This series of articles aim to cover the times when pre-determined professional wrestling matches became all too real. This will not cover stiff shots that were delivered in the course of battle or backstage brawls, but true moments when the punches were no longer pulled and shit got real!
When I started this series, I laid out all these matches in order for the sake of clarity, however I have to jump back in time a little to touch on a tale I stumbled upon while researching for this project:
Lou Thesz vs. Kintaro Ohki
I’ve covered Thesz extensively in past articles, so I’ll just touch on Ohki here. Ohki was born in Korea and illegally entered Japan in 1958, hoping to mimic Korean hero Rikidozan’s career path. Ohki was then trained and debuted as a pro in November of 1959, alongside fellow Rikidozan trainees Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki. Five years later Ohki was working in the United States and found himself facing off against World Champion Thesz in late 1964 in Houston. His home office in Japan, JWA, reportedly told Ohki that they would make him the top star in Japan if he came away from this match as NWA champ by legitimately somehow defeating Thesz.
The match was scheduled for three falls. Ohki made his move in the very first round – what exactly he tried isn’t clear, but tape of the match supposedly exists-locked away in the Houston wrestling film archives. Needless to say, Ohki’s move to shoot on Thesz ended things fast, as Thesz wounded him to the point that Ohki was stretchered off. The two men never faced off again. Ohki maintained a fair amount of success until he stopped working in late 1981. Oddly fifteen years after that he held a formal retirement ceremony, an event where Lou Thesz pushed him to the ring in his wheelchair.
John Tenta vs. Koji Kitao
John Tenta was born in 1963 and early in life was inspired by pro wrestlers like Gene Kiniski to become a grappler. He began training in free style wrestling at the age of six and by the time he left high school he was competing in World championship level tournaments in his native Canada. Tenta’s immense size and skill earned him a scholarship at LSU where Tenta competed in wrestling, football and rugby – and also served as a bouncer at a local bar.
By 1985 Tenta had been discovered by a former sumo Yokozuna and was convinced to come to Japan and train at that sport. Tenta dominated his early bouts, but the combination of injuries from the hard sumo mat and the Japanese wishes that he have his LSU Tiger tattoo grafted off in order to advance in the sport made Tenta decide to retire. Giant Baba recruited Tenta to his All-Japan Pro Wrestling promotion and Tenta spent the next year and a half splitting time between there and Canadian arenas. Finally in late 1989 Vince McMahon brought him to the WWF as Earthquake.
Koji Kitao was born in 1963 and by the age of 15 he had entered into the world of Sumo competitions. Over the next decade the volatile Kitao worked his way up to rank of Yokozuna (grand champion) of the sport. His career was not without controversy however and after reports of his abuse of stablemates and striking his bosses wife during an argument came out, the Sumo commission banned him from competition. Kitao turned to pro wrestling, where he signed on with New Japan. That too ended controversially as he called Riki Choshu a racist name and was fired only a few months into his run. This led him to joining the upstart SWS promotion, which was attempting to create a footprint in the Japanese wrestling landscape and had managed to come to a working agreement with the WWF. That led to a SWS/WWF “Supercard” and a match between the sumo warriors Tenta and Kitao in April of 1991.
The match started out basic, but once Tenta scored a takedown, Kitao seemed to get very upset and attempted an armlock that Tenta quickly shook off. They circled each other and Tenta indicated he knew something was amiss. They stare and circle more – culminating in a sloppy grapple/dodging sequence that the ref aggressively broke up. Kitao then attempted to gouge the eyes of his opponent and Tenta fended him off and kicked at his hand. Tenta released a series of obscenities as he threatened Kitao, then brushed off a kick attempt his opponent tried. After more staring, Kitao kicked the ref to earn a DQ. He then got on the house mic and informed the fans that wrestling is fake. SWS ended up firing Kitao over this incident.
Kitao would end up as a journeyman worker for several years after this incident, even dabbling in the MMA world. Tenta went on to work in the WCW and WWF for the next seven years before focusing on independent work. He died of cancer in June of 2006.
“Dr. Death” Steve Williams vs. Steve Ray
Steve Williams was the very definition of a stud athlete, participating in track, football and wrestling in high school. Once in college, he made it to the NCAA finals in wrestling and participated on the Oklahoma Sooners football team. After a brief USFL career, Williams focused solely on pro wrestling.
In 1991 promoter Herb Abrams used Williams’ legit skills to help him avenge an issue Abrams was having with journeyman Steve Ray. He felt Ray was sleeping with his wife, and owed him money. To that end, he offered Williams a financial bonus to break Ray’s nose during the course of a bout. The match took place at a UWF TV taping and aired in all it’s glory on TV soon after. It appears the blow that busts Ray open occurs around the 6:20 mark of the video. Dr.Death went on to participate in wrestling and even an MMA fight before his untimely death in 2009. I’ll have a bit more on Dr. Death in a later installment.
