The subtitle of a recent film made about the life of Japanese
wrestling legend Rikidozan read: "A Hero Extraordinary," a moniker that one might find hard to dispute once familiar with its subject's remarkable life and career. Rikidozan was born Kim Sin-Nak in North Korea on November 14th, 1924. Not much is
known about his youth except that he was an angry and disillusioned young man due to the desertion by his parents and the anti-Korean prejudice pervasive throughout East Asia. However, Sin-Nak displayed the type of spirit that was unable to submit to even the bitterest challenges and he quickly channeled his
frustration into ambition.
At the mere age of thirteen, he left his place of birth and embarked
on an eight hundred mile journey east to Tokyo. There he trained in a sumo dojo for three years under the adopted Japanese name of Mitsuhiro Momota. However, despite the pseudonym, many classmates caught onto the true nature of his ethnic origins and he had to endure countless harassments. Again, he stuck to his straw-into-gold method of dealing with adversity. His inner rage in the face of these social circumstances fueled his success. In fact, by the time he was only 23, he had rocketed up the sumo ranks and reached the "sekiwake" level of sumo status, which would allow him entry into the domain of grand championship competitors.
Unfortunately, even the man who would become the great Rikidozan could only take so much injustice, and his sumo career ended due to a quarrel with a referee over a technical decision. The value of having high standing in a financially secure and
publicly revered profession did not outweigh the value he placed on the presence of honor conducted within it.
After a year of drifting from one blue-collar job to the next, he
could no longer go on without taking another opportunity at a life defined by competitive action. This time, however, he decided that he would do it on his own terms. After scraping together some savings, he began to regularly rent out a hall for the purpose of organized freelance wrestling exhibitions. News of a fresh and open wrestling environment spread like wildfire throughout Tokyo and it wasn't long before it caught the attention of numerous famous promoters. The offers presented by these various promoters led him to compete all over the world. It was then that the name of Rikidozan had truly begun to build the reputation for which he is remembered as a legend today. He captured one major title or another almost everywhere he went and he had
defended the International Title 19 times by the time of his death.
He defeated legends such as Freddie Blassie and even
the great Lou Thesz, with whom he shared a deep mutual respect.
His dynamic, hard-hitting in-ring style and brooding, mysterious aura earned him tremendous popular support from one audience to the next and excited fans across all borders. Back in his home base of Japan, he had become a national hero. The fact that he had become an icon of pride and respect in a country that had once shown him nothing but prejudice was perhaps the greatest victory of all. The fact that the Japanese admired his achievements enough to overlook his South Korean heritage was a big win in general for humanity, as it promoted the movement of social conditions towards a more tolerant and harmonious end.
On December 15, 1963, Rikidozan died at age 39 from peritonitis.
His death followed a full week of bleeding due to a stab wound he suffered in a confrontation with a Yakuza gangster whose boss's territorial interests conflicted with those of his own promotions. Thousands of mourners attended the ceremony to bid farewell to a life that, despite its brevity, seemed so full and definitely worthy of the description: "A Hero Extraordinary."
- Michael Pantozzi