A very timely entry in my growing collection of articles and it happens to be one of my all time favorites. (I ain’t just some Johnny-come-lately either, just check my twitter like a year ago going nuts on his match vs Kojima) But yeah, it’s a popular thing at this point so I wanted to try my hand at going through Tenryu’s illustrious career now since he just retired with all that goodness going down the other day. I feel conflicted a bit since this will hardly be my most unpredictable work but all things considered he deserves it so it will be done.
Tenryu’s original passion was as a Sumo wrestler which he was quite successful as after starting at the young age of 13, eventually picking up nearly 400 wins and two championships before his Sumo stablemaster and mentor died, then the underworld of Sumo politics reared it’s ugly head as he was barred from joining his friend’s new stable, instead forcing him to wrestle under a new master who became quick enemies and Tenryu jetted to All Japan as Giant Baba loved Tenryu and saw him as a star right away, sending him right away on a US excursion to Texas, training with the legendary Funk brothers, as well as learning from legends like Ted DiBiase Sr. He returned a year later, working hard and doing well for his status, but was still firmly in the trenches of the midcard. As fun as wrestling Johnny Rodz (not a shot, he’s a heck of a wrestling trainer) probably was, his performance seemed to really show he was ready for a bigger role when he had a strong World Title match vs. Ric Flair in 1981. His first sign of living up to his potential came in April of the next year in the Champion’s Carnival when he had an excellent showing with 26 points, just 3 away from winning the whole thing in what was a huge showing for him and led to his acceptance as a breakout star. In comparison to others in AJPW on the same time scale, it would be like Misawa or Kawada touching the main event scene in ’87/’88. Tenryu moved up the card, being a great friend and partner to the bigger star Jumbo Tsuruta who made his own move up to go after the NWA International Heavyweight Title, and by the end of the year they were leading the Real World Tag League until the last day where they lost to Bruiser Brody & Stan Hansen directly. ’84 started with a bang for young Tenryu, as due to the tragic passing of David von Erich a new holder of the NWA United National Title was needed. So on short notice Tenryu was chosen to face Ricky Steamboat for the honor of taking it.
The match itself was a great effort, neither built upon uber hard strikes nor bombfests, technical wrestling, in-ring psychology and nifty moves were the order of the day, in this one. At this point Steamboat’s probably a tiny bit more skilled and higher rank, but Tenryu still holds his own for essentially a burgeoning young star here. Although the UN Title wasn’t the top title in the Triple Crown later on or in the NWA/AJPW then, Tenryu still looked really well in the upset and got good support. Check it out. Tenryu’s first singles title win! He takes on the cool Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat on February 23rd, 1984 kicking off his legendary run of success with the UN Title.
After winning the NWA United National Championship, he went on to an epic title reign, with nobody else holding the title for FOUR YEARS or over 1,500 Days. (Tenryu briefly vacated the title, a month after today’s tag match, but won it back just over 2 months later and went on to hold it until 1988.
But in addition to having a strong singles showing, he also really kicked one of my favorite periods of Tenryu’s career, his tag team with the biggest star in the company! Jumbo Tsuruta. The team of Kakaryu as they were known were immediately at the center of the most heated and important feud in AJPW in 1985, which started when Riki Choshu led a mini-exodus of NJPW starting his faction/promotion “Japan Pro Wrestling”, invading AJPW as outsiders, threatening the company with radical changes to All Japan’s conservative status quo. Funnily enough Choshu’s charisma was just too much for the AJPW stalwarts and the fans often taking his side in their long feud. Acts like the buildup to this legendary tag match didn’t help their popularity when Tsuruta battered Choshu with a run-in attack with a steel chair and a spike piledriver. As you can see with Choshu sporting a bandage after the attack, and there is so much in-ring hatred and drama between these two teams and this match. Even Yatsu is ready to unleash and protect his mentor’s honor after the attack. I can’t speak enough of the dramatic spots and the pacing used by both teams. To me the highlight of this was in fact Tenryu constantly going after Choshu throughout and the buildup that had the crowd at molten levels. It’s not hyperbole to call this one of the greatest tags of all-time and it absolutely holds up. Excellent job by all four men and the highlight of an amazing feud. Please watch, especially if you’ve never seen it before, the hometown team of Jumbo Tsuruta & Genichiro Tenryu vs. JPW’s Riki Choshu & Yoshiaki Yatsu for the NWA International Tag Team Championship from January 28th, 1986. (And the kicker, they had another tag nearly as good just under a week later!)
