Kinji Shibuya’s beautiful little Buddhist temple was packed Sunday afternoon in Union City, California with family and friends, and many wrestling fans who trekked from all over the West Coast to give Kinji one more sold-out crowd. The funeral at the usually quiet temple brought back many, many fond memories of my experiences with Kinji over the years.
As he’d wanted, Kinji was cremated soon after passing on May 3rd, so there was no need for the oft-dreaded open casket. Instead, everyone who loved him could remember Kinji the way he always was — vital and colorful. His widow, Judy, their children and grandchildren truly made Kinji’s memorial service a family affair. His longtime friends and peers in the wrestling industry Paul Diamond and Fritz von Goering were there, representing the Bay Area of Northern California where they lived and kept in touch with their buddy.
There were even some friends of Kinji’s that worked out with him at the gym he frequented “in the old days,” who said they lost a dear friend and their favorite TV personality. Many said it didn’t seem like all those years since he retired in 1975 had passed. Joe Zerbo said, “I can’t believe he’s gone now. It seemed like only yesterday, he and Mr. Saito were terrorizing all the teams here and continually cheating to keep their area World Tag Titles against Pepper Gomez and Rocky Johnson, Pat and Ray, Rocky and Pat, Rocky and Maivia, Pat and Maivia. So many wonderful years of action. Kinji was always the best at anything he did in wrestling.”
I’d previously sent the family audio that Northern California historian and later referee, Rich Frisk, had painstakingly taped with a reel-to-reel machine from 1961 on. Judy’s daughter told me that the grandkids had never heard any of Kinji’s famous promos and had no idea of what a star he was internationally. They especially enjoyed Dorothy Hopkins ’70s hand-held film of him at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, as well as Mark Dawson’s hand-held movie of Kinji in Los Angeles from 1972-73. There was also a clip of Kinji talking about his career and his love of big cars. “I keep shrinking as I get older and older,” he told Shire and Ray Stevens at one of my TV tapings in 1993. “That’s why I always loved a big car. I’ve always had the biggest Cadillac car I could find and now I love them even more!”
Kinji was a regular on my old 1980s and ’90s syndicated cable TV show Canvas Cavity. Whenever some of his friends would come to Northern California and we’d book them, Kinji would come in and do on-camera to see his pals like Red Bastien, Tiger Conway Sr., The Fabulous Moolah and Mae Young. And of course Kinji was the first to arrive for our longer, “This Is Your Life” special two-hour tribute episodes like the one for him, Roy Shire, Ray Stevens, Pepper Gomez and his friend and tag partner Mitsu Arakawa.
But the quiet little magical moments of just Kinji by himself in front of the camera, with us gently prodding him to talk about his in-ring career from ’51 on, were the best ones. And what a career from a total master.
“I was very good friends with Charlie (‘Mr.’) Moto you know. He and Jules Strongbow in Los Angeles, first for Cal Eaton and then that step-son of his (Mike Lebell), were amongst the very best bookers we’ve ever had in the business. Charlie was the assistant to Jules, and they just had great minds for the business. I used to kid them, later on from about 1969 to 1972, they gave me one big main event match on top. Just about once a year. Two years in a row with [Freddie] Blassie after his match with The Sheik, then with Tolos and the last year with Ernie Ladd.” In 1970, Blassie turned face against an even more hated opponent in The Sheik. Blassie cemented that he’d turned fully face by promising to leave town if he “cheated in any way in my scientific match a week from Friday with ‘Soulman’ Rocky Johnson. I have to show the people I can wrestle scientific.” And it was a one-hour Broadway of actual holds. “Blassie really didn’t take bumps, didn’t want to in that match, with me or [John] Tolos. What a moneymaker that was, Blassie and Tolos. That was Jules and Charlie. Genius,” Kinji told me in 1991. “Blassie and Tolos and I would work smart matches. Lots of great psychology which I don’t see at all today. Just all bam-bam-bam, high spots, it looks choreographed now. I bet these kids today don’t even know what carny is, let alone know how to use it.”
