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From the Olympics to the Pros
By GREG OLIVER
SLAM! Sports covers The Games
Earl McCready, 1928|
Mad Dog Vachon, 1948
Danny Hodge, 1952, 1956
Dale Lewis, 1956, 1960
Bob Roop, 1968
Chris Taylor, 1972
Bad News Allen, 1976
Brad Rheingans, 1976
Mark Henry, 1992, 1996
Kurt Angle, 1996
The other Olympians
-- SLAM! Wrestling
Besides the wrestlers that we have already written about, there are still
many, many other pro wrestlers who got their starts in the Olympics.
Here's some of them.
Lewis competed in two Olympic games. He was on the 1956 U.S. squad in
Greco-Roman that went to Melbourne, Australia. He did not place in the
heavyweight division. In 1960, he went to Rome, Italy for the Olympics,
and again, did not place as a heavyweight. Back in the U.S., he had won
two NCAA titles (1960 and 1961) while wrestling for the University of
Oklahoma Sooners. As a pro wrestling, his biggest claim to fame was as
AWA World Tag Team champion in 1961 with Pat Kennedy. Lewis wrestled for
years in Florida, and held many titles there. He was a four-time tag
champion out in the Vancouver territory, with partners Gene Kiniski, Mr.
Saito and Seigfried Steinke on two occasions. Lewis died on August 30,
The former NWA World Heavyweight champion was a silver medalist in judo
for Japan in the heavyweight division at the 1992 Games in Barcelona. He
tore this his first four opponents in 7 minutes, 53 seconds. In the
final, however, Ogawa was thrown twice in the first minute against David
Khakhaleishvili of the Republic of Georgia. Ogawa, who was world judo
champion in 1989, also competed in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta,
but did not place.
Ogawa made his pro debut on April 12, 1997 defeating IWGP Heavyweight
Champion Shinya Hashimoto at Tokyo Dome before 60, 500 fans. 'Knocking
out' Hashimoto, instantly made him a superstar in Japan. Ogawa is one of
the hottest property in Japanese wrestling today and his subsequent
battles with Hashimoto are legendary, selling out Tokyo Dome several
times. His matches have been booked as 'shoots'. In April 7, 2000, he
beat Hashimoto by KO in main event of Tokyo Dome card in a retirement
match. Ogawa is also a former 2-time NWA World Heavyweight champion. He
defeated Dan Severn on March 14, 1999 in Yokohama, Japan and lost to
Gary Steele on September 25, 1999 in Charlotte, NC. He defeated Steele
on October 2, 1999 in Thomaston, CT, and vacated the title on July 2,
These days, he wrestles sporadically for New Japan, usually just on the
Hase fought in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles for Japan in Greco-Roman
wrestling. He placed ninth.
He is considered one of the best junior heavyweights ever from Japan.
Hase actually began his pro career wrestling in Calgary, teaming with
Fumihiro Niikura under masks as the Viet Cong Express, feuding with the
top stars there, including Owen Hart.
He debuted in Japan in December 1987, defeating Kuniaki Kobayashi for
the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title in his first match.
From there, Hase became one of the top five workers in the world in the
early 1990s. He feuded with the likes of Jushin 'Thunder' Liger, Owen
Hart, El Samurai and all the top junior heavyweights in New Japan. Hase
was also IWGP world tag team champion with Kensuke Sasaki and Keiji
Hase also got involved in booking, and was assistant booker to Riki
Choshu in New Japan for a while. He also booked the junior heavyweight
division where he was known as a selfless booker always putting younger
wrestlers over strong.
The former Olympian 'retired' in 1997 after winning a seat in Japanese
Parliament. He has come out of retirement on occasion since, wrestling
a handful of matches each year for All Japan.
It was a bittersweet trip to the London Olympics for Gagne. He made the U.S.
Greco-Roman team, but the powers-that-be in American amateur wrestling
pulled the squad. "We came right down to the night before we were
supposed to wrestle Greco and they pulled us out. They said, 'We don't
think you guys know enough about Greco-Roman wrestling.' This is '48,
right after the War, and we really didn't, but we sure as heck trained
hard and wanted to wrestle. We were in the parade and were in the
Olympics," recalled Gagne, who treasures his Olympic memories, even if
he didn't compete.
