It’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame season once again, and that means lots of debates on the merits (or lack thereof) of the names on the ballot. One name that gets plenty of heated debate is Yoshiaki Fujiwara.

I’m going to attempt to be as fair as possible to Fujiwara’s career, but in my view, Fujiwara doesn’t deserve to be in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame. Fujiwara had a great, and yes, to some extent, an influential career. But he was never one of the primary driving forces of the changes to pro wrestling that he was a part of and would follow.

For the first 12 years of his career, Fujiwara was firmly a midcard wrestler. That changed with the “Sapporo Terrorist Incident,” which was an important angle for his career trajectory. On February 3, 1984, prior to a Riki Choshu vs. Tatsumi Fujinami match, Fujiwara attacked Choshu, an attack so violent that it led to the match being called off (you may recall this angle referenced on its 35th anniversary during the Tetsuya Naito vs. Taichi match on February 3, 2019).

The angle earned Fujiwara a lot of heat. Fujiwara used that as a springboard when he jumped to the first UWF that spring. On April 17, 1984, in front of a claimed 9,100 at the old Kuramae Kokugikan, Fujiwara faced Akira Maeda in the main event of what would ultimately wind up being UWF’s biggest show, a match that certainly adds to Fujiwara’s Hall of Fame case. However, while the Sapporo Terrorist Incident made Fujiwara a bigger star than he ever had been before, he was undoubtedly positioned behind both Super Tiger (Satoru Sayama) and Akira Maeda. Fujiwara was arguably the UWF’s third-biggest star at best.

Fujiwara was a key piece of the UWF “invasion” of New Japan in 1986. He was an important part of that angle and his brutality is fondly remembered. But again, he was of secondary importance not only to Maeda, but it was clear that it was Nobuhiko Takada who was the emerging new star. Fujiwara played a key role, but was not one of the defining talents or focused stars of the angle. In this regard, Fujiwara was akin to a Scott Hall in the nWo or Arn Anderson and Tully Blanchard in the Four Horsemen. Key and memorable parts of their factions and angles, but not the top guy.

Fujiwara’s New Japan run lacked main event singles matches. Chris Samsa of Sport of Pro Wrestling compiled a list of these matches, which shows that Fujiwara, who made his NJPW debut in 1972, did not have his first main event singles match until the UWF invasion in 1986. Over the entirety of his NJPW career, Fujiwara only had seven main event singles bouts. Of those, four occurred during the New Japan vs. UWF feud, which supports the theory that he wasn’t one of the key players in the angle, and the other three all took place much later, from 1993-95.

Fujiwara would jump to the Newborn UWF in 1988. A key moment in this run was when he finally put Akira Maeda over in a singles match. I’ve seen people say this is something that should be considered as part of Fujiwara’s candidacy. I disagree, because while Maeda beating Fujiwara was something Maeda needed to accomplish, it was hardly the moment where Maeda became a star.

After Newborn UWF held its last show in December 1990, Fujiwara would go his own way and form Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi (PWFG). The company lasted from 1991 to 1996. Over those five years, the company only held 47 shows. From the early days of PWFG, Fujiwara didn’t dominate the spotlight, giving younger protoges Masakatsu Funaki, Minoru Suzuki, and even Wayne (Ken) Shamrock main event spots. However, overall, Fujiwara was still the focal point of the promotion.

It was in PWFG that Fujiwara gained a serious notch on his belt that can be used as an argument for his inclusion to the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame. On October 4, 1992, PWFG held the Stack of Arms show at the Tokyo Dome. While the claimed attendance was 40,000, the actual paid attendance was just over 25,000. The gate was estimated to be $1.5-$2 million, which at that time ranked it as one of the highest gates in pro wrestling history. For Fujiwara’s part, he was only the sixth of ten matches on the show, facing Russian arm wrestling champion PWFG, but it should be noted that this was a show pitting PWFG wrestlers against legitimate fighters, with Fujinami positioning his proteges in the key matches. Minoru Suzuki faced Freestyle Wrestling Olympic gold medalist David Gobejishvili, while Masakatsu Funaki faced future UFC hall of famer Maurice Smith in the main event. PWFG would never come anywhere close to putting on a major show like this again. While PWFG had its moments, it’s hard to convince yourself that Fujiwara’s work as a promoter should play a part in getting him into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame.

