Guest Star

Minoru Suzuki: Wrestling’s Greatest Bastard and a Land of Contrasts

This month’s Guest Star is Sachin Hingoo, a Toronto-based writer and editor at BiffBamPop.com.

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What then is a ‘bastard’ for this audience composed in part, we are told, of people who are themselves outside the rules of society? Essentially someone unstable, who accepts the rules only when they are useful to him and transgresses the formal continuity of attitudes. He is unpredictable, therefore asocial. He takes refuge behind the law when he considers that it is in his favor, and breaks it when he finds it useful to do so.

Barthes, Mythologies (1954)

I’ve always kept a pro wrestling match in my back pocket for when someone inevitably asks me why I enjoy such a niche art form and not something, I guess, more respectable like football or the works of Zack Snyder. For years, it was Randy “Macho Man” Savage vs Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat from Wrestlemania 3 in 1987, largely considered one of the greatest matches of all time. More recently, I might point them to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin vs Bret “The Hitman” Hart from Wrestlemania 13, which is uniquely violent and dramatic in a way that only pro wrestling can express, and features an ultra-rare and nigh impossible to pull off “double turn”, where a bad guy (heel) and a good guy (babyface) switch alignments over the course of a match. Within the last 3 years, though, my back pocket match is this one:

This match is from 2018’s Great Pirate Festival, and commemorates the 30th anniversary of the career of my favourite wrestling villain, Minoru Suzuki, who had just turned 50 years old and who organized this festival to celebrate. In this match, he faces arguably the best wrestler on the planet, Kazuchika Okada, in a packed outdoor venue in Suzuki’s hometown of Yokohama, in the pouring rain. 

It’s evocative of nothing so much as the rain-soaked climax of Stallone’s lesser-known Rocky-but-it’s-pro-wrestling film Paradise Alley (1978), but perhaps with a little less cured meat*. 

Kaze Ni Nare

The Pirate Festival match, from it’s opening moments and entrances, tells you everything you need to know about Suzuki, and kicks off with a banger of a live performance from Ayumi Nakamura, whose voice accompanies Suzuki every time he walks to the ring, often in person, like she is here. Nakamura’s song “Kaze Ni Nare” (“Become The Wind”) was written just for Suzuki, and is as bound up with his persona as anything he’s done in the ring or said outside of it. Kaze Ni Nare is the best wrestling theme in the business, an absolute bop** , and it inspires singalongs of thousands of fans each time Suzuki steps into the ring. 

The opening chords and Nakamura’s vocals are as operatic as they come, but they’re juxtaposed against instrumentals that would be equally at home in an MMA bro’s apartment while he works out, or in one of Stallone’s films. It’s dramatic. It’s energetic. And it’s just a bit menacing. It’s Suzuki in a nutshell, and the exhilarating moment when Nakamura’s titular lyric hits, about two minutes into the song and almost always synced to the instant that Suzuki steps between the ropes, often overshadows any single match, move, or moment on any given wrestling card. 

A Dirty Heel

There are a few types of villains in pro wrestling. The most common is the cowardly variety, who shrinks away from conflict but always finds a way to needle the babyface hero in some deeply annoying way. There are ‘cool heels’, who are bad guys/gals that similarly antagonize the babyface in many of the same ways, but get over with the crowd because they’re charismatic or otherwise likeable in spite of themselves (The Rock’s various heel runs are great examples). Suzuki is a third type; just a terrifying bastard that takes genuine pleasure from wrecking his opponents. 

Suzuki’s status as my favourite villain is rooted, in part, in the fact that he’s horribly and legitimately capable of inflicting pain. His origins as a stone-cold foxy-looking mixed-martial-arts practitioner, long before the sport was popular, make the contrast even more jarring. 

How it started. / How its going.

In fact, it can be argued that Suzuki is one of the first to ever do the thing, having pioneered MMA in Japan, and perhaps worldwide, with his involvement in founding the Pancrase promotion in 1993. Even in these early days, Suzuki was known as a self-serious competitor whose skills drew the attention of MMA legends like Ken Shamrock (who is said to have taken up MMA after seeing a Suzuki fight in 1993) and Bas Rutten (who describes a rare victory over Minoru as one of the happiest days of his life). Before developing his personality as a pro wrestling character, Suzuki’s will and tenacity–qualities that would normally make for a great babyface hero, especially in Japan where ‘fighting spirit’ is greatly valued in combat sports–are precisely the other things that feed into his many lifetime achievements in villainy. Everything about Suzuki’s aura screams that he can and will do whatever he wants to those who oppose him, and that’s a scary idea when applied to a gleefully violent guy that seems to hate almost everyone. Imagine if Oscar The Grouch could take you down at will or compress your spine with a piledriver and you’ll be in the right ballpark. 

