I was talking to my brother the other night. We were talking about why our society chooses to remember certain people as opposed to others. This discussion came on the heels of the supposed revelation of the identity of Jack the Ripper via DNA evidence, which has been a story circulating through mass media the past few weeks. We agreed that it was somewhat odd that a psychotic who butchered women would not only be remembered, but even revered, more than a century later. Almost everyone knows Jack the Ripper. Almost no one knows the names of any of his victims, and there were many. All the suffering, violence, fear, absorbed into both pop culture nonsense as well as preoccupation with the famous, strange, and famously strange.
I have a degree in history. I found throughout my studies that historians often seek a narrative laced throughout history, as if finding the story will reveal the reason why everything happened as it did. I don’t think that searching for a narrative is necessarily the correct way of writing about history. Yes, a narrative might exist, a sort-of explanation for why Hitler came to power, or how the Seven Years War shaped the future of North America, or whatever. But I don’t think finding a narrative inside the intertwined mess of human lives necessarily portrays an accurate picture of human history.
No, I think the job of the historian is to chronicle. The historian is the person that reminds her contemporaries of what happened, not necessarily why it happened. I think of Jack the Ripper’s victims, and then I think of all the people throughout human history that are forgotten because someone failed to chronicle their existence. In that way, most of us are victims of Jack the Ripper. We are the forgotten, cast aside carelessly in favour of our more favoured and famous counterparts.
To write about the life and times of another human being in a way that does not tell but shows the importance of that person is no doubt complex. Yet, it is easy to write about someone famous. Chronicling Jack the Ripper is simple. He was colourful, enticing, his motivations bold, his story catching. Chronicling the lives of his victims is a little more complicated, with uncertain motivations, less colour, less enticement. But these people existed. They were real, same as you and I. They did real things and led real lives and died in a real way.
I think the job of an historian is to remind people of what was real. That is what is meant by chronicling history. He does not need to find a narrative, does not need to tell a story, but to say, yes, there were people who really lived before us, and this is who they were. It doesn’t matter if they were famous, or killers, or significant. It matters that they were people, and that their existence is in some small way connected to ours, just as ours will be connected to the people that come after us.
Masahiko Kimura was real, just like anyone else. He came before us and had profound influence on the things you and I call pro wrestling and mixed martial arts. That influence was real, and it deserves to be acknowledged.
I recall the victims of Jack the Ripper in relation to Kimura in that throughout history, like the Ripper victims, Kimura was always the other, the less famous counterpart to someone with more historical recognition. For Kimura, his Ripper was both Rikidozan and Helio Gracie, two names that are likely to be recalled by many fans, experts, students, and historians of pro wrestling and mixed martial arts before those same people recall Kimura’s name. That Rikidozan and Helio Gracie are remembered before Kimura may be apt, but that doesn’t denigrate Kimura’s influence on wrestling and martial arts. I propose that his influence on wrestling and martial arts is so profound that he deserves inclusion in the Hall of Fame. Let me tell you why.
Kimura was the most famous judoka of his time, and perhaps the greatest judoka of all-time. He had one of the famous influential fights in vale tudo history when he defeated Helio Gracie in Brazil in 1951, it what was perhaps the most famous and historically important mixed martial arts fight worldwide until the Antonio Inoki-Muhammad Ali debacle in 1975. The kimura, previously known as the reverse ude-garami (the name “kimura” certainly sound more poetic), was named after him as it was the lock he used to defeat Gracie in 1949. Kimura was also a founding father of Japanese pro wrestling, establishing the sport on NTV in Japan by teaming with Rikidozan against The Sharpe Brothers in 1954, and then later that year unwittingly establishing Rikidozan as a legend by being on the receiving end of a doublecross when Rikidozan defeated him on Japanese TV to become the country’s first heavyweight champion.
He was born September 10th, 1917, in Kumamoto, the capital city of the Kumamoto Prefecture on the island of Kyushu in southwest Japan. His family was poor. One of his first jobs was as a child, where he would help his father collecting gravel from the bottom of a river. They would then sell the gravel off the back of a truck. He began training in judo around the age of nine or ten and became a prodigy. He was promoted to fourth dan around the age of fifteen or sixteen, while still a senior in high school. He defeated six opponents in a row to earn the title. In 1934, he competed in a high school judo championship, defeating three consecutive opponents to win the title for his school.
