Tuesday, July 25, 2023

The History of Pro Wrestling in Osaka

With a population of around 2.6 million, Osaka is called “the nation’s kitchen”, because of the city being popular for its food. For many years, Osaka was the capital of Japan. Today, the city has maintained its ancestral traditions, while also adding innovative technology. Osaka is also the birthplace of many well-known pro-wrestlers: Grand Slam Champion Asuka, AEW star Konosuke Takeshita, 4-time former BJW World Strong Heavyweight Champion Daisuke Sekimoto, and former Triple Crown Champion Zeus. Osaka is a city where pro wrestling has been popular for decades and has a rich history.

One of the earliest reported pro-wrestling events in Osaka was a Torii Oasis Shriner's Club show that took place in November 1951 at Osaka Stadium in front of 3,000 fans. The Tokyo-based Torii Oasis Shriners Club had formed in July of that year and was sponsoring a charity drive for disabled children, and they arranged a pro-wrestling tour for it. This event in Osaka was the tenth show of the tour.

The main event was a match featuring Gino Vagnone, who later in his career found championship success by becoming NWA Calgary Canadian Heavyweight Champion as, "Mr. X".

The semi-main event of this show featured Rikidozan, who made his pro-wrestling debut during the Torii Oasis Shriner's Club tour a month earlier.

Rikidozan left Japan after the tour, but he later returned and established the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (JWA) in 1953. The JWA represented the NWA in Japan, and it was the first pro-wrestling promotion to be based in Japan.

Although based in Tokyo, the JWA began hosting events in Osaka in 1954. The popularity of pro-wrestling grew in Osaka during the 1950s because of JWA events, some of them featuring matches where the NWA World Heavyweight, NWA International Heavyweight, NWA World Tag Team, or NWA Pacific Coast Tag Team Championship was on the line. There was even an NWA title change in Osaka during this period at a JWA event, as Rikidozan & Kokichi Endo defeated Ben & Mike Sharpe for the NWA World Tag Team Championship in May 1956 at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium in front of 8,000 fans.

Meanwhile, women's wrestling also made its mark in Osaka during this decade, as Mae Young, Mildred Burke, other American wrestlers, and Japanese wrestlers took part in a World Ladies Pro Wrestling event in November 1954 at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium in front of 13,000 fans, with it being the first women's wrestling event in Osaka's history.

Pro wrestling's popularity in Osaka continued to grow into the 1960s. More NWA championships were introduced to the city, as Johnny Valentine defended the NWA Toronto United States Heavyweight Championship against Antonio Inoki in November 1966 at the Tennoji Ward Community Center for a Tokyo Pro Wrestling event, and Danny Hodge defended the NWA World Junior Heavyweight Championship against Hiro Matsuda in January 1967 at the Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium during an International Wrestling Enterprise event that drew 7,300 fans.

In November 1965, Giant Baba won the NWA International Heavyweight Title at an Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium JWA (then known as the Japan Wrestling Association at that point) event and two years later defended it against Gene Kiniski in August 1967 at an Osaka Stadium JWA event in front of a record 20,000 fans, the largest attendance for a pro-wrestling event in Japan that year. It has been reported that Baba considered this match to be the best one of his legendary career.

Two months later, pro-wrestling history again was made in Osaka, as Giant Baba & Antonio Inoki defeated Bill Watts & Tarzan Tyler for the NWA International Tag Team Championship at an Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium JWA event. This was Baba & Inoki's first time winning the championship as a team.

Osaka was also the site of JWA World League matches during the 1960s, which included foreign wrestlers such as former NWA World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz, Gorilla Monsoon, Pedro Morales, AWA mainstay Larry Hennig, Kim II, Lonnie Mayne, Wilbur Snyder, and Billy Two Rivers.

The pro-wrestling scene has evolved over the years and differs from how it was in the past, but Osaka continues to be a central city for pro-wrestling. NJPW, NOAH, Stardom, AJPW, DG, DDT, BJW, ZERO1, Ice Ribbon, WAVE, and PURE-J visit Osaka regularly, along with many smaller promotions. It is also the home of many independent promotions, that help give wrestlers who live in Osaka and its surrounding area more opportunities to showcase their talents. These promotions include Osaka Pro Wrestling, Doutonbori Pro Wrestling, Dove Pro Wrestling, MoveOn Pro-Wrestling, New Professional Wrestling, Pro Wrestling Bukotsu, Pro-Wrestling Shi-En, South Osaka Pro Wrestling, VKF Pro Wrestling, 2point5 Women's Pro-Wrestling, Energyse Pro Wrestling, and BRS.

A notable trend is the increasing popularity of women's wrestling across Japan, including in Osaka. Several independent promotions include women's matches on their cards, and 2point5 is a women's wrestling promotion. There is an abundance of female talent in Osaka and its surrounding area, and some of them are the most popular stars in the city.

Osaka is fortunate to have both a rich pro-wrestling history and a bright pro-wrestling future, as there are several talented wrestlers who are eager to make their mark on the scene and the industry continues to be popular in the city with a passionate fan base. There is also an opportunity to grow that fan base. 262,681 foreigners live in Osaka, and not all of them can read and speak Japanese. Those foreigners make up a potentially lucrative English market that is still very untapped. If a wrestling fan checks out the website or SNS of a Japanese promotion and is unfamiliar with the language and wrestlers, and is not sure how or where they can see shows, they often will move on to a promotion that is easier for them to learn about. With several major Japanese wrestling promotions now providing information in English, if promotions in Osaka want to attract foreign fans, promotions have to adapt to the language needs of those fans, and not the other way around. If promotions in Osaka connect with the English markets inside and outside of Japan, it will help them grow in visibility, show attendance, and streaming consumption.

I believe Osaka will continue to be a major center for pro wrestling in the years to come, as it continues to shape the city's culture as well as continues to be a popular form of entertainment for all ages.

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