The Magnificent Seven: The Top 7 Yokozuna Rivalries
Yokozuna is the kind of talent who is simultaneously legendary and too often forgotten. He was largely dominant over the WWF main event scene for the length of 1993 when, after just a few months on the roster, he won a Royal Rumble, won two world titles (one at WrestleMania, one over Hulk Hogan) and held the strap for half the year. He followed up that run by remaining an upper card talent for the length of his WWF tenure, the next three years, including a memorable tag run with Owen Hart, before his health issues caught up to him and he was relegated to the indies before passing away at the early age of thirty-four.
Neither booking nor work rate were top-notch in the period between Hulkamania and Attitude, when Yokozuna was in the limelight. Nonetheless, he had his moments and his solid rivalries. This week, I’m looking back at seven of the best of them with consideration to quality of storyline, quality of matches, heat, and longevity. As always, my personal opinion weighs heavily.
There’s a time-honored tradition of a new monster crushing an old monster on his way up the card. By late spring 1994, Yokozuna was already on the decline of his WWF run, but nonetheless regained some momentum and asserted himself as the alpha-super heavyweight in a short feud with Earthquake—the near five-hundred-pounder who’d menaced the main event scene in 1990 and 1991 before transitioning to the tag scene.
The two competed in a worked sumo match in which Earthquake actually got the best of Yokozuna, only for Yokozuna to crush his big foe with Banzai Drops shortly thereafter. I’m not sure if a more extended program was planned beyond that point—I can imagine one-on-one bouts being entertaining enough spectacles if the WWF kept them short—but the attack, instead, marked the end of Earthquake’s run with the WWF before he headed off to WCW, not to return until after the end of the decade, under a mask.
This feud makes the cut for the memorable, if unsavory images of these two engaged in sumo combat, as Yokozuna faced his one believable rival in that context, and went on to decimate him after the match.
#6. Jim Duggan
Yokozuna was, in so many ways, a throwback character as the WWF leaned upon a combination of conventional ways of pushing monster heels to get this guy over. The factors included Yokozuna’s sheer size and dominance—he was bigger than anyone else, and it became a challenge to simply take him off his feet, then to body slam him, let alone hope to defeat thim. On top of that, though the WWF billed him from Polynesia, he dressed in sumo garb, waved the Japanese flag and came to the ring with Mr. Fuji, clearly casting him as a representative of Japan and appealing to the WWF fanship’s jingoistic impulses.
Thus, there were few better candidates for Yokozuna to flatten on his way to the main event than Duggan, whose gimmick had become marginally less about carring a two-by-four, and more and more about waving an American flag and getting the crowd to chant USA with him.
Yes, this rivalry was one-sided, but as such it completed its purpose, getting Yokozuna over. Duggan got Yokozuna off his feet, but Yokozuna would subsequently squash him with four consecutive Banzai Drops, then foil Duggans attempts at challenging Shawn Michaels for the Intercontinental Championship. In the process, Yokozuna and his finisher were established as killers, and Yokozuna was geared up for higher tier patriotic threats over the year to follow.
#5. Hulk Hogan
Depending on your perspective and how you value world title reigns versus being the most popular or famous wrestler in a company, you can argue that Hulk Hogan either passed the torch to Yokozuna as the face of the WWF, or Yokozuna was the long-term transitional champ between the last gasping breath of Hulkamania before attempts at moving along to Lex Luger and ultimately going to Bret Hart (though he himself, was arguably just part of the transition to the great Diesel experiment).
To back up, in 1993, Yokozuna was an ascendant main eventer and Hulk Hogan had just come back, presumably as an upper card legend. At the end of WrestleMania 9, Hogan re-enetered the main event picture, though, to infamously challenge Yokozuna for the world title at he end of the show and steal the big win. While most of us will agree that this was a poor creative choice that was out of touch with what the fans wanted, and particularly impractical for Hogan working a part-time schedule, the Hogan-Yokozuna rivalry was logical in pitting the all-time great American hero opposite the new foreign monster.