At the age of 18, in 1935, he became the youngest ever fifth degree black belt in the sport’s history by way of defeating eight consecutive opponents, and that year won his first title, the All-Japan Collegiate Championships. He won the Collegiate Championships again in 1937 (the Championships were held every two years), the second time by defeating six consecutive opponents.
He suffered his first loss in 1935 when, after defeating eight consecutive opponents, he lost to a student named Ryoji Miyajima from Meiji University. Kimura would go on to lose three more times that year, first in May against Kenichiro Osawa at the fifth dan division championships. In that bout, Kimura suffered a concussion. In Kimura’s second match at the fifth dan championships, he lose to Kenshiro Abe, who defeated Kimura and went on to win the championships. That fall, Kimura lost again, this time to Hideo Yamamoto, after Kimura defeated two opponent consecutively.
After his disasterous 1935, Kimura considered quitting judo. Instead he perserved, perfecting his favourite technique of osotogari by practing it against a tree while upping his training regiment to extreme levels.
“After I went home and ate I would take a bath and then do solo training. First, a thousand push-ups, then body-building – six-hundred bench presses with 80 kg [175 lbs] barbells,” Kimura said years later, describing his training regiment. “In those days, when I did osotogari at the [Tokyo] Police Department and the Kodokan, an average of ten people a day would get concussions, so I was told not to use it during training. When I heard that I worked it even harder, thinking that I didn’t want to be satisfied with just a concussion.”
Kimura’s sensei Wushijima once watched Kimura practice osotogari against a tree and asked him, “Are you still trying to kill that tree?” Kimura avenged three of his losses, first in a rematch with Osawa at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police dojo, defeating him. He then defeated Abe in a gym contest, and fought and defeated Yamamoto at the Mitsubishi Dojo in Tokyo.
He entered the All-Japan Judo Championships, the most prestigious judo competition of that era before judo became an Olympic sport in 1964, for the first time in October 1937 at age twenty. He was the first student ever allowed to compete in the Championships. He defeated Masayuki Nakajima, a fifth dan, in the finals to win the tournament. He won the Championships again the following year by defeating an opponent named Ogawa, who had also previously defeated Nakajima, in the finals.
He won the Championships a third year in a row in 1939, defeating a man named Tokizane (a fifth dan) in the finals. Legend has it that Kimura warned Tokizane before the bout that he would use the osoto-gari (a judo throw based on a foot technique) to defeat him, which he indeed did. Kimura was given a special award, a championship flag, in honour of winning the Championships for three years in a row, being the first competitor to do so. Later pro wrestlers that would win the All-Japan Judo Championships early in their careers include Seiji Sakaguchi (also on the Hall of Fame ballot), Satoshi Ishii, and Naoya Ogawa. Ogawa won the Championships seven times, including for five years in a row from 1989 to 1993.
Kimura remained undefeated in judo from his first All-Japan Judo Championships win in 1937 until his retirement from the sport in 1950. In 1940, a special tournament was held, called the Ten-Ran Shiai, which in attendance included Emperor Hirohito. In competition were fifty-two amateurs and thirty-two professionals. Kimura defeated Takahiko Ishikawa in only 42 seconds in the tournament finals. “Before the Emperor’s Games [Ten-Ran Shiai] in , I didn’t even have time to sleep because I was practicing ten and a half hours every day,” recalled Kimura.
Due to the war, the All-Japan Judo Championships would only be held once between 1940 and 1947, in 1941. Kimura did not compete in the 1941 version. The 1941 Championships were won by Iwao Hirosei, who Kimura had defeated in the the semi-finals of the Ten-Ren Shiai the previous year. Kimura was promoted to seventh dan in 1947, at the age of thirty. It would be the highest rank he would achieve in judo, as the rank was permanently frozen over the controversy of Kimura later joining pro wrestling.
