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Better Know a Rikishi: Tenryu Genichiro

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On December 6, 1976, a sumo wrestler entered the middle of the Kokugikan. He sat in a chair in front of an audience ready to see his retirement ceremony. One by one, important figures in his career came and cut his chonmage. This is how all sumo retirement entries proceed, but this one was slightly different. The Kokugikan was the old Ryogoku Kokugikan, which was being used by Nihon University, not the Kuramae Kokugikan then used for sumo. The center was also taken by a professional wrestling ring, not a dohyo. And the final snip of the scissors to remove the top-knot was by Shohei Baba, star and head of All Japan Pro Wrestling. That’s because Tenryu Genichiro was not just retiring from sumo, but joining professional wrestling.


At the time, Tenryu was 26 and had spent 27 basho as a sekitori with 16 in Makuuchi. He left sumo after the September 1976 tournament, where he went 8-7 from Maegashira #13 East. Tenryu was mostly a Juryo wrestler through 1975 and 1976, yo-yo-ing up to Makuuchi on occasion. He certainly wasn’t about to make an Ozeki run, much less get a Yokozuna promotion anytime soon. But he was a solid rikishi who could have had a long time in Makuuchi.


Yet he chose to go into professional wrestling. Tenryu didn’t become one of sumo’s biggest stars, but did become an icon of puroresu.


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Shimada Gen'ichirō was born to a family of farmers on February 2, 1950. He joined Nishonoseki-beya for the January 1964 basho, just before his 14th birthday. 13 year olds do not have the amateur accolades that indicate an easy rise up the Banzuke. Indeed, the young Shimada slowly made his way through the lowest levels with no lower-level yusho, making Makushita in late 1966. Of course, he was a 16 year old in sumo’s third division, which was impressive enough. He grew to be 185 cm (6’1”) and over 100 kg (220 lbs). He wasn’t a big rikishi, but he wasn’t tremendously outgunned in that era. By September 1971, he made Juryo and adopted the shikona “天龍” Tenryu.


The Tenryu is a river in Japan, and also the shikona of a previous rikishi who fought in the 1920s and 1930s, Tenryu Saburo. (In both cases, it’s a different kanji for the “ryu” element, 竜. That’s shikona for you.) That Tenryu is most famous for leading the “Shunjuen Incident.” That was essentially a strike of high-level sekitori in 1932, when he was a Sekiwake. Tenryu the First set up shop in a Chinese restaurant, called “Shunjuen,” and demanded a change to how sumo wrestlers were treated and paid. He ended up leaving the Sumo Association in 1932, trying to form a rival sumo organization that failed. The demands from Tenryu and his allies were largely acceded to, but only in 1957.


Shimada adopting “Tenryu” in any form when he reached Juryo was certainly a statement of some kind. On the dohyo, Tenryu was one of those guys who needed a few shots to stick at each of the highest levels. Stylistically, he was definitely a pusher-thruster. His most common winning kimarite was “tsukidashi,” the frontal thrust out. Visually, the few videos of him as a sumotori make him look like Abi or Ichiyamamoto. He was always trying to keep his opponent at arm’s length with rapid open-hand thrusts.


His career high rank was Maegashira #1 West in January 1974. Mostly, though, he was a guy who bounced around lower Maegashira and upper Juryo. He had the ability to hang in with the best rikishi, but didn’t seem able to dominate. As a 26 year old with a wealth of experience, he could have had a long career. Sanyaku was a slim possibility and he might have lucked into a yusho. Tenryu most likely would have been a long-serving sekitori.


Instead, he retired and joined All Japan Pro Wrestling. Why he would do that is an interesting question. Every sumotori enters professional sumo with their sights set on yushos, Sanyaku promotions, and maybe even a chance at Yokozuna. By 1976, Tenryu had to know those were unlikely. Perhaps AJPW provided a better chance for stardom and long-term success than sumo.


Clearly, AJPW viewed Tenryu’s recruitment as a coup. Shohei “Giant” Baba arranged a press conference before Tenryu even cut his hair. Then he made sure the hair-cutting was done for AJPW’s TV program. A sumo wrestler was coming to All Japan Pro Wrestling, and the company wanted everyone to know about it.


Interestingly, AJPW was doing fairly well with Baba as its main star, but probably needed more Japanese wrestlers. A towering former baseball player, Baba was a protege of Rikidozan. He founded AJPW alongside Rikidozan’s sons when the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance fell apart in 1972. Baba’s stardom was enough to lift AJPW, but he was using the Rikidozan model of beating mostly American stars. Meanwhile, New Japan Pro Wrestling, AJPW’s rival and founded by Baba’s former colleague Antonio Inoki when the JWA split, had developed young Japanese stars like Tatsumi Fujinami, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, and Riki Choshu (then going by Mitsuo Yoshida.)


Inoki was still the main star, promoter, and talent recruiter for NJPW, just like Baba was for AJPW. And AJPW did have some homegrown talent like Atsushi Onita and Jumbo Tsuruta, although their real success was years in the future. Getting a sekitori was clearly something that would make news. Perhaps there was even essentially a standing offer for any sumo wrestler who wanted to leave a stable to join AJPW. A sumo wrestler in his mid-20s was a successful athlete, used to heavy training, and had been a known name to Japanese sports fans.


