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Pro Wrestling's 10 Most Successful Japanese Stars in the United States

Ryan DilbertFeatured Columnist IVDecember 30, 2016

Pro Wrestling's 10 Most Successful Japanese Stars in the United States

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    Japan's greatest wrestlers have not always translated their star power to the promotions in the United States, but there have been a number of big stars from Japan in WWE, WCW, AWA and elsewhere.

    Language and culture differences, a lack of behemoths from the Land of the Rising Sun and various other factors have kept the Japan-to-America talent exchange a mostly one-sided affair.

    The success rate for North American wrestlers heading to Japan and succeeding is far greater. Stan Hansen, Terry Funk, Steve Williams and Bruiser Brody were all huge stars in Japan.

    Going from Japan to America with star power intact has been a difficult journey. WWE especially has struggled to find a way to promote and utilize Japanese stars.

    Still, U.S. wrestling fans have come to know some great Japanese wrestlers and champions. From a man who held the tag team titles with Mr. Fuji for nearly a year to the innovator of the green mist, there are several Japanese success stories in the U.S.

    Not included on this list are the men who were Japanese in kayfabe only.

    Tojo Yamamto, Mr. Fuji and Pat Tanaka from the Orient Express were all from Hawaii. Yokozuna was American-Samoan. Kato, who teamed with Tanaka, was actually from Croatia.

    Ranked here based on their longevity and renown in the U.S. and their stateside career accomplishments, including championships and being a part of big shows, these are the biggest and brightest Japanese stars who made a name for themselves across the ocean.

Honorable Mention

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    One of Japan's greatest talents, Satoru Sayama wrestled as the original Tiger Mask. He was the WWE Junior Heavyweight champ and made several appearances at Madison Square Garden.

    His time in the U.S. was too short to make a huge impact.

    The same is true for Akira Hokuto, who wrestled for WCW in the '90s, becoming the first and only WCW Women's champion.

    Noriyo Tateno and Itsuki Yamazaki wrestled as the Jumping Bomb Angels for WWE in the late-'80s. They defeated the Glamour Girls to the win the WWE Women’s tag titles at the 1988 Royal Rumble and held onto those belts until June of that year.

10. Takeshi Morishima

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    The nearly 300-pound brawler became one of the few Japanese world champions in the U.S. when he defeated Homicide in 2006 for the Ring of Honor World Championship.

    Takeshi Morishima spent some of his title reign in his home country, but he also defended his title against men like Nigel McGuiness, B.J. Whitmer and Adam Pearce in America. He had an intriguing rivalry with Bryan Danielson (Daniel Bryan) that featured a classic match at Manhattan Mayhem II in 2007.

    Morishima was a prominent part of ROH during his time there, but the company's place as the third-biggest promotion in the U.S. limited how big of a star he became.

9. Giant Baba

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    In Japan, Giant Baba is one of the biggest wrestling stars ever. Many compare his popularity in his home country to that of what Hulk Hogan attained in his prime.

    Baba did not have nearly the same impact in the U.S. as he did in Japan, though.

    He was the first-ever Japanese NWA World champ, but many of his defenses were in Japan. It was in the early-'60s that Baba spent the most time in America, wrestling megastars Buddy Rogers and Bruno Sammartino (h/t Examiner.com).

    Baba, though, didn't reach the peak of his star power until after this tour, until after he formed All Japan Pro Wrestling in 1972 and became one of the promotion's biggest attractions.

8. Masahiro Chono

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    Masahiro Chono was an intimidating presence walking down the aisle with his trademark leather jacket and sneer.

    As part of a partnership with WCW and New Japan, Chono made several American appearances including being a part of nWo and having matches against Chris Jericho and Goldberg. Unlike Giant Baba, Chono came to America at his peak.

    The American audiences didn't connect with him as much as they did with the men ranked above him though.

    He boasts reigns as both the WWA World Heavyweight and NWA Central States Television champ, as well as a 145-day reign as NWA world champ, though that was a title he primarily defended in Japan.

7. Great Kabuki

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    WCCW and Southwest Championship Wrestling was the Great Kabuki's home away from Japan.

    Here he frightened audience members with his demonic look and won a number of championships, including the WCCW TV title and the NWA American Heavyweight Championship.

