Jumbo Tsuruta represents a bygone era.
One of wrestling’s most important historical figures worked in the pre-Internet age. Despite being a mainstream celebrity in Japan, information regarding his health, his location, and even his death were scarce. Jumbo spent his final years primarily in the United States, teaching physical education at the University of Portland. When his health began to fail him, he quietly made a trip back to Japan, then to Australia, then finally to the Philippines in an effort to heal, but Jumbo ultimately passed due to complications from his kidney transplant on May 13, 2000. His death wasn’t reported in Japan until the 16th, but when news hit, it made national headlines. One of wrestling’s largest icons had passed.
Jumbo bounced around the globe, building a foundation in the Funk’s territory in Amarillo, Texas, before triumphantly returning to All Japan Pro Wrestling and immediately being thrust into the spotlight. He was a natural athlete. A collegiate basketball player turned amateur wrestler, he qualified for the Olympics in 1972 only eighteen months after picking up the sport.
When he expressed interest in professional wrestling after his Olympic run, he was courted with offers from all four active promotions in Japan at the time. Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, whose May 22, 2000 obituary of Jumbo is worth the price of a subscription alone, describes Jumbo’s transition into pro wrestling as that of a #1 draft pick in pro sports. Standing 6’4” with plenty of muscle to work with, his background made him desirable and his work ethic made him irresistible.
Analyzing his career with hindsight, Jumbo is a polarizing wrestler.
In 2006, he narrowly edged out All Japan counterpart Toshiaki Kawada en route to being named the greatest wrestler ever in a poll done by the hyper-dedicated SmarksChoice forum. Others have found him to be a bore, not connecting with the grapple-heavy style of the ’70s, considering him to be a slog compared to Riki Choshu and the go-go-go style of the 1980s, and failing to live up to his younger opponents, mainly Mitsuharu Misawa, as he entered the third decade of his career. Regardless of where you stand with Jumbo as a worker, his impact is undeniable, and the landscape of professional wrestling, both in Japan and around the world, was drastically altered by his presence.
In honor of his passing 20 years ago, this is a guide to wrestling’s biggest final boss, Jumbo Tsuruta.
Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Billy Robinson
All Japan Pro Wrestling – March 5, 1977
Mileage may vary depending on your interest in 1970s All Japan, but Jumbo’s story is incomplete without recognizing the work he did in this decade. As this site’s primary review of Dragon Gate, the house style of All Japan during the early days of Jimmy Carter’s run as US President is a little jarring for me. That being said, there’s undeniable greatness displayed in this bout. It’s Jumbo’s best match of the 1970s and for good reason. He and Billy Robinson put on a match light years ahead of what was happening with pro wrestling in the States at this time. New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Tiger Mask is still four years away from shifting how consumers viewed pace and agility. This is a “workrate” match, bordering on a spotfest for the 1970s.
Jumbo Tsuruta & Genichiro Tenryu vs. Bruiser Brody & Stan Hansen
All Japan Pro Wrestling – December 12, 1983
Jumbo’s most important work would come against Mitsuharu Misawa, but his best work often involved Genichiro Tenryu. Here, they team against Japan’s most protected gaijin, Bruiser Brody and Stan Hansen in the final match of All Japan’s Real World Tag League. This match is very representative of the era, with the major exception being that this match has a clean finish. That was a novel concept in this era of All Japan. Tenryu had spent the first three years of the eighties splitting time between America and Japan, and at this point, his evolution is far from complete. He’s the weak link, anchoring Jumbo and his momentum against wrestling’s toughest Texans. Jumbo’s interactions with Hansen are golden. There’s so much intensity behind each blow. The seventeen-minute match has energy from start to finish.
Jumbo Tsuruta & Genichiro Tenryu vs. Riki Choshu & Yoshiaki Yatsu
All Japan Pro Wrestling – January 28, 1986
Jumbo’s partner is the same as the prior bout, the landscape of All Japan Pro Wrestling had drastically shifted in the three-year gap between these two matches. When Riki Choshu and his army of bandits jumped ship from New Japan to All Japan in 1984, it utterly rearranged the Japanese professional wrestling landscape. Genichiro Tenryu had grown as a wrestler in the time between 1983 and 1986, as well. He was now a main eventer and worthy of squaring off against Choshu.
