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Lifting As We Rise: Black Wrestlers Leaving Their Mark in Japan

9 months ago

Lifting As We Rise: Black Wrestlers Leaving Their Mark in Japan

By: Lyric Swinton

“It was 1976 when I fought Antonio Inoki at the Budokan. [We] put our best efforts into making world peace through sports, to prove there is only one mankind beyond the sexual, ethnical, or cultural differences.” These were the words of Muhammad Ali, attending Inoki’s final match in 1998.

In a significant moment that bridged the worlds of boxing, martial arts, and professional wrestling, New Japan Pro Wrestling founder Antonio Inoki faced off with American boxing legend Muhammad Ali in 1976 at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo. Although the bout itself wasn’t particularly thrilling, the event sold out the venue and reached over 1.4 billion viewers around the world on pay-per-view.

Ali vs. Inoki was merely the beginning of Black athletes being showcased against NJPW talent. Some of the greatest stars around the world have traveled to Japan with the hope of proving themselves in the “King of Sports.” In the 80s and 90s, wrestlers like Ron Simmons, Tony Atlas, Abdullah The Butcher, Bad News Brown, and 2 Cold Scorpio would appear in NJPW.

However, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that a Black wrestler would finally capture gold in New Japan. On March 28, 2004, former NFL football player and mixed martial artist Bob Sapp became the first (and still the only) Black man to hold the IWGP Heavyweight Championship. Sapp’s popularity was comparable to Ronda Rousey’s signing with WWE in 2017. Sapp caused major excitement among fans during his time as champion. Kevin Kelly, the English voice of New Japan Pro Wrestling noted, “Bob Sapp was one of the biggest crossover stars ever. He was huge here in Japan…billboards, commercials, everything. He was a ginormous star.”

A Black wrestler wouldn’t hold a NJPW title again until 2009 when Brother Devon became one-half of the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Champions. In 2011, MVP became the inaugural IWGP Intercontinental Champion. Ricochet was arguably the most consistently successful Black talent to wrestle for New Japan to date, between 2014 and 2017: he became the first Black winner of the Best of the Super Jr. and Super Jr. Tag Tournaments. In addition, he became a two-time IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Champion and a NEVER 6-Man Openweight Tag Team Champion.

Once Ricochet made the jump to WWE, it would be a few years until we’d see Black talent in NJPW find success again. However, in December 2020, history was made when Kevin Knight became the first Black wrestler in NJPW’s 51-year history to enter as a Young Lion in the newly formed LA Dojo, led by head trainer Katsuyori Shibata. For the first time, the company would make a clear effort to build up a Black wrestler as one of the future pillars of New Japan Pro Wrestling.

Billed as six feet tall with a dropkick that Shibata has publicly called “money,” it’s a no-brainer that New Japan accepted the former track & field athlete into its dojo system. Since his debut at the end of 2020, Knight, nicknamed “The Jet,” has been fast-tracked to graduation, making his debut in the 2022 Super Jr. Tag League alongside KUSHIDA, formally called the Intergalactic Jet Setters. He brings his Atlanta flair to Japan, from his hip-hop entrance music to the stylish orange jumpsuits he wears to the ring with his futuristic sunglasses. Most recently, Knight competed in Best of the Super Jr. 30 which he entered as one-half of the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champions, making him the first gaijin L.A Dojo graduate to win NJPW gold and the seventh Black wrestler to win a championship in New Japan. When I interviewed Knight about his experience wrestling in Japan, he spoke about being grateful for the warm reception from Japanese fans.

“As soon as I came out that first time, Korakuen Hall, belt upside down and all…just hearing that reaction, I was like there’s no way this is all for me. I saw the signs in the crowd…I was definitely overwhelmed by it and just so grateful. As a Black man, this is crazy. When I look in the audience, all Japanese people, nobody that looks anything like me but they support me. This is crazy how I can connect to a whole other culture, barely speak their language, but they’re somehow drawn to me so I always appreciate their admiration.”
Kevin Knight’s career has gotten off to a scorching hot start and he has no plans to slow down anytime soon. “My current goal is to do everything, starting with the junior division.” When asked about how he feels about his representation of the Black community in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Knight said “Every time I watched the wrestling I loved growing up we’re [Black people] always missing or we’re always in some type of comedic role.