The WreslteMania “match” between the two was too short to count for much, and their rematch at King of the Ring was fully realized but pretty bad. Just the same, this rivalry makes the countdown, and I’ll go so far as to call it very good, on account of what it did for Yokozuna. In pinning Hogan to not only take back the title but send him packing from the WWF, Yokozuna got all the more over as an unstoppable force, and his second reign arguably marked the official point at which the WWF moved on from Hulkamania, into the new generation that would ultimately give way to Attitude.
Yokozuna vs Vader (RAW 04-08-1996) by rasslemania
This is, in some ways, an odd pick, because based on the feud these guys literally had on TV, it would probably fall toward the bottom of the countdown or miss altogether. Vader gets the nod for the number four spot, though, because of the unspoken build that went down in 1993.
Whether it was by design or pure happenstance, 1993 was the year of the super heavyweight monster heel, with Yokozuna in the main WWF main event scene and often as not holding the world title there, while Vader held WCW’s top title for all but ten (non-consecutive) days of the year. It became something of a dream match to speculate on what would happen if these two collided in the ring, and I specifically remember debating who was more deadly—that a childhood friend at the time was sold on Yokozuna at a hundred-plus-pounds heavier, while I backed Vader for his more aggressive style and agility (he may have used it sooner, but 1993 was when I first saw him pull off a moonsault).
The two feuded in actuality in early 1996, cast as frenemies in Camp Cornette before Yokozuna turned face and the guys worked the house show circuit, besides working opposite sides of an underrated six-man tag at WrestleMania 12. Vader kayfabe broke Yokozuna’s leg weeks later—seemingly another monster passing the torch moment, like Yokozuna similarly injuring Earthquake. Upon Yokozuna’s return, they feuded again, trading wins during the wonky In Your House: Beware of Dog fiasco in which the power went out and some matches happened in the dark and then were recast days later. The feud came to an anticlimactic finish with the two on opposite sides, but not blowing off much, at Survivor Series.
Had Yokozuna’s physical condition not deteriorated to the extent it did at this point (by most reports, his kayfabe injuries and absences were connected to concern about his ballooning weight and general health) I can only imagine this would have been a more fully realized feud with more memorable moments. As it was, it was a fun spectacle while it lasted, and gave fans a taste of what they’d imagined a few years earlier.
#3. Lex Luger
There’s little argument that Lex Luger was Yokozuna’s most famous rival, and I was tempted to push him all the way to the top of this countdown, just like the WWF pushed him all the way to the top of the card the summer of 1993. I didn’t pull the trigger, however, for what I imagine are similar reasons to why the WWF never pulled the trigger on Luger taking the world title—he just wasn’t quite over or good enough in the ring to justify it.
The Luger-Yokozuna issue launched via Yokozuna’s Independence Day body slam challenge, when he stood on the deck of the USS Intrepid and dared any American wrestler to try to slam him. All seemed lost until Luger choppered in, marking a sharp turn in character as he went straight form his Narcissist gimmick to All-American hero without much explanation or any transition time. Nonetheless, Luger was physically capable of the slam and got the big push, into a rivalry that reached its climax at SummerSlam where Luger picked up a count-out victory, to be followed by the two captaining opposing teams at Survivor Series.
Luger vs. Yokozuna was largely paint-by-numbers booking, with the super strong American hero going after the foreign menace, and all signs suggest the WWF intended to crown Luger at WrestleMania until the fans started cooling on him, and it became apparent Bret Hart was at least equally over (not to mention significantly better in the ring). So, this rivalry came to a close at WrestleMania, but with Luger getting disqualified in a screwjob finish that never really paid off in anything meaningful as Mr. Perfect—the guest ref who wronged him—disappeared shortly thereafter and Luger moved on to feud with Ted Dibiase’s Million Dollar Corporation in a totally unrelated storyline.
For the amount of attention and early fervor of this rivalry, it earns a high spot on this countdown. For its unfulfilling resolution and absence of good matches, it hits the glass ceiling at number three.
