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April 2018: Naomichi Marufuji (left) and Toshiaki Kawada (centre) holding a memorial for Motoko Baba.

By the 22nd April 2018, two events had already been planned, Naomichi Marufuji, the vice-president from Pro-Wrestling NOAH, would face the President of All Japan, and old colleague, Jun Akiyama in All Japan’s Champion Carnival. The next day he would have a “talk battle” with old All Japan veteran, Toshiaki Kawada, who was a stranger to him.

Fate, which had played such a role in the lives of three, would play another card to make these events all the more poignant. After a long struggle with liver failure, Mokoto Baba, the widow of Giant Baba, died at the age of seventy-eight on the 14th April 2018. Her death, like much of her life, was kept secret until the 22nd.

What bound these four together from the All Japan days was more of a question of who, rather than what and where.

To understand the story, and to discover the significance behind what happened in April 2018, we need to go back to the source. We need to follow the river upstream, past the ring, the dojo and wrestling politics, newspapers, internet journalists, TV stations, reporters and fan opinion, back to Ashikaga-kodai High School, where Mitsuharu Misawa met Toshiaki Kawada in the late seventies. Both men would go on to join the All Japan Dojo, and train under the watchful eye of Shohei “Giant” Baba. They would become two of the “Four Pillars of Heaven” (as Giant Baba named them, the other two being Akira Taue and Kenta Kobashi), and their wars against each other would be epic, their rivalry on a scale that would never be replicated. Former friends, had to turn into rivals, and the ripples from this would turn into a wave that would blow itself out decades later when the water finally calmed.

Mr & Mrs Baba

Into this masculine world of wrestling with all of its traditions and testosterone, had stepped a young woman called Mokoto Baba in 1972 when All Japan was founded. The Japanese have a private face and a public face, and even now it is very rare to hear wrestlers talk about their personal lives (obviously with some exception), and so it wasn’t known to the public until the early eighties that Baba even had a wife. If the public didn’t know it, then All Japan did.

Puro can be very paternal, (especially in relationships between student and teacher), and so while Baba was the father to the dojo, Mokoto had to be the mother. Baba tended to be the indulgent dad and was beloved by the boys; Mokoto had to be out of necessity, the strict mom, and so wasn’t much liked.

In the early nineties, Jun Akiyama joined the All Japan dojo. He was followed by Naomichi Marufuji six years later. It was management who decided who would train who, and it was fate that put Marufuji with Misawa. Toshiaki Kawada knowing the rules of the game, had to completely withdraw from Misawa, and this meant from Marufuji too. His behaviour was often seen as hostile or perhaps downright rude as he pretty much had to ignore him completely. “Kayfabe” had to be maintained; rivals could not have any contact with each other outside the ring (just as at award ceremonies, promotions were then forbidden from talking to anyone outside the promotion), they were forbidden to give advice to even their rival’s trainees.

However, this did not stop Marufuji reflecting that while all the veterans had something to teach, Kawada was the one who “taught fear.”   

So for two years our four were together in All Japan, but they were tough years by the late nineties. It wasn’t just the strict hierarchy that existed in the dojo (Marufuji would later comment that it was something he had never come across before, there was naturally a hierarchy in Japanese society, but this was something else), it wasn’t the fact that puro was changing (promotions were becoming a little less insular as technology grew, the internet was born and the world began to open up digitally); it was the fact that Baba was dying. A heavy cigar smoker, he succumbed to cancer in 1999. 

Into the void left by his death, stepped his widow, and much to his surprise stepped Misawa, who as per the term of Baba’s will, was now appointed president of All Japan. It was to be both an unfortunate and a remarkable pairing; no woman before had ever headed up a wrestling promotion. Mokoto Baba may have been business savvy, but she was also grief stricken, and determined to keep All Japan as it was under her husband. She knew how to fight, and fight she would.  

Despite his upbringing in the cloistered world of the All Japan dojo, Misawa had been overseas (and had always had a penchant for gaijin wrestlers), and looking around at the new century, he saw new opportunities to take All Japan into the millennium by taking the company in a new and different direction. Friction arose with Mokoto almost immediately. Nothing would change in All Japan; it would remain how it always had been. 

The relationship between the woman who had been the mother to the boys, and the man who had experienced a family life in All Japan, that he had never had in reality, reached the breaking point. Both could be infuriatingly stubborn, both knew how to fight, and neither would give way. Therefore the only option open to save All Japan, was for Mokoto to remove Misawa and he was stripped of his presidency by a majority vote of executive board members. 

