When people think of the history of Japanese wrestling, it almost always begins with the legendary Korean-Japanese wrestler Rikidozan. For decades, pro wrestling had been a Western sport – popular in the likes of United States, Canada, United Kingdom and the rest of Europe – but shunned in the Orient for more traditional combat sport, like sumo. But in the 1950s, Rikidozan changed all of that and set in motion a new tradition in Japan that directly lead to the formation of both New Japan Pro Wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestling. But 135 years ago, a Japanese sumo wrestler named Matsuda Sorakichi came to America to learn this new sport and become one of the most respected grapplers in the US. Sadly, he failed to get his homeland to catch on in any semblance of a way that Rikidozan would accomplish nearly 70 years later.
Born Koujiro Matsuda, he trained early to become a sumo wrestler in his home country of Japan. Competing as Torakichi, he advanced well in his training. In 1883, he left Japan for the United States, and at only 24-years old decided to study and learn this new American sport of professional wrestling. Combining his sumo training with “modern” American catch wrestling, he became a solid journeyman on the carnival circuit. Originally competing in the US as Matsuda Torakichi, US promoters continued to misprint his name with an “S” instead of a “T”, so he became known as Sorakichi for the duration of his career.
He would travel the entire wrestling circuit of the times, big cities like New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia, and all the smaller stops in between. He fought early legends like William Muldoon, Germany’s Karl Abs, “Englishman” Edwin Bibby, and more, including a match against Evan “Strangler” Lewis that left Matsuda with a broken leg. But he was resilient and returned to the ring only a month later.
In 1891, he wrestled his final match, against the Godfather of American pro wrestling, Farmer Martin Burns. He tried in vain to get this new sport to catch on in his native Japan but to no avail. The overly-traditional Japan rebuffed any advances to let such a Western spectacle into its way of life.
Jack Carkeek, another of his early rivals, told a newspaper that Matsuda was “probably…the cleverest man in the world at his weight.” Carkeek would also note that Matsuda “suffered numerous defeats simply because he has tackled all the best men of the day, no matter what their size or weight might be, and the good little ones must ever go down to big ones.”
With his failed attempts at converting the Japanese audience to pro wrestling, Matsuda remained in the US working, until suddenly passing away in 1891, shortly after his last match against Burns, at the young age of 32. He died penniless.
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