Kimura left judo and joined the Japanese army in January 1943. He also taught judo once a week at Asakura High School, where, supposedly after drinking up to three liters of sake before class, he was choked out by a white belt while demonstrating technique. Stories about Kimura being beaten in gym fights by smaller wrestlers while doing judo and pro wrestling in Hawaii years later also exist, although how much truth is contained in these stories is difficult to ascertain. Gym fights and real fights are also two very different things, but although Kimura was the most famed competitor in pre-war judo, after the war he was older and probably less superhuman in strength and skill.
During this period he also began training in Shotokan karate under Shotokan founder Gichin Funakoshi, but switched to training in Goju-Ryu karate. Kimura returned to judo competition afer the war ended, in 1947. He won the 1947 West Japan Judo Championships, defeating Yasuichi Matsumoto by decision after a double-overtime in a round-robin tournament. Kimura apparently was not invited to the 1948 All-Japan Championships due to his refusal to return the championship flag he would won a decade earlier, but he won the All-Japan Judo Championships for a fourth and final time in 1949, at the age of thirty-two, He fought Takahiko Ishikawa, the man he beat in the finals of the Tean-Ran Shiai tournament in 1940, in the finals. After three overtimes with neither scoring, the referee called the fight and declared both of them champions. Ishikawa won the title in 1950.
In 1949, Kimura accepted a position as chief judo instuctor for the Tokyo Metropolitan police. During this period, Kimura had taken on a number of odd-jobs to support his family, including acting as a broker for coal sales and working as a bodyguard. He had friends that usually covered his travel costs when it came to competing in judo tournaments.
The job with the police was to start in April 1950, but in February 1950, Kimura’s sensei, Wushijima, contacted him with an offer to participate in professional judo, something that likely paid more than a position with the Tokyo police. Kimura joined a group of thirty-two judoka and became the promotion’s first champion by defeating a man named Yamaguchi.
“On April 16th, 1950, Pro Judo was started with twenty-one members. It was sponsored by a construction contractor named Mr. Takano,” recalled Kimura in his autobiography, “My Judo”. “At first, [Pro Judo] was very popular, but after four or five months, the popularity dropped suddenly. Moreover, Takano Construction, which was our sponsor, started to lose profit. Our pay started to decrease as Takano Construction started to fall. Eventually, we received no pay, which lasted about two months. In those days, my wife Tomiko was hospitalized for a lung disease. Because of the serious food shortage in those days, most poverty stricken people never survived the disease. I had no choice but leave pro judo to save her.”
The promotion failed, and Kimura, with two other judoka, embarked on a professional judo tour in Hawaii, where Kimura was able to buy medication for his wife after becoming a wrestler for promoter Al Karasik. Kimura’s wife recovered, and together they raised a son and daughter.
This, however, is when Kimura entered the odd world of pro wrestling and vale tudo. He had become a local star in Hawaii, drawing large crowds to arenas to see Kimura and other judoka from Japan compete in judo matches during an initial three-month tour. Kimura was also teaching judo in Hawaii. “Wherever we went, the arena was super-packed. Every town was talking about judo,” recalled Kimura. “It was no wonder since the Japanese who were completely defeated in the war tossed around and toyed with Americans. The business was a big success.”
Karasik approached Kimura and the other judoka at their hotel three days before they were set to leave the island. “[Karasik] asked us if we were interested in doing pro wrestling in the Civic Hall four times a month. The pay was about 4 million yen in today’s value,” recalled Kimura.
Kimura and the other judoka continued to draw well in pro wrestling on the island. A Japanese-language newspaper based on Sao Paulo, Brazil, called the Sao Paulo Shinbun covered Kimura’s success in Hawaii, and Kimura traveled to Brazil with two other judoka, Yukio Kato and Toshio Yamaguchi, taught judo and performed in pro wrestling, which became popular in Brazil. Apparently the tour was sponsored by the newspaper. “This enterprise was a big success. Wherever we went, the arena was super-packed,” says Kimura.
