After compiling some of the great matches of yesteryear featuring Kenta Kobashi and Jumbo Tsuruta, I was bitten by a bug that I thought had long been eradicated. It had been years since I had given myself the time to sit down and watch the golden era of All Japan Pro Wrestling. Names I hadn’t thought about in years, narratives I hadn’t dissected in quite some time, and matches that I had forgotten just how great they were. When I clicked “submit” on my piece about Jumbo Tsuruta, I realized more of these stories need to be told, and this era of professional wrestling cannot be described without talking about Genichiro Tenryu.
Tenryu, born at the halfway mark of the 20th century, seemed destined for sumo greatness in his teen years. After being recruited at age fourteen, Tenryu never quite lived up to the expectations that had been bestowed upon him. He was essentially a sumo midcarder, and a complicated falling out with the Japanese Sumo Association led to his career-ending in 1976.
Soon after, he would be scooped up by Giant Baba and All Japan Pro Wrestling. Much like the signing of Jumbo Tsuruta, who transitioned to pro wrestling after becoming an Olympic-quality wrestler, Tenryu came in with enough fanfare that he was seen as a prized commodity from the start. His 1977 debut was the semi-main event on a card that featured Harley Race and the aforementioned Tsuruta as the headliner. He would spend the last few years of the seventies bouncing back and forth between various American territories and his homeland. By 1981, he was transitioning into the Tenryu that audiences around the globe came to know and love.
Genichiro Tenryu’s story is a complicated one. Tenryu wrestled at least one match a year for thirty-eight straight years, clocking in at least one encounter from his debut in 1977 to his retirement in 2015. Tenryu’s role in wrestling varied greatly over the course of his career. An ace, an invader, a gatekeeper, and eventually a wilting legend who could only survive on his charisma to keep him afloat. Wrestling as a medium drastically changed during Tenryu’s career, and more often than not, he was there to change with it. The one thing that remained constant throughout his entire career was his commitment to violence and his passion for brutality.
This is A Retrospective of Violence: The Legacy of Genichiro Tenryu.
Genichiro Tenryu & Billy Robinson vs. Giant Baba & Jumbo Tsuruta
All Japan Pro Wrestling – July 30, 1981
Tenryu is only a few months removed from excursion at this point. He gets the opportunity in Korakuen Hall to battle All Japan’s top two stars. Baba is still very much the ruler of all things at this point. It’s not until 1983 that Tsuruta took the reins from him. Regardless of who is positioned higher on the card, they are both well ahead of Tenryu, but Tenryu and expert-grappler Billy Robinson don’t back down from the challenge. This is a 2/3 falls match that is slightly clipped, but there’s enough action here to warrant its inclusion in this collection. Tenryu has yet to fill out. He looks far weaker than he would during the rest of the decade and into the nineties. He does have mean sumo slaps, however. Watching a youngster take it to both Baba and Tsuruta with no fear is incredibly captivating. This is the first match of Tenryu’s career worth watching. The foundation of who he would become is built off of this match.
Genichiro Tenryu & Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Riki Choshu & Yoshiaki Yatsu
All Japan Pro Wrestling – January 24, 1987
Beginning in 1983, Tenryu began teaming extensively with Tsuruta. A good chunk of those matches, including the two five-star classics between those two against Choshu & Yatsu, are covered in the aforementioned Tsuruta retrospective. Those matches are vital to the career of Tsuruta, as it would push him out of his comfort zone more than any opponent throughout his entire career. As a feud, however, the matches mean more to Tenryu’s career. When Riki Choshu and his Ishin Gundan renegades split from New Japan towards the end of 1984 and invaded All Japan Pro Wrestling, it was Genichiro Tenryu who greeted them at the door.
Tenryu and Choshu, two of Japan’s biggest stars ever in the pro wrestling industry, locked horns for the first time in 1985 and would go on to become generational rivals. They had singles matches in Budokan Hall, Sumo Hall, Osaka Jo Hall, and the Tokyo Dome. It is their tag matches in All Japan, however, with Tenryu teaming with Tsuruta and Choshu with Yoshiaki Yatsu, that remain their best matches. The January 1987 incarnation of this bout is a fitting continuation of the feud after their notable matches in January and February of the prior year.