    Throughout the '70s and '80s, he battled the likes of Tommy Rich, Chris Adams and Ric Flair.

    He is often credited with innovating spitting mist into his foes' faces. Great Kabuki may not have been as talented as other Japanese imports, but was a more chilling presence than any of his countrymen and rode that to a long, fruitful career.

6. Tajiri

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    Tajiri buzzkicked his way to success in ECW and WWE.

    He held championships in both promotions, including the ECW tag titles with Mikey Whipwreck and three reigns as the WWE Cruiserweight champ.

    His great performances, mesmerizing speed and palpable energy had him win over American fans early on. He built on the momentum he earned in ECW in the late-'90s when he headed to WWE. Even when the company tried to turn him into a buffoonish character, he thrived.

    Tajiri's popularity and longevity in the U.S. earns him this spot.

5. Masa Saito

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    Masa Saito had the longest run in the U.S. among the men on this list. Saito compelled audiences with sadism and power as early on as 1968 and wrestled for various American promotions in the '70s, '80s and '90s.

    In that span he and Mr. Fuji won the WWE World tag titles two times. Their combined reigns had them carrying the belts for more than 300 days. Saito later won the AWA World title from Larry Zbyszko.

    Playing up Japanese stereotypes and resorting to heel tactics like throwing salt in his foes' faces, Saito became one of the most hated heels in wrestling.

    He wrestled big names like Rick Martel, Hulk Hogan and Pedro Morales, on his way to becoming one of the more recognizable faces of his era.

4. Ultimo Dragon

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    Ignore his one-year flop with WWE. Ultimo Dragon was one of WCW's greatest cruiserweights and an ambassador for both the Lucha Libre and Japanese style of wrestling.

    In addition to winning the WCW TV title and Cruiserweight belt two times each, Ultimo Dragon elevated the WCW Cruiserweight division.

    Fans were treated to fast-paced, well-worked matches night in and night out as he battled Dean Malenko, Juventud Guerrera, Rey Mysterio and Eddie Guerrero.   

    Ultimo Dragon and Chris Jericho rekindled a feud that begin in Japan and put on a number of classics together.

3. The Great Muta

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    His appearances in the U.S. for WCW were far more sporadic than the sustained runs that Masa Saito and Tajiri enjoyed, but The Great Muta was one of the biggest stars in the country in 1989 and 1990.

    There was an air of mystique about him because of his Japanese origins, bright face paint and tendency to spit green mist. He was billed as the son of The Great Kabuki and donned a similar look.

    Muta would go on to bigger success in his home country, but during his time in the U.S. he captured the NWA TV title, the WCW tag titles with Vampiro and won the 1992 Battle Bowl.

    His feud with Sting helped make both men stars, the juxtaposition of their alignments and appearances creating a compelling sight.

2. Jushin Liger

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    Several of the other men on this list won more championships in the U.S., but Jushin "Thunder" Liger's influence and effect on the American audience will be felt for a long time to come.

    After debuting for WCW in 1991, Liger transformed audiences' expectations. He proved how compelling smaller, more athletic wrestlers could be as he became a fixture in the WCW during the '90s.

    His feud with Brian Pillman over the WCW Light Heavyweight Championship wowed audiences. These dazzling matches were fast-paced works of art. 

    Liger spent nearly a full decade with WCW, becoming one of its most beloved stars. His influence is felt in America today every time someone performs the Shooting Star Press, which he invented, or when a smaller guy works his way into the crowd's heart via electric athleticism.

1. Antonio Inoki

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    Antonio Inoki could have gotten into the WWE Hall of Fame on his work in Japan alone, but the legend also accomplished a great deal in the U.S.

    Inoki held the first-ever WWWF World Martial Arts Heavyweight Championship, a title he once defended in Shea Stadium.

    He battled an assortment of wrestlers during his time in the U.S. including David Schultz, William Regal and The Iron Sheik. Listen to the crowd reaction he got, especially against Schultz, to see just how over he was.

    Though his infamous 1976 match against Muhammad Ali was held in Tokyo, it still served to increase how well-known he was in the U.S.

    Inoki didn't spend as much time in America as some of his Japanese brethren, but his prominence while away from home and the level of star power he achieved make him Japan's most successful export.

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