In some legendary wrestlers’ cases they have so many great matches and feuds that it’s impossible to pick just one that really is his signature. Other times they really only had one true breakout match that overshadows the rest. Then in cases like for Tenryu where he had many great moments and matches but one match/rivalry was so amazing that it couldn’t help but live on through the ages.
Tenryu & Jumbo fought valiantly against Choshu & his band of invaders for awhile, until 1987 when Choshu announced JPW was closing up shop and he wasn’t sticking around, they needed a new rival for company ace Jumbo to fight. Then after a match with the Road Warriors that same year where the Roadies pulled a great upset, Tenryu & Jumbo’s friendship dissolved and stuff as the kids say: “Got Real”. Tenryu recruited young stars like the excellent team of Footloose (Toshiaki Kawada and Samson Fuyuki), Yoshinari Ogawa, as well as veteran Ashura Hara to wage war vs. Jumbo and his friends, Greak Kabuki, Masanobu Fuchi, Tiger Mask II, and occasionally former rival Yoshiaki Yatsu. They warred with other and provided great and hard hitting trios matches that edged the feud on and really took Tenryu to superstar status but it was all building up to the big big moment.
In April 1989 All Japan made the decision to combine all 3 of their main titles to create the most prestigious world title in wrestling history when the UN, PWF, and NWA International Titles were won by Jumbo Tsuruta in a legendary Unification match vs. Stan Hansen, his first challenger was Tenryu, who he defeated. But that was far from their last war, and the rematch (of a rematch of a rematch) in Budokan Hall, in front of 15,200 rabid fans, Tenryu would wrestle not only the most important, but the best match of his career.
And it goes beyond just being a great match or personally important to Tenryu or Jumbo, without this match the 90’s run of the Four Pillars wouldn’t have happened. The style today would be changed in ways unimaginable, and almost certainly not for the better. The ways of wrestling in Japan were for a long time methodical and technical, which were excellent in their own way, then when Choshu came around he kickstarted a change to a faster, hard hitting paced that was great as a stark change, but if a match went past 20 you could bet a countout or a DQ was coming. This Tenryu/Jumbo took what Choshu started and perfected it, in essence laying the groundwork for what we see today in puroresu epics. (albeit still more conservative in terms of movesets) Ladies and gents, one of my personal favorite matches in my favorite feud ever, and one of Tenryu’s best moments of his career, the legendary, Genichiro Tenryu vs. Jumbo Tsuruta for the Triple Crown Titles, June 5th, 1989. (But watch pretty much any of the Jumbo/Tenryu matches, they’re all good!)
After his match of the year and Triple Crown win over his rival, you’d think Tenryu was for sure going to be Jumbo’s successor as the ace of All Japan going into the 90’s, and getting a pinfall win in a tag over company owner Giant Baba. (NOBODY pinned Baba, besides Tenryu & later Misawa) But sometimes things don’t work out the way we expect, and in April 1990 Tenryu left AJPW to form the Super World of Sports and forming a relationship with the WWF with the backing of top glasses manufacturer Megane Super, with Tenryu also taking wrestlers like Koji Kitao, Samson Fuyuki, and Great Kabuki with him. Ol’ Baba didn’t take too kindly to this move, in fact he was downright pissed. In the ultimate “NOBODY CROSSES ME” move, publicly promised that Tenryu would never be allowed back in All Japan again. SWS’ stuff in WWF was about as successful as you’d think it would be, as Tenryu doesn’t speak English and that’s a no-go. Though in fairness he did get a tag win over Demoltion at WrestleMania VII as well as make it to the final 5 of the ’94 Royal Rumble, as well co-promote shows in Japan, even wrestling Hulk Hogan at one point so actually it was pretty successful. But SWS wouldn’t last very long and Tenryu sought out the help of his brother in-law to start the company this series is named after, Wrestle and Romance (later Wrestle Association R). And then WAR started a brilliant feud vs. New Japan that provided a lot of highly entertaining feuds and matches, with Tenryu at the forefront of course. Engaging in a strong rivalry with Shinya Hashimoto that had numerous matches that were no doubt the true highlight of WAR vs. NJPW. Today’s match isn’t necessarily a five star classic of a match, but is incredibly significant in puroresu as well as Tenryu’s career historically.