“I want to be a positive representation to our community to show that we have power in whatever place that we’re going to be at…We’re not just one way. I may be one of the first here right now. Well, we have Lio, there’s Chris Bey, there’s others that may come up through the system too, and we’re all so different,” Knight said. “Where I want to take it is just showing that we’re much more than just rappers, dancers, and entertainers, we’re great wrestlers as well. We can do all of that and we can wrestle with the greats. I want to be able to show that we’re multifaceted and to be taken seriously in those aspects to be considered not just a great Black wrestler, but a great wrestler. People like to put that cap on a Black wrestler. We want to be considered with everybody.”

One of the names Knight mentioned was Lio Rush, a fellow Best of the Super Jr. 30 participant who had a dazzling tournament performance. 2023’s tournament marked the first time that multiple Black wrestlers participated in the Best of the Super Junior tournament. Rush was also the co-winner of the 2022 Jr. Tag League, becoming the second Black person in history to do so.

Although his tattooed frame, Sheisty mask, and blonde dreadlocks are wildly different from the Japanese audiences he performed in front of in May and June of this year, Rush was easily one of the biggest fan favorites of the tournament. One of the most touching moments in professional wrestling this year was in Akita after Rush’s tournament win over Taiji Ishimori, when a family sitting front row handed their infant to Lio Rush to hold during his post-match promo as a sign of their adoration.

Rush had this to say when asked about how it feels to be received so warmly by Japanese fans as a Black man, “It meant the world to me and to my family. Being a Black man in America, traveling abroad, you never truly know what the reaction to you will be strictly based off of skin color and associated behavior. Being beloved by the Japanese audience is a dream that I never thought I’d live out. It’s a feeling that I thought wasn’t possible. It’s a reality that I’ve never known and only heard about and seen. The overall gratitude and joy that I get being able to experience love from another country and culture is a feeling unlike any other. Having that family hand me their baby to me, was the ultimate showing of trust and respect. It makes me happy knowing in that moment, they felt that this was a memory they’d want for their family and their child. A very real and powerful moment given the fact I leave my family and children back at home for weeks and weeks at a time. A moment that not only they won’t forget, but me as well.”

Another Black wrestler blazing their own trail in NJPW quickly became one of biggest stars in the company, regardless of race. Or gender. On January 4, 2023, Mercedes Moné (formerly known as WWE’s Sasha Banks) made her highly anticipated debut at Wrestle Kingdom 17 in the Tokyo Dome by announcing her intentions to challenge for the IWGP Women’s Championship. At February’s Battle In The Valley, an event that sold out with only Moné’s match announced, Mercedes Moné became the second IWGP Women’s Champion and the first Black woman to hold a championship in NJPW.

Both Kevin Knight and Lio Rush want more Black wrestlers to see NJPW as a prime destination on the same par as the WWEs and AEWs of the world. Rush said, “I would hope that the path I’m currently creating can serve as inspiration and motivation to seek out other options in the world of professional wrestling if you’re a Black wrestler. I know that I’m not the first Black wrestler to go to NJPW and I know that those who came before me helped open up the door for my journey, but I think I’m a good representation for the younger generation.”

Although there were few, if any, other black faces in the company when Kevin Knight originally joined, there’s been visibly more diversity in NJPW and he’s committed to helping it grow even further. “I just want to open up those gates [for Black wrestlers] if they want to have a match with me or to just mention their name to somebody. I just want to open up those gates [for them to say] yeah, I want to go to New Japan, that’s not so far fetched,” Knight said.

We are 47 years removed from Muhammad Ali vs. Antonio Inoki. Although both icons are no longer with us, their fighting spirit and desire to bridge cultural divides persists even to this day. Japanese puroresu has long been regarded as the standard of excellence for professional wrestling. Now more than ever, Black wrestlers aren’t just meeting that standard, they’re setting it. 2023 has been a radical year of growth and building new stars that will carry New Japan Pro Wrestling into the next generation. With the expanding black representation in NJPW featuring talented performers like Kevin Knight, Lio Rush, Mercedes Moné, and others who look to build a name for themselves against the stiffest competition that pro wrestling has to offer, brand new audiences are falling in love with puroresu wrestling for the first time. The “King of Sports” belongs to everyone and their next 50 years look to be even brighter and more colorful than the last.

This article first appeared in Issue #12 of Monthly Puroresu.

Written by:

Lyric Swinton is a South Carolina-bred Ph.D. student by day and pro wrestling podcaster & writer by night, specializing in race, culture, & international affairs in wrestling. Wrestling has been her love for over 16 of her 25 years of life. Her passions for wrestling and travel have led her on a quest to see professional wrestling in as many different countries & continents as possible, inspiring her weekly Maps & Graps Podcast.