Name: Tomomi Tsuruta
Year Inducted: 2015
There are few careers that compare to that of Tomomi “Jumbo” Tsuruta. During the late ’70s and the entire ’80s, Tsuruta was considered the best heavyweight wrestler in Japan.
To fans in North America, he is best known as AWA World Heavyweight champion, having defeated Nick Bockwinkel in Tokyo in 1984.He lost the belt three months later to Rick Martel in St. Paul, Minnesota. He later would be the first Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion (unifying the Pacific Wrestling Federation, All Japan United National and All Japan International titles) by defeating Stan Hansen on April 19, 1989 in Tokyo. His feuds with Genichiro Tenryu in the ’80s will be remembered as the Japanese equivalent of the Ric Flair-Ricky Steamboat series in the States.
Tsuruta’s roots were actually in amateur wrestling and basketball, especially given his 6-foot-5 height. Born March 25, 1951, Tsuruta picked up both freestyle and Greco-Roman as a superheavyweight in university and beyond. He represented Japan at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich in Greco-Roman, although he did not score a win.
All Japan Pro Wrestling made a deal with Dory Funk Sr. to train wrestlers in his Amarillo, Texas territory and it was there that Tsuruta learned the pro game. Dory Funk Jr. recalled the newcomer speaking to him on his website: “Mr. Funk, My name is Tommy Tsuruta, It is easier to say than my Japanese name, Tsuruta Tomomi. I have never wrestled a professional match before in my life. This is my first time, please take care of me.”
That time abroad meant everything said “The Destroyer” Dick Beyer, who wrestled against, and with, Tsuruta hundreds of times. The period in America did wonders for Tsuruta, who picked up English as well and he returned home an even bigger star. “When he came back to Japan, Japan Pro Wrestling was then in its second or third year and Jumbo moved right in with Baba and I as a top star. He didn’t wrestle in any preliminaries,” Beyer said.
AWA promoter Verne Gagne loved his legit credentials. “He really brought a lot to the image of Japanese wrestling here in America,” Gagne said. “He conducted himself as a gentleman at all times. We’re very proud of the guy. And he was an excellent wrestler all the way around, both as an amateur and a professional.”
Tsuruta retired from wrestling on March 6, 1999 after a storied 26-year career with All Japan. He was diagnosed with hepatitis in 1992 but he continued to wrestle a full time schedule. The hepatitis B was actually with him his whole life, coming from his mother. The ravages of the disease slowed down his work inside the ring and he quickly became somewhat debilitated. He then was mostly booked in mid-card comedy matches with All Japan President Giant Baba.
After retiring, Tsuruta moved to the U.S. where he became assistant professor at the University of Portland. His body betrayed him though, and he returned to Japan at the end of 1999. In May 2000, he underwent a kidney transplant operation at a hospital in Manila, Philippines. Tsuruta was said to have died from excessive bleeding after the surgery.
– JOHN MOLINARO & GREG OLIVER