Pro Wrestling NOAH's future in question after Yakuza scandal

The decline of Pro Wrestling NOAH in the aftermath of Mitsuhara Misawa's death has not been pretty. Photo via www.profightdb.com.

July 18th, 2005 was an unfortunate turning point for Pro Wrestling NOAH. Kenta Kobashi wowed a near sold out Tokyo Dome, including yours truly, in a complete blast of a dream match with outsider Kensuke Sasaki, ably followed by Mitsuhara Misawa writing what would turn out to be a fitting final chapter to his memorable feud with Toshiaki Kawada. This was simply pro wrestling at its highest of peaks, but sadly it has been all downhill from there.

Some of the problems were apparent on the show itself. Despite winning the Global Heavyweight Championship from top dog Kobashi earlier in the year, Takeshi Rikio's title match against rising New Japan star Hiroshi Tanahashi had embarrassingly little heat or drama. Indeed, many fans treated the match as a break in the action to go to the bathroom or the merchandise stands. Attempts to get over other youngsters as headlining title holders like Naomichi Marufuji and Takeshi Morishima didn't fare much better either, despite being more naturally gifted workers than Rikio.

This meant that the ageing, badly broken down legends Misawa and Kobashi had to continue being heavily spotlighted in main events with tragic consequences. Kobashi contracted kidney cancer in the summer of 2006, which started the slow decline of the once mighty promotion. Though he successfully beat the disease and returned to action in late 2007, outside of his dynamic return match, he was a shell of his former self and has been plagued with arm injuries ever since, thanks to his chop heavy offence. At least Kobashi is still alive. Misawa, the NOAH owner and its lifeblood, died when his neck finally gave out on him after taking one dangerous back suplex too many in a match on June 13th, 2009. The fallout from his death hasn't been pretty and finally caught the Japanese mainstream media's attention this week.

From the death of Pride Fighting Championships, it's well known that the Yakuza are heavily involved in the Japanese combat sport's dark underbelly and that taboo subject being made public can be a kiss of death. Trouble started brewing on this issue for NOAH in late January, when a book was published that revealed that a woman involved with the Yakuza who sponsored her favourite NOAH wrestlers, had befriended Mitsuhara Misawa's widow and in the process obtained a loan for 53,000,000 yen (equivalent to several hundred thousand dollars), which she largely failed to pay back. The widow subsequently won a civic case to seize the assets of the woman in question, who was later convicted and jailed for seven years for defrauding old age pensioners in Tokushima, which was how she could afford to be the benefactor of so many NOAH wrestlers.

NOAH may have been able to get away with this without too much public embarrassment, but for a firing decision that came back to bite them in the backside. After losing their late Sunday night TV slot on Nippon TV in the spring of 2009, the company was soon forced to cut costs and NOAH General Manager Ryu Nakata decided to fail to renew the contracts of several veteran wrestlers at the start of 2010, including one Jun Izumida. As they say revenge is a dish best served cold, which is certainly what Izumida did by writing a tell all book and revealing NOAH Director Haruka Eigen's and Nakata's formal ties to the Yakuza who helped them sell tickets to shows for the majority of the time he worked for their company.

NOAH responded by forcing Eigen and Nakata to resign from their senior management positions, but they did not fire them. President Akira Taue also announced that he would implement new anti-Yakuza protocols and make their employees undergo training about how to avoid Yakuza connections in the future.

This is a major blow to the company, as it guarantees that NOAH will never return to network television in Japan, something they've been seeking ever since they were cut by NTV three years ago. I'm sure they will continue to struggle on for the time being at least, just like All Japan Pro Wrestling has done in the aftermath of last year's Nobukazu Hirai backstage beating scandal that left him with an acute subdural hematoma and likely brain damaged for life. But long term, the only safe company in Japan is New Japan Pro Wrestling which is bankrolled by Bushiroad, a successful Japanese card game company.

For more on this story, please read Zach Arnold's excellent in-depth coverage.

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