There is a saying among pro-wrestlers that your true opponent is not the person facing you in the ring, but everyone outside the ring — in other words, the spectators in the stadium and, for some bouts, the millions watching on television.
It’s a saying well understood by Yoshi Tatsu, who is the only Japanese wrestler in the top-flight RAW league run by the world’s largest promoter of the sport, U.S.- based World Wrestling Entertainment. It is, too, something he will no doubt recall as he performs in front of his home crowd next week, when WWE stages two nights of fights in Tokyo.
The saying cuts to the core of pro-wrestling, in which most bouts are loosely scripted. Wrestlers don’t really “compete” against each other, because they’ve already been told by the organizers who is to win. Instead, the challenge they face, together, is to reach the predetermined conclusion in a way that is as entertaining as possible — starting not with the first body slap or headlock but with the so-called “mic time” beforehand, when the wrestlers goad each other verbally.
“Yo-shi? I don’t even know how to say the rest of your name,” mocked Shelton “The Gold Standard” Benjamin in the few minutes before his bout with Tatsu in June 2009. “Stand back or I call Godzilla,” the peroxide-blond African-American continued, before launching into impersonations of the Karate Kid and a sumo wrestler. The crowd booed at Benjamin’s rudeness and cheered at Tatsu’s silent, dignified response.
Two weeks ago, in a phone interview from his home in Florida, Tatsu explained that “mic time is one of the differences between American and Japanese pro- wrestling (where talking is less important). The idea of talking is crucial in the United States, because that’s where you give the audience a background story and get them emotionally invested in the fight,” he said.
After a minute or two of patiently waiting out Benjamin’s baiting — which continued even after the starting bell rang — Tatsu decided he’d had enough and took advantage of a mocking bow by his opponent to deliver a roundhouse kick to the side of his head. Benjamin went down, the referee counted to three and the fight was over. In the eyes of the appreciative crowd, justice had been served.
Of course, Tatsu’s fights don’t always end so abruptly. Regular RAW bouts, which are broadcast in more than 145 countries and to over 5 million cable-television viewers in the U.S. alone, last up to around 10 minutes. After much blaring music, light-show fanfare, bellowing commentary and, of course, “mic time,” the musclebound and lycra-clad contestants launch themsleves into an exchange of punches, kicks, head-butts, dives and much more.
Tatsu’s maneuvers tend to have traces of martial arts: there’s his lightning fast roundhouse kick; his “turnbuckle knee strike,” where he throws his opponent into a corner before crashing into them with both knees raised; his double-footed “low drop-kick”; and his “springboard spinning heel kick,” where he jumps off the top rope, rotates his body in the air and kicks his opponent across the face with the back of his leg.
“If you’re watching Yoshi Tatsu for the first time, you are in for quite a treat,” a TV commentator enthused during one of Tatsu’s early bouts. “This young man can do some amazing things inside that ring.”
As WWE staff explained, however, the secret of these “amazing things” — a secret that detracts in no way from their athleticism — is that while the wrestlers are in the ring they are in constant communication with each other, subtly conveying what they are going to do next. Hence, when it’s time to brace, they know to brace, and when it’s time to crook their head a fraction to the left to neutralize a kick, they know to do it.
“We’re professionals,” Tatsu said. “This is the top league in the world, so we can manage the fights (without rehearsing every last move).”
Tatsu, who hails from Gifu Prefecture and whose real name is Naofumi Yamamoto, decided he wanted to be a pro-wrestler when he was in junior high school.
“I just really liked wrestling,” he said. “I looked upon the World Wrestling Federation [as the WWE was then known] almost as if it was the stuff of legend.”
Although he initially wanted to skip high school to become a wrestler, Yamamoto eventually finished a bachelor’s degree in international relations at the sports-oriented Kokushikan University in Tokyo.
After graduating, he signed up with Shin Nihon Puroresu (New Japan Pro-Wrestling) and commenced what ended up being a largely unhappy six-year stint there. “It was hard in all sorts of ways — to make a living, the training, dealing with seniors in the league,” he said.
In 2008, the increasingly frustrated 30-year-old made the brave decision to relocate his family — which by then included a wife and young daughter — to the U.S., where he was quickly drafted into the Florida Championship Wrestling league, a grueling, non-televised testing ground operated by WWE. “I’m being reminded just how tough this business can be,” Yamamoto wrote in his blog at the time. “Some of the guys will do 15 bouts this week alone.”
But in the midst of that struggle, Yamamoto began to develop his own wrestler persona, and the more popular that persona became with the spectators, the more interested in his progress WWE’s management became.
What was most unusual about Yamamoto’s persona, which involved his adoption of the name Yoshi Tatsu, was that he decided to play the role of a good guy, and not a villain (each is, of course, a valid way of entertaining the crowd).
“As a foreigner, it’s easy to play the bad guy,” Tatsu said, alluding to the route taken by some of his Japanese WWE predecessors, such as Kenzo Suzuki, who quit in 2005 and now performs in Japan. “I wanted to be popular with the kids,” he offered as a reason, before admitting that another factor played on his mind as well.
“Back in university, I studied international relations and majored in Japan-U.S. relations,” he said. “Based on what has happened in the past between our countries, I decided it was important that, as a Japanese, I should be a good guy.”
That “good guy” persona now dictates everything about Tatsu’s work — from the bopping enthusiasm with which he bursts into the stadium when introduced before a bout, to the way he patiently took Shelton Benjamin’s teasing on the chin — until Benjamin went too far.
Each wrestler, who is referred to as a “superstar” in the WWE lingo, has his or her own entrance music. Tatsu’s is an upbeat, electronic tune that some people call “Nintendo music” — a reference that, it turns out, is particularly appropriate.
“At the moment, the most conspicuous aspect of Japanese culture in America is video games,” Tatsu observed. He has tried to capitalize on that popularity by consciously modeling some of his actions — the clenched-fist pose, and several fighting moves — on video-game characters.
Tatsu was plucked from the obscurity of the FWC and promoted to a televised WWE franchise called Extreme Championship Wrestling in 2009. When ECW was discontinued earlier this year, he was promoted to RAW.
Since then, he has won a 26-man free-for-all “Battle Royal” and has become — as WWE’s TV commentators regularly gush — “one of the (franchise’s) hot dynamic young stars.”
Although popularity is the key to success in pro-wrestling, Tatsu is by no means satisfied with his current position.
“My English is not good enough,” he lamented. Evidently worried that substandard English would detract from their star’s status, WWE hasn’t yet allowed him to engage in “mic time.” Hence his “dignified” silence in the face of his opponents’ teasing and taunts.
“My goal is to win a WWE championship belt,” Tatsu said. “And that won’t happen until I learn to talk with the crowd.”
With that in mind, Tatsu recently took the unusual step of asking to be demoted to the lower-stakes FCW league — where the absence of TV cameras means English- language mistakes can be forgiven. “I need to practice communicating with the crowd,” Tatsu said. He now competes in both the FCW and RAW.
Of course, talking to the crowd won’t be a problem for Tatsu on Aug. 20 and 21, when he and 22 other WWE wrestlers perform at the Kokugikan venue in Tokyo’s Ryogoku district. (It will be the first time “the home of sumo wrestling” hosts a WWE bout.)
If Tatsu does learn to talk with the U.S. crowds, his popularity will surely grow further. And when that happens, the WWE hierarchy might even decide to script a championship belt into his future. Now that really would be the stuff of legend.