Contemporary wrestling seems to be fascinated with making wrestling into some sort of cinema that Film 101 students would be embarrassed by. There’s no passion, no intensity, and no drama. The Tokyo Metropolitan Gym witnessed a match full of those three components on this night in 1986. This is still perhaps the most dramatic wrestling match I’ve seen. I feel emotionally drained each time I view it, the same way that a Game 7 or a Hollywood epic does. Choshu and Yatsu brought with them a faster pace and a more aggressive style, and they pushed the All Japan homegrowns to their limit in this encounter. One of the best matches of the eighties, period.
Jumbo Tsuruta & Genichiro Tenryu vs. Riki Choshu & Yoshiaki Yatsu
All Japan Pro Wrestling – February 5, 1986
Wrestling’s Godfather II. One week after producing one of the best matches ever, these four were back at it, this time in front of an equally hot crowd in Sapporo. Within the first thirty seconds, Jumbo is dropped on his head with a spike piledriver to the floor. It’s the only way the Ishin Gundan duo had a shot, as Choshu came into this match still nursing wounds from their first encounter. After Jumbo recovered from the piledriver on the floor, the rest of this match served as his revenge tour. One problem, as I mentioned in their January bout, Choshu and Yatsu’s style was an issue for Jumbo and Tenryu. Every bit as good as the January classic, but sequels never get the love they deserve.
Jumbo Tsuruta & Yoshiaki Yatsu vs. Genichiro Tenryu & Toshiaki Kawada
All Japan Pro Wrestling – February 23, 1989
Riki Choshu is back in New Japan at this point, but Yoshiaki Yatsu stayed put in All Japan. Yatsu, an Olympic wrestler in his own right, decided to form a tag team with Jumbo dubbed The Olympics after Tenryu turned on his former tag partner. This match is the most underrated match of the eighties. Gun to my head, it’s my favorite match of the decade. It represents so much. It is such a brilliant performance by a young Toshiaki Kawada. He’s still dawning zebra print tights at this point. The yellow and black transformation, and with it Kawada’s early-onset grumpiness, would not occur for another year. He’s full of spunk with more guts than brains in this match. Kawada, being so dumb, is eaten alive by Yoshiaki Yatsu, an unsung hero in the history of puroresu. Yatsu is so vicious in his approach and so determined to squash Kawada like the pest he is. It’s beautiful.
Then, there’s Jumbo and Tenryu. Once partners, now enemies. It’s a simple story, but one worth telling. Their interactions in this match are absurd. So much heat, so much passion, so much on the line. Every move between the two feels like life and death. This is how stories are told. I plead with everyone reading this – watch this match. The pace these four work at is insane. You could put this match on a Raw, Dynamite, or New Japan show in the present day and it would be the best thing on the show. The fact that they were doing this in 1989 is stunning.
Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Genichiro Tenryu
All Japan Pro Wrestling – June 5, 1989
These two had hundreds of tag matches with and against one another in their careers, but only nine singles matches, two of which took place at the start of this decade before Tenryu became the man he would become. By 1989, Tenryu and Jumbo were at the top of their game. This is their shining moment. Jumbo had spent the middle portion of the decade fighting away Riki Choshu and his invaders as All Japan’s heroic ace. The end of the decade called for change, though. This was Tenryu’s time and now Jumbo is on the defense, doing everything in his power to defend his home turf. What ensues is a classic. Largely considered to be one of the best matches of the decade and possibly the best match for both men, both of whom had storied careers. Essential viewing.
Jumbo Tsuruta & Yoshiaki Yatsu vs. Genichiro Tenryu & Stan Hansen
All Japan Pro Wrestling – December 6, 1989
The bout I featured from February 1989 features The Olympics coming into the match with the upperhand. For as good as Tenryu was, a young Kawada put the team behind the eight ball. This is the finals of All Japan’s Real World Tag League and Jumbo is back against his arch-rival, Tenryu, who is now tagging with Stan Hansen to form a super team. To make matters worse for The Olympics, Yatsu has a head injury and is limited in what he can do. His headgear sort of makes that obvious. The dynamics are so drastically different than how they were in February. Jumbo is fighting for his life, but this is Budokan Hall. He has to weigh his risks vs. the reward. At Korakuen Hall in February, he could let it all hang out. This is a bigger venue with bigger stakes. One wrong move and the tournament is over. The interactions between Tenryu and Jumbo are ridiculous. They would have one last singles match, Tenryu’s last match in All Japan, before he formed Super World of Sports in mid-1990, marking the end of an era for the company.
