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Tomito Tsuruta

 - Gordon Grice

In the early 1970s, top Japanese star and promoter Giant Baba had a working agreement with the Funk family, which resulted in talent exchanges that greatly enriched the talent rosters for both their promotions. All Japan frequently gained the services of performers like Dick Murdoch and Cyclone Negro. In later years, the Funks also brokered a deal to give All Japan one of its greatest stars, Stan Hansen. As both bookers and opponents, the Funks would be instrumental in getting over the awesome team of Hansen and Bruiser Brody.

The other side of the exchange was equally fruitful. Akio Sato, Mr. Okuma, and Tenryu all trained and worked here, and Baba himself came in for occasional matches.

My favorite Japanese wrestler to work in Amarillo was the man later known as Jumbo Tsuruta. Tsuruta began his amateur wrestling career as an adult and quickly advanced, earning a spot on the Japanese Olympic team in 1972. Baba immediately signed this athletic phenomenon. After a few months training in the dojo, Tsuruta was on his way to Amarillo. 

When Tsuruta arrived, he was trained mainly by Dory Funk Jr. His first match was on TV against El Gran Tapia. Tapia, a short, stocky man with a luxurious wave of black hair, was a capable preliminary wrestler. Fans knew that Tapia would lose, because he always did and because the Funks had talked up Tsuruta as a promising rookie. We had seen that routine before. What I had never seen before, and haven't seen since, was a man wrestling his debut match at the level Tsuruta did. He looked more polished than many veterans. 

He unleashed a shocking array of suplexes. My friends and I were on our feet staring at the TV. Almost any suplex was still considered a finishing move in those days. Tsuruta used variations we'd never seen on his way to squashing Tapia.

Tsuruta had no gimmick except that of a great young technician. Unusual for a Japanese wrestler working in America at the time, he was a pure babyface. 

He was billed as Tomita Tsuruta (not Mister or Doctor, as most Japanese workers were even here), and the nickname "Tommy" was soon added for the fans' convenience. In subsequent weeks, Tsuruta ran through his TV competition, downing opponents with backdrop suplexes and giant suplexes. He also unleashed a move that had recently been seen in the Olympics, but seldom in the pro rings: the German suplex. Hoisting the opponent from a waistlock position, Tsuruta bridged back, planting his own head on the mat and holding the bridge while his opponent was pinned. Though his physique was long and lean, Tsuruta was legitimately one of the strongest men in the territory - a fact that became obvious every time he grabbed a 250-pound opponent and moved him around like the proverbial rag doll. Tsuruta was also booked to show great recuperative powers. He was the first wrestler on TV allowed to kick out of Buck Robley's loaded forearm shot. The TV show began to use primitive slow-motion replays of Tsuruta's gracefully devastating moves - he was the first wrestler in the territory for whom this had seemed necessary.

The Funks were open about their involvement in Tsuruta's training, but this didn't prevent them from feuding with their protégé and his boss Baba. In both Texas and Japan, the four soon met in classic tag matches. Typically these were long matches containing not a single violation of the rules, with each team getting a few wins. Tsuruta brought out yet more moves that I'd never seen, and some that I wasn't likely to see again because they required such incredible athleticism that few men in the world could pull them off.

In one signature spot, Terry Funk had Tsuruta flat on his back on the mat, their knuckles locked. Tsuruta bridged to avoid the pin. Funk drove a knee into Tsuruta's gut to break down the bridge. That much I'd seen before. The part I hadn't seen before was this: Tsuruta took the knee to the gut and held the bridge! Terry tried again. Still holding Tsuruta's hands to the mat, he did a hand stand and brought his knees hurtling down toward Tsuruta's belly. As he came down, Tsuruta dropped the bridge and snatched Funk in a body scissors.  More...

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