Tenryu was going toe to toe with NJPW’s top stars, often getting the victory over the likes of Hashimoto. So NJPW only had one option for their biggest show of the year at the Dome…the king…the big gun…Inoki. Now, it was kind of crazy how Inoki was disliked by his own fanbase, punching with closed fists and refusing to break a choke on Tenryu. Crazy reaction to Inoki as I’ve never seen him booed so much and the finish was something nobody expected as the stunned silence gave away. Tenryu becoming the first Japanese wrestler to get a clean pin on both Baba and Inoki. Amazing heat on the finishing run especially for the Dome. Incredible spectacle of seeing an upset of this magnitude and OF COURSE Inoki responds to losing the only way he can. Check it out, people. Tenryu vs. Antonio Inoki from the Tokyo Dome, the main event of Battlefield. January 4th, 1994.
After getting the unbelievable clean pin in the Egg Dome, it proved to be a rare case of good New Japan booking, as shortly after that the WAR/NJPW main rivalry came to a close with Hashimoto getting a win over Tenryu, successfully elevating Hashimoto & Tenryu (and therefore WAR) while not hurting Inoki at all. In WAR Tenryu got on a run of bringing in popular foreign stars with the main one, Ultímo Dragon, who famously booked the 2nd Super J Cup that WAR promoted. But also stars like Lance Storm, Corazón de León, Rey Misterio Jr., Bam Bam Bigelow and Scott Putski, as well as being the starting point for native stars today like Masaaki Mochizuki and Tomohiro Ishii. WAR was never on the same level as NJPW and AJPW, but always had a passionate fanbase and Tenryu himself has always been spoken as a great boss to work for and is well respected by many to this day. As an example, let me quote a blog Lance Storm once wrote on Tenryu showing his kindness and generosity: “War was a great company to work for and Tenryu was likely the best boss I ever had. I’m not sure there is a man in the business I have more respect for than Genichiro Tenryu. Tenryu treated his people like they were “his people” not just wrestlers that happen to work for him. We all traveled together on the same bus and Tenryu was compeltely approachable and easy to talk to. I got regular raises working for WAR and Tenryu always checked up on us to make sure we didn’t need anything. Tenryu had worked in the US before so I think he appreciated the hardships of being in a foreign country and always looked out for us.
“Did WAR or Genichiro Tenryu ever stiff me on my money? ABSLOUTELY NOT! I was paid every dime Tenryu ever promised me and on a few occasions even got bonuses. In Japan a man is measured by his honour and Tenryu is a great, great man! On a scale from 1-10, Tenryu was an 11, and I can’t thank him enough for two of the greatest years of my career.” (Credit Lance,stormwrestling.com )
To this day, WAR is one of the few companies that closed down while still being profitable and of the owner’s own accord. So why did Wrestle Association R close down? Because come 1998 Tenryu became too busy as he had started a comeback and his first time as a full time wrestler in NJPW, he wrestled earnestly in NJPW while rarely promoting WAR shows before it shut down for good in 1999. In NJPW he started off joining the Heisei Ishingun stable to take on teams like nWo Japan, even winning the tag titles teaming with Shiro Koshinaka. After dropping the tag titles to TenCozy and lingering outside of main events, his NJPW journey was completed when he won his first and only IWGP World Title in December of 1999. Unfortunately, Tenryu’s title win turned out to be more of a feel good moment and vehicle to boost NJPW stalwart Kensuke Sasaki, as Tenryu’s very next match was a title drop to him at the Dome. Then, a far more defining moment in his career was around the corner…
In the Summer of 2000 All Japan was facing serious problems as (has been covered by many others including myself more in-depth in my Kawada article) most of it’s roster left the company to form NOAH after Giant Baba’s death. After that with Kawada the only main player left, on July 2nd, 2000, Baba’s widow Motoko cut a tearful promo announcing the shocking return of Tenryu to All Japan as a full time wrestler, and though it probably wasn’t what Giant Baba wanted, you can make an extremely strong argument his first match back, a Revolution reformation with Kawada teaming against young star Taiyo Kea and Stan Hansen probably saved his company due to the publicity and great performance from all involved.