Why Tenryu was the guy who left is a separate question from why AJPW would want a sekitori. Tenryu’s stablemaster Nishonoseki-oyakata (former Ozeki Saganohana) had died in 1975. The succession of Nishonoseki-beya wasn’t officially settled until the time of Tenryu’s retirement. Former Ozeki Daikirin had thought he would get the kabu, but Saganohana’s widow preferred to let fellow wrestler Kongo inherit after he married her daughter. Apparently, Tenryu really wanted to follow Daikirin to the newly formed Oshiogawa stable. He didn’t get along with Kongo. The Sumo Association blocked the move, so Tenryu quit.


Likely, Tenryu was comfortable making the decision to retire and leave for AJPW because he knew he could. He did say in his initial press conference that he always enjoyed pro wrestling, which either indicates puroresu was being watched by the younger members of sumo stables or that he already knew the right thing to say. Maybe it was some of both. Rikidozan had come out of sumo to build pro wrestling in Japan, and the two worlds were not quite as separate as they may seem in 1976.


Tenryu didn’t leap to AJPW and immediately become a star. Instead, he was sent to Amarillo, Texas to learn from brothers Dory and Terry Funk in their family’s promotion. While on an American sojourn, a few things happened to Tenryu. He learned mat wrestling maneuvers, he got comfortable with in-ring storytelling, and he bulked up. The Genichiro Tenryu that returned to Japan looked different from the former sekitori who left a few years earlier. (A note here. Japanese pro wrestlers have always had a “Personal Name-Family Name” construction when discussed in Western media. In Japan, they use the traditional “Family Name-Personal Name” order. This will even see a ring announcer introduce “Tenryu Genichiro” just before an English language commentator says “And here’s Genichiro Tenryu.”)


This is a sumo website, so Tenryu’s pro-wrestling career will get short shrift. It is key to understand that Tenryu didn’t really function as a sumo wrestler in a pro wrestling ring. He never wore a Yukata to the ring or used obvious sumo maneuvers. He was a broad-chested, powerful mat technician who could trade blows when he needed to. He also wore plain black trunks. The most sumo-wrestler thing about Tenryu as a professional wrestler was his consistent, stoic demeanor when staring down an opponent.


Tenryu was never THE guy in AJPW throughout the eighties, but he was a consistent main-eventer. In 1989, he defeated former tag partner Jumbo Tsuruta to claim the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship, AJPW’s top prize. His feud with Tsuruta was one of the legendary rivalries in Japanese wrestling. (And on an intriguing note, Tenryu was undersized and relatively thin for a sumo wrestler despite being a fairly large human being. Then in his pro wrestling career, he was billed at 6’2” and 275 lbs, but was often associated with much larger men like the 6’10” Giant Baba and the 6’6” Jumbo Tsuruta. Even notable foreign opponents like Stan Hansen, Bruiser Brody, and Terry Gordy dwarfed the considerably large Tenryu.)


In 1990, Tenryu left AJPW to be the main star of Super World of Sports. Essentially, a Japanese eyeglasses company called Megane Super created SWS with Tenryu as the main draw. The only consistent performer on shows was Genichiro Tenryu. That wasn’t much of a detriment initially, because Tenryu faced every other major star in Japanese wrestling from all promotions. SWS also established a relationship with WWF, allowing Tenryu to have notable matches against Randy Savage and Hulk Hogan at the height of their late 1980s/early 1990s fame. SWS also had an infamous match between former sumo wrestlers Earthquake (real name John Tenta, formerly undefeated Makushita wrestler Kototenzan who quit with a career record of 21-0) and Koji Kitao (former Yokozuna Futahaguro, who quit in disgrace without a yusho to his name after a disagreement with his stablemaster.) The always prickly Kitao decided to get into an actual fight with Earthquake, then grabbed a microphone and yelled about how pro wrestling was fake.


The SWS model wasn’t sustainable, and it wound up in 1992. Tenryu then established Wrestling and Romance (WAR), a promotion dedicated to showcasing Tenryu against whoever he could arrange a match with. Later renamed Wrestling Association R (still shortened to WAR), it remained the Tenryu show throughout the 1990s. WAR ended when Tenryu began wrestling for New Japan Pro Wrestling more consistently. It was finished with a 2000 show that served as Tenryu’s re-entry to All Japan Pro Wrestling, where he would win the Triple Crown Championship two more times.


In the 21st century, Tenryu has had the typically nomadic career of the aging wrestling superstar. He moved between promotions, participated in special shows, and had multiple retirement matches. A 2015 loss to New Japan star Kazuchika Okada seems to have been the real last match. Of course, you can never say never in professional wrestling, despite the fact Genichiro Tenryu is in his 70s now.


He was a sumotori who chose the name of a notable rebel, who sought to leave sumo for better terms for the wrestlers. Genichiro Tenryu himself left sumo in his own way to join All Japan Pro Wrestling. Then when he had the opportunity, he became the star of his own promotions. When that route fell apart, he just kept going. That would never have been available to Tenryu in the Sumo Association. He didn’t become a Yokozuna, but he was a sekitori who turned into a Triple Crown Champion and faced Hulk Hogan in the Tokyo Dome. No one else ever did that.


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