“I have to thank Verne Gagne for helping me really get over for the first time big in this business when I went to Minnesota around 1955. That office really did a great job of getting me over, the whole thing with the karate chops and everything. I was a big time heel. Singles, tag team. It didn’t matter. But I was so grateful. Then getting to work with a tremendous group of the boys in Indianapolis (for Jim Barnett and his partners). That’s where Shire got to know me and took most of us with him when he decided to go into San Francisco and knock the promoter there, Joe Malcowitz, out of the picture. Joe was a nice guy, but kind of ineffectual and didn’t know how to use TV like Roy did. He learned from a lot of the best, Roy did. How to be sensational and get butts into seats. Joe just couldn’t compete and Roy was off and running from 1961 on. But in Indianapolis which was a very hot territory like most of the cities in Ohio, there was me and Mitsu, Pepper Gomez, Bob Ellis, Wilbur Snyder, Nickie Bockwinkel, Ray of course, Roy and some others I’m forgetting.”
Kinji in his last few appearances on my show in the late ’90s would apologize for forgetting details, dates and some places. “My mind isn’t as sharp but at least I have it in my heart.”
We began discussing his few tours to All Japan and he swore he’d never toured there. Later, I pulled out my photos of Kinji and Masa Saito as monster heels against John Tolos and his secret partner for Los Angeles’ last show of 1971, a Christmas spectacular at the Olympic Auditorium. Tolos had turned babyface three months prior, when Shibuya, Saito and Black Gordman and The Great Goliath had turned on him after he lost to Blassie at the massive outdoor L.A. Coliseum card — which also had another incredible feud in Sheik versus Bobo Brazil plus Shibuya and Saito versus Gordman and Goliath (their last high-profile tag spectacular). Tolos cut an interview on Kinji being a “jerk” and Shibuya and Saito began tearing off John’s suit down to his underpants, fancy dress shoes and socks.
Tolos brought in a Japanese legends as his partner. “I made the call to a Giant to kick your butts. A Giant Baba!” Tolos said on Wednesday TV, just two days before the match where he and Baba bloodied the hated Japanese bad guys.
“L.A. was about the only place other than Honolulu where a Japanese wrestler could be himself, be a babyface,” Shibuya explained. “It started with Rikidozan, then Toyonobori and these guys got an amazing reaction. I was sometimes jealous that they didn’t have to play the World War II sneaky Japanese heel. But I don’t think anyone ever did it as well as me. Well, maybe my good friends Mitsu, Great Togo, Tosh Togo. We were the first. And we didn’t have to do any yelling. Just smile, bow, say we want to make lotsa American dollars and take those and the titles with us all the way back to Japan and buy many rice patty fields. Throw some salt around the ring and hide a little of it like sumo wrestlers. Well, I don’t think sumo guys ever threw salt in their opponent’s eyes though! But that was all we had to do and the people wanted to kill us. So many riots. You know how I loved my big Cadillacs, Mike? I would never drive another one to the Cow Palace or the Olympic after one time when they scratched one of them up. We made the people believe and they really hated us. But you can see now what a nice guy I always really was! No, you couldn’t do that kind of stuff. No one would buy it.”
Kinji told us about his love of raising Koi fish and appreciating fine art, painting, as well as Japanese gardening. “I’m really just a sensitive guy, but the people (fans) would never know that! And sometimes a practical joker in the locker room.” Indeed, Kinji practiced the fine art of the Vic Christy light-hearted rib in partnership with Blassie’s more vicious pranks. They’d both haze new guys in the locker room and when Killer Kowalski came in (“he told me Mike Lebell promised him the book”), he teamed with Shibuya in the locker room to pull some gentle ribs on the journeymen and even a young Raul Mata. “Mata was scared to death of Walter and me. So we had a lot of fun with him.”
For any of us covering Los Angeles wrestling, other than the Funks losing to Giant Baba and Seiji Sakaguchi in the spring of 1972, the match most of us saw as that of the year was of two dream teams colliding in a one hour main event draw: the newly reunited legendary Tolos Brothers against Kinji and Kowalski — “they called us K and K.”
During the match, Kinji tore off Chris Tolos’ boot at about the 35-minute mark. Chris continued the match without a boot to show as if nothing had happened. “Walter and I liked to work together and I think since we knew each other from trips all over the world, we jelled together pretty well. That match was a highlight for me. I had so many. My other favorites to work with were Fred (Blassie), Verne Gagne, Pat (Patterson) and Ray (Stevens), Bill Miller, Stan Stasiak, Don Leo Jonathan and Kiniski. And I could even get something out of (Mil) Mascaras who wasn’t very good at selling! But I also liked teaming with so many, but especially Mitsu (Arakawa) and Masa Saito.”