After giving AJPW a shot in the arm, Tenryu was placed in the middle of the top of the card with Kawada starting a feud with NJPW that gave AJPW more publicity (also covered in-depth in the Kawada article) AJPW held a tournament to crown the first post-split Triple Crown Champion. Tenryu had strong wins in the first two rounds beating Mike Barton & Stan Hansen in the first two rounds to set the stage for the faceoff of the classic “Mentor vs. Student” rivalry a decade after Revolution dissolved, and it’s hard to describe how important this match also was to AJPW regaining form. Just the opening visual of both men black & yellow sends chills by longtime AJPW followers. And this match. Oh ho this match. Kawada in a “prove myself” match is almost always money and he’s REALLY money on offense here, in particularly legitimately one of my favorite spots in wrestling history which should be seen by everybody, when Kawada dramatically destroys Tenryu’s face, knocking him off the apron and seemingly denting his nose in addition to busting it open, and after great selling and seemingly being out on his feet for nearly 10 minutes, in Tenryu fashion his move to turn it around is a straight punch that even Miguel Cotto would deem awesome. Just another incredible match and moment for “Mr. Puroresu”. Tenryu vs. Kawada for the vacant Triple Crown in the new All Japan from October 28th, 2000.
Tenryu’s triumphant win and signal that All Japan truly could get back to the status of it’s glory days was well received by most, though there was discontent among some fans who thought Tenryu was too old and the promotion should be built more around the true “face” of AJPW to the fans, Kawada. Unfortunately for Tenryu his title run outside of his big win was more or less rendered meaningless, as during the rebuilding phase and NJPW company feud, the 50 year old only had one successful title defense in 8 months against Taiyo Kea before losing to Keiji Muto on a show largely built around NJPW vs AJPW matches. He continued his run as co-Ace of AJPW though as during his reign he successfully accomplished the rare feat of winning the Champion’s Carnival while holding the Triple Crown. Then bouncing back after his loss to Muto by capturing World Tag Team Titles with Yoji Anjo. Tenryu competed mainly in tag teams from there on in ’01, after having the reign with Anjo Tenryu reformed Revolution with Samson Fuyuki for the Real World Tag League, making it to the final before losing to Muto & Kea. Then 2002 came around and Muto shocked the world by jumping to All Japan full time and taking stars Satoshi Kojima and Kendo Kashin with him, as well as Toshiaki Kawada succumbing to an injury that took him out for over a year, leaving the Triple Crown vacant. That lead to the decision that the winner of the 2002 Champion’s Carnival, Keiji Muto would face Tenryu in a showdown for the belts. The winner itself was very much up in the air at the time, but in the end Tenryu came back on top of the mountain, pinning Muto and winning the Titles. He recovered and got back to the normal Champion’s schedule, 3 months later defending the Triple Crown in yet another classic match for Tenryu’s career.
Satoshi Kojima was a longtime NJPW mid-card wrestler who made the jump after having trouble dealing with Inoki’s insanity and opted to leave with Muto to greener pastures in AJPW. He had a strong start to his AJPW career, gaining popularity with his new fanbase and leading his Block in points during the Round Robin stage of the Champion’s Carnival, as well as winning a Triple Crown #1 contender match on the same show Tenryu beat Muto. The stage was set. All Japan’s biggest remaining star vs. the best prospect to be the ace of AJPW fans had seen in nearly a decade, clearly on the path of being the heir to the throne in the new AJPW. And boy did the crowd love the feisty orange clad babyface here. Cheering for every Lariat, Chop, and Brainbuster no-sell he could give to the fullest creating an unforgettable atmosphere. Tenryu dished out his offense in his legendary fashion for his own supporters as he looked to re-establish himself as the man, still superior to yet another young upstart trying to knock him off the same way Tenryu did to Jumbo Tsuruta nearly 15 years beforehand. So much heart and passion, experience and execution…it’s a classic, people. Must watch. I’m talking about Tenryu taking on Satoshi Kojima from July 17th, 2002 for the Triple Crown.