I think it’s even more amazing that Suzuki is enough of an asshole to inspire others to become as ruthless as he is, like in his 2020 feud with perennial babyface, New Japan legend, and international hero, Jushin “Thunder” Liger. This was during a period where Liger was wrapping up his career and was receiving accolades from New Japan and beyond (Liger was also inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame last year). Imagine taking a final victory lap after a career that spanned nearly half a century, inspiring a whole generation of wrestlers and innovating a high-flying style that is more prevalent today than ever. Now you have this bastard heckling you from outside the ring, threatening to literally kill you. Suzuki got under this guy’s skin so badly that Liger transformed into his seldom-seen heel persona, Kishin Liger, and actually tried to stab Suzuki at one point. 

Some wrestlers try so hard to come off as scary or annoying with their promos, wrestling style, or their mannerisms, but with Suzuki it reads as effortless. When he’s berating yet another legend and longtime rival Yuji Nagata for throwing weak punches and telling him to get out of the ring, you believe every word. 

That’s ultimately what connects with me when it comes to Suzuki. Pro wrestling works best–perhaps only–when you can suspend disbelief around a spectacle, and as Barthes said in Mythologies (1957), perhaps the most scholarly writing about the art form, “[t]he public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.”

What you see when you watch a Minoru Suzuki match is a guy that is an asshole through and through, and is so consistent in being a dick that you kind of have to respect that consistency. 

Suzuki-gun

In 2011, Suzuki returned to New Japan after a few years of terrorizing other Japanese promotions – primarily Pro Wrestling NOAH and All Japan Pro Wrestling–but he wasn’t alone. With him came a group of like-minded thugs, as cold and success-driven as he is, called Suzuki-gun (Suzuki’s Army). 

It’s nice to have friends.

Now, Suzuki-gun isn’t a faction that he started, but one that Suzuki usurped for his own nefarious purposes. New Japan legend and bread enthusiast Satoshi Kojima was the original founder of the group back in the early 2010’s, dubbing it Kojima-gun, but the entire group rebelled against their leader and installed our man Minoru at the head of the table. The flamboyant anime-come-to-life Taichi and the ruthless Taka Michinoku are holdovers from the original faction, but MiSu added his own violent flavour by recruiting The Killer Elite Squad (Davey Boy Smith, Jr. and Lance Archer), as well as mat wrestling expert Zack Sabre, Jr. and the wiry David Beckham lookalike (if Beckham could agonizingly bend any part of your body in all manner of painful and unnatural ways). 

Suzuki-gun is exactly what a pro wrestling faction should be. It’s cohesive and single-minded in its goal to amplify and protect its leader. More importantly, each member works because they embody various traits of their boss. Suzuki’s sadism and all-round technical wrestling prowess? That’s Zack. His ruthlessness and appetite for violence? That’s Smith and Archer. Suzuki’s narcissism and sinister flamboyance? There’s Taichi, the guy who comes out in an opera mask singing his own theme music. Suzuki’s fierce and unwavering opportunism is best embodied by the dastardly luchador, DOUKI. Perhaps Minoru’s most important traits–his mystery and veteran experience? Well, that’s Suzuki-gun’s tag team of Kanemaru and El Desperado. And then there’s Suzuki-gun’s resident elder statesman, Taka Michinoku, who’s wrestled around the world and has innovated more in the ring than most wrestlers know to begin with. As a unit, Suzuki-gun feels like a family with the most domineering patriarch imaginable and, though New Japan doesn’t really do backstage skits and segments like their North American counterparts like WWE, you can imagine Suzuki berating his misfit “kids” backstage after any loss or perceived transgression.