Out of the bitterness, the humiliation, the frustration, Misawa decided to create his own promotion, and what is known as “the first exodus” was staged whereby Misawa walked out of All Japan taking with him many of his colleagues, including Jun Akiyama, and his trainee, Naomichi Marufuji. Toshiaki Kawada elected to stay with All Japan. 

Furious and humiliated, Mokoto issued a statement which basically said Misawa had acted rashly and inconsiderately. Misawa also released his own statement at a press conference with those who had elected to follow him out of the safety of established All Japan and onto the small raft that was heading out for unknown waters, NOAH; he praised Baba, acknowledged the difficulties he had, and ignored Mokoto completely. He never spoke publicly of her.  

Mokoto would have her revenge. Misawa was to be left off of any subsequent DVD release, no matter how much the fans wanted to see it, and no matter how much it would have benefited All Japan. His memory was to be airbrushed as much as possible. In a radio interview soon afterwards she spoke of him in a way that sounded as if a mother had lost a son, saying that when Baba was alive they got a long, but after Baba died, Misawa changed. 

All Japan were facing a crisis; Misawa had walked out with the majority of the top talent, and the majority of the future talent, and days later, office workers and admin staff quit to join him. Their TV deal was also cancelled and Noah took their slot. Mokoto, the woman who had been so strict about her husband’s wishes, now shocked everyone by bringing back Genichiro Tenryu, who had left All Japan in 1990. People didn’t leave promotions to go to other promotions. It wasn’t done, and Baba swore that he would never let this wayward son back in the house, but yet here he was, shaking hands with mother. It didn’t make too much of a difference, All Japan found that they were now half selling shows in places they had originally been able to fill to the rafters.   

There would be one more conflict between NOAH and All Japan, and this harked back to the old days with the no contact rule, when NOAH and All Japan participated in four tour dates together in July 2000. NOAH wrestled NOAH, and All Japan wrestled All Japan. Neither side met in the ring or outside of it. There was no friendly meeting with old friends. Nothing. Toshiaki Kawada mentioned that it was unnecessary for NOAH to be there and Misawa was unnecessary for All Japan. NOAH never said anything (although Steve Williams took it upon himself to goad him), and at the end of the tour, Misawa took everybody back to Differ, not even waiting for the show to finish. By this time even Mokoto realised that All Japan could no longer function as barricaded fortress, and a deal was struck with New Japan. 

This would have been unheard of in Baba’s era. Still, the stone had been thrown into the water, and the ripples were turning into waves that would one day reach the shore.

Toshiaki Kawada (left) and Mitsuharu Misawa (right) in high school before the days of promotions, dojos, trainees or rivalries on a grand scale.

With the passage of years, and his decision to freelance (ironically involving difficulties with All Japan), time had done much to mellow the relationship between Misawa and Kawada and on July 18th 2005, they wrestled their final match together at the Tokyo Dome, the place where long ago, their epic wars had taken place. It was a reconciliation of some sorts, but the ice was never properly broken between them.

Following an accident in the ring, caused by years of postponing his own retirement, and an accumulation of injuries, Mitsuharu Misawa died in June 2009. NOAH held memorial shows, on which Toshaki Kawada appeared. Ironically, he also found kind of a home in NOAH, feuding with Takeshi Morishima (who had been one of the trainees who had walked out of All Japan), and participating in the first Global League. The death of Misawa shocked him, and although he never publicly announced that he was going to retire, he did admit that with Misawa gone, his heart was no longer in wrestling. He would reignite his passion in 2018, but in a different way.

Fate decided that it was now time for NOAH and All Japan to cross paths again, this time involving Naomichi Marufuji and Jun Akiyama. Fate was about to repeat itself.

In his will, Misawa left the position of vice president in Noah to Naomichi Marufuji. It had been said that Misawa was planning to retire, and therefore would have started to introduce the man who was like son to him, to the business world, but there hadn’t been time, and so Marufuji found himself not only thrust into a role that he didn’t know, but also faced with angry seniors. Those who had been in All Japan during the days of Misawa and Mrs. Baba now felt the same thing. Who wanted to work with this young man? He knew nothing of business? He was going to change things, things they didn’t like, things Misawa didn’t like. Several of the veterans quit, and Naomichi Marufuji spent the next few years learning the ropes and with a pounding headache.