Helio Gracie, the progenitor of all things vale tudo and really the godfather of modern mixed martial arts, challenged the judoka to submission-only fights. Gracie had been a sensation in Rio doing vale tudo fights in the ’30s, but his popularity had tapered off after vale tudo was banned in Brazil. By the time of Kimura’s fight against Helio, though, the latter was still popular in Rio as one of the best jiu jitsu instructors in the city.
Helio, however, wasn’t initially matched up against Kimura. He fought twice against another judoka and pro wrestler Yukio Kato, a fifth dan in judo who weighed 154 pounds. The first bout took place September 6th, 1951, at Maracana Stadium, which was the largest stadium in Brazil at that time. Because vale tudo fights were still banned in Rio, the two fights against Kato and the bout against Kimura were submissions fights disallowing strikes to the head. They went to a three-round draw with Kato dominating the early part of the fight with Helio improving as the fight wore on.
A rematch took place twenty-three days later on September 29th at Ibirapuera Stadium in Sao Paulo. Kato was able to throw Helio early in the fight, but the mats that were used in Helio’s fights against Kato and Kimura were very soft, making the judo throws performed by the Japanese fighters less effective. Helio came back and choked Kato out in about thirty minutes in a match where Kato didn’t have adequate submissions knowledge on the ground to compete with Helio’s guard.
“Two days after this bout, I saw Helio’s students marching down a city street carrying a coffin. They were shouting, ‘Dead Japanese judoka Kato is in this coffin. He got killed by Helio. We ask your support for Judo Master Helio Gracie!’,” recalled Kimura.
Business for Kimura’s wrestling tour in Brazil began to decline. “The Japanese whom we encountered on the street murmured, ‘They must be phonies, losing in such a pathetic manner’,” recalled Kimura.
After defeating Kato the gatekeeper, Helio’s wanted another fight, this time with Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi, however, was reluctant, and Kimura instead accepted the fight. Kimura probably took the fight to help the fledgling pro wrestling business in Brazil. The fight between Kimura and Gracie took place at Maracana Stadium in Rio on October 23, 1951, drawing about 20,000 fans. It was attended by the President of Brazil, among other dignitaries.
“Until the day of the bout, we continued pro wrestling shows every other day,” recalled Kimura. “Three days before the bout, [a] local newspaper had a big headline, saying ‘Kimura is not a Japanese. He seems to be a Cambodian. Helio cannot fight a fake Japanese.’ I was surprised to see it. I rushed to the Embassy of Japan with my passport, and got a proof that I am a Japanese.”
Kimura was 34 years old, stood around 5’7″ and weighed 185 pounds. Gracie was 38 and probably stood at about 5’9″ weighed around 175. There is historical discrepancy about the size of both men at the time of the fight, though. The Gracies claim that Helio was 140 pounds and Kimura 220. The claim of the large weight deficit is largely to protect Helio’s legacy since he lost the fight, claiming that the reason he lost was not due to being beaten by someone more skilled, but simply being overpowered by someone larger, and that Helio was brave for taking a fight against a much larger opponent in the first place. Kimura claims he was 187 pounds and Helio was 176. The Gracies also later claimed that Kimura told Helio that if the latter could last more then three minutes, then Helio should consider it a victory. Kimura has never referenced such a claim in public, before or after the fight.
The fights between Helio and Kato had largely been a battle of nationalism rather than a competition of sports or of competing fighting styles, as there was a large contigent of Japanese living in Brazil at the time. Kato’s loss hurt the wrestling business in Brazil for Kimura and company, since it seemed to prove that wrestling was fake and beneath what the Brazilian Helio had been doing all along in his home city of Rio.
“When I entered the stadium, I found a coffin,” Kimura recalled. “I asked what it was. I was told, ‘This is for Kimura. Helio brought this in.’ It was so funny that I almost burst into laughter.”
The rules and the construction of Helio’s fights with Kimura and Kato heavily favoured Helio. Helio obviously had the hometown advantage, with the partisan crowd in his favour, whipping eggs at Helio’s opponents. And it wasn’t just the soft mat that basically neutralized hard judo throws and trips. The rules also favoured Helio. With a time-limit (something that the Gracies are normally opposed to, particularly when a no time-limit fight favours them), all Helio had to do was use his guard to survive on his back to win a draw, or wait for the judoka to make a mistake on the ground and then Helio could submit him. There weren’t many possible outcomes that favoured a judoka against Helio under those rules in that sort of venue.
