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Ask 411 Wrestling: What Were the Plans for Finn Balor as Universal Champion?

June 22, 2020 | Posted by Ryan Byers

Welcome guys, gals, and gender non-binary pals, to Ask 411 Wrestling. I am your party host, Ryan Byers, and I am here to answer some of your burning inquiries about professional wrestling.

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James is cuing up the coup de grace:

I was reading the turnbuckle powerbomb has been moved to the “Do Not Use” list in WWE, and it got me thinking how the move (albeit to the barricade) derailed Finn Balor’s momentum after winning the Universal Championship at Summerslam.

My question is: What was the plan for Finn going forward had he not been injured?

If this has already been answered fair enough, I’d love to say thanks for everything you all do through this Covid Bollocks and losing Larry I can imagine it’s not easy to do and we all appreciate you doing it!

First off, James gives me a good opportunity to remind the world that, as of this writing, the GoFundMe campaign to benefit Larry Csonka’s daughters is still up and accepting donations. I know that there has been A LOT going on in the world over the course of the past month and plenty of worthy causes that you could be sending your money to, but I would still encourage you to float a few dollars in this direction if you have the means to do so.

Getting on to the question at hand, it looks like Balor was going to be a transitional champion of sorts. According to the April 3, 2017 edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, which was talking about plans for that year’s Wrestlemania, Balor was supposed to be champion for a good portion of the fall and winter as a means of tying up the title picture so that bigger stars like Roman Reigns could be kept out of contention until Wrestlemania season. The October 3, 2016 edition of the same publication noted that Seth Rollins, who was turned face shortly after he injured Balor in their match to crown the first Universal Champion at that year’s Summerslam, was largely put into the matches that Finn himself was supposed to be in. The Clash of the Champions pay per view which was the Raw brand’s first effort after Summerslam was supposed to be headlined by Balor defending the championship against Kevin Owens, and the Hell in Cell pay per view after that was meant to be Balor against Owens and Chris Jericho in a triple threat match.

So, there you go. It doesn’t sound like Balor was positioned for a particularly memorable reign, and the belt probably would have been off of him by Wrestlemania, but he would have at least held on to it for a few months.

Night Wolf the Wise is a hot property:

In 1985, Richard Belzer invited Hulk Hogan on his talk show. After being asked several times by Belzer, Hogan put him in a chin lock and made him pass out. What was the fallout from that incident?

I would say that there was surprisingly little fallout in the grand scheme of things. It’s not as though the incident derailed Hogan or the WWF’s momentum, because they still went on to have Wrestlemania later that same year (promoting that event was the point of Hulk going on the Belzer show), and, as we all know, wrestling just continued to boom from that point.

There was a bit of a shot to the Hulkster’s pocket book, though, as Belzer filed a civil lawsuit against him, initially demanding five million dollars in damages for an injury that resulted in Belzer receiving nine stitches in the back of his head. The case ultimately settled out of court for a lesser sum of money. The settlement, as most are, was supposed to be confidential, though I have seen the number of $400,000.00 circulated in some rumors. Accounting for inflation, that would be the equivalent of $953,000.00 in 2020. Per Bezler in a 2008 interview with Vulture, he used that money to make a down payment on a house in France, and he has never spoken to Hogan again since the incident.

Interestingly, the Hogan/Belzer suit did create some legal precedent that still gets cited in New York from time-to-time. After the case settled, Belzer’s lawyers tried to get him to pay 50% of his recovery towards their fees, even though there was an agreement prior to the suit that the lawyers would only keep 33% of the recovery. After a hearing, the court ruled that the lawyers had to honor their original contract and keep only one-third of the recovery as their fee, no matter how much additional time or effort they ultimately had to put in on the case.

Richard U. wants to hit on the Hitman:

Bret Hart said that he was the best there was, the best there is, and the best there ever will be.

Three questions:

1. Who was better?

2. Who is better?

3. Who will be better?

First off, this list won’t be comprehensive, because otherwise we would be here all day, and I’ve got questions about the Japanese mafia that I need to be answering.

Second off, I am going to be answering this question from a purely in-ring perspective, in part because that’s what I’ve always understood Bret’s catchphrase to refer to and in part because I’ve recently answered other questions about where Hart ranks as an all-time great considering other factors.

Third off, if anybody reading this has any additions to this list, feel free to drop them into the comments.

Who was better than Bret Hart prior to this career beginning? That’s a bit difficult for me to say, because that pre-dates my time as a wrestling fan and because there’s not near the level of footage of that era of wrestlers as there is of Hart. However, I would say that many of the long-reigning NWA Champions of the 1970s, including Harley Race, Dory Funk, Jr., and Jack Brisco have legitimate arguments that they were better than Bret Hart.

Who in wrestling is currently better than Bret Hart? Kazuchika Okada immediately springs to mind. I might have said Kenny Omega, too, if he were still wrestling at the level he was at when in New Japan.