Tenryu is beginning to enter what can be considered the “first prime” of his career, but it might not be enough to take down the invading duo. Quick pace, plenty of bombs, and a molten crowd. This is eighties All Japan at its best.
Genichiro Tenryu, Road Warrior Animal, & Road Warrior Hawk vs. Jumbo Tsuruta, Shunji Takano, & Yoshiaki Yatsu
All Japan Pro Wrestling – March 8, 1989
The year is 1989. Choshu is back in New Japan, Yatsu has formed a tag team with Jumbo Tsuruta called The Olympics, and Genichiro Tenryu has a unit called Revolution. Revolution, at the time, consisted of Tenryu, Ashura Hara, Toshiaki Kawada, and Samson Fuyuki, among others. It also consisted of The Road Warriors during their brief stay in All Japan in 1989.
There’s a lot to love about modern-day pro wrestling, but I can’t help but wonder if somewhere along the way we went wrong, because nothing in today’s wrestling has the atmosphere that this match has. This felt like a heavyweight title fight and a stadium rock concert mashed into one. The Road Warriors come to play, and with the duo hitched to Tenryu’s brigade of destruction, they create one of the most violent trios in wrestling history. It’s a sight to behold.
This match is all about what Tenryu and Tsuruta throw at one another. This works as a great prelude to their June 1989 classic, which I’ve talked about previously. Tenryu, at the fifteen-minute mark, hits a running lariat in the corner on Tsuruta that sends Tenryu flying over the top rope and out of the ring. It’s so wild and so uncontrollable. It’s a stunning piece of film, quite honestly. Tenryu showed by this point that he was a top-dog on the same level as Tsuruta, if not even notched a position slightly higher than him on the All Japan totem pole.
Genichiro Tenryu & Stan Hansen vs. Giant Baba & Rusher Kimura
All Japan Pro Wrestling – November 29, 1989
Remember how Baba dominated Tenryu in the first match of this retrospective? Eight years later and things have changed. Tenryu is the biggest alpha All Japan has going for them at this point and Baba is broken down completely. Together with Rusher Kimura, a top star of Japan’s IWE group in the seventies, the two made up a team with a combined age of 98. Tenryu and his new tag partner Stan Hansen are in the prime of their careers. This is as big of a mismatch as you’d think.
There are some fringe groups that consider this to be one of the crown jewels of the eighties. I don’t think it’s that great, but I do think it’s essential viewing for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the suicide dive that Tenryu connects with at the start of the match is beautiful. He and Hansen are immediately established as uber-heels thanks to the dive, a delegation that they would maintain throughout the entire match.
This match is made up of two halves. The first half is Hansen and Tenryu bludgeoning Kimura. It’s basic and effective. Kimura had no shot of doing any real damage to those two monsters. The second half begins with Baba’s hot tag and continues through the finish. Baba is in no better shape than Kimura, but even at his advanced state is far more skilled than his tag partner. Tenryu and Hansen bump around like maniacs for their mentor, but all good things must come to an end, and Baba is eventually put out to pasture and whatever hopes and prayers he and Kimura had are eliminated.
Tenryu pinned Baba here, and after scoring a pinfall over Antonio Inoki during their 1994 singles match, became the first and only wrestler to score pinfall wins over both Baba and Inoki.
Genichiro Tenryu vs. Shinya Hashimoto
Wrestle Association-R (WAR) – June 17, 1993
In April of 1990, Tenryu split from All Japan after Japanese billionaire Hachiro Tanaka, who was looking to break into pro wrestling, founded Super World Sports and lured Tenryu away from Baba. Rich Kraetsch goes into further detail about SWS here.
The big picture is that SWS was a massive failure and in the summer of 1992, the company folded. Tenryu continued to promote, however, this time under Wrestle Association-R, or, as it was once known, Wrestle and Romance. WAR is a promotion that is impossible to duplicate. They championed junior heavyweight tag team wrestling long before any other company did and their roster made up a whos-who of wrestling new and old. The best work the company did, however, leeched off of New Japan Pro Wrestling. A long invasion angle began in the fall of 1992 and the peak of the angle took place the following summer.
