[FOUNTAIN]A chop, and the bad guy fellYeokdosan, pronounced Rikidozan in Japan, was a pioneer of Japanese professional wrestling and a hero there. Forty years have passed since his death.
His original name was Kim Sin-rak. Born in 1923 in South Hamgyeong province, in the northeast part of the Korean Peninsula, he started his sports career in ssireum, Korean-style wrestling. In 1946, he became a professional sumo wrestler in Japan. Although a Korean, he became a popular figure there.
After three years, however, he had to abandon sumo because of lung problems, but another door opened for him when that one closed. When he worked in a construction company after retiring from the sumo world, he was noticed by an American pro wrestler who visited Japan on a tour of U.S. military bases there. In the United States, Yeokdosan trained hard as an actor to become a Western-style pro wrestler; he appeared in more than 200 matches there.
He had an outstanding sense of business. Returning to Japan, he saw the possibility for entertainment events and acquired the rights to promote matches presented there by the National Wrestling Alliance.
He had eyes to read the times. Catching the potential power of television, he aired the matches live. His advisors opposed the free live broadcasts, but they made pro wrestling explode in popularity in Japan.
And he knew how to please his fans. In the early part of every match, he grimaced and suffered and chewed the scenery under the dirty attacks of his opponents. But just when the crowd’s indignation reached the boiling point, he pulled out his feared karate chop and mowed the bad guy down. The story line was a classic “good overcomes evil in the end.” When Misora Hibari, a popular singer and a devoted fan, asked him, “Why don’t you use the karate chop at the start of the match?” he was embarassed and couldn’t give an answer right away.
Yeokdosan wrestled and beat an American called Lutez and his Japanese supporters went crazy despite the fact that he was a Korean; his victory over an American hero was a catharsis for Japan’s war defeat and occupation by the Americans. He was stabbed by a gangster in 1963 and died during surgery.
Last week in Tokyo, his widow, Geiko Tanaka, 62, published a memoir about him. The myth lives on.
by Nahm Yoon-ho
The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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