Kimura was able to throw Gracie, but that didn’t matter so much because of the soft mats. Gracie admitted in an interview conducted in 1994 that Kimura actually choked Gracie unconscious early in the fight, but released the choke and moved on not realizing that Helio was out. Helio recovered and continued the bout.
“If Kimura had continued to choke me, I would have died for sure. But since I didn’t give up, Kimura let go of the choke and went into the next technique,” Gracie recalled in an interview with Kakutou Striking Spirit magazine decades later. “Being released from the choke and the pain from the next technique revived me and I continued to fight. Kimura went to his grave without ever knowing the fact that I was finished. If possible, I wish I could have talked about the fight with him and let him know about it.”
Around twelve minutes into the fight, Kimura locked on the reverse ude garami. “I thought he would surrender immediately. But Helio would not tap the mat. I had no choice but keep on twisting the arm. The stadium became quiet,” Kimura recalled. “The bone of his arm was coming close to the breaking point. Finally, the sound of bone breaking echoed throughout the stadium. Helio still did not surrender. His left arm was already powerless. Under this rule, I had no choice but twist the arm again. There was plenty of time left. I twisted the left arm again. Another bone was broken. Helio still did not tap. When I tried to twist the arm once more, a white towel was thrown in. I won by TKO.”
He broke Helio’s arm, and Carlos Gracie threw in the towel when Helio refused to tap. That move, of course, became known as the kimura based on the legacy of this fight. “My hand was raised high. Japanese Brazilians rushed into the ring and tossed me up in the air,” Kimura recalled. “On the other hand, Helio let his left arm hang and looked very sad withstanding the pain.”
Despite losing, Helio’s legacy also grew exponentially as a result of this fight, establishing him as a national sports legend in Brazil. It is a legacy that would carry over to the United States and then worldwide when the UFC debuted with Royce Gracie winning a one-night tournament in 1993.
Comparing the 20,000 person crowd that Helio and Kimura drew in 1951 in Rio, assuming that this figure is accurate, it would have been the largest crowd for a pro wrestling match that year. For an actual pro wrestling match, the largest crowd in 1951 was 17,796 at St. Lous Arena for Lou Thesz against Buddy Rogers.
Very few pro wrestling matches from that era drew crowds in excess of 20,000 people. In 1949, the largest crowd was 17,854 at MSG for Argentina Rocca against Gene Stanlee. Rocca and Stanlee drew the largest crowd again in 1950 at MSG with 16,979. In 1952, Lou Thesz vs Baron Michele Leone drew the first $100,000 gate in wrestling history at Gilmore Field in Los Angeles, drawing 25,256 paying $103,277.75. Matches with Blue Demon in Mexico from that era also drew around 20,000-25,000, as did matches with Santo.
The famous US wrestling attendance record was set in 1961 for Pat O’Connor against Buddy Rogers at Comiskey Park which drew 38,622 for a gate that was either $125,000 or $148,000 depending on the source. Other crowds in the late 50s drew in excess of 20,000 fans, for stars such as Rogers, Rocca, Thesz, Killer Kowalski, Gene Kiniski, Black Shadow, and Gorgeous George, among others. Santana against Carlson Gracie reportedly drew 40,000 people for their fight in Rio in 1956. Nevertheless, the drawing power of the Gracie-Kimura fight easily matches up to the drawing power of any pro wrestler worldwide at the time.
Kimura subsequently returned to Japan and became one of the founding fathers of modern Japanese wrestling. “In November 1951, I founded Kokusai Pro Wrestling Association,” claims Kimura. “After I came back from US doing pro wrestling matches, I did pro wrestling shows throughout Japan. In those days, Rikidozan also started a new organization called Japan Pro Wrestling Association.” Bobby Bruns, as booker, was running a wrestling tour in Japan using Kimura, Yamaguchi and Harold Sakata, a Hawaiian who won an Olympic silver medal in weightlifting in 1948.