#2. The Undertaker
The Undertaker’s kayfabe record of success with WWE is nothing if not unique. On one hand, I don’t know that anyone has maintained his level of upper card-to-main event over-ness for as long with as little complaint. While he had his sabbaticals and, particularly for the last five years or so of his career was mostly a part-time talent, still, I can say without hesitation that he was at least a fringe main eventer for twenty-six years. And yet for all of that sustained success, The Dead Man also never truly had a sustained run as world champion to hang his hat on with only two reigns that lasted much more than a month, none more than five months.
The Undertaker’s feud with Yokozuna seems emblematic of these statistics.
For ‘Taker and Yokozuna feuded for a long time—a full year, putting aside detours like The Dead Man disappearing from television to sell the loss to Yokozuna in a Casket Match. And though the feud figured into the main event picture and started with the WWF Championship at stake, The Undertaker never actually put his hands on the gold during this time.
The issue between these two big men kicked off in the build to Survivor Series 1993, when The Undertaker stepped up to join the All Americans team and oppose Yokozuna’s Foreign Fanataics squad that had sidelined Tatanka. ‘Taker and Yokozuna would wind up responsible for each other’s eliminations in a double countout brawl that set up their Royal Rumble Casket Match for the title—the aforementioned instance in which Yokozuna and company recruited much of the heel locker room to help them bury The Dead Man and put him out of action for months. When The Undertaker returned, it was only fitting the two would pick up where they started, and they staged a Casket Match rematch at Survivor Series 1994 to blow off their issue with ‘Taker putting away Yokozuna with the aid of Chuck Norris to keep interloping heels at bay.
In The Undertaker, Yokozuna faced a rival with the size and strength to believably combat him, not to mention the supernatural abilities to get in his head. While the resulting matches weren’t great, and there are ways in which the meat of their rivalry (the turn from 1993 to 1994) felt like a placeholder before we returned to Luger-Yokozuna, the story was sound and I give this rivalry the nod over Luger’s because it did get a proper resolution.
#1. Bret Hart
While, as I’ve referenced throughout this column, Yokozuna was fast and agile for a man of his immense size, his matches tended to be short, in part because he could only go for so long, in part because quicker squashes made sense for his gimmick. So, while the point is certainly debatable, I’d argue Yokozuna never had a better match than his first title win opposite Bret Hart at WrestleMania 9. While it only lasted ten minutes, and by Hart’s account went shorter than planned after Yokozuna got blown up, the match nonetheless highlighted Yokozuna’s sized and power, while Hart proved technically adept in both shoot and worked senses to remain competitive and put on an engaging show.
Yokozuna won on account of his manager Mr. Fuji throwing salt in Hart’s eyes to set up the finish. It wasn’t the most satisfying finish to a WrestleMania main event, but worked in the sense that it created doubt as to whether Yokozuna could beat Hart on his own, in addition to whether Hart ever could have actually bested Yokozuna (would his Sharpshooter have won the day, or would Yokozuna have powered out of it anyway in short order?).
With Hulk Hogan’s insertion into the main event scene, there was a natural pathway for Hart to both stay apart from Yokozuna, and for a groundswell of support to develop from Hart’s fans about the injustice of him never getting a rematch for the title he lost under heavy shenanigans. This all paid off at WrestleMania 10, when Hart not only got back into the title picture but wound up in the main event opposite Yokozuna again. While the match wasn’t as good this time around, and critics generally have lukewarm reactions to Yokozuna losing because he lost his balance going for a Banzai Drop, Hart’s win was nonetheless the happy ending fans had been waiting for. For a main event heel, there may be no greater milestone than putting over a hero in a high-profile situation in such a way that feels deeply satisfying. By WrestleMania 10, Yokozuna had run his course as world champ, and handing the title back to Hart was ideal final chapter to that angle, and his on-again off-again rivalry with Hart.
How would you rank Yokozuna’s rivalries? Let us know what you think in the comments section.
Read more from Mike Chin at his website and follow him on Twitter @miketchin