Rikidozan Hesitating

Who are we, as wrestling fans, and what have we lost?

It’s March 28, 1962, in Los Angeles, California. It’s a Wednesday night at the Grand Olympic Auditorium, just south of Downtown, the famous arena about which Charles Bukowski once wrote, “the gallery boys went ape and the fighters fought like fighters and the place was blue with cigar smoke, and how we screamed, baby baby, and threw money and drank our whiskey.”

That night the fighters were competing for the world heavyweight championship of the Worldwide Wrestling Associates company, run by the formidable Aileen Eaton, who had taken her promotion out of the NWA cartel in 1959.

On one side of the ring was the reigning champion, Freddie Blassie, most likely known by contemporary wrestling fans for his long stint as a manager in the company that became the WWE, and perhaps for his starring role in “My Breakfast With Blassie,” the quirky short film made by Andy Kaufman.

But in 1962, he was King of Men, the Hollywood Fashion Plate, and the most despised villain on the West Coast. Blassie would file his teeth, like a vampire, and bite into opponents’ foreheads, hardcore before there was hardcore. He was one of the first wrestlers to be escorted to the ring by uniformed police officers, not as a gimmick, but to protect him from the fans.

His opponent that night in Los Angeles was Rikidozan, a name that should have the same significance for wrestling fans that the name Cronus had for the ancient Greeks: the god that made the gods. A Korean who left sumo wrestling because of the discrimination he faced, Rikidozan was the Big Bang of puroresu: he founded Japan’s first wrestling promotion, and he trained Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba, the great rivals whose shadows still linger over wrestling in Japan. Murdered by a member of the Yakuza barely a year after his match with Blassie, Rikidozan’s legend was sealed forever as the personification and presiding spirit of pro wrestling in Japan.

You can watch this match on YouTube, in what looks like closed-circuit footage: grainy, blurry, black and white, with a black bar showing the running time across the top of the screen. Everything about it screams “old school”: the men in the crowd are wearing coats and ties, the women dresses. The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times are ringside. Commentary is provided in the distinctive radio-man honk of KTLA’s Dick Lane, born in the 19th century, with decades of newsreels and vaudeville behind him by the time he called this match. Blassie is borrowing from the iconography of Gorgeous George: peroxide blond hair and a fop’s wardrobe, which in this case means a green velvet jacket with gold trim, making him look like a knife-thrower in a nightclub act.

What defies our expectations of old school is the crowd: they are, from the introductions onward, immovably behind Rikidozan. Pearl Harbor was barely 20 years in the past. Los Angeles was not the cosmopolitan city we know today: it was the hard-right stronghold that launched Richard Nixon’s career. And yet, a crowd of 10,000 people in Los Angeles bought tickets on a Wednesday night to cheer on the Japanese contender against his American foe.

It’s a slugfest – “the fighters fought like fighters” – with Rikidozan throwing chops that today would be greeted with gusts of “whooo!” from the crowd, but which in 1962 looked like they were landing with the force of concrete blocks. In turn, Blassie does what heels have always done: he cheats. Flummoxing referee Johnny “Red Shoes” Dugan again and again, Blassie chokes, pulls hair, throws closed-fist punches, and sinks those filed teeth into the forehead of Rikidozan.

The crowd is appalled. People throw garbage into the ring at Blassie. People scream at the referee. When Blassie dives out of the ring to escape a beating, the collective howl of contempt that goes up feels primal, with years of thwarted desire behind it.

Then, about 24 minutes and 25 seconds into the YouTube video, there’s a moment so fierce I’ve rewatched it dozens of times, trying to reach the bottom of it.

The match has been going on for nearly 20 minutes by this point. Both men are drenched in sweat and bleeding. Blassie’s peroxided hair is matted and fouled. After yet another illegal move in the corner, Blassie gets the worst of a stiff chop from Ridiozan, who then flips the American to the floor with a judo throw.

Blassie is on his knees, unable to stand. He lifts up his hands to Rikidozan in supplication. The crowd is boiling over at this point: you can see arms on the edge of the frame jutting forward, people pointing at Blassie, begging Rikidozan to attack the man while he’s vulnerable. The noise from the crowd becomes a roar: kill him, they’re screaming at Rikidozan.

Rikidozan bounces on his feet, his fists raised, and then he stops. He drops his hands and steps back.

It’s a performance of great power. What makes it more than a rote gesture, more than just the Babyface duly following the script for a familiar role, is that Rikidozan hesitates. He is not Superman, he is not a two-dimensional storybook character, he is a human being who has suffered degrading and despicable treatment at the hands of this coward, and just like the rest of us – like the people screaming kill him, kill him – Rikidozan has to look inside himself and decide how far he wants to go. He has to weigh the consequences of doing what he wants, of throwing aside every discipline he’s imposed on himself and indulging in the brutality that calls out to him.

But Rikidozan is, ultimately and finally, a man of honor. He takes a step backwards, and drops his hands.

“Again this gentleman refuses to go in when his opponent is on his knees,” Dick Lane says, emphasizing “again” to show the exertion of will it’s taken Rikidozan to abide by the rules, to fight with dignity.

It’s a narrative moment that says many things. It says Rikidozan would rather lose a heavyweight championship match than become a wretch like Blassie; by extension, it says to all of us that some victories are not worth winning, that no victory is worth winning if only monsters can win it. It says that rules aren’t musty, arbitrary guidelines handed down from above, but limits we impose on ourselves, a democratic leveling that, if ignored, births atrocities. It asks, if you like, what does it profit a man if he should gain the world and forfeit his soul?

There is nothing simplistic about this old world of good and evil, and its eclipse has not brought stories that hit with greater force. The rise of ambiguity in wrestling, the ascendance of the “tweener,” are developments that have in theory opened up possibilities of rich and complex characters that didn’t exist before, but in practice have tended towards a gray, witless morass that merely reflects our society’s cruelty and dysfunction.

We will see many matches this year that are more exciting than this championship contest from 1962, in terms of the physical gifts of the wrestlers and the feats they’re able to perform. I doubt very much we will see anything as indelible as Rikidozan standing in the center of the ring, fists clenched, fighting the darkness inside himself.

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