Editor’s note: The original plan for the series was to cover these in chronological order. However, this match took place before the previous Jerry Lawler versus Bill Dundee contest. Therefore, if you want to check these out in order, this is the match you should watch first.
In the 1989 Wrestling Observer Yearbook, Jeff Bowdren staked his claim as to the 100 greatest matches of the 80s. Over thirty years down the line and with the benefit of the internet and streaming services, Liam Byrne aims to take a look back at each match (where available) that made the list. With a focus on the context in which these contests took place, take a walk back through time as we look at The Wrestling Classic.
Riki Choshu vs. Tatsumi Fujinami
April 3, 1983
A lot of my formative love of wrestling came from time spent watching World Superstars of Wrestling with my Dad. The show broadcast matches from New Japan – largely from 1992, 1993 by my reckoning – with English commentary, and it was from here I found my enduring love for Jushin Liger and Shinya Hashimoto, as well as having an inflated sense of how good Tony Halme was. It also introduced me to the wonders of Riki Choshu.
Choshu stood out to a young boy like me primarily for one reason: his white boots. In a promotion that felt like it had a lot of men who wore black trunks and little to differentiate their attire beyond that, Choshu was eye-catching. It helped that even as he entered his forties he could still hit like a sixteen-wheeler and didn’t particularly look out of place when compared to the hard hitters like the aforementioned Hashimoto. There was clearly something about him that made him notable to my young mind, even if I couldn’t quite work it out at the time.
Fast forward thirty years in my fandom (as well as rewinding around a decade in Choshu’s career) and the answer to what it was is clear – there are very few wrestlers across time and place who were as charismatic as Choshu. He had a rock and roll aura during a time period where the WWF was about to take over the world with their association of what was perceived as cool in wider, non-wrestling media. He had a swagger coupled with a never-say-die attitude that made his matches eminently watchable as well as himself massively popular irrelevant of which side of the face/heel divide he stood.
However, it was his 1982 heel turn and subsequent feud with Tatsumi Fujinami that produced some of his best work.
Choshu and Fujinami had teamed together for many years prior to their fallout, often also joining with Antonio Inoki to form a trio for six man tag matches. When the two men did collide, as they would from time to time, it was Fujinami who was dominant. With the Dragon often seen as the heir apparent to Inoki as the number one face on the roster, Choshu was scrapping around looking for respect. After being left out of the selection for the inaugural IWGP Heavyweight Title tournament, Choshu decided he had had enough waiting around for that respect and was going to take it himself.
Tensions were high as Choshu and Fujinami teamed with Inoki to take on Abdullah the Butcher, Bad News Allen and S.D. Jones. Choshu initially refused to engage with Allen, forcing Fujinami to make the tag to start the contest. After the two men refused each others’ tags multiple times – Inoki getting the raw end of a three-man beatdown because of this – Fujinami eventually slapped Choshu around the face for his insubordination. The team was able to stay on the same page long enough for Inoki to pick up a sunset flip pinfall over Jones, only for the passions to spill over after the bell. More slaps and a selection of harsh words followed, firmly splitting the tag team seemingly for good.
It was only a fortnight later that the two men stood opposite each other in the ring in singles competition for the seventh time. This time, however, things had changed; Fujinami may have won all of their previous encounters, but Choshu was now gunning to make a statement. At least initially, both wrestlers tried to outwork each other on the mat, though they hadn’t yet gone ten minutes before Choshu targeted a bandage on Fujinami’s head, the remnants of a singles match with Abdullah the Butcher earlier that week.
With the claret flowing, the Dragon still was able to hold off the onslaught – at least initially. Bursts of offense from Choshu quickened the pace and put Fujinami in trouble, yet the bleeding hero was able to dish out more than his fair share of punishment as the fight spread beyond the confines of the ring. Eventually, the referee was left with little choice but to wave the match off, the victim of an over-the-top rope bump as a chair was introduced and the two wrestlers battled over the weapon. Every attempt to halt the brawl was futile, at least until Antonio Inoki himself hit the ring to separate the two blood-soaked warriors.