In 1993, Funaki, Suzuki and Shamrock would leave PWFG to form Pancrase, forever giving those three men an important place in MMA history. The reasons for the jump were twofold: they wanted to do more shoot fights, but Fujiwara refused, believing it wouldn’t work. The trio were also much more over than Fujiwara in the buildings, but felt he was still hogging too much of the spotlight. PWFG would carry on until 1996, and Fujiwara would work a few high-profile matches in New Japan during the mid-90s, but he quickly faded from main events after that. He still wrestles to this day, with his most recent match this past September for HEAT-UP. There simply isn’t much meat on the bones if trying to make a Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame case for Fujiwara as some kind of major money drawing main event star.

Fujiwara was a great worker, but there are no singles matches that rank among the greatest of all time. His most memorable matches are the legendary New Japan vs. UWF ten-man elimination tags. His reputation in some circles as an all-time worker isn’t supported by the voting in real-time by the most hardcore of fans. An examination of Wrestling Observer awards shows that Fujiwara only received enough votes to place as an individual three times, earning fifth place for Best Technical Wrestler in both 1984 and 1987, and once more in 1989 as the last placed honorable mention in the same category. Only two of his matches, both of which were tags, ever got votes for match of the year, both coming in 1987.

Then there is the question of his legacy.

He no doubt has one as a pioneer of shoot style. First, let’s look at his history of training and who he trained, including Funaki, Suzuki, Minoru Tanaka, Yuki Ishikawa, Alexander Otsuka, and Daisuke Ikeda. That’s an impressive list, but it’s a very high bar to get in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame based on training or training alone. Stu Hart is in because he was also a successful wrestler and promoter for several decades. Ditto for trainers like Killer Kowalski and Fritz Von Erich. Devil Masami has a resume as a wrestler good enough to get her in on her own without her trainees. Only one candidate has gotten in based primarily on their training, and that’s Diablo Velasco. Velascos’s list of trainees is incredible, and includes Abismo Negro, Atlantis, Cien Caras, El Dandy, El Solitario, Gory Guerrero, Mil Máscaras, Mr. Águila, Perro Aguayo, Rito Romero, Rolando Vera, Satánico, Shocker, and Tarzán López, just to name a few. Fujiwara only boasts two bonafide main event star trainees in Funaki and Suzuki. `

Fujiwara is undoubtedly an early pioneer of shoot style, but there is the issue of the influence of shoot style long term. It’s a dead style in terms of building promotions around it, and that must be recognized. However, there are still elements of shoot style that have shaped puroresu to this day. Most notable, is the switch to almost entirely clean finishes after 1989 in both All Japan and New Japan.

But how much Fujiwara contributed to whatever level of influence of shoot style remains debatable. Stylistically, those who carry on shoot style in the ring clearly demonstrate more inspiration from Maeda and Takada and their striking and kicks than Fujiwara’s more ground-based shoot style grappling. Fujiwara’s top students, like Funaki and Suzuki, were far more influenced by Antonio Inoki and Karl Gotch than by Fujiwara in terms of wanting to break into wrestling. There’s also the famous story another Fujiwara student, Ishikawa, tells where as a young man, he traveled to Florida looking for Gotch’s house so Ishikawa could ask to be trained by him. Gotch also has a big influence on early Pancrase, including coming up with the name of the company based on the ancient Greek combat sport pankration. He thought Pancrase was carrying out his vision of pro wrestling. In many ways, Fujiwara was a conduit for Gotch’s legacy. However, to be in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame Fujiwara should have put a bigger personal stamp on his own influence to be worthy.

There’s also the fact that shoot style is already well represented in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame by all of its biggest stars. Maeda, Takada, Funaki, Suzuki, and Kazushi Sakuraba are all in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame, along with Inoki and Gotch, as well as Billy Robinson who also played a big role in popularizing catch wrestling in Japan. The forerunners and biggest stars of a style that arguably hasn’t endured are already in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame.

Fujiwara has had a notable career with many great matches, headlined some big shows, and trained some great talent. However, he never quite excelled at any of the Hall of Fame criteria for any significant amount of time, and his resume simply comes up short for inclusion among the greatest professional wrestlers of all time.