Shibuya did sumo and Jiu-Jitsu before he became a pro wrestling institution, headlining the Cow Palace on numerous occasions. Shibuya and Arakawa sold out the Cow Palace opposing Bockwinkel and Snyder, Ray Stevens and Don Manoukian, and more.
When Saito arrived on the west coast, the rumor was that he was being “punished” by Baba for an alleged faux pax. This is at odds with what he said on my show in 1990 when I asked; he said that he had been sent to the States to polish his skills and come back to his native Japan as the proverbial conquering hero. “Saito stayed here in America a good long time. He was only supposed to be here a year or two, but he fell in love with the food, the women, the music. He really loved the United States, you know. But when he first came here, he couldn’t speak a lick of English. Actually, he never really learned much, just enough to get himself around and into trouble. So I’d do most of the promos in English, then he’d say a little something gruff in Japanese. And I took good care of Saito, especially with some of these promoters and in general, on the road. He loved McDonalds. The hamburgers, the French fries and the shakes. They didn’t have McDonald’s over in Japan yet … and this kind of American wrestling over here with all the selling and accentuation (over-acting stuff) was all new to him, although basically our wrestling was taken and then started over there by Riki (Rikidozan). And I hear now it’s a lot stiffer over there, less theatrics and more heavy punching and kicking, the (pro) wrestling style in Japan. And more guys who originally came from sumo backgrounds like me and Riki. You know, most of us originally had very respectable sports backgrounds. That’s what I like about Verne Gagne. If you had a legitimate sports history and had any interest in wrestling, he wanted you. He recruited you aggressively. His promotion has always had many great athletes.”
One of Kinji’s favorite places to work was back home in Honolulu. “We loved Lord Blears and Ed Francis, and always considered it a vacation to get a chance to go back there to wrestle at the HIC (now the Blaisdell Center). It was a different atmosphere to wrestle in, different than in Japan or North America. After Judy and I bought our home in Northern California just 10 minutes from Pepper Gomez’ place, I went down south in California, and worked there for Mike Lebell so many years because it was a short commute when I got stale working for Shire. Or if we needed some extra money. You know my wife Judy has always had very expensive, cultured tastes! But again, sometimes the paydays weren’t so good there like with Roy. But I enjoyed my friends there Blassie, (John) Tolos, and of course I brought Saito down there with me. Even when he first came to this country. Earl Maynard was very easy to work with. Many great workers in both cities, and sometimes we worked for both Roy and Lebell at the same time.
He told me he’d often work the people doing the programs with various spellings of his ring name whenever he’d come to a new circuit, “although with (Pacific Northwest promoter) Don Owen, I told him how to spell it in his program. K-I-N-J-I. But he insisted on spelling it KENJI. And then my checks he personally made out were always done the right way, Kinji. But I loved Don. Now his brother Elton was another story, a real character. I think I played more practical jokes on him than anyone.”
Shibuya did whatever was requested of him by promoters, never grumbling. “Sometimes I got a little scared riling the people up, but that’s what the promoters usually wanted. And I think I did it better than most,” he told me on air in 1995. “All I had to say, and again I never really had to yell like some of the other boys. But all I had to say with a scowl was that I was going to take all the area belts and all the promoter’s money back with me to Japan to buy Koi fish, rice fields, whatever it was I was to say. And the people were always really hot at me and responded the way we wanted them to. They wanted to see their top babyface shut my mouth and beat me or send me packing. I usually didn’t give them that payoff too often.”
When the Cauliflower Alley Club’s annual reunion was just a big Saturday night awards banquet and held in Los Angeles at various downtown eateries, Kinji was always a regular. He was thrilled in 1992 getting to see Mitsuo Mimoto (Rikidozan’s son) and Riki’s granddaughter. “Rikidozan was a great man,” Kinji said on the stage that year talking about the industry. “He brought the great American art form of pro wrestling to Japan and it became big, big, big. Now it’s bigger than ever there. And I fooled everyone into thinking I’d come from there to here all the years that I’d wrestled. But in reality, I’ve always been proud to be an American citizen. This is my home.”
As for me, I’ll keep the image of Shibuya at his peak in my mind: in his signature longjohn, purple tights, smiling and grimacing with his usual menace, the sold-out crowd watching him devastate his opponent
Rest in peace, Kinji.
- May 8, 2010: Kinji Shibuya dead at 88