Just another family bonding moment for Suzuki-gun

Two Sides of Suzuki

Suzuki is a bit of an enigma, a land of contrasts as they say. As ruthless and forthrightly evil as his in-ring persona can be, he’s something of a teddy bear outside it***.  He’s a massive anime fan, especially of the One Piece series, and has a podcast all about his love of manga called–sit down for this–Manga King Minoru Suzuki. This terrifying individual has also organized cleanups of public areas because he’s just that kind of guy:

It’s implied that these people are helping Minoru to clean up the beach because the alternative is having to eat a Gotch-style piledriver

As completely scary and intimidating as Suzuki looks when he’s got his wrestling boots on, there are glimpses of the quiet and even fashionable sides of the King of Pro Wrestling from his Instagram, where you’re likely to see Suzuki showing off his fresh new watch or his insanely strong sock game like any other influencer, except these images are punctuated by his trademark bone-chilling snarl

The man can wear a hat.

In fact, I don’t think anything illustrates the two sides of Suzuki better than the post-match promo he delivered after the Pirate Festival (keep in mind that this is to an audience of mainly kids):

It doesn’t matter that I was close, or that I did my best. I didn’t win. When you go out into the world, you have to win and keep winning. The world isn’t going to cut you a break. Ugh, all you dispirited middle aged guys too, I just turned 50! A 30 year old couldn’t beat me today, nobody can! I’m taking everything I want. The IWGP title? I’ve already booked my place. You SOBs thinking of leaving now? That this is done? There’s awesome people to come! This festival’s still got way more in store! And I’m not going to close with that, but with this: Thank you!

I don’t know that it qualifies Suzuki as a crossover star, but I’d be remiss not to mention his role in Kaiju Mono (2016) by filmmaker Minoru Kawasaki (Executive Koala, Monster Seafood Wars). Suzuki plays an evil, more violent version (of course) of Dr Nitta, the main character of the film, played by the esoteric wrestling savant and current New Japan Pro Wrestling World Heavyweight Champion Kota Ibushi. In a weirdly fitting plot twist, Ibushi’s babyface version of Nitta has to “turn heel” and take a more vicious tac against the eponymous Kaiju Mono, and that’s when he becomes Suzuki’s “Evil Nitta.” Anyone familiar with the bugnuts nature of Kawasaki’s films won’t be surprised at this madcappery, or to find out that the secondary storyline of Kaiju Mono involves a battle over a pair of high-tech wrestling briefs that expand when Dr Nitta grows to giant-size in order to face off with the kaiju.  

Perhaps the most memorable and distinct moment in my fandom of Suzuki–the moment where he transformed from ‘a wrestler I like’ to something closer to an obsession–is a match he had at New Japan’s biggest show of the year, Wrestle Kingdom, in 2018. In that encounter, Suzuki and his opponent Hirooki Goto faced each other in a deathmatch with not only Suzuki’s NEVER Openweight Title on the line, but with both participants wagering their hair as well. This is a fitting blowoff to an extended feud between the two, and calls upon New Japan’s subtle influences from Mexico’s lucha libre, where hair-vs-hair matches are a common way to end a rivalry. Goto vs Suzuki is a tough, brutal match even with both men’s factions (Suzuki-gun and Goto’s CHAOS group) barred from ringside, and Goto digs deep and shows his fighting spirit to ultimately prevail. 

But it’s the post-match that made me a lifelong fan of Minoru Suzuki. Humiliated, our man trudges back to the ring and instead of allowing his opponent to shave his head, as is customary, he furiously grabs the clippers and aggressively does the job himself. It’s a moment filled with such gravity and drama, and displays the curious paradox that Suzuki embodies so well. It’s filled with rage and indignation, and watching it for the first time you honestly don’t know if Suzuki’s going to take the clippers and try to maim Goto with them. In the end, Suzuki does the honourable thing, begrudgingly, because it’s the only way to keep his dignity. Barthes distills the nature of pro wrestlers by saying that “wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.”

And nothing describes my favourite villain better than that. 

* The pro wrestler that Stallone trains in Paradise Alley is named Kid Salami, and walks around with several sausages hanging around his neck. 

** Sorry, we are not accepting dissenting opinions on this.

***  Please don’t kill me, Mr. Suzuki.

~~~

Sachin Hingoo is a Toronto-based writer and editor at biffbampop.com. He has submitted several applications to join Suzuki-gun, but assumes that they have been lost in the mail since he has yet to receive a response.

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