After the last piece I had to write about the Hall Of Fame I’m absolutely delighted by the news that Tatsumi Fujinami will be inducted this year. I think it to be vitally important that WWE recognises the influential role Japanese wrestling has had and continues to have in WWE and beyond. He will join his compatriot and trainer the legendary Antonio Inoki, the first ever Japanese person to receive the honour, who was inducted by Stan Hansen in 2010.
A lot of people will be wondering who he is and on hearing the news would have been immediately looking to Google for a clue, which is understandable as Japanese wrestling, even the big promotions such as New Japan Pro-Wrestling and All Japan Pro-Wrestling, has not been the easiest thing to access in the west especially pre-internet. I first discovered Fujinami just over 15 years ago when I used to spend all the cash from my part-time job on dubious quality VHS tapes of The Dynamite Kid in my efforts to see every match he had ever competed in around the globe (a feat I found eventually to be impossible). When people talk about junior heavyweight rivalries of that era Tiger Mask vs Dynamite is probably the most famous, but for me as a kid hunched over a 14 inch portable TV I was transfixed by his bouts with Fujnami. Seemingly I wasn't alone as it became one of the most pirated wrestling feuds of all time.
They competed in a series of singles and tag team matches in Canada for Stampede and in Japan. But for me the best of all was the WWF Junior Heavyweight Title* match held in Nagoya in May 1980 during Fujinami’s second reign as champion. It is a fast and brutally physical affair and “The Dragon” takes a beating that would have Mick Foley wincing. When these true tough guys connected, they really connected and they had a disregard for their own safety that makes some hardcore matches look a bit tame. These hard-hitting matches set the standards for the future of wrestling and inspired the next generation of great technical wrestlers such as Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and Eddie Guerrero.
But who is Tatsumi Fujinami and why is he deserving of a place in the Hall Of Fame? In a career that has spanned more than 40 years he has achieved a huge amount, left an incredible legacy and is famous for inventing moves such as the dragon sleeper and dragon suplex. “The Dragon” made his debut in 1971 in the Japanese Wrestling Association but came to prominence in NJPW founded in 1972 by Inoki. He won his first WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship at Madison Square Garden in 1978. After his second run he vacated the title in December 1981 when after ten years as a junior heavyweight he made the decision to move into the heavyweight division and became the first Japanese wrestler to successfully compete in both divisions. His link with WWE continued when in August 1982 he won his first WWF International Heavyweight Championship** at Madison Square Garden. He also won the title again a year later, this time in Tokyo.
In 1988 Fujinami faced Big Van Vader for the IWGP Heavyweight title vacated by Inoki becoming the second person to wear the belt since it’s creation in 1987. He regained the belt later the same year and has had a total 6 reigns totaling 785 days and defended the belt 13 times. Only 25 other wrestlers have held the title in its history including current WWE champion Brock Lesnar and 3-time WCW Heavyweight Champion Vader. One of his greatest moments came in 1991 when he defeated Ric Flair in 1991 at the Tokyo Dome to win the NWA World Championship, making him the first man to hold both NWA and IWGP titles simultaneously. His biggest exposure in the US came when he defended the NWA title against current IWGP champion Flair at the first ever WCW SuperBrawl in a title vs title match in which “The Nature Boy” was victorious.
Although he still sometimes competes in the ring now at the ripe old age of 61 his workload in NJPW gradually decreased until he was named President in 1999, he then left the company in 2006 after 34 years loyal service. That wasn’t the end of his story though as he is the owner and founder of wrestling promotion Muga, now known as Dradition and in August 2012 he won his first title in eleven years with tag partner Mikami. Although not as nimble as in his youth there is no doubting that in the 1980s Fujinami was one of the best, if not the very best technical wrestler in the world and his matches should be shown as part of every young aspiring wrestlers education.
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*The WWWF/WWF Junior Heavyweight Championship was a belt recognised by WWE and NJPW from 1967 until they split in 1985
**The WWF International Heavyweight Championship was a belt recognised by WWE and NJPW from 1959 to 1963 and again from 1982 to 1985