Welcome to Last Word on Mania month at Last Word on Sports! All month long we will be doing articles to build up for WrestleMania 31 on March 29, 2015. Be sure to read everything this month by clicking this link. Enjoy!
Some wrestlers never leave the shadow of their famous partners.
We’ve seen it plenty of times in wrestling as the Marty Jannetty’s, the Faarooq’s, the Brian Pillman’s and the John Morrison’s of the wrestling world have to compete with their partners becoming world champions. Even if they achieve some notoriety or singles success, they still have to always be known as the “former tag partner” of a great singles champion.
Tatsumi Fujinami knows what it’s like to be under that shadow. He also knows what it’s like to break away from it and cast a shadow of his own.
Fujinami began his wrestling career at the very young age of 17, already under the tutelage of one of Japan’s biggest stars in Antonio Inoki. Inoki himself was only 17 when he came under the wing of the patriarch of Japanese wrestling Rikidozan. When Inoki attempted a takeover of the Japan Wrestling Association in 1971, he was fired. Following him to what would soon become New Japan Pro Wrestling was young Tatsumi.
Spending his first few years as a young lion in New Japan before the term came to describe their annual tournament (The Young Lions Cup), Fujinami knew he had to break his image of just being a young boy who followed his mentor. Fujinami made his way out of Japan and into Mexico and the United States, where he made his first appearance in the WWWF, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment. Fujinami won the WWWF Junior Heavyweight championship in 1978 and took it back to Japan with him, where it stayed for its existence. Upon proving his worth as a junior to New Japan Pro Wrestling, Fujinami finally filled into his six foot stature and graduated to the heavyweight ranks. He would be the first wrestler to make such a transition in Japan.
Now a heavyweight, Fujinami wrestled some of the greatest names in the business in the early 1980s, everyone from Andre the Giant to Bob Backlund to Hulk Hogan to Stan “The Lariat” Hansen. It was during this time he earned the nickname “The Dragon” prior to it being Ricky Steamboat’s nickname. It was common for the best wrestlers in the WWF and all over the National Wrestling Alliance to come to New Japan and try to show their meddle against Inoki and Fujinami. Fujinami was even at one point the WWF International Heavyweight champion, holding the title for 216 days in his first run and 819 days in the next (the title was first won in New York but primarily defended in Japan). While he would often tag with Kengo Kimura, Osamu Nishimura and Akira Maeda, it was his tag matches with Inoki that were the most magical. If you can find it, the December 7, 1984 match between Inoki and Fujinami against Dick Murdoch and Adrian Adonis is one of the greatest tag team matches of all time.
After Inoki had to vacate the newly created IWGP Heavyweight championship, Tatsumi Fujinami proved himself by winning it on May 8, 1988 by defeating Big Van Vader. After the title was held up after a match against Riki Chosu, he took it back again. This time he held the championship for 285 days before vacating it to prove his worth on the road to the Tokyo Dome. Unfortunately for Fujinami, his match with Big Van Vader led to a severe back injury, finding himself unable to re-capture the IWGP title and losing to a man he once defeated for the same vacant title. He returned in 1990 to win the belt back, only to lose it again to Big Van Vader. He won it back in 1991, only to go ahead and finally accomplish something that got him out of the shadow of his mentor Antonio Inoki: Fujinami beat “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair and became simultaneously the NWA World Heavyweight champion and IWGP World Heavyweight champion, a dual champion a decade the WWF tried to make being “undisputed” champion cool in 2001.
After finally blazing his own trail, Fujinami would capture the IWGP Heavyweight championship for a total of six times. Some of his most popular moves like the Dragon suplex, Dragon screw, Dragon sleeper and Dragon backbreaker would soon be used by guys like Ultimo Dragon. He would rise to prominence in becoming President of New Japan Pro Wrestling in 1999, only to eventually give an ultimatum that either he or Riki Chosu go. Chosu stayed, so Fujinami left to form a new company in Muga/Dradition.
Why The Dragon?
It’s a bit of a surprise that the WWE wouldn’t try to induct Giant Baba next for Japanese legends, though the relationship with All Japan Pro Wrestling was never quite as strong as the one with New Japan Pro Wrestling. Genicho Tenryu participated a few times in the WWF, including being in the final four of the 1994 Royal Rumble. His promotion, SWS, was known for trying to bring WWE style sports entertainment to Japan. He just recently retired from all Japanese competition. There are other names that could have been pulled to be the next inductee with Japanese lineage but Tatsumi Fujinami makes sense in that he wasn’t simply important to the WWE, but also to NWA/WCW history. That’s why the man he beat for the NWA World Heavyweight championship in Ric Flair will be inducting him. It should also be added that while most wrestlers go into the WWE Hall of Fame after retirement, Fujinami still actively wrestles at age 61. It’ll be great to see someone enter the hall full of life, instead of on their way to death.
Fujinami proved you could go from junior heavyweight to heavyweight and be a major star. Fujinami proved you could break out of the shadow of a legend. Fujinami proved you could be from Japan and win one of the most prestigious championships in America. And now, Fujinami proves he belongs in the WWE Hall of Fame.
Photo contains material from Pro Wrestling Illustrated