Tragedy struck the wrestling world as the Japanese media reported that former All Japan Pro Wrestling star Tomomi “Jumbo” Tsuruta died May 13, 2000, due to kidney failure. He was 49 years old.

Tsuruta underwent a kidney transplant operation this past weekend in a hospital in Manila, Philippines. Tsuruta was said to have died from excessive bleeding after the surgery. Before the transplant in Manila, he also spent time in Seoul, South Korea and in Australia awaiting a transplant.

Tsuruta was the first Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion, (unifying the Pacific Wrestling Federation, All Japan United National and All Japan International titles), defeating Stan Hansen on April 19, 1989 in Tokyo.

Tsuruta was also a former AWA World Heavyweight champion defeating Nick Bockwinkel in Tokyo in 1984. He lost three months later to Rick Martel in St. Paul, MN.

His feuds with Genichiro Tenryu in the ’80s will be remembered as the Japanese equivalent of the Ric Flair-Ricky Steamboat series in the States.

“I worked with him many times. He was a great wrestler,” said Tiger Jeet Singh. “He was an Olympian. He was good in the ring and a gentleman outside. It’s so sad.”

During the late ’70s and the entire ’80s, Tsuruta was considered the best heavyweight wrestler in Japan. He put over current All Japan booker Mitsuhara Misawa in 1990 in Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan Hall in a match that was a symbolic passing of the torch. From that point on, Misawa was pushed as the top Japanese star in the promotion.

Tsuruta retired from wrestling on March 6, 1999 after a storied 26-year career with All Japan. He was diagnosed with hepatitis in 1992, but he continued to wrestle a full time schedule. The hepatitis B was actually with him his whole life, coming from his mother. The ravages of the disease slowed down his work inside the ring and he quickly became a shell of his former self, mostly booked in mid-card comedy matches with All Japan President Giant Baba.

After retiring, Tsuruta moved to the U.S. where he became assistant professor at the University of Portland. His condition took a turn for the worst at the end of last year when he returned to Japan for treatment.

Steve Nakada, the Executive Director for the Japan-U.S. Sports Federation had a number of projects underway with Tsuruta. He was in regular contact with Tsuruta’s wife Yasuka, and said that he “didn’t worry anything about the transplant” because it should have been routine.

Nakada and Verne Gagne had plans for a joint Gagne – Tsuruta amateur wrestling tournament in Japan for later this year. A scheduled meeting between Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura and Tsuruta in December was cancelled because of Tsuruta’s declining condition.

“He really brought a lot to the image of Japanese wrestling here in America,” Gagne said. “He conducted himself as a gentleman at all times. We’re very proud of the guy. And he was an excellent wrestler all the way around, both as an amateur and a professional.”

As an amateur wrestler, Tsuruta competed for Japan at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich in Greco-Roman wrestling. He was also a skilled basketball player.

Tsuruta is survived by his wife Yasuka and three sons, Noaki, 5, Ken, 8 and Yuji, 14. The body is expected home to Japan today, with a private family funeral to follow. Nakada said that he expects an announcement about a bigger, public funeral to be made soon.