Rikidozan: The Father of Puroresu and a National Icon

Rikidozan, born Kim Sin-rak in what is now North Korea, was a figure who transcended the world of professional wrestling to become a symbol of post-war Japan’s resurgence and pride. His journey from a disadvantaged background to the pinnacle of wrestling fame is a tale of grit, talent, and an indomitable spirit that resonated with a nation looking to rebuild itself.

Early Life and Sumo Career

Rikidozan’s early life was marked by hardship. After the death of his father, he moved to Japan in search of better opportunities. He adopted the Japanese name Mitsuhiro Momota and embarked on a career in sumo wrestling, where he achieved considerable success, rising to the third-highest rank of Sekiwake. However, the sumo world’s resistance to promoting non-ethnic Japanese to its highest ranks led Rikidozan to seek fame elsewhere.

Transition to Professional Wrestling

In the early 1950s, Rikidozan found his calling in professional wrestling. He trained in the United States and quickly made a name for himself with his powerful style and charisma. Upon returning to Japan, he founded the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance in 1953, which was the country’s first professional wrestling promotion. Rikidozan’s matches against foreign wrestlers were broadcast on television, capturing the imagination of the Japanese public. He became a national hero, embodying Japan’s post-war resurgence by standing up to and defeating foreign opponents in the ring.

Impact and Legacy

Rikidozan’s influence on professional wrestling in Japan cannot be overstated. He was instrumental in popularizing the sport, and his entrepreneurial spirit led him to invest in various businesses, including nightclubs and hotels. He also trained future stars like Antonio Inoki, who would go on to become a wrestling legend and politician.

Tragically, Rikidozan’s life was cut short at the age of 39 when he was murdered in 1963. Despite his untimely death, his legacy lives on. He was posthumously inducted into several halls of fame, including the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame and the WWE Hall of Fame’s Legacy Wing. Rikidozan is remembered as the father of puroresu (Japanese professional wrestling) and a cultural icon whose life story reflects the complexities of Northeast Asian history and identity.

Rikidozan’s career not only laid the foundation for the flourishing of professional wrestling in Japan but also provided a source of national pride and entertainment for a country recovering from the ravages of war. His story is a testament to the power of sports entertainment in shaping national identity and cultural heritage.

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