“In 1951, after former boxing champion Joe Louis led a tour of boxers and wrestlers to the country, a number of athletes from sumo and judo decided to train for the new sport,” wrote Freddie Blassie in his autobiography. “The same year, Rikidozan had his first pro wrestling match, a ten-minute draw against American Bobby Bruns [October 28th, 1951]. In February 1954, Rikidozan and his partner Masahiko Kimura took part in a tag team tournament televised on two separate networks. Many Japanese could not afford televisions yet, so the matches were broadcast in Tokyo store windows. Thousands of people jammed the streets on the first and third days of the tournament, when Rikidozan and Kimura appeared.”
The pair wrestled on a broadcast that aired on both rival networks NTV and NHK on February 19th, 1954, the first time wrestling was seen on Japanese TV. Kimura and Rikidozan teamed against the NWA World Tag Team champions Mike and Ben Sharpe at a sold-out Sumo Hall, although the titles were not on the line. It was a best-of-three falls match, with Rikidozan pinning Ben for the first fall. Kimura was disqualified for the second fall. They went to the time limit for the third fall, ending the match in a draw. It remains one of the most famous wrestling matches in Japanese history, so culturally important that Japanese children learn about the match in history class.
On February 20th, Kimura wrestled in another night of television on Japanese network TV, going to a forty-five minute draw with Bobby Bruns. Also on that show, Mike Sharpe beat Toshio Yamaguchi in best two of three falls and Rikidozan beat Ben Sharpe in best two of three falls.
On February 21st, Ben and Mike Sharpe defended the tag titles against Kimura and Rikidozan. Ben bleed, and the match ended when Bruns ran in to stop it and the referee disqualified both teams. They also did rematches for the titles that aired on television weeks later, including a sixty-one minute draw in Osaka and a title match in Sumo Hall where the Sharpes retained the titles when Ben pinned Kimura in 33:03 to win a best-of-three falls bout that also went sixty-one minutes. Kimura was reportedly displeased at being the one booked to take the pin.
The first major Japanese vs Japanese match in history took place on December 22nd, 1954, on Japanese network television, between Rikidozan and Kimura. Rikidozan’s real name was Kim Sin-rak and he was born in South Korea, although that was kept secret during his career in Japan as his Korean nationality would have damaged his popularity in Japan. He was a former sumo who would go on to become the biggest wrestling legend in Japanese history. The match with Kimura established Rikidozan as a legend, and it wasn’t without controversy.
“Mass media started to talk about [a] Kimura vs Rikidozan match,” Kimura recalled in his autobiography. “I met with Rikidozan and asked his opinion. He said, “That is a good idea. We will be able to build a fortune. Let’s do it!” The first bout was going to be a draw. The winner of the second will be determined by the winner of a paper-scissors-stone. After the second match, we will repeat this process. We came to an agreement on this condition.”
Rikidozan famously double-crossed Kimura, destroying him with chops and kicks before knocking Kimura out. The match ended with the referee counting Kimura out at ten. “Rikidozan became taken by greed for big money and fame. He lost his mind and became a mad man,” Kimura recalled. “When I saw him raise his hand, I opened my arms to invite the chop. He delivered the chop, not to my chest, but to my neck with full force. I fell to the mat. He then kicked me. Neck arteries are so vulnerable that it did not need to be Rikidozan to cause a knock down. A junior high school kid could inflict a knock down this way.”
Rikidozan struck Kimura to the jaw with a right, and then backed him into a corner and dealt a series of open hand chops to the head. Kimura attempted to time him up and Rikidozan grabbed the ropes, causing the ref to break them. Rikidozan continued his assault, dropping Kimura to a knee with a slap to the head, and followed it up with a knee to the face, a kick to the face, adn a stomop to the base of the neck. Kimura again back into a corner, and Rikidozan knocked him out.
“I could not forgive his treachery,” said Kimura. “That night, I received a phone call informing me that several ten yakuza are on their way to Tokyo to kill Rikidozan.” Kimura ended up calling them off.