On Tenryu’s home turf, New Japan standout Shinya Hashimoto made his presence felt in this legendary singles match. You might think these two would go for the jugular early in a sprint-style of match. Instead, things build gradually as Hashimoto continues to wreak havoc on Tenryu’s knee. A great example of the big-time atmosphere that Tenryu brought with him wherever he went.
Genichiro Tenryu vs. Tatsumi Fujinami
New Japan Pro Wrestling – April 29, 1996
Watch on NJPW World.
I love the contrast between these two men. Tenryu, by this point in his career, is a renegade running and gunning in every company that will hire him. He spent his time in 1996 holding down the fort in WAR while also testing his luck in not only New Japan, but UWFi, a shoot-style company with a fleet of hard kickers and heavy hitters. Tenryu was never one for execution. There are times in which his offense looked like it hurt him just as much as it hurt his opponent. Fujinami, on the other hand, was fiercely loyal to New Japan, having wrestled in their first match on their first show. He was a junior heavyweight working light years behind his contemporaries in the seventies and when he made the weight class jump in the eighties, he and Riki Choshu reinvented workrate and the pace in which big men could work.
Only the Tokyo Dome could house a match like this in 1996 and the fans inside the Egg Dome were greeted to one of the most ferocious sub-ten minute matches in history. Tenryu breaks Fujinami’s nose in an attempt to counter one of his suicide dives, causing Fujinami to gush out all over the Dome. Tenryu, not one for sportsmanship, begins to punch Fujinami directly in the nose. It would be wrong of me to say this match isn’t pretty. This match is straight-up ugly. Whether the match was supposed to turn out like this or not is unknown, but the match became a Tenryu special. He was nastier, stiffer, and more than willing to go the extra mile to take down one of New Japan’s most iconic figures in the biggest building possible.
Genichiro Tenryu vs. Yoji Anjo
Wrestle Association-R (WAR) – July 21, 1996
Speaking of UWFi, Tenryu’s 1996 was also highlighted by an encounter with Yoji Anjo in the summer of that year. Anjo is my favorite shoot-stylist out there. Whereas most shoot-style workers build drama simply through their work, Anjo’s charisma creates a dynamic rarely seen in this style of wrestling. Anjo is an asshole and he doesn’t need to kick you in the chest repeatedly for you to know that. You can see it on his face as soon as he enters the ring. If there’s one person that loves caving in smirks, it is Genichiro Tenryu, so this match, which headlined a WAR vs. UWFi show in Sumo Hall, felt very natural.
Anjo tries to troll Tenryu with stalling tactics. Tenryu does not take too kindly to that. As Anjo attempts to tee-off on the legend with palm strikes, Tenryu delivers a closed-fist punch to the jaw in honor of traditionalist pro wrestling. This match barely crosses the ten-minute mark, but it has as much drama as a normal thirty-minute encounter. This is an all-time great Tenryu performance.
Genichiro Tenryu vs. Shinya Hashimoto
New Japan Pro Wrestling – August 1, 1998
Watch on NJPW World.
G1 Climax 1998 and the winner gets Satoshi Kojima in the semi-finals. Whatever grace they displayed in 1993 is out the window in this bout. Hashimoto had tried and failed numerous times to win a G1. This was Tenryu’s first and his only G1 until 2004 (a run also worth checking out). Hashimoto didn’t have the strength he needed a few years prior to knock off the legend. Tenryu, after a grueling 1996 and 1997, is worse for wear. He still had a mean right hand, but he was not as quick as he once was. Hashimoto knew this was his time to strike.
What proceeds is a shocking level of violence between two men whose best days were behind them. Tenryu is a masterful seller, but not someone I associate grandiose bumps with. That is with the exception of this match. He was 48-years-old by this point. Some of what Hashimoto did to him in this match was borderline criminal. As a viewer, however, I reserve my right to watch these crimes unfold.
Genichiro Tenryu vs. Toshiaki Kawada
All Japan Pro Wrestling – October 28, 2000
A decade after splitting from the company that made him, Tenryu found himself back in All Japan Pro Wrestling at the start of the new century. Giant Baba refused to touch Tenryu, but he passed in January 1999, leaving the company in the hands of his wife. After the talent exodus in the summer of 2000, All Japan needed new blood, and Mokoto Baba made the call to Tenryu. His return match at the end of July gave All Japan the jolt they needed to survive.
