Bolt upright in bed. Where am I?
The garish red neon clock at my bedside reads 4:30. a.m. Well, it’s dark, so it must be true. Didn’t I go to bed at 3? That much I remember. The cobwebs clear a little and I really do remember. Ah…Japan.
The jet lag is fierce. It always is. And I know I’m not falling back asleep. No way, no how. So I do what I always do – I lace up my running shoes.
Most of the boys (that’s wrestler/fighter speak for “the guys”) always stay in. They play video games, watch bad porn on the in-room system, sleep. But, dead to the world or not, I feel blessed to travel. And I want to see, and appreciate, where I am.
But where, exactly, is this? I look at the hotel card to remember. Ogimachi Shirakawago. A tiny prefecture in the middle of nowheresville, Asia. We’re on the 10th and final day of the “UPW vs. Zero-One Cash Honor Tour.”
UPW is my pro wrestling company, based in California. Zero-One is the hottest wrestling company in Japan, fronted by the legendary Shinya Hashimoto — 280 lbs., years of experience, tough as nails, feared by all.
And, tonight, as part of our tour, I’m “wrestling” him — back in Tokyo, at the revered Korakuen Hall.
I learned this a few hours ago, drinking sake with some of the locals at the town’s only bar.
Did I mention that I’m 5’5″ and 138 lbs.?
OK, I’m outta here. Going running; to figure out how the heck I got into this mess. And, most importantly, how to get out of it.
I step onto the road outside of our rustic Minhuku (small family-run hotel) into the predawn chill. The sun is still just below the mountains on the horizon. The town is so small I can see all of its outlines from where I’m standing.
There is a lush mountain in front of me. So I take off in that direction, reach the foothills in just a few minutes, spot a small unpaved road and start up.
It’s beautiful. I’m happy to be here.
The line between fact and fiction in Japanese pro wrestling is often blurry.
UPW came to Japan in 2000, through the good graces of the aforementioned Hashimoto, his co-boss, Yoshiyuki Nakamura, and Zero-One. Just two years (and, for me, 20 trips to Japan) later, we had sent more than 40 of UPW’s best to perform in the LOTR (Land of The Rising Sun).
A few of my guys – “Green Beret” Tom Howard, Sylvester “Predator” Terkay, and Nathan Jones – had become BIG stars there. BIG stars. But the money still wasn’t yet there. And, while we appreciated all that Zero-One had done for us, we were, as I jogged in the pre-dawn mountain in Japan, looking to move up.
We knew that Zero-One enjoyed a well-known association with MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) monolith PRIDE. I knew, also, that Tom, Nathan and Sly were all very legitimate, tough guys, and they wanted to fight in Japan, and parlay their new-found fame into earnings.
So, I’d approached Zero-One co-boss Nakamura with an idea: “Let’s get my guys big-money deals with PRIDE, to fight on New Year’s Eve, the biggest show of the year.”
I approached him.
And approached him.
And approached him some more.
But he didn’t get back. In the meantime, I had sent another of my boys, “The German Powerhouse,” Stefan Gamlin, to fight for K-1 (Stefan is a 6’7″, 360 lbs. hard-living, fun-lovin’, booze-swillin’, butt-kickin’ – but-mostly-fun-lovin’ – machine… but that’s a story for a different day). K-1 is PRIDE’s competition. I put out a very brief e-mail to K-1 about Tom, Sly and Nathan, seeking to get them included in the New Year’s show. Almost immediately, huge offers came back. I let Nakamura know about this, too. And… nothing.
So we took K-1’s offer.
Hashimoto was pissed. Nakamura was infuriated.
I guess, in retrospect, I can understand it. They’d made us in Japan and, now, we were going to their affiliate’s competition. While I thought I was only looking out for my clients’ (read: good friends’) careers, the guys at Zero-One saw it differently. They believed we had violated one of the many unwritten Japanese Business Code of Ethics – “Loyalty Without Thought.”
Did I mention that Hashimoto was pissed and Nakamura was infuriated?
Our punishment was exile. No bookings for two months. Nothing. Not even a word. Then, finally, I hear from Nakamura. Zero-One wants me to bring over six of my boys – all first-timers in Japan – for a special series of UPW Vs. Zero-One matches. It will culminate in a main event at Korakuen, pitting myself against 5’8″-160 lbs.-suit-wearing businessman Nakamura.
It should be explained that the Japanese style of pro wrestling is “stiff.” Meaning that, yes, the results are predetermined, but everything prior to the outcome – the punches, the chops, the kicks – is all “laid in.” Meaning real. I know that Nakamura is infuriated, and our match may represent an opportunity for him to get back at me.
But hey, no worries, right? I can take him
So the seven of us head to Japan. I’m flying Business Class – courtesy of K-1. My six UPW warriors, most of whom are huge in the extreme, are crammed back in coach. I keep going back to hang out with them and have a beer or three, feeding on the excitement of their first visit to the LOTR.
And then I head back to Business to crash. I feel bad, leaving them knees-to-chins in Coach. But I figure I’ve paid my dues. Besides, I need to feel good for my big match with Nakamura.