The outcome made Rikidozan as tremendous legend in Japan, as it was seen as the top pro wrestler soundly beating the top judoka. The highest rated pro wrestling match in the history of NTV took place October 6th, 1958, when Lou Thesz came to Japan for the first time as NWA World champipon and went to a sixty-one minute draw against Rikidozan with neither taking a fall in front of 27,000 people at Korakuen Baseball Stadium. The show drew an 87.0 rating. They had a rematch a week later in front of 30,000 fans at Osaka Ogi Pool with each man taking a fall on the way to another draw. Rikidozan was stabbed to death in a Tokyo night club on December 15th, 1963.
Kimura continued to do pro wrestling and martial arts, but outside of Japan. In March 1955, he went on a pro wrestling tour in Mexico. Later in 1955 he was teaching judo in France and England, spending a year in Europe. He then stayed in Spain for four months, teaching judo and doing pro wrestling matches. He returned to Paris briefly, before coming back to Japan in January 1958.
Kimura returned to Brazil to compete one last time in 1959, at the age of 41. He fought Waldemar Santana, 30, twice. Santana was trained in jiu jitsu and capoeria, and was around 6’0″ and 205 pounds. He had defeated Helio Gracie by way of knockout in 1955 in a fight that lasted 3 hours, 45 minutes and was based on a grudge developed between the two in Rio newspapers over Santana participating in pro wrestling in Brazil. This is believed to be the longest vale tudo match in history.
The first bout between Kimura and Santana took place under grappling rules. “On my way to the ring, someone raised his arm and waved at me. It was Helio Gracie, whom I had not seen for several years,” recalled Kimura. “Helio was at the radio broadcast seat. He was the commentator of the match.” Kimura submitted Santana with the kimura after being able to throw the larger and younger man.
The second bout was a total vale tudo fight, technically the only one Kimura ever fought, and took place in front of 10,000 fans. It went to a bloody forty-minute draw, with Kimura having difficulty dealing with the strikes from Santana.
Kimura tried to throw Santana, but they were both soaked in sweat, and the throw landed funny with Kimura falling to the mat. “It seemed like I could score a clean throw. However, it was a miscalculation,” recalled Kimura. “We were both heavily covered with sweat as if a large amount of water had been poured onto our heads. Moreover, he had no jacket on. There was no way such a technique could have worked under these conditions. His arm slipped through, and my body rotated in the air once forward, and landed on my back. “I screwed up!” I shouted in my mind, but it was too late.”
Kimura was able to bloody Santana with strikes from the ground, though. “My right fist accurately caught [Santana's] face by counter. It landed between his nose and eyes. Blood splattered. I had also already been heavily covered with blood. The blood interfered with my vision. ‘Kill him, kill him!’ the devil in my mind screamed.”
Both men were exhausted and they limped to a draw. “It was my first Vale Tudo experience. That night, my face was badly swollen. I had a number of cuts on my face,” recalled Kimura. “Every time I breathed, an excruciating pain ran through my belly, and I could not sleep.” During this time Kimura continued to do pro wrestling matches in Brazil.
In his autobiography, Kimura describes an amusing anecdote about training Gory Guerrero in judo around this time. “One day, after I finished a pro wrestling match, Gorry Guerrero came to see me. He said he fought many matches against judoka from Japan, but when he deposited his weight on the judoka as soon as the judoka tried to execute a throw, the judoka collapsed like a frog, and some of them got badly hurt in the lower back and got hospitalized.”
Gory wanted Kimura to teach him judo. Kimura continued describing their training, writing, “I let him attack and concentrated on defense. He must have thought he was gaining the ground. He came forward with a momentum. I measured the timing and initiated Ippon-seoi. His huge body was carried on my hip. He lost the center of gravity, rolled forward, and fell on his back. As he tried to get up, I threw him three more times in a row. He finally made a gesture of surrender, and said, ‘Thank you, real judo is wonderful, after all’ repeatedly.”
Kimura took up a job teaching judo at Tokushoku University in 1960. Many of his students went on to great success. They included Doug Rogers (silver medalist at 1964 Olympics), Masaki Nishimura (bronze medalist at 1972 Olympics), and Kaneo Iwatsuri (All-Japan Judo Champion in 1970).
