The popularity of pro wrestling in Japan and its effect on martial arts

Few sports in Japan have gained attention like professional wrestling. WWE wrestling in Japan is extremely popular. The New Japan Pro Wrestling is also super popular and not just in Japan. Millions tune in to the action taking place in Japan’s wrestling scene. The sport is reaching new heights of popularity. How did this come about? What is the history of professional wrestling in Japan? How has it had an impact on some of the other forms of martial arts that are popular within the country?

Early Pro Wrestling Success In Japan

Professional wrestling in Japan is also known as “puroresu”. It first grew to prominence following the conclusion of WWII. The sport was somewhat obscure until sumo wrestling star Rikidozan transitioned to wrestling. He is still credited as one of the most influential figures in the history of the sport in Japan. Later he was recognized for his contributions to the sport and was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame.

Rikidozan debuted as a professional wrestler in October 1951. His popularity grew exponentially after defeating numerous American wrestlers. August 1958 was an important month for Japanese professional wrestling. Rikidozan defeated Lou Thesz to become the NWA International Heavyweight Champion. He also participated in the historic, sixty minute, title match against The Destroyer in 1968.

While successful in the ring, it was his work outside that had the largest impact wrestling in Japan. He formed the first Japanese professional wrestling company: The Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance (JWA).

Rival Japanese Companies Attract New Fans

In the 1970’s the popularity of professional wrestling exploded in Japan. Much like the ‘Attitude Era’ that saw the WCW and WWE compete for viewership, the many Japanese companies competed. The fierce competition was not kind to all companies and Rikidozan’s JWA folded in 1973. The newer All Japan Pro Wrestling and New Japan Pro Wrestling gained popularity.

It was also during the 1970’s that mixed martial arts began to develop alongside pro wrestling. Antonio Inoki was the pioneer during this period. He competed in wrestling matches against karate and judo fighters throughout the decade.  In 1976 Inoki stepped inside the ring to take on Muhammad Ali. This was a pivotal moment for pro wrestling and mixed martial arts. It was certainly one of the biggest draws ever in Japanese sports. However, in the end, fight was slightly disappointing. Despite the less than stellar action the concept captivated audiences. New wrestling fans  were forged that day watching the spectacle.

Important Role Of Women In Popularity

Even at its beginnings, pro wrestling featured female athletes. Today women’s matches rival the men’s in viewership. Fans enjoy the opportunity to bet on wrestling matches featuring all wrestlers. Over recent years, the popularity of betting on female championship matches has increased.  This is no surprise as the WWE has done an excellent job in promoting women’s wrestling. WrestleMania, the WWE’s flagship event, even features two important female only matches.

Despite the success of the WWE, Japan’s pro wrestling is ahead of the game on this front. The Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling Association was established in 1967.  The early founding inspired a whole generation of female fans. It also provided a viable path to the top regardless of gender.

History was made in 1975, as Mach Fumiake won the WWWA Championship. Since her success only two wrestlers from outside of Japan have won the prestigious honor. It could be argued that women’s wrestling is more popular than male wrestling in Japan to this day. A huge number of stars have made a name for themselves like Lioness Asuka, Akira Hokuto and Jushin Liger. There has been no shortage of female talent in the past 30 years of Japanese pro wrestling.

Has Professional Wrestling Affected the Popularity Of Martial Arts?

The WWE has driven the global popularity of pro wrestling and this in turn has give rise to the popularity of other martial arts. There have been ‘crossover’ stars who competed in both. Brock Lesnar is probably the most prominent example. His resume of pro wrestling was impressive. He was both a WWE champion and IWGP champion in Japan. During his two-year stint in Japan, he would headline sold out matches against Shinsuke Nakamura and Kurt Angle. When Lesnar moved into the UFC, fans of Japanese wrestling continued to follow him. Lesnar had a profound impact on the popularity of UFC increasing, especially in Japan.

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