The stakes were heightened for their next singles contest, just under two weeks later, as Fujinami’s WWF International Heavyweight Title was up for grabs. This time, all pretense of a fair fight was gone. As the referee reached down to check Choshu’s boots for hidden weapons, the champion attacked, pitching the challenger to the outside in an attempt to establish early dominance. All of this was for naught a minute in as Choshu planted Fujinami with a vicious backdrop and attempted to assert his own dominance.
Neither man was truly able to control proceedings for very long, an indicator of how driven both wrestlers were to win as well as how knowledgeable they were as to each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Each move and submission was met with return fire, though the relentless pace of the early offerings wasn’t maintained as the fight headed to the canvas. Things slowed down, but the intensity of the exchanges was still evident even in something as simple as dueling chin lock attempts.
It was a shame that the finish didn’t quite live up to what had come before it – a Riki lariat that was supposed to see both men fall out of the ring instead seeing them flailing about, caught in the ropes. When they finally fell to the floor, Choshu threw Fujinami over the guardrail – an instant disqualification at the time. No longer confined by the rules of wrestling, Choshu whipped Fujinami into the ring post, before hanging him upside down outside the ring in a modified Tree of Woe. Though he was not the champion, Choshu’s gestures made it clear that he thought he had proved who the ring belonged to.
As leader of Ishin Gundan, Choshu became one of the earlier – if not the earliest – forms of the traitor heel. Rather than relying on the standard gaijin bad guys for the narrative, this was a man who had turned his back on his fans and his promotion. Aligning himself with Killer Khan and Masa Saito, any tag or six-man match was always only a moment away from a mass brawl or a violent assault. Fujinami, supported by Antonio Inoki and Seiji Sakaguchi, was able to give as good as he got as a sequence of matches that saw multiple variations of the six meet almost always ended up the same: wild fighting at ringside as the crowds cheered on.
With things no closer to resolution, the two nemeses met once more in singles competition on the April 3 Big Fight Series 2 show, affording Choshu another opportunity at the WWF International Heavyweight Title. Before the bell had even rung, Choshu took a leaf out of Fujinami’s tactics from the previous fight by attacking as the referee checked his opponent. This time, however, it was to the detriment of both men as an attempted Riki lariat ended up as a double clothesline, putting both men down hard.
This early spot largely seemed to rationalize a slower overall pace as the first half of the contest saw a battle for supremacy on the canvas. A shin breaker left Fujinami vulnerable, with Choshu capitalizing by slapping on the Scorpion Deathlock. Twice, the champion was able to reach the rope to break the hold, yet the effort had clearly taken its toll. However, just as the title looked like it was slipping away, Fujinami grabbed two incredibly close falls: one from a German suplex, before a roll-up after avoiding a Riki Lariat had fans on their feet as they were certain the champ had done enough to retain.
The beauty of a move like Riki Choshu’s lariat is that he only had to hit it once to end a match. The momentum had shifted to Fujinami, only for the challenger to wipe him out with a lariat out of nowhere. Choshu collapsed into the pin almost immediately; a move that was the difference between success and failure as Fujinami kicked out at 3.1. Indeed, it was so close to almost detract from the finish as the crowd was left unsure as to whether the match was officially over. As Masa Saito entered the ring to celebrate with the new champion, any doubts were laid to rest: Riki Choshu was the WWF International Heavyweight Champion and, more importantly for him, had finally defeated Fujinami in a one-on-one match.
Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t the last time that these two men went to battle against each other.
Choshu managed to defend the gold twice against Fujinami, only to lose the belt back to him in August. Generational rivals by this point, the two battled many more times over the years, most notably for the IWGP Heavyweight Title in 1990, and as late as 2013 by which time Choshu was in his 60s. It was only apt that Fujinami was also involved in Choshu’s 2019 retirement match, teaming with Keiji Muto and Togi Makabe to beat his eternal rival as well as Shiro Koshinaka and Tomohiro Ishii.
Choshu’s multiple selections on this list speaks volumes to the excitement and fervor he managed to generate from a live crowd. There have been very few wrestlers who can match up to his boundless charisma, charisma that when coupled with a boundary-breaking heel turn saw him become one of the stars of wrestling in the 1980s.
Do yourself a favor today – fire up New Japan World and watch Choshu at his finest.