Who will be better than Bret Hart in the future? Predictions like this are always difficult to make, but thirty-one year old Kento Miyahara of All Japan Pro Wrestling has been getting rave reviews for his somewhat under-the-radar main events in AJPW and might be somebody who can join the ranks of the all-time greats if he get get a bit more exposure.

Stuart is asking questions that could get one of my fingers cut off:

1) After reading a small amount on Rikidōzan and the events which led to his early death, I was wondering what has been the role of the yakuza over time in professional wrestling in Japan.

The short version is that they’ve almost always been involved as investors in professional wrestling promotions and sponsors of shows, right back to the origins of the sport in Japan. As you correctly noted, Rikidōzan, who was in many ways the founding father of puroresu, had strong financial backing from Japan’s organized crime syndicates in all of his business ventures, most notably the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance, the promotion that he built around himself. If you’re interested in a deep dive into the Japanese mob that includes some discussion of Riki’s involvement, check out Tokyo Underworld, a 1999 book by journalist Robert Whiting.

As I understand it, the yakuza have had connections to wrestling ever since, as they do in several segments of Japan’s sports and entertainment industries. It’s been explained as being an open secret, something that everybody knows is in the background but will lead to controversy and negative repercussions if it goes public.

There are several notable examples of this happening over the years.

One incident involves FMW, a hardcore promotion that was founded by Atsushi Onita and gained popularity in the 1990s, though it folded in 2002 due to financial difficulties and declining popularity caused by a change to a more sports entertainment-based format. After the company tanked, its president at the time, Shoichi Arai, hung himself. According to the September 7, 2015 edition of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, it is widely believed that the reason he committed suicide was due to large outstanding debts that he owed to the yakuza. Arai himself wrote a small book about the financial unraveling of FMW, which in some respects doubles as a suicide note. In it, he describes borrowing money from a “loan shark,” basically confirming that there were some shady monetary goings on. You can read the fully translated book on the website Bahu’s FMW World.

In 2003, two combat sports competitors reportedly had notable run-ins with the yakuza. According to the March 24, 2003 Observer, Vader had a confrontation with the yakuza while working for Pro Wrestling NOAH in Japan, and it resulted in him being stabbed several times. It is not entirely clear what precipitated this incident. I’m not entirely certain that it happened. On one hand, it is odd that Vader left NOAH’s January 2003 tour after just two shows, but, on the other hand, he was wrestling for TNA in February 2003 (video here with no apparent signs of stab wounds. However, the Observer later doubled down on the story, including a version of it in Vader’s obituary in the June 25, 2018 issue.

For what it’s worth, Vader himself denied that anything of this nature occurred in a 2017 shoot interview, which you can see here:

In May 2003, the Observer reported that MMA fighter Enson Inoue had his own yakuza encounter, as he was allegedly assaulted and had his car trashed by three low-level gangsters who were out looking for trouble one night. Inoue allegedly held his own and fought the three men off, then calling on his own connections higher up in the yakuza to have the guys who wronged him punished. Though he doesn’t tell this exact story, Inoue did admit to working with the yakuza while in Japan in a 2018 interview with Chris Leben:

However, those two stories aren’t the biggest ones related to the yakuza and combat sports that occurred in 2003. Though it didn’t really become public until 2006 when Japanese tabloids started reporting on it, there were apparently some major issues involving the mob in the leadup to December 31, 2003, when there were three huge MMA shows running in competition with one another, one being promoted by PRIDE and another being promoted by New Japan founder Antonio Inoki under his Inoki Bom Ba Yea banner.

According to the aforementioned tabloids, as reported stateside in the June 12, 2006 edition of the Figure Four Weekly newsletter, Fedor Emelianenko was the PRIDE heavyweight champion, but he was not actually under contract to the promotion, leaving him free to sign a deal to appear on the Inoki show. He did just that, and he destroyed New Japan’s Yuji Nagata on the card. However, the fact that Inoki’s group lured Fedor away from appearing on PRIDE’s show allegedly upset PRIDE’s supporters in the yakuza, who threatened the life of Seiya Kawamata, the promoter of Inoki’s show, and told him that he needed to pay a fee of almost $2 million to PRIDE for Fedor’s services, despite the lack of a contract.

When this was revealed in 2006, Fuji TV, the major television network that carried PRIDE programming in Japan, immediately canceled their contract. Without a TV deal, PRIDE immediately started to falter, and it’s decline lead to its assets being purchased by Zuffa, then the parent company of UFC, in early 2007. Though Zuffa initially tried to run PRIDE as a separate promotion from UFC, mostly in Japan, they could never get a major television deal. Without that deal, the promotion totally fell apart less than a year after the Zuffa acquisition.

Thus, public revelation of yakuza ties essentially put PRIDE out of business, even though many people probably knew those ties existed from the very beginning.

