If you think professional wrestling is all a sham, spare a thought for Mitsuharu Misawa, one of the legendary wearers of the “Tiger Mask,” who died in the ring on June 13 after suffering a spinal cord injury. Pro wrestling may be classified as “entertainment,” but it can be pretty rough stuff.
Since the heyday of legendary postwar wrestler Rikidozan, “puroresu” has enjoyed a huge following in Japan, with shows taking place at gargantuan venues such as Tokyo Dome and acres of magazine coverage devoted to the stars of the ring. While American wrestlers often try to make it in Hollywood, their Japanese counterparts have even successfully moved into politics. The Great Sasuke was elected to Iwate Prefectural Assembly in 2003—and famously kept his mask on—while Antoni Inoki won a seat in the House of Councilors and met Saddam Hussein to negotiate the release of Japanese prisoners before the first Gulf War.
Still, the popularity of pro wrestling in Japan is nothing compared to what you’ll see in the U.S., where giant hunks of beef ham it up in the ring before massive crowds. The “Big Daddy” of these events is SmackDown, a Friday night extravaganza promoted by World Wrestling Entertainment (formerly the WWF). Japanese fans can get a taste of the action on Tuesday and Wednesday, as the WWE brings a top SmackDown package to the Nippon Budokan, along with bouts under the Extreme Championship Wrestling banner.
Star fighter Batista swung by Tokyo recently to promote the event, only to be forced to cancel his own appearance after tearing a tendon in the ring. He said he views professional wrestling as a form of storytelling.
“That’s how I see it,” he said. “If you break it down, it’s a story about the good guys and the bad guys, and the fans can decide who is good and who is bad. It’s about fighting to see who comes out on top. It’s a little complicated, but you’re telling a story in the ring to get the fans emotionally invested, which is hard to do as they know it’s entertainment.” To Batista’s credit, at no time did he refer to pro wrestling as a sport.
“I would say we are 100% entertainment, but we’re also 100% athletes,” he emphasized. “It’s not a sport because it has a predetermined finish, but speaking for myself, I’m 100% an athlete.”
And at 198 cm and 130 kg, he certainly looks athletic—as do most pro wrestling stars of today. These guys tend to have muscles in places where most people don’t even have places, but bulk alone won’t help you make the moves that top fighters pull off. Back in the old days, you’d have a couple of aging fat blokes in oversized swimming trunks waltzing round the ring; now, it’s like Terminator vs Rambo with all the attendant fireworks.
The highlight of the Budokan event will be a “Triple Match Threat” for the World Heavyweight Championship between Jeff Hardy, CM Punk and Edge. Also on the bill, WWE’s own masked man, Rey Mysterio—who looks even cooler than he sounds—is due to take on Chris Jericho for the Intercontinental Championship. One of wrestling’s biggest stars, 221-cm giant The Great Khali, will face Dolph Ziggler, while Tommy Dreamer will clash with Jack Swagger in an ECW Championship match.
But WWE isn’t just about hunks of manhood: there’s some great female talent coming along as well, including Melina, Gail Kim, Michelle McCool and Alicia Fox. And they’re in it to fight, not just to look good.
Batista says fan reaction in Japan is “different from anywhere else in the world,” and that the wrestlers are awed to be performing in such a historic venue. Quite what the Budokan makes of it is anybody’s guess, but it will definitely be entertaining.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).