Grave of wrestler Mitsuhiro Momota known as Rikidozan

In the pulsating world of Puroresu (professional wrestling), Rikidōzan’s name is often whispered with reverence. His meteoric rise to fame in post-WWII Japan wasn’t just about his wrestling moves; it was a symbol of a nation’s resurgence. Yet, beneath the glare of the spotlight lay shadows, and in Rikidōzan’s case, these shadows bore the unmistakable mark of the Yakuza.

From Sumo Rings to Wrestling Stardom

Mitsuhiro Momota (born Kim Sin-rak), known popularly as Rikidōzan, was originally from what is today North Korea. Moving to Japan, he initially dabbled in sumo wrestling but later shifted his focus to Puroresu. This change was momentous, not only for him but for Japan. His matches, particularly against American wrestlers, became a metaphor for Japan’s defiance against Western dominance. Every victory in the ring became a balm for the collective Japanese psyche, still smarting from the wounds of WWII. Rikidōzan’s unmatched charisma ensured packed arenas, turning him into a national sensation.

The Yakuza Connection

The same charisma that drew legions of fans also attracted the attention of the Yakuza, Japan’s notorious organized crime syndicate. As Rikidōzan’s fame grew, so did rumors of his connections with these underworld figures; he was also thought to hold connections to the Yakuza from his days as a sumo wrestler. It wasn’t just about protection or security that such alliances with this violent organisation offered. There were murmurings about fixed matches and the Yakuza’s deep involvement in the lucrative business of Puroresu. The wrestling ring, with its bright lights and louder cheers, often hid these darker machinations.

A Violent Encounter with the Yakuza

Momota, beyond his wrestling fame, had a reputation for being a brash and volatile figure. He often displayed belligerent behavior, allegedly heightened by an indulgence in drugs and alcohol.

On the fateful night of December 8, 1963, Rikidōzan’s tempestuous nature was reportedly on full display at the New Latin Quarter, a renowned Tokyo nightclub. However, it was a seemingly innocuous encounter that would eventually become his undoing.

Engrossed in conversation with a woman near a restroom, Rikidōzan was inadvertently bumped by Katsushi Murata, a 24-year-old Yakuza member. Rikidōzan claimed Murata stepped on his foot and he had demanded an apology. The confrontation escalated rapidly, with Rikidōzan landing a heavy blow against Murata, knocking him to the floor. Blinded by rage, Rikidōzan continued to strike Murata on the floor with unrelenting force. This prompted Murata to retaliate by stabbing the wrestler in the abdomen with a knife.

One report indicated that Rikidōzan saw a physician that night where his wound was deemed not to pose a fatal risk, however, he was advised to have surgery. Despite undergoing surgery and showing initial signs of recovery, Momota’s penchant for alcohol worsened his condition, leading to the onset of peritonitis. A second surgery was arranged one week later, but Rikidōzan succumbed to the effects of this condition, leading to his death at approximately 9:50 p.m. on December 15, 1963. He was just 39 years old.

The Fate of Katsushi Murata

Japanese law enforcement initially charged Murata with murder, but he was eventually found guilty of manslaughter, resulting in a seven-year prison sentence. Murata always maintained that he acted in self-defense, however, it is often debated whether the reasons for this attack were truly due to the events of the night or instead brought about by a much longer feud with rival Yakuza gang members. Murata would go on to rise within the ranks of his gang the Sumiyoshi-kai, achieving a leadership position by the mid-80s. Despite his past, Murata displayed an annual act of reverence, visiting Rikidōzan’s grave to bow and pray. Murata died from natural causes on April 9, 2013.