"It was a great experience. Wembley Stadium was the big parade. It was
the first Olympics after World War II and it was a real focal point for
the world at that moment in time and most of the world was there. Russia
was not there, and a couple of those other countries behind the Iron
Curtain didn't make it."
A 19-year-old Yatsu came to Montreal in 1976 for the Olympic Games, but
did not place in the freestyle wrestling event. He also competed in the 1980 Games in Moscow as a superheavyweight.
He turned pro on December 29, 1980 at Madison Square Garden, taking on
Jose Estrada. Yatsu split his time between Japan and the U.S. before
working full time in All Japan.
Yatsu was part of the mass exodus of talent that left New Japan for All
Japan in 1984; a group that included Riki Choshu, Masa Saito, British
Bulldogs, Kuniaki Kobayashi, and Super Strong Machine. The movechanged
the balance of power in Japan from New Japan to All Japan.
While in All Japan, Yatsu became one of the top five stars in the
Yatsu and fellow Olympian Jumbo Tsuruta formed a legendary tag team, and
won the All Japan Real World Tag titles on five separate occasions. They
also beat the Road Warriors in June 1988 to unify the PWF and NWA
International tag titles.
The duo feuded with teams like Stan Hansen and Terry Gordy, Hansen and
Genichiro Tenryu and Tenryu & Ashura Hara. Also, he and Tsuruta won the
All Japan Real World Tag league tourney in '87 (tag team version of All
Japan's Carnival tournament) beating Bruiser Brody and Jimmy Snuka.
Yatsu left All Japan in 1990 when Tenryu formed the WAR promotion.
Before turning into the best pro wrestler ever from Japan, Tomoni
'Tommy' Tsuruta represented Japan at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. He
placed seventh in the Greco-Roman competition.
Coming out of the Games, Tsuruta was recruited into pro wrestling like a
number one draft pick. He signed with Giant Baba and All Japan in 1972,
just ten days after the All Japan promotion was formed.
'Jumbo' Tsuruta debuted in Ocotber 1973 in the Funks' Texas promotion,
and eight weeks later was wrestling Dory Jr. for the NWA World title.
His pro accomplishments are much too much to go over here. For more on
Tsuruta, please see the following stories:
Jumbo Tsuruta dies of kidney failure
Friends remember Jumbo Tsuruta
Jumbo, Baba and The Destroyer
Jumbo Tsuruta memorial planned
Editorial: Tsuruta the best ever from Japan
MASANORI SAITO, aka MR. SAITO, Japan
Competed as a super heavyweight at the 1964 Tokyo, Japan Games, and
finished in seventh place in freestyle.
When Saito turned to pro wrestling following the Games, he eventually
became one of the most successful Japanese wrestlers ever to compete in
On this side of the pond, Saito was AWA World heavyweight champ briefly
in 1990, beating Larry Zbyszko. He is also a former WWF world tag champ
on two occasions with Mr. Fuji and had feuded with Hulk Hogan both in
the WWF and New Japan.
However, Saito is maybe best known for serving two years in prison the
'80s after he and fellow Olympian Ken Patera threw a bolder through the
window of a McDonalds in Wisconsin.
Across the Pacific, Saito had a famous feud with Antonio Inoki in the
mid-80s that did record business. That led to the island death match on
Oct 4, 1987. The two wrestlers were dropped on Ganryujima Island and
had a match all over the island without any audience that lasted two
hours. Inoki won by TKO.
Besides his fights with Inoka, Saito has held the IWGP world tag titles
with both Riki Choshu and Shinya Hashimoto. He was also part of the
exodus that left New Japan for All Japan in 1984, returning in 1987
where he had the best years of his career feuding with Inoki.
A master of the suplex, Saito used so many variations of the move that
one was named after him - the Saito Suplex.