A few months later, Tenryu squared off with Toshiaki Kawada for the vacant Triple Crown title. Their only other singles match prior to this was in 1989 as stablemates, but Kawada was still decked out in zebra print and a far cry from what he’d become. By 2000, he was jaded, hurt, and desperate to prove to his former mentor that he was worth a damn. Despite Tenryu being past his prime and Kawada not far behind, they put on a match worthy of being an All Japan classic.
Tenryu, believe it or not, did not respond well to Kawada Kicks. Kawada is a rare example of someone who is able to dish out punishment on the same level as Tenryu, and for a large portion of this match, Tenryu doesn’t know how to respond to that. He’s off-balance and stunned. Add in possibly the nastiest Stretch Plum that Kawada ever applied and it’s a miracle that Tenryu lived to fight another day.
This match paved the way for Tenryu’s second run of greatness in All Japan that featured classics against Keiji Mutoh and Satoshi Kojima. Perhaps it is because of my loyalty to the Pillars and classic All Japan, but I’ve always preferred this match to any of those.
Genichiro Tenryu & Jun Akiyama vs. Go Shiozaki & Kenta Kobashi
Pro Wrestling NOAH – April 24, 2005
Late into this match, Go Shiozaki, who is a rookie at this point, is finally able to land some offense on the aging Tenryu. Shiozaki climbs to the top rope to attempt a moonsault, but before he can launch, Tenryu stands up and rushes over to him to attempt to counter the move. There are shrieks of HORROR in the audience when Tenryu stands up. They know whatever comes next for Shiozaki is going to be ugly, and they were right. Forget the interactions with Kobashi, that is the memory that I continue to take away from this match.
Tenryu finished up with both All Japan and New Japan in 2004. Pro Wrestling NOAH was his homebase in 2005 and he wasted no time initiating the roster with chops and punches to the jaw. This is the first time Tenryu and Kobashi shared a ring since 1989 and their interactions are as heated and dramatic as you can get. Shiozaki is there to get his ass kicked, which occurs by the hands of both Tenryu and Akiyama. This is a really special era of NOAH when the top of the card was producing unparalleled greatness, but the young talent and the dojo hadn’t had its soul sucked out yet. There’s life in Shiozaki vs. Tenryu because it represents what could become of Shiozaki. Of course, that wouldn’t go on to mean a whole lot.
Genichiro Tenryu vs. KENTA
Pro Wrestling NOAH – October 8, 2005
Tenryu’s last great singles match.
He had another year of really strong matches in 2006 in both the Kensuke Office promotion and Dragon Gate, but his best work is done in tags in both of those promotions. Tenryu is every bit as violent as he was to Shiozaki in April, but the difference here is that KENTA is not afraid to return the favor. Sometimes you can earn a competitor’s respect by answering their shot to the mouth with one of your own, but when KENTA does it, it only annoys Tenryu even more. This is a beatdown of epic proportions and the last time a Tenryu singles match would really matter until his retirement, which took place a decade later.
Genichiro Tenryu’s real sports comparison is that of a dual-sport athlete, a Bo Jackson or a Deion Sanders. This is not due to Tenryu’s prior sumo success, but rather for the fact that Tenryu lasted in so many different wrestling eras and promotions that he was practically competing in two separate mediums. The same guy that took it to Choshu and Yatsu at the height of their powers is the same guy who beat down Magnum TOKYO in a Dragon Gate ring twenty years after the fact.
No one in wrestling has the sustained longevity of Tenryu, and no one has a more diverse portfolio. Any legitimate discussion on pro wrestling’s GOAT is invalid without at least mentioning Tenryu. He scored pinfall victories over the likes of Antonio Inoki, Giant Baba, Ric Flair, and Randy Savage, he became a mainstream star who helped elevate All Japan, New Japan, and his own promotion WAR, and when he retired, he helped pass the torch to Japan’s top star today, even if that meant dropping him on his head a time or two.
Some of wrestling’s greatest stories cannot be told without Genichiro Tenryu, and some of wrestling’s most brutal encounters could not have taken place without Genichiro Tenryu. At times a freelance renegade and at other times a company man, no one can duplicate the success he accomplished throughout his entire career.