The Reality of Wrestling: Shinya Hashimoto Tribute

The Reality of Wrestling: Shinya Hashimoto Tribute
By Phil Clark & David Ditch

With the anniversary of Shinya Hashimoto’s sudden death last year, I decided that a tribute was necessary. Hashimoto was one of the cornerstones of New Japan during their big run in the 1990’s that saw Tokyo Dome sell-outs, Fukouka Dome sell-outs, Budokan Hall sell-outs, Sumo Hall sell-outs, and tons of great matches. At the head of all of this was Shinya Hashimoto, the only member of New Japan’s three musketeers (with Masa Chono and Keiji Mutoh) not to leave at any point for America, Hashimoto stayed behind to help New Japan truly become “King of Sports.”

D.D. Says: Hashimoto will be remembered, but he doesn’t leave behind as tangible a legacy as one would expect

Sometimes it’s easy to point out a particular trend, style or aspect in pro wrestling as stemming from a certain wrestler. ‘Sports entertainment’ and nationwide promotions in the U.S. are a product of the Hulk Hogan era. Ric Flair made the concept of cool, respectable heels much more viable than it ever had been. ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin furthered that shade of gray as an edgy, heelish babyface. Rikidozan pioneered Japanese (or more accurately Asian) pro wrestlers. Akira Maeda was the godfather of shoot-style wrestling, and his associate Takada was to an extent the godfather of the shootfighting boom in Japan. Antonio Inoki’s ‘different style fight’ bouts (mostly worked) against legitimate boxers and martial-artists were the heart of a wrestling vs. shootfighting attitude still present today. Kenta Kobashi’s style isn’t entirely his creation, but his popularity has caused it to be aped around the world.

For Shinya Hashimoto, who regularly filled the Tokyo Dome during the ’90s and thus stands among the most successful draws in the history of athletics, legacy is hard to define. His style was never innovative. His look and character haven’t been copied, at least not with any success. The promotion he birthed, Zero-One, has floundered and nearly collapsed upon his death. A promotion he was somewhat responsible for, HUSTLE, has become almost antithetical when placed next to the rest of his career. How is it possible for a wrestler to be so popular and yet not leave a clear, indelible mark behind?

First, there is an issue of reproductability. Hashimoto wasn’t part of any formula besides the time-tested Japanese wrestling ‘ace’ role. Hulk Hogan had a formula for feuding with monster heels and others copied it. Steve Austin had a formula for being a rebel against ‘the man’ and WWE has forced almost every top face since then into that mold. Inoki’s worked-shoot matches sadly led to embarassment when pro wrestlers got repeatedly creamed in actual shoots, but it is still simple to have a pro wrestler try to defend his craft with his fists. Hashimoto was somewhat a successor of Inoki-ism, with occasional worked-shoots, but his bread-and-butter was traditional matches. He was able to draw because he was an effective ace and he received a push accordingly. Top-flight aces tend to be unique and succeed for reasons based on their own strengths rather than easy-to-follow booking patterns.

Second, for all the importance that needs to be given to the multiple dome show draws, Hashimoto benefits from not much competition in the ‘dome draw’ department. Japanese wrestlers are more able to fill huge buildings than any others based on the compact geography of Japan, and dome shows haven’t even been done for twenty years yet. Who knows how well Inoki, Baba, Jumbo, Maeda et al would have done if the Tokyo Dome was around earlier? In addition, it is quite possible that top ’90s stars like Misawa, Kawada, Mutoh, Chono and Onita could have done just as well if they headlined a similar quantity of supershows. There’s a difference between being the only one to accomplish the feat and being the only one who *could have* accomplished the feat.

Third, Hashimoto allowed Zero-One to be a somewhat fragmented product. While this has led to many of its best matches, it also meant that there wasn’t the kind of ‘cult of personality’ as seen with other promotions (All Japan/Baba, New Japan/Inoki, NOAH/Misawa, etc). The signature Fire Festival tournement has and continues to represent wrestlers like Ohtani and Masato Tanaka, since Hashimoto was above doing competitive matches with ex-FMW wrestlers and ex-juniors. The juniors division is a global melting pot and has never had a trace of Hashimoto in it. Zero-One trainees Sato, Sai and Yokoi do take after Hashimoto in the ‘traditional wrestler with a touch of shootfighting’ vein, but then again so do many other Japanese wrestlers to debut in the last decade. Certainly none of them is a proper heir to Hashimoto’s status the way Inoki and Baba had after they stepped out of the spotlight. Zero-One today is far removed from Hashimoto and its original origins of being an ark for ‘true’ New Japan during the Choshu-dominated booking of the early ’90s.

Lastly, Hashimoto’s final years and early death prevented him from having any sort of twilight and perhaps passing the torch in a meaningful way to the next generation. Between time spent in HUSTLE and time spent hurt, Hashimoto wasn’t wrestling all that regularly during the last two years of his life. Had he remained healthy and wrestled in Zero-One even just until 2008, he would have had time to do meaningful feuds with the Zero-One roster and probably would have done the kind of meaningful job he never got around to. Whether it be to the Ohtani/Tanaka/Omori crew or the Sato/Yokoi/Sai crew, such an act could have done plenty to firm up Zero-One after Hashimoto left. It also would have meant more prosperity for the promotion and more spotlight for developing undercard stars. Something as simple as just having matches would have added to what Hashimoto left behind, even if Zero-One never drew 10,000 fans again. An over-the-hill star can still have great, memorable performances.