HAROLD SAKATA, aka TOSH TOGO, U.S.A.
Sakata won the silver medal in weightlifting at the 1948 Games in London in the 182 pound weight class. After the Olympics, he went into pro wrestling as Tosh Togo, and was a star in Hawaii and on the west coast of the U.S. in the '50s and '60s. Later, he became 'Oddjob' in the James Bond flick Goldfinger.
Was on the U.S. Greco-Roman squad in the 1948 London Games that got
pulled at the last minute. He was an alternate at 175 pounds. Was a teammate of Verne Gagne, who talked
about his experiences in our story about Mad Dog
Vachon's Olympic experiences. Scarpello wasn't ever a big star in pro wrestling, but did wrestle for more than 20 years.
Jackson won freestyle gold as a middleweight (82 kg / 181 lbs.) in the
1992 Barcelona Games, beating Elmadi Zhabrailov of Russia in 6:54 on a
count of 1-0, the bout having gone to a sudden-death overtime. Jackson
went on to compete successfully in the UFC, including winning the
Middleweight Tournament in UFC XIV. The Phoenix, Arizona native is now
involved in coaching.
Patera dominated the sport of weightlifting going into the 1972 Olympic
Games in Munich. He was the first American to lift over 500 pounds in
both the military press and clean and jerk. He won four straight
national championships while at Brigham Young
University, and four gold medals at the 1971 Pan-American Games in Cali,
Colombia before going to Germany. Patera was considered a front-runner
at the Games, and like Mark Henry years later, he did not live up to
expectations and game home empty-handed.
He turned to pro wrestling after the Games, and trained with Verne
Gagne. Patera's amazing strength and athletic ability fit well with the
wrestling of the day, and he quickly became a well-known name.
Patera also competed in of the World's Strongest Man competitions in the
Outside the ring, he drew fame for being arrested and imprisoned for
throwing a boulder through a McDonald's window along with Masa Saito in
the early '80s.
Patera now runs his own wrestling promotion and promotes products on his web site.
Finished fourth at 220 pounds in Greco-Roman at the 1976 Montreal Games.
He was also on the U.S. team for Moscow in 1980 that boycotted the
Rheingans went on to a respectable pro wrestling career, which centred
around his time in Verne Gagne's AWA promotion. He had a brief stint in
the WWF during its '80s heyday, but his bland, all-American character
seemed out of place with the larger-than-life WWF superstars of the day.
He was also a respected trainer for wannabe wrestlers.
Honda represented Japan for three Olympic Games in freestyle: 1984 in Los
Angeles where he placed fifth; 1988 in Seoul, where he didn't place;
1992 in Barcelona, where again he didn't place.
He was recruited right out of the Olympics, and debuted in 1993 for All
Japan. There, Honda was a perennial mid-carder. He currently wrestles for
the Pro Wrestling Noah promotion.
Nakinishi wrestled in the freestyle discipline for Japan at the 1992
Games in Barcelona, where he failed to place.
He turned pro right out of the Olympics, debuting in October 1992 for
Nakinishi's biggest accomplishment so far was winning the G1 Climax
tournament in 1999, beating Keiji Mutoh in the finals. The win was
supposed to elevate him into being the next big drawing card for the
promotion, but he's been a disappointment by most accounts. He lost in
the finals of this year's G1 to Kensuke Sasaki. Nakinishi has also been
a successful tag wrestler, holding the
IWGP World tag belts with Yuji Nagata last year, losing them this past
July. In 1997, he also held the titles with Satoshi Kojima, beating from
Riki Choshu and Sasaki.
North American fans would best remember him from 1995-96 when he
wrestled as Kurosawa in WCW.
MITSUO YOSHIDA, aka RIKI CHOSHU South Korea
At the 1972 Games in Munich, Mitsuo Yoshida didn't place in the
freestyle wrestling competition.
But when he became Riki Choshu in 1973 as a pro wrestler, he became a
superstar, known as a phenomenal worker, using a stiff believable style.
Simply put, he was the most influential wrestler in Japan in the '80s
and '90s, one of the greatest in-ring performer ever.
