The man considered “The Godfather of Korean Wrestling”, “Super Dragon” Lee Wang-pyo, passed away on Monday after a lengthy battle with gallbladder cancer. He was 64. While fellow countryman Kim Sin-rak would pre-date Lee’s entry into pro wrestling by nearly 25 years, Kim would make his mark not in his home country, but in Japan, where he moved at an early age. Adopting the name Rikidōzan, he would become the father of puroresu and Japanese wrestling – his two greatest pupils, Antonio Inoki and Giant Baba, would go on to create New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) and All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW) respectively after their mentor died.
But it was Lee Wang-pyo who remained in South Korea and upon his debut in 1975, set out to establish pro wrestling in Korea the way it was taking off in Japan and around the world. Lee was the star pupil of another Korean wrestler, Kintarō Ōki – part of the class that also featured fellow graduates Inoki and Baba – who wrestled as Kim Il, “The Headbutt Master”. Kim Il himself was a student of Rikidōzan, having moved to Japan in 1958 to learn pro wrestling (and spending his first year in jail for entering the country illegally). Kim Il would work for Rikidōzan’s Japanese Pro Wrestling Alliance (JWA) for years, while trying to promote pro wrestling in Korea as well. In 1961, he founded Korea’s top promotion, Korean Wrestling Association (KWA), and was the company’s top draw. Following Rikidōzan’s death in 1963, JWA would continue on, with Inoki and Baba the top stars. When Inoki and Baba left in 1972 to start their own aforementioned promotions, Kim Il became the top star in JWA as well. When his prized student Lee Wang-pyo was ready to enter the ring, he made his debut with the KWA as the new heir apparent to Kim Il.
Following Kim Il’s semi-retirement in the 1980s, the popularity of pro wrestling in Korea also started to wane, but Lee made it his life long mission to keep pro wrestling a respected art form and sport in his country. With KWA acting as the NWA territory in Korea in the 70s and 80s, he also won the NWA Oriental Heavyweight title in 1987, as well as becoming the GWF World Heavyweight Champion, KWA’s top title. He assumed control of KWA in 1985 and continued to run the KWA up until his death, and throughout his 40 year career in the sport (he retired in 2015 following his first battle and surgery with gallbladder cancer) devoted his every breath championing Korean pro wrestling to the world. In 1993, he rebranded KWA as the Korean Pro Wrestling Association (KPWA), and in 2000, rebranded it again to the World Wrestling Association (WWA). That same year he won the inaugural WWA World Heavyweight Championship. Known as “Super Dragon” throughout his career, he also competed in NJPW as Jaguar Lee in the early 1980s, and in 1990 debuted with Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling (FMW). In 2008, he beat Kurt Angle cleanly at a WWA event in Seoul, and in 2008 and 2009, he made national headlines in is a series of superfights against former MMA fighter and NJPW star Bob Sapp over the WWA World title.
Following his retirement in 2015, WWA closed down, but Lee continued to be an ambassador for Korean wrestling. The cancer, sadly, returned and after a hard fight, he passed away on Monday morning at 9:48am local time.