Nobuhiko Takada vs. Trevor Berbick
Berbick was an Olympic boxing participant in 1976, who went on to win the WBC Heavyweight title and faced such greats as Larry Holmes, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson during his career.
Takada begin wrestling in 1981 for New Japan. In 1984 he joined Akira Maeda and others as they broke off from there to form a stiffer shoot style promotion in the UWF. Once that folded, Takada was forced to return to New Japan, where he was pushed strongly. He left once again in 1988 to join the second version of the UWF but that federation folded in 1990. Takada went on to form his own promotion, the UWFI, where he became the top draw – even getting the endorsement from Lou Thesz, who presented Takada with one of his old NWA World titles. This led to Takada bringing in Berbick in a wrestler vs. boxer match in the flavor of Inoki vs. Ali from fifteen years earlier.
The match was a debacle, as Berbick thought the rules were agreed to be the same as American kickboxing, however Takada kept kicking Berbick on his legs. Instead of fighting back, Berbick kept complaining to the ref about the infraction. Finally, he simply just left the ring and stormed off.
Takada would go on to have a monstrously successful pro wrestling career, when his UWFI group feuded with New Japan and drew millions of dollars at the gate. The late 90’s saw him attempt to move on to MMA, to embarrassingly poor results. Berbick would be murdered in 2006 by his nephew and an eighteen-year-old accomplice.
Remarkably, David “Fit” Finlay was still challenging fans to legit matches as late as 1993 in Germany. The practice continued the following year until Ulf Herman, a man much bigger than Finlay, lost to a fan while trying to do his own “challenge the marks” routine.
Pancrase rose to prominence in Japan in the early 90’s, featuring actual mixed martial arts bouts. But even some of these early MMA contests were worked to some extent. Ken Shamrock participated in one against Matt Hume that was “faked” due to an injury. Masa Funaki, Shamrock and Minoru Suzuki would participate in bouts designed to make new stars, even if their opponents weren’t made aware that the other party wasn’t trying to win.
Gary Albright vs. Kiyoshi Tamura
Gary Albright was a state champion wrestler, an NCAA wrestling stud, a champion of the Big 8, a National Open freestyle champion and a World Greco-Roman champion. Tamura was a student of Takada, Billy Robinson and Akira Maeda and was well versed in catch wrestling.
Albright was coming off having lost to Masa Kakihara at the prior month’s UWFI card and was asked to again do the job for another smaller man in Tamura at the next event. Albright was upset by his diminishing push and set out to make sure Tamura’s big win would be soiled. During the meat of the match Albright refused to break holds and forced the ref to plead with him to release the clinches. Then he took a cartoonish bump off of a strike and then laid on the mat resting. Once the finish came, Albright spent several minutes laying on his belly, not fending off Tamura at all. Finally Tamura locked on a choke and Albright quickly tapped, then stood up and walked off. Tamura was so upset that his big win was ruined, he broke down in tears after the bout. Albright made good on his unprofessional behavior two months later by returning to the UWFI and doing a fine job at putting Tamura over. These two bouts were the last ones Albright participated in for the UWFI.
Albright would die of a heart attack in the ring a few short years after this encounter. Tamura would go on to compete in nearly 50 MMA bouts and serve as a bit of a living legend in both the MMA and pro wrestling worlds.
I’m going to close this edition out with a little reverse of the script and highlight a pair of UFC fights that turned out to be faked:
Oleg Taktarov vs. Anthony Macias
Oleg Taktarov was a sambo and judo practitioner who was participating at his second UFC event. He was in the semi-finals of the three round tournament that evening and was set to face off with Muay Thai practitioner “Mad Dog” Macias. The catch was that both men were under the employ of the same manager, and since the winner was to face the beastly knockout power of Tank Abbott, Macias was asked to take a dive to help Taktarov’s chances in the finals. As a result, UFC 6 in July of 1995 saw the first “worked” match in UFC history. Oleg won with a choke in seconds.
Don Frye vs. Mark Hall
Link of Fight
The second UFC fight believed to be worked took place on December 7th, 1996 at the Ultimate Ultimate 96 PPV event. This time it was Don Frye and Mark Hall who both were managed by the same promoter. Coincidentally, Tank Abbott was once again the man who would be facing the winner of the bout in the next round. Frye was a good enough wrestler to compete in the Olympic trials, along with a background in boxing and judo. Hall was trained in self-defense and grappling.
The actual bout only went seconds, as Frye swept Hall quickly and grabbed on a leg lock for a quick win. The ref for the match John McCarthy found it fishy right away and even told UFC owner Bob Meyrowitz about what he believed to be a fix. Hall would come out months later and claim he agreed to lose for a bribe, but Frye never paid him the promised sum. Frye denied the accusation.
Next time: Two old farts scream threats in a high school gym, Kurt Angle and Bob Holly rough up trainees, Perry Saturn batters a jobber and more Japan MMA controversies.