After losing the title back to Muto a couple of months later Tenryu was a solid player for All Japan, but did well finishing up his run, still working sporadically for All Japan, even getting a brief All Asia Tag Title reign. But he also took on a role in Choshu’s startup World Japan in 2003, and in 2004 he took up an in-depth run in New Japan, starting a faction called Pirates Gundan and making it all the way to the semi-finals of the G1 Climax, then he traveled to NOAH as well as Dragon Gate for brief and not very memorable runs, mainly feuding with Stalker Ishikawa & Magnum TOKYO. Then in 2006 he started his longest run outside of All Japan, of course…wrestling often with HUSTLE, taking up the gimmick of a general in Generalissimo Takada’s Monster Army for typical HUSTLE hijinks. In 2010 he again started his own company, opting from the very…unique name of his previous outfit, to the very lowkey “Tenryu Project” which ran very sporadically, running just under 30 shows total in the last 5 years, running small shows typically attended by the hundreds, until this very year in which Tenryu announced he was retiring, which led to his final match in front of over 10,000 fans in Sumo Hall.
During the Final of New Japan’s G1 Climax tournament, Tenryu made a surprise appearance at the show calling out the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, Kazuchika Okada, in a segment that left the crowd and sports media buzzing as the young and brash Okada disrespected the legend, setting the stage for one more performance from the man himself.
On Tenryu’s retirement show just over a week ago we saw Tenryu’s last match, in an affair which saw everyone from respected stars of the past like Yoshiaki Fujiwara and Riki Choshu, to trainees Tenryu had a hand in training such as Tomohiro Ishii, to Tenryu Project regulars, even a Joshi match featuring women’s wrestlers, it was an incredibly memorable night for all and it was capped off as expected with the true main event. Now Okada has had many matches in his career with lots of showcases, but rarely have seen a performance from him quite like this. He had to withstand ultra stiff jabs from Tenryu, who was determined to give the Rainmaker a lesson he wouldn’t soon forget in the old school style of wrestling, pelting Gedo’s meal ticket with signature chops and his infamous Guh Punches, and by the end Okada left looking like he’d spent 12 Rounds in a heavyweight boxing slugfest with bruises and pinkened skin. The crowd cheered for their hero and booed the upstart from jump street, even as Okada rained in hard dropkicks to the legend, and even when Tenryu attempted a Powerbomb, unable to tighten his grip completely ended up dropping Okada on his neck in a dangerous moment that I’m sure many of NJPW’s top decision makers especially dreaded seeing. In the end though, despite their efforts, it would be ridiculous to call this a great match on the level of Tenryu’s past, but it wasn’t about the match quality or even wins and losses, as I suspect most logical people knew the winner as soon as the match was made. This was a spectacle through and through, even down to the WAR Special Tenryu brought back. The post match was poignant, as after a very light Rainmaker, Okada bowed in respect to the legend before strolling off and giving Tenryu one last moment in the spotlight, giving way to old rival Stan Hansen, older rival Terry Funk, and Tenryu Project head honcho Ayano Shimada came out to greet Tenryu and let him give one more speech to the fans to which he said he “couldn’t ask for more” from his amazing career, and like that it was over. It’s hard to tell what the future holds for the 65 year old at this point as his in-ring career is done and Tenryu Project is wrapped up is seemingly wrapped up as well. It seems Tenryu will ride off into the sunset as a hero with loads of respect and many greet performances. Truly one of the greatest of all time and well deserving of the title “Mr. Puroresu”. Thanks for everything, Tenryu.
(Note: This is the last of these I’ll be doing for a little while as I have a prior writing obligation that I must live up to that’s finally in said writing stage. Full disclosure I’m set to co-author an e-book based around the top 100 matches of this year which no doubt I’ll plug somewhere at some point when it comes out. But no worries, I should be back from hiatus near the beginning of next year, and I’ll still have the requests down that everyone made. Thanks everyone who has read these, talked with me about these guys and took joy out of these daily things with all the cool compliments. So appreciated. Really can’t wait to start again and do the rest!)