Besides his success in the ring - 3 time IWGP Heavyweight champion, 3
time IWGP World tag with 3 different partners - Choshu was the longtime
booker for New Japan, and was known for being a selfless matchmaker,
downsizing his own role in the company to let the younger talent gain
greater recognition. The New Japan vs UWFI feud of '95/96 that he booked
was the most financially successful feud ever in wrestling history and
was the inspiration behind Eric Bischoff starting the N.W.O. in WCW.
In 1983, Choshu turned on his tag partner Tatsumi Fujinami, starting the
famous Ishingun vs Seikigun feud. Choshu led the Ishingun group of young
up-start talent to feud with the established stars in New Japan. The
feud did monster business and changed the face of Japanese wrestling
forever. Up until that point, most main events pitted Japanese against
American heel. This feud changed that and the Fujinami vs Choshu feud
turned things around for New Japan and
they became the most successful promotion in the world.
In 1984, he jumped to All Japan and took a slew of stars with him.
The Choshu Army vs All Japan feud swung the promotional war back in All
Choshu also helped train a lot of New Japan's top stars including
current IWGP Heavyweight champ Sasaki.
Was seventh in freestyle wrestling at the 1948 Games in London as a
Hutton went on to become NWA World champion, wrestling in many locations as Cowboy Dick Hutton. He beat Lou Thesz for the title in November 1957 in Toronto, and held the title until January 1959, when he lost it to Pat O'Connor. He was a controversial choice as champion at a time when the NWA board would meet to decide on their title holder. Hutton was the choice of champion Lou Thesz.
Was a freestyle wrestler at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona,
finishing seventh at 220 pounds. He went on to compete in UFC.
George placed fourth in the 1928 Games in Amsterdam in the freestyle unlimited weight class. He came straight out of the Olympics and won the world title in Dec. 1930 from Gus Sonnenburg. He lost it in April 1931 to Strangler Lewis. George won the belt again in March 1933, beating Henri Deglane (another Olympian) for the title, and losing it over two years later to Danno O'Mahoney.
JORGE GONZALEZ, aka GIANT GONZALEZ, Argentina
Gonzalez was a giant on the Argentine basketball team at the 1988 Games in Seoul. He was a legitimate 7-foot-6", but the team didn't place. He was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks, but couldn't handle the speed of the NBA. So he turned to another Ted Turner-owned company, World Championship Wrestling, and flopped miserably. As Giant Gonzalez, he did headline, but his matches stunk, and no one could understand him on interviews. Vince McMahon made an attempt to make something of Gonzalez, but even he couldn't succeed.
MORE OLYMPIANS WITH TIES TO PRO WRESTLING
Roy Dunn, U.S.A.: heavyweight, dnp, freestyle
Axel Cadier (Sweden), 192 pounds, champion, Greco-Roman (Berlin, 1936)
Nathan Pendleton, heavyweight, 2nd, freestyle; dnp, Greco-Roman
Fred Meyer, heavyweight, 3rd, freestyle (Antwerp, 1920)
Robin Reed, lightweight, champion, freestyle (Paris, 1924)
Henri Deglane, heavyweight, champion, Greco-Roman (Paris, 1924)
Johan Richthoff (Sweden), heavyweight, champion, freestyle
Jack Van Bebber, middleweight, champion, freestyle
Pete Mehringer, 192 pounds, champion, freestyle
Johan Richthoff (Sweden), heavyweight, champion, freestyle (Los Angeles, 1932)
Many people deserve thanks for their help with the entire Olympic project on SLAM! Wrestling. First, thanks to our interview subjects -- Mad Dog Vachon, Bob Roop, Danny Hodge, Bad News Allen, Verne Gagne. The good folks at the Toronto Sun News Research Centre deserve praise for putting up with all of our research. Dave Meltzer's Wrestling Observer, as always, deserves recognition, and his Olympic issue came at a timely time. John Molinaro helped with much of the Japanese bio information. Scott Teal's What Ever Happened To? newsletter and egroup also were a big help.