When World Wrestling Entertainment inducts Tatsumi Fujinami into its 2015 Hall of Fame class this Saturday night from the SAP Center in San Jose, California, the company will be paying tribute to one of the most influential stars in the history of the industry.
Fujinami began his in-ring career at the ripe age of 17. His mentor, fellow WWE Hall of Fame inductee Antonio Inoki, took him under his wing and taught him what he needed to know to be successful in the industry.
Together, Fujinami and Inoki, along with notable Japanese stars Osamu Kido and Kotetsu Yamamoto, moved away from the established promotions and created their own, a wrestling company that today, some 44 years later, is arguably the hottest in the entire sport.
They were the godfathers of New Japan Pro Wrestling, and Fujinami would become one of the major attractions for the company over the course of his career.
Fujinami was a star in Japan, and he had success on the international scene as well.
He would compete in Mexico before finding his way to the United States, where he would make his World Wide Wrestling Federation (today WWE) debut in the late 1970s. There, he would capture the promotion’s Junior Heavyweight Championship by defeating Carlos Jose Estrada just three days into his title reign.
Fujinami would hold the title with great pride, helping to establish it across the land for well over a year. He would eventually drop the gold to Ryuma Go in October 1979 but would regain it just two days later. When he made the fateful decision to enter heavyweight competition, he vacated the title, having worn it for two straight years.
It would not be the last time Fujinami would hold WWE gold. Well respected by the McMahon family, not to mention fans in the states familiar with his previous work, Fujinami would go on to claim the company’s International Heavyweight Championship.
Back in his home country, Fujinami focused on the IWGP Championship, a title his mentor Inoki had vacated. It was at that time that a rivalry with Big Van Vader ignited, leading to several extremely hard-fought, hard-hitting bouts over the coveted title.
Fujinami would make a name for himself during this period, trading the title back and forth with the aforementioned Vader while also engaging fellow iconic Japanese star Riki Choshu in a series of bouts. Their rivalry, both onscreen and off, would ultimately lead Fujinami to leave the company he helped create in 2006.
Fans back in the states became acquainted with Fujinami once more, this time when he engaged “Nature Boy” Ric Flair in a rivalry over the National Wrestling Alliance’s Heavyweight Championship in 1990.
In Tokyo, Fujinami made history by defeating Flair, thus becoming the first man to ever simultaneously hold the NWA and IWGP championships. The March 21, 1991 win set up a huge rematch at the inaugural SuperBrawl pay-per-view.
Flair would regain the title at that show.
Dubbed The Dragon, Fujinami proved to be an innovative performer between the ropes, creating both the Dragon Sleeper and Dragon Suplex, moves that would go on to be used by the likes of Ultimo Dragon in the years that followed.
After a behind-the-scenes fallout between Fujinami and New Japan Pro Wrestling over Riki Choshu, the legendary competitor opted to leave, choosing to start another new promotion rather than engaging in a power struggle with his greatest professional rival.
The company, formerly Muga, is now recognized as Dradition.
At age 61, he continues to compete inside the squared circle.
Over the course of his career, Fujinami has battled some of the greatest stars to ever lace up a pair of boots, including Dynamite Kid, Andre the Giant and even Hulk Hogan.
There are very few competitors who have enjoyed the longevity that Fujinami has. After nearly five decades in the sport, Fujinami’s influence is still being felt today, the promotion he helped father turning out the Bullet Club faction, its own streaming and on demand network (New Japan World) and Match of the Year contenders on a seemingly regular basis.
Though he is no longer associated with NJPW, his role in creating it and ensuring its development, growth and success during his time as an in-ring competitor is undeniable.
On March 28, when he stands on the WWE Hall of Fame stage and addresses a roomful of young Superstars—who owe him a debt of gratitude for helping to strengthen the pro wrestling industry on an international level so that foreign tours are possible—he will be celebrated and honored for his considerable contributions to the industry.