The first five shows of the tour go great. The buildings are packed. The shows are booked for Zero-One and UPW to split wins and losses evenly right down the middle. I learn it’s designed this way, so that we’ll be 50/50 going into the final match of the tour: Me Vs. Nakamura. The tour is called “Cash Honor,” because the team with the most points wins $1 million dollars! (No, not for real, this is pro wrestling!) But, the media is eating it up. We’re all over the press. Each night, I interfere in matches, and I cost Hashimoto victory after victory. After which, Nakamura complains to the press.
The fifth of the six shows is in Fukuoka. It ends with me throwing talcum powder in Hasimoto’s eyes, costing him yet another match. After that, Nakamura and I go face to face, and I take a swing at him. The cameras follow me and my boys outside, and I throw several hard punches at a tin retaining wall, screaming into the camera that this is the kind of punishment I will inflict upon Yoshisyuki.
I’m using his first name, which is quite the insult. But, hey, I’m on-board and trying to sell tickets to their show at Korakuen.
So, I’m running up this mountainside at dawn. My hands are raw and bloody. But I’m happy — and nearly scared to death. You see, after Fukuoka, we get on a bus and drive to Ogimachi, which is on the way to Tokyo. A Zero-One sponsor is holding a private party at a two-story restaurant/pagoda/bar, literally in the middle of nowhere. Many Japanese VIPS are there, as well as local dignitaries.
We eat, drink sake, sing karaoke, drink sake, pose for photos, and drink sake. The party ends, and we’re driven to our hotel in Ogimachi, with some of its dignitaries following us. They take us to the only bar in town – their bar – where we… drink sake!
One local speaks decent English. He asks me, referencing tomorrow tonight at Korakuen, if I’m scared. “Of what, Nakamura?” I laugh. No, he replies, of Hashimoto.
“Well, sure,” I say. “But what does that have to do with anything?”
He shows me a newspaper article with side-by-side photos of me and a very cranky looking Hashimoto. I ask him to translate. Lo and behold, I learn my match at Korakuen is not against Nakamura, it’s against Hashimoto.
Now, breathing hard during my run, the sun is up.
I near the top of the mountain, and come to a rustic structure that looks like a Buddhist Temple. I hear chanting in the distance, and I walk/jog to investigate. I see an open door, tiptoe to it and peer in.
An early morning prayer session is in progress, attended by dozens of saffron-robe clad monks. This is one of many “How cool is this?” moments that I seem to experience more often of late. Yet I realize that I may be intruding on something sacred. Right as this thought crosses my mind, a monk turns around, his eyes meeting mine, and he smiles. He silently beckons me to enter and right away, I feel at ease. I walk to the back of the temple, and assume a kneeling position as best as I can approximate to that of the monks. I remain in that position for an hour or so, “following” the ceremony until its conclusion. I don’t understand a single word of what’s been chanted, spoken and sung – yet, I’ve “understood” it all. Running back down the hill, I’m truly exhilarated. I feel good. Not scared in the least; maybe tonight won’t be so bad after all.
I’m standing in the ring across from Shinya Hashimoto, having just witnessed his grand entrance. And I’m shaking.
In pro wrestling you almost always sit in the locker room with your opponent before a match and lay out how you’d like to see things go. But Hashi wasn’t available. Or didn’t want to talk. Not a single word. So I am in the ring, resplendent in my UPW-logoed Muy Thai fighting shorts, flanked by his top stars, Ohtani, Tanaka and the rest, and there’s Hashimoto standing across from me.
And he looks pissed.
My guys are with me, including Mako’a The Hawaiian Warrior, who from the time the tour was booked, through the plane flight and the last 10 days in Japan, has convinced me that Hashimoto and Namakura have murderous intent. The intros are made and the generally respectful fans boo the shit out of me. When Hashimoto’s name is announced, the usually reserved fans go bananas for him. The bell rings, and it’s on.
It’s Tuesday, late afternoon, and the winter sun is low in the sunny Tokyo sky.
In Japan, all of the wrestling magazines come out on Tuesday. I have three in my hand. I can’t read them, but the pictures usually tell the story.
My boys split on Sunday. Green Beret, Predator and the MMA crew are due in on Wednesday for a big K-1 fight. As their manager, I’ve stayed to take care of business. As their friend, I’ll be in their corner come fight night. I’ve been killing time over the past couple of days, seeing sights, visiting with some of the K-1 brass. We’re now at The New Takanawa Prince Hotel, which goes along with the K1 budget – and for the most part, reliving what got me here in the first place. I come across a multiplex. Kill Bill, Part 2 is starting in half an hour. Japanese subtitles but English language. Score! I buy a $20 ticket. The seats are incredibly plush and the theater is pristine. Shockingly, a server is making her way through the audience. I get an extra large Kirin, and pop open one of the magazines.
So here I am. A beautiful theater in Japan, Kill Bill about to start(!) And damn this beer is good. And right there in front of me, in living color, a magazine photo of Hashimoto, wound up to deliver a big chop. And there’s me – his intended target – with a look on my face that I can only describe as pure terror.
How cool is this?