Jumbo Tsuruta, The Great Kabuki, & Masanobu Fuchi vs. Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, & Akira Taue
All Japan Pro Wrestling – May 26, 1990
Genichiro Tenryu left All Japan in April, leaving All Japan in need of new stars. In Korakuen Hall, they pit Jumbo’s generation, now consisting of grumpy old-timers, against the recently unmasked Mitsuharu Misawa, babyfaced Kenta Kobashi, and baby giraffe Akira Taue. This match is the start of the Pillars era of All Japan. Jumbo’s singles match against Misawa on June 8 (trust me, I’m getting to it) is often marked as the jumping-off point for a golden era of wrestling, but the context provided here elevates the match in June. This is a huge opportunity for the young trio and they realize that. They don’t want to be taken advantage of in their biggest match to date. One issue, Jumbo and his pals do not respect them. They have no interest in taking them seriously. They want to dispose of them as soon as possible. These are the first shots of a long, brutal civil war and a great example of how six-man tags can be used as an effective vehicle for storytelling in wrestling.
Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Mitsuharu Misawa
June 8, 1990
To Western fans, this might be the most infamous match in puroresu history. Misawa’s 1994 epic against Toshiaki Kawada and a handful of New Japan classics might rival this, but I think this match, which began a new era of All Japan Pro Wrestling, signifies a launching pad for so many fans outside of Japan. Jumbo was slated to go over initially, but booker Giant Baba was so stunned by the reactions to Misawa in the building before the show that he changed his mind, insisting Misawa go over clean. Jumbo refused, saying he’d lose by a DQ or countout. Baba stood his ground, thus beginning a nine-year streak of clean finishes in All Japan, a stark contrast to the NWA-inspired booking of the eighties that was often clouded by DQs and countouts. A contingent of fans prefer their rematch in September, but I remain partial to this match given what it represented.
Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Stan Hansen
January 19, 1991
I went with this match over their bloodbath from 1986 because despite only being eight months removed from his epic with Misawa, Jumbo is now firmly in the post-prime position of his career. He doesn’t move around as well now. Hansen, despite being two years older than Jumbo, is moving around as well as an out of shape Texan in his early 40’s can move around. I love the dynamic between these two in all of their matches. It’s the wrestling equivalent of a bull in a China shop. Hansen is so out of control all of the time. He’s wildly throwing haymakers, hoping that one of his lariats does the job so he can go to the back and open a cold one. Jumbo always boiled over eventually and let out his rage, but it took him time. There was a method to his madness. Even at his advanced state, there was still something scientific about him. This is a fine Triple Crown bout from the two men that created the title.
Jumbo Tsuruta, Andre the Giant, & Terry Gordy vs. Giant Baba, Dory Funk Jr, & Stan Hansen
All Japan Pro Wrestling – October 21, 1992
Look, I don’t want to recommend a Dory Funk Jr match, but it’s what I have to do. This is Jumbo’s final important main event and it’s on the 20th Anniversary All Japan show. The star power in this match is incredible. Jumbo, Baba, and Andre are three of the most important figures in the history of this industry. Andre would pass away just a few months later. This is not a great match by any stretch of the imagination, but Jumbo pins Dory Funk Jr, his teacher, in the end, and it’s a fitting end to Jumbo’s career as a main eventer.
The history of professional wrestling cannot be told without Jumbo Tsuruta’s name. When he passed, Mitsuharu Misawa said that it was now more important to him than ever before to continue the style of wrestling that Jumbo and Giant Baba helped create, because if that goes away, so does their history.
Jumbo’s career spanned three decades and saw him succeed in three distinctly different eras of professional wrestling, yet his career was ultimately cut short by injuries and illness.
Jumbo was a three-time Triple Crown Champion, AWA World Heavyweight Champion, and a multi-time winner of both All Japan’s prestigious Champion’s Carnival and Real World Tag League tournaments. Jumbo was feared by many, but respected by all. A win over Jumbo meant that you had arrived, that you were somebody, and that you were undeniably great, which is why so few achieved that feat, which is why Jumbo Tsuruta remains wrestling’s biggest final boss.