Even though Hashimoto had limited influence on the Japanese wrestling scene, he does leave behind a legacy of hot crowds and sold-out arenas from his glory days in the mid-90s. He will never be forgotten by those fans, and perhaps that’s the most important legacy a wrestler can have.

P.C. Says: Hashimoto’s early death will cause him to not have a tangible legacy for many years, but he will have one

Any wrestler who had a significant impact on their era whether it be an in-ring impact, a drawing impact, a cultural impact, etc. does end up with a legacy in wrestling. Shinya Hashimoto is no different and will get his due; it just won’t come for a couple of years minimum. The reason for this is that a wrestler’s overall legacy in the “sport” comes with time after their departure from active competition or retirement (some wrestlers do stick with retirement). Because Shinya Hashimoto died such a sudden death, the need for a final walk into the sunset was eliminated, but it also meant that the years that would’ve been his final ones in the business have been replaced by years of mourning followed by perspective. I’m not claiming what type of legacy that Hashimoto will leave behind in history, but I’m sure he will have one.

Hashimoto’s drawing power alone with give him everlasting greatness in the annals of Japanese wrestling. While Ditch is correct in saying that Hashimoto had an advantage in the quantity of Dome shows he main-evented, the fact that he did main-event that many shows (seven in his career) and the fact that five of them ended up drawing more than 50,000 to The Dome should alone be a testament of his drawing power. Not to mention the numerous Sumo Hall and Budokan Hall shows he helped sell-out with his IWGP Title matches against Choshu, Fujinami, and Mutoh and his dream matches against Tenryu and Liger. When it came to main-event drawing power, there’s no doubt that Shinya Hashimoto was THE man that people wanted to see in that spot and considering how many of these big matches lived up to the hype, Hash’s legacy may also involve being one of the best main-event wrestlers in history.

Unfortunately, Mutoh and Chono will have Hash beat when history has its say that much I am sure of. The reason I say this is because Hash has the workrate and in-ring quality crowds in his pocket, but the mainstream audience will always see him as #3 of the Three Musketeers. The main reason for this is charisma. Charisma can be just as important—sometimes more important—than in-ring ability, and while many will cite that Hash was very charismatic, he doesn’t hold a candle to Mutoh or Chono in that department. Chono in his prime literally oozed cool and Mutoh was the same because he had the most badass alter ego in the history of wrestling with The Great Muta. Hashimoto was a guy who just went out there, beat the hell out of his opponents, and had great matches. He may have been charismatic, but not enough to be remembered alongside his counterparts. He may have had an alter ego at the end of his career, but it did nothing for even small audiences in Japan. Basically, Hash’s place in history next to the other Musketeers can be summed up by the answer to this question: How many North American wrestling fans have heard of Hashimoto, and how many have heard of Chono or Mutoh?

While I believe that Hash’s legacy should be more good than bad, Zero-One should come into play if history is going to be a fair judge. Yes, Hash was the big star of the promotion, yes he was the biggest drawing card (other than Ogawa), but that didn’t mean that he should’ve been the only drawing card outside of his OH Gun partner. Hulk Hogan and WCW, HHH and The E, Jarrett and TNA, Inoki and his four-year retirement; there are many instances where a wrestler’s legacy will be tainted because of an instance of selfishness in their career. Hogan will be remembered fondly despite his role in the demise of WCW and Hashimoto will be remembered fondly despite his role in Zero-One’s quick ascent and descent as a promotion. The reason that I stress this is because Zero-One had every reason to be a success, but a lack of elevation killed it. They had Murakami, Ohtani, Tanaka, and Omori at their most popular and it ended up being all for nothing as Hash never did an important job during his time in Zero-One. There was also all the other weird and ultimately useless things Hash tried to bring to his promotion (Shingeki anyone?). That makes one think that the whole promotion may have been one big ego f*ck for Hash to try and recapture that one last bit of glory that he had in the 90’s.

Despite the debacle that Zero-One may be remembered as, I believe that was just the usual downward ending to a wrestler’s career. I also believe that a wrestler’s whole career shouldn’t be judged by its ending; especially if he had an overall great career. Hashimoto is an example of this. All of the great matches he had with guys like Mutoh, Chono, Kawada, Sasaki, Yamazaki, Takada, Choshu, Tenryu, and Muta will certainly overlap any of the poor booking decisions he made in Zero-One. All of the Tokyo Dome, Sumo Hall, and Budokan Hall main-events will overlap any evidence showing that Hash may have been (like many of his counterparts from the 90’s) desperate to hold onto his top spot. However you look at Hashimoto’s career, one thing is certain: it was a full and successful career worthy of admiration.

The Reality is…Hashimoto never got a chance to leave that final mark on his profession. Jumbo Tsuruta, Genichiro Tenryu, Toshiaki Kawada, and Kensuke Sasaki all left their final marks on the sport by helping to create the stars that would take over after they’re gone. I know Tenryu, Sasaki and Kawada are still active, but they are freelancers thus meaning they won’t be the focal point of any promotion (outside of the Indy’s) for a long period of time again. However, what all of these men did was put over and, in some ways, create the next generation of talent; Jumbo helped make Misawa the focal point of All Japan for the entire 1990’s, Kawada helped Kojima become the current ace in All Japan, Tenryu helped Mutoh become popular in All Japan when he left New Japan, and Sasaki is grooming Nakajima for greatness as we speak. Hashimoto never got that chance. While he had opportunities in Zero-One, he still could’ve and very well would have done what the men mentioned above did when he came back to New Japan. Unfortunately, we’ll never know.