In later years he would respond to fan mail, and would even include instructions on how to master the osoto-gari.
He died of lung cancer on April 18th, 1993, at the age of 75 in his home in Kawasaki. He had surgery sometime before he died, but shortly after surgery, he was already doing push-ups.
Does Kimura belong in the Hall of Fame? The three categories for consideration to the Hall are drawing power, in-ring ability, and historical influence. Let us look at these one at a time.
Kimura drew 20,000 people to see him defeat Helio Gracie in Brazil, among the biggest crowds for pro wrestling of that era. I’m under the impression his fight with Santana in Brazil years later didn’t draw as well, but was still a popular event.
When Kimura teamed with Rikidozan against the Sharpe Brothers, not many people in Japan had televisions. There are tons of stories about people watching these matches in store windows and other public places, though. Without accurate figures, I still think it is safe to say that the matches featuring Kimura and Rikidozan against the Sharpes were massive draws in Japan. They were able to pack houses for these matches, too.
The match against Rikidozan was also so early in the history of both Japanese wrestling and Japanese television that statistics wouldn’t paint an accurate picture, as it would have been a tremendous draw at the time.
Less notably, but still somewhat important, were Kimura’s successes drawing packed houses for pro wrestling tours in such diverse places as Brazil, Hawaii, and Europe. Figures don’t exist, but most of these tours seemed to have been successfully, at least in Brazil and Hawaii.
In short, Kimura had tremendous drawing power in Japan, Brazil, and Hawaii, in an era where technology was changing pro wrestling with the invention of television. He drew live crowds and television audiences. He didn’t have longevity as a drawing card and was always the opponent of the star, rather then the star itself. But he drew money against opponents as diverse as Rikidozan and Helio Gracie in different parts of the world, and was one of the most famous opponents of both these fighters. Kimura drew money.
In terms of workrate, it is difficult to categorize Kimura. He was certainly athletic, no question about that. In pro wrestling, he was able to do long matches, frequently wrestling to sixty-one minute draws. Some footage exists of his wrestling in Japan, particularly the Rikidozan match. That match, however, turned into a shoot, so it really isn’t good evidence of Kimura’s workrate. As a tag team with Rikidozan, he was frequently the face selling before making the hot tag. There isn’t much to say about this category other than to say that Kimura was probably a good enough worker to draw crowds and do what needed to be done in matches.
I don’t think his legacy can be overstated. He was the winner of the most famous vale tudo fight until the UFC debuted in 1993, a fight popular enough that the move he used to win is commonly known worldwide as the kimura. He was one of the early stars of Japanese wrestling, first as a tag team with Rikidozan and then as Rikidozan’s first famous opponent.
He helped make the legacy of Rikidozan and considering how important Rikidozan is historically, that is worth Hall of Fame consideration alone. Yes, he happened to be basically an innocent bystander that Rikidozan beat the snot out of in order to become a legend. But that win for Rikidozan would not have meant as much if Kimura was not respected as a famous judoka in Japan. He helped make Rikidozan’s name.
He also helped make Helio Gracie’s name, at least as a legend. Gracie was already a legend in Rio, but his loss against Kimura is probably remembered as his most famous bout. The myth of Kimura being so much larger than Helio perpetuated for so long that it made Helio into a legend simply for fighting someone perceived as being so much larger than him.
I think my own life would be different in a meaningful way if Kimura had not existed. He influenced mixed martial arts in a way that, if you remove Kimura from history, then that sport might be totally different today. He influenced pro wrestling in Japan in a way that, if you again remove Kimura from history, then pro wrestling in that country might be totally different today. I have committed so much of my own life to mixed martial arts and pro wrestling, almost irrationally, that if you removed Kimura a third time from history, then my own life might be irrevocably different today. Of course, the criteria for the Hall of Fame is not whether a nominee has influenced the voter’s life. Yet, if Kimura’s influence on wrestling is so powerful that he reaches through the decades and alters the life of a man writing a brief biography about him, then he is certainly worthy of consideration.
I think all the dead ask of us is to not be forgotten. I’ll be voting in the Hall of Fame and I will choose not to forget Kimura.