s because of the similarities between the two performers that Muta was able to tap into such a dark place in Liger’s psyche. Some kind of harmonic demon energy thing? I don’t know. I wish there was some sort of definitive deep lore explainer for pro wrestling’s supernatural characters. Until such a thing exists, well, I guess it’s up to us to build the kayfabe we want to see in the world.
Regardless of “why,” what matters here is the “what.” In the course of their match, dark trickster The Great Muta removes the legendary mask of Jushin Thunder Liger. But what Muta finds beneath the mask is more than he bargained for: another horrifying, face-painted monster who spits acid and eschews Liger’s typical good-natured sportsmanship for a demonic bloodlust.
What The Great Muta finds beneath the mask is himself.
The shortest path to take here would be to draw attention to the obvious irony of Muta, a performer who puts ON a mask to become a monster, takes OFF another’s mask to reveal the same. That’s real. That’s in there! That’s literature. Even when he’s at his wackiest, Muta’s matches have a story to them, and not in the way that old wrestlers use it to euphemistically say “we put on headlocks for 30 minutes instead of doing moves,” but actual stories.
But what’s more important here is that The Great Muta is just out there, emanating demon shit so hard that it’s changing the people he battles forever. To beat the monster, you have to become the monster, and after you have, there’s no going back. Though he has appeared much more rarely, Kishin Liger (the demonic form of Jushin Liger) has resurfaced many times over the decades, most recently during the wildly entertaining Grumpy Old Men feud between the retiring Liger and resident NJPW murder dad Minoru Suzuki. To this day, the piece of Liger that had to go to the Dark Gods to stand against The Great Muta lies in wait, preparing for its next worthy challenge. The demon Muta is so powerful, he’s permanently making other wrestlers cooler just by sharing the ring with them.
THE ABILITY TO TRANSCEND THE ANCIENT WRESTLING BARRIER CURSE OF PROMOTIONS
I’ve always been a huge fan of desperation lore. When a fighting game feels the need to self-consciously twist its narrative into knots to justify the scant garb of one of its heroines, I break out the popcorn. When a multi-gazillion dollar movie franchise needs to bring back the characters it killed off because they wanted credit for making hard choices, but hey, these dollars aren’t going to print themselves, I feel a rush of excitement. The verbal caulking creators will fill a hole with to get to the next set piece, the next episode, and even the next wrestling match is an art unto itself, rich with shades of the absurd and the cynical.
Above, I lamented the lack of a wiki or guidebook or something that could fill my need for further (unnecessary) background information on wrestling’s most bizarre characters, but the reality is that such a thing would be an untenable tangle of contradictions and abandoned trains of thought. Because of wrestling’s nature as a carny, unpredictable, and deeply factionalized form of entertainment, there’s little sense of continuity under the best of conditions. Even within a given promotion, a character will go through many variations of face/heel personality traits, often just as dependent on a given crowd’s reaction as on any particular storytelling plan. Storylines begin and then fade away partway through, due to reception, performer injuries, or just straight up lack of interest on the part of the creators. And when performers change promotions, all bets are off; different companies have different policies regarding how they acknowledge performer histories outside of their own, often adopting it piecemeal and inconsistently. No matter how closely a performer guards a given story, character trait, or gimmick, they’re bound to have to compromise on it at some point, for the sake of *Triple H voice* this business.
It’s a wonder, then, that a performer as incredibly traveled and experienced in pro wrestling as The Great Muta can remain recognizable and active to this very day. From the American South to Japan, the demon has left a mark upon audiences in so many promotions it’s almost unthinkable that the gimmick has survived in a way that has built upon its legacy, rather than undermined it. It’s almost as if Dark Magics were somehow involved….
In a recent interview, Keiji Mutoh (acting as the “manager” of The Great Muta, which is incredible in and of itself) explained that The Great Muta can show up in any promotion he wishes because “…in the demon world, there is no difference between promotions.”
On its own, this throwaway line is amusing, but in the greater context of professional wrestling, it’s a little mind-blowing. Historically, when a wrestler brings up the existence of other promotions in-character, it’s either explicitly to validate themselves by way of previous championships and accomplishments, or to bring in some “edgy” worked-shoot nonsense about how THOSE PEOPLE in NEW YORK (or wherever) didn’t give me the RESPECT I DESERVE. Here, Mutoh shows up in his dad-chic half-suit, invokes the meta-fictional concept of promotions to provide a completely unnecessary kayfabe explanation for the longevity and ubiquity of his Muta character, and then throws up the horns for a photo op.
So there you have it. The deep lore both for The Great Muta’s in-character storied career, as well as a metatextual explanation for his relative freedom in the cutthroat world of pro wrestling booking: he is operating on the powers and rules of hell itself. Don’t be surprised if he becomes the Mayor of Knox County Tennessee next.
— 武藤 敬司 (@muto_keiji) April 19, 2019
THE ABILITY TO SHAMELESSLY POST NONSTOP OLD MAN ONSEN NUDES (?)