Pro Wrestling NOAH also had a yakuza scandal in 2012, though with less dire consequences. According to that year’s April 2 Figure Four Weekly, a book was published which contained an interview with wrestler Jun Izumida, who accused NOAH front office members Ryu Nakata and Haruka Eigen (a former wrestler whose career spanned from 1966 to 2006) of having business connections to organized crime. The link was apparently related to the mob helping NOAH move tickets to its live events. There were further claims in the book that several men who had been among NOAH’s top stars over the years, including founder Mitsuharu Misawa, Naomichi Marufuji, Takashi Sugiura, and Takeshi Morishima regularly partied with the yakuza. It is speculated that the only reason NOAH survived this controversy is that its popularity had already declined precipitously since its heyday, meaning that it was flying under the radar. Tomoaki Honma was also fired from New Japan Pro Wrestling around this time, allegedly because he had similar yakuza connections and NJPW feared receiving the same sort of backlash that NOAH did. However, Honma was brought back to New Japan about a year later once the heat was off.

2) Has anyone ever dared to do a yakuza gimmick? I understand the idea was nixed in the mid-2000s with Tajiri, Akio and Sakoda due to fear of reprisals in Japan.

Oh yeah. There have been several, actually.

Probably the most prominent is Masahiro Chono, beginning with his main event heel run in New Japan in the mid-1990s. Though I don’t know it was ever directly stated that he was meant to be a mafioso, his style of dress and mannerisms during that time were all intended to be evocative of the yakuza. Chono was the leader of several stables over the years, including nWo Japan and Team 2000, which incorporated elements of his look, so they could be said to have similar inspirations.

There have also been a handful of yakuza gimmicks in Mexico of all places. In 2011 in AAA, Kenzo Suzuki lead a three-man team called La Yakuza, consisting of himself, veteran luchador El Oriental (a Mexican man wearing a mask and pretending to be Japanese), and Sugi San (an Ultimo Dragon trainee who also wrestled as El Blazer and Yoshitsune among many other names). Though they used the yakuza name, from the limited footage that I have seen, they didn’t seem to do much to look like the yakuza or pass themselves off as being mobsters. Similarly, there are two indy luchadors who use “Yakuza” as a ring name and try to pass themselves off as Japanese. The first wrestled in Revolution Pro in southern California in the late 1990s and early 2000s, while the second has worked in larger indy lucha promotions like AULL and IWRG and is still active today.

Also, though it was a blip on the radar of pro wrestling history, current NXT star Joaquin Wild was briefly part of a tag team called American Yakuza when he competed on the American independent scene under the name Shiima Xion.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Sega has developed a series of video games called Yakuza which focus on organized crime. Several wrestlers have appeared as gangsters in those games, as seen in this clip featuring Keiji Muto and Masashiro Chono:

3) Speaking of Akio, I didn’t realize that he was barely 29 by the time he left WWE in 2010, did he do much after his time there?

Akio, of course, was Jimmy Yang, who trained to be a professional wrestler at the Power Plant after being sent there by one of his neighbors in Atlanta, a Mr. Diamond Dallas Page. After spending a couple of years in WCW, primarily as one of the Jung Dragons, Yang went on to have three separate stints in the WWF/WWE.

The first of those runs came when the Fed picked up his contract when it purchased the assets of WCW. However, he lasted less than a year and never made it out of developmental. His second run was the one that included his work with Tajiri, which lasted from fall 2003 through summer 2005. He was released again after that and re-signed in 2006, where he portrayed the character of Jimmy Wang Yang until being cut again in 2010, with his last match for WWE being the battle royale on the pre-show of Wrestlemania XXVI.

After WWE let him go for the final time, he did some independent shots in the U.S. and did a one-off appearance on TNA Impact in 2011 (where he previously wrestled as a Flying Elvis after his first WWE release), but the main place he worked in the industry after coming off its largest stage was All Japan Pro Wrestling, where his former Jung Dragons partner Kaz Hayashi was the booker for the junior heavyweight division. Yang was on AJPW tours in summer 2010, fall 2011, summer 2012, and winter 2013, with his biggest accomplishment being winning the 2010 Junior Heavyweight League tournament. That victory earned him a shot at the AJPW Jr. Heavyweight Title, though he ultimately lost that to the champion, Hayashi.

He seems to have largely exited wrestling after 2013, though he popped up for single matches in 2016 and 2018, with the 2018 bout being a return to Japan to team with Hayashi against Shannon Moore and NOSAWA Rongai. During that match, Hayashi and Yang were accompanied by Yang’s then-fifteen-year-old daughter Jazzy, who at one point took Moore down with a headscissors. In July 2019, Jimmy and Jazzy teamed up for her U.S. debut in an intergender tag match in Ohio, though it doesn’t seem like she’s done much since then.

According to a 2013 Where Are They Now? article from WWE.com, Yang has been focused on running his own businesses more than wrestling in recent years, with those endeavors including a “redneck party bus” in Cincinnati, which still has active social media accounts that you can find if you know where to look.

That will do it for this week’s installment of the column. We’ll return in seven-ish days, and, as always, you can contribute your questions by emailing [email protected].

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Ask 411 Wrestling, Ryan Byers