In December 2012, Pro Wrestling Noah took the decision to terminate the contract of Kenta Kobashi due to injuries. Furious at this insult to their teacher, Jun Akiyama, along with four other wrestlers refused to renew their contracts with NOAH, and all left for All Japan. It was a similar repeat of what had happened years before, and while it was on a much smaller scale, it was to have devastating consequences for NOAH. With Misawa gone, the promotion had managed to stay afloat for a few years, but a scandal involving the Yakuza had ruined their reputation (something which NOAH are still feeling the effects of in 2018), and they could not afford the walk out of such talent. The waves from the stone thrown in 2000 had reached the shore.

While Kenta Kobashi seemingly later made peace with NOAH, Jun Akiyama was not forgiven and his actions were seen as a betrayal. Another rift began between NOAH and All Japan, which was not made better when Akiyama became president in 2014 which was perceived as a too close threat to NOAH at a time when NOAH could barely afford such competitors or to have someone who had been once one of their own and a symbol of the company, one of their rivals.

Both companies however were now entering their dark years. NOAH was suffering through scandal and loss of talent (plus the disaster of the New Japan alliance), and All Japan were experiencing the after effects another mass walkout, again due to the company leadership. These walkouts have become known as “The Exodus” and are even numbered. To complicate things even further, the former president of All Japan, became the president of NOAH. The two companies settled into bitter resentment on both sides as they faced their mounting problems and picked up the pieces from the wave that had been waiting to come since 2000.

On February 3rd 2018, Naomichi Marufuji out of the blue announced on a rainy day, that he had been invited to take part in All Japan’s “Champion Carnival”. The news caused outrage, not only amongst wrestlers, but also amongst fans. It had been five years since Naomichi Marufuji and Jun Akiyama had had anything to do with other, five years since NOAH lost their talent to All Japan. To All Japan fans it was a question of why on earth NOAH was being allowed back to All Japan? Why was their vice-president here? What was going to come of this? Where All Japan and NOAH going to merge? Rumors and misconceptions flew around.

What came of it was peace. It was finality. It was acceptance.
It was a much needed burial of the past.

On 25th April 2018, after five years, Naomichi Marufuji and Jun Akiyama met in the ring. They had an epic battle. In this match everything came out, the difficult years, the dark past, the resentment, the bitterness, the lid blew off and the miasma scattered as they hit each other (the bruises could be seen the next day very clearly). Fans of both NOAH and All Japan, were in tears as it was emotional. Like the ghosts of Taira clan watching Hoichi The Earless play “The Tale of The Heike”, they saw it all; the shared past of Misawa and Kawada, Baba, Mokoto, Jumbo Tsuruta and the old guard, then the upturning of Puro and the new way it was taken in the new century, the return of Kobashi and “The Burning” stable made up of those who walked out of NOAH, all of it.

At the end of it, the demons exorcised, the past was laid finally to rest by a simple gesture of a fist bump between the two.

Nothing more needed be said. NOAH was here, All Japan was here.
Both were still here.

Toshiaki Kawada and Naomichi Marufuji in April 2018. The last lingering ghosts of the past were laid to rest.

There was a final closure to be had the next day when Toshiaki Kawada and Naomichi Marufuji met in the ring. By this time long out of action, Kawada had turned to producing. He too wanted to show the new generation against the older generation, which was a story that Puro knew so well, at his first event “Holy War”.

Unable to wrestle, he and Marufuji basically sat down and talked about All Japan. Kawada noticing that Marufuji was using a lot more psychological techniques, now that he realised that nearing forty he couldn’t really moonsault anymore, and a lot of those techniques where his. Kawada told the bruised and battered Misawa protégée, that his hostility in the dojo stemmed from the way things had to be back then, he couldn’t have helped him, even spoken to or properly acknowledged him, and he didn’t want things to be like that anymore.

It didn’t need to be.

Not now.

There has been a long bitter struggle between All Japan and NOAH for many years, but now both promotions can look to the future. NOAH will never again rely on another promotion only on themselves, and it would be a hideous contradiction of Misawa’s wishes which are held sacred in NOAH, for them to merge with All Japan and vice-versa in All Japan with Giant Baba, but with the rise of the younger generation in both companies, there is nothing now to stop a co-operation between them which can only benefit everybody.

NOAH and All Japan are still here. Let’s keep it that way.

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