35 Years Ago Today: Jumbo Tsuruta Wins AWA World Championship

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This marks a big week in the career of Japanese icon Tomomi “Jumbo” Tsuruta. Friday marks the 35th anniversary of Jumbo Tsuruta winning the AWA World Heavyweight Championship on February 22, 1984, and this past Wednesday marked the 20th Anniversary of his retirement on February 20, 1999.

Before he became Jumbo, the 6’6″, 290 lb. grappler was simply Tomomi Tsuruta, one of Japan’s top amateur wrestlers. In 1972, he competed in the Summer Olympics in Munich, Germany in Greco-Roman wrestling, but failed to advance to the medal rounds. But he caught the eyes of All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW) and a year later, he was signed to the company after being personally selected by AJPW founder Giant Baba. He was sent to the US for his pro wrestling training, heading to Amarillo, Texas to work with Dory Funk Jr.

He began working for the Funk family’s Western States territory of the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), where he fought as Tommy Tsuruta, facing such legends as Terry Funk, Killer Karl Kox, and his trainer, Dory Funk Jr., as well as working other NWA territories like Championship Wrestling From Florida, Mid Atlantic and more, against other stars like Danny Hodge, Eddie Graham and Doug Gilbert. Alongside his mentor, Giant Baba, the two formed a dominant tag team that wrestled throughout the NWA territories in the US and back home in Japan, capturing the NWA International Tag Team titles on six occasions. As a singles wrestler, he was also a 5x NWA United National Champion as well.

On February 22, 1984, in a showdown between NWA United National Champion Tsuruta and AWA World Heavyweight Champion Nick Bockwinkel in a title vs title match, Jumbo defeated Bockwinkel to become the top champion for the AWA. He would go on to defend the title against the likes of Bockwinkel, Billy Robinson, Blackjack Lanza, and Jim Brunzell, before losing it to one of AWA’s young stars Rick Martel that May.

In April of 1989, Jumbo would become the first man to hold the All Japan Triple Crown, by successfully combing three championships – he had previously won the NWA International Heavyweight Championship from Bruiser Brody in 1988, and on April 18th, he put his title on the line in a title vs. titles match against NWA United National Champion and Pacific Wrestling Federation (PWF) Heavyweight Champion Stan Hansen. Much like IWGP in New Japan, the PWF was the kayfabe governing body of AJPW, with the PWF title its top championship. Jumbo Tsuruta won the match, uniting the three titles together to form the All Japan Triple Crown Championship, which has remained the top prize in All Japan and one of the most prestigious world titles in the world ever since. He would win it a second time in 1991. In 1990, he made his lone appearance on a WWE card, as part of the WWF-NJPW-AJPW Supercard, Wrestling Summit, where he teamed with Haku to face former AWA opponents Rick Martel and “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig.

On February 20, 1999, he announced his retirement from the sport after 26 years and moved to Portland, Oregan. Sadly, his health took a turn for the worst, and he was soon discovered to have kidney cancer. The cancer then spread to his liver and he was soon back in Asia seeking treatments. He underwent a kidney transplant in the Philippines in 2000, but complications from the surgery lead to his untimely passing on May 13, 2000, at the age of 49.

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