Okay, so technically this point is in reference to the man Keiji Mutoh. Not even the human wrestling character, but the man behind him. A man so driven by the importance of self-care, powered by a self-confidence known only abstractly to most, that it seems almost… otherworldly. Demon-worldly, even. The point is: Keiji Mutoh, a pro wrestling tough guy of decades in his fifties, is compelled by some dark force to repeatedly treat us adoring fans with charming, coy bathhouse nudes.
I’ll confess that I cannot read Japanese, and therefore lack the full context of these posts. In fact, I have refrained even from using twitter’s machine translation to understand them further. I do not desire to read them. The story is delivered straight to me, from Mutoh’s (and occasional friends’) beaming face. It unfolds before me, like a path that builds itself under your feet as you walk. It is his Dark Passenger, The Great Muta, drawing succor from the heat, reconstituting himself for the next time he has to unleash some serious demon shit on the world.
How else do you explain the performer’s impeccable, ageless form? By what other means does a man who’s basically fighting on knees made out of duct tape continue to turn in dynamic performances and keep his skin looking so glowing? What mischievous voice inside of Mutoh drives him to casually fail to cover up his genitals all the way in his bathhouse photo op, and then go ahead and just post the picture anyway?
It is, of course, The Great Muta, working through his host to keep him fighting fit for his next grand spectacle of violence, and having a little fun along the way. Would that we all had a demon inside of us, advocating for that daily bit of self-love we all desperately need.
THE ABILITY TO SPRAY POISON MIST FROM HIS MOUTH
If you’ve watched wrestling basically ever, you’ve seen some variation of this: one performer is coming at another with a move, when the other (usually some kind of spooky or tricksy type of character) suddenly spits a large mist of… something into their opponents’ face, interrupting their attack and typically leaving them blind or otherwise incapacitated.
The methodology and optics are different for each practitioner of this technique: Yoshinobu Kanemaru, a mainstay in NJPW’s Junior Division, accomplishes it with a swig of Suntory Whiskey. King of Casual Style Orange Cassidy performs it with a sip of his namesake juice. Glacier, a 90s icey kick-ninja after a certain popular videogame IP, recently manifested the ability to perform an ice spray that froze his opponents during AEW’s Double or Nothing. In the case of The Great Muta, it’s apparently… some kind of demonic poison gland. It’s a ghastly, dark green mess that covers his opponent’s face and leaves them clutching at their eyes, often for what remains of the match.
So what’s so special about this cheap food-coloring trick, particularly in relation to Muta’s other accomplishments and outlandish character traits? The secret is in the maneuver’s beautiful simplicity and reach. While Muta himself would modify the mist at points in his career, introducing new colors with different effects on the recipient, and even going so far as to use it in a story in now-defunct promotion HUSTLE where the mist, uh, impregnated a Communist propaganda erotic model with a large adult sumo wrestler son (seriously), it’s the classic green Dilophosaurus gunk that brings the biggest pop. The gleefully gross image of a professional athlete, without warning, vomiting a mucus-green spray into an opponent’s face right at the critical moment is that special sort of pro wrestling that Mutoh/Muta handles best: something that’s straightforward enough that an audience member can relate to it, but also wild and strange in a way that makes it feel like a true spectacle.
The Great Muta did not invent the poison mist – in fact, it was something he inherited while still being played off as the Great Kabuki’s protégé. As referenced above, it’s a move that’s been replicated and modified by countless other wrestlers over time, including appearing in the classic green globby configuration regularly in current NJPW courtesy of health goth luchador BUSHI and, just recently, Asuka. But to a generation of pro wrestling fans (and the performers themselves) across the world, the Great Muta was THE guy, and every green-stained wrestler flailing around on the mat is another victim of his worldwide demonic influence.
THE ABILITY… TO MOVE YOU
I have a friend named Fritz who I drag to local indie shows on occasion. When I mentioned a while back that I was working on an article about The Great Muta, he told me two things from wrestling had stuck with him since childhood: “Hogan bodyslamming Andre at Wrestlemania III, and every minute I saw of Muta on TV.” When I asked him if he had a particular favorite Muta moment, he came through with a helpful answer: “all of them.”
It’s a common refrain, both in the WWE Approved Corporate Vernacular and in the wrestling fandom at large, that wrestling is about “moments.” To a degree, this is observable: ongoing feuds and storylines in wrestling are designed to culminate in big spectacles, one-off stunts and surprise guest appearances are often touted as the touchstone moments of the late ‘90s wrestling boom period in America, and even in today’s more “workrate” friendly promotions, shows can feel like a race to perform the most gif-able ten second spot, rather than a focused, coherent production.
It’s a rare performer that can make not just one designed moment, but everything he does memorable to his audience. For it to remain so almost three decades down the line, well, he has to be downright demonic. When he showed up as the final entrant in the rumble at New Japan/Ring of Honor combo show this last Wrestlemania weekend, (only to hobble down to the ring, do some mild exchanges with his eternal foe Jushin Liger, and then put over a guy who was on The Bachelorette, natch), the building came alive in a way that let you know it was a privilege to see him work. And of course, it was. It will be long after the demon world has claimed all of our souls. They don’t call him The Great Muta for nothing.