Tomomi Tsuruta (March 25, 1951 May 13, 2000) was a Japanese professional wrestler who competed from 1973-1998 (retiring in 1999) as Jumbo Tsuruta. The first son of All Japan Pro Wrestling, he was among the most popular and remains among the most respected members of the third generation of puroresu.
Inspired as a teenager by the Tokyo Olympics, Tomomi made it his life's goal to compete in the Games. A star athlete in high school, he entered college with the intent to play basketball before realizing that Japan's chances of reaching the Olympics in that sport were fairly slim. So he pulled a complete 180 and pursued amateur wrestling. After remolding his body to that of a wrestler, and undergoing a rigorous training regimen, Tsuruta dominated the national collegiate wrestling circuit in 1971 before qualifying for the Olympics. While he didn't win a single match, Tomomi had realized his dream. Encouraged by to go professional in order to promote amateur wrestling by association, and spurred by the death of his father, Tomomi began the next chapter of his life.
After becoming the first signing of AJPW, he debuted as Tommy Tsuruta in 1973, in the Funk family's promotion in Amarillo, Texas. Here, he was among the first Japanese wrestlers to get over as a face in the United States. He returned to debut for AJPW that autumn. Shortly afterward, he was rechristened Jumbo, and the rest was history.
How did he fare? Well, it was complicated. On one hand, Jumbo was one of the most prodigious talents in pro wrestling history. He was such a natural that trainer and then-NWA champion Dory Funk Jr. gave him a shot at his title eight weeks after his debut match. Jumbo was instantly made AJPW's #2 wrestler upon his return, a position which he would hold for nearly a decade. On the other hand, though, there eventually came a point where Jumbo's reputation began to suffer for this. Jumbo was consistently given shots at an NWA title he would never be politically favored enough to receive; one could say that, after the exceptionalist narratives that Rikidozan, Giant Baba, and Antonio Inoki had upheld, Jumbo was the first Japanese wrestler whose image became tied to his failure. While he would finally be allowed to close this arc of his career by winning the AWA title in 1984, this was partially responsible for how slow the transition from Baba to Jumbo as company ace wound up being. However, due to a pair of upheavals in the mid-to-late 1980s, Jumbo would radically reinvent himself, and create perhaps his true legend in the process.
When an unprecedented talent influx from NJPW, led by Riki Choshu, invaded AJPW in 1985, Jumbo fought them on the front lines week after week, alongside his partner and successor as company #2, Genichiro Tenryu. This rejuvenated the entire company, Jumbo included, but it arguably did even more for Tenryu. Which is why, a few months after Choshu and most of his boys returned to NJPW in 1987, Tenryu split from Jumbo to form what would become the Revolution stable.
The result was one of the greatest heel turns in puroresu history. Jumbo's character had been an aggressive one during the Ishingun era, and there had been glimpses of his mean streak earlier on, but Tenryu's challenge to his dominance turned Jumbo into, by the standards of AJPW, The Bully. Through a three-year storyline which gradually but masterfully established Tenryu as his equal, and possibly his successor, Jumbo ended the decade as one of the best wrestlers in the world. However, Tenryu's departure in 1990, which also led a significant chunk of AJPW's native talent to follow and join his own promotion, left Jumbo as the only native main-eventer in the company.
That is, until Mitsuharu Misawa publicly unmasked and challenged him. After one of the most legendary matches in wrestling history, in which Misawa did the unthinkable and pulled out a surprise win, Jumbo went nuclear. The ensuing feud between Misawa's Super Generation Army faction, and Jumbo's Tsuruta-gun stable, battled for supremacy in a two-year turf war that made AJPW the most acclaimed wrestling promotion in the world, while establishing young stars such as Toshiaki Kawada, Kenta Kobashi, and Akira Taue.
Sadly, it was a story that Jumbo would be unable to end on his own terms. Identified as a hepatitis carrier in 1985, his disease finally struck just in time for summer 1992. He would manage to work a couple tours later in the year, but did so with great difficulty. By the time he was able to return to the ring, the atrophy was shocking and saddening. However, Jumbo would continue to work part-time for the company for much of the decade, while returning to school to attain a coaching degree. Retiring in 1999, Tomomi Tsuruta moved to America to start a new life as a teacher. Unfortunately, he would not get a chance to see that life through, and died after a liver transplant in 2000.
Among his in-ring achievements, Jumbo was the inaugural and 3x All Japan Pro Wrestling Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion, a 7x All Japan Pro Wrestling World Tag Team Champion, and a 1x AWA World Heavyweight Champion. He also won AJPW's annual singles and tag tournaments, the Champion Carnival and World's Strongest Tag Determination League, two and five times respectively; the latter is a record only since matched by Kobashi. He was inducted into the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame in 1996.
As usual, you can find the basics at The Other Wiki.
- Arch-Enemy: Depending on the era, Riki Choshu, Genichiro Tenryu, and Mitsuharu Misawa.
- The Bully: In the late 80s and early 90s, most definitely.
- Captain Ersatz: A favorite of Fire Pro Wrestling.
- Demoted to Extra: With the exception of a three-month run after his first leave of absence, where he had clearly declined but was still a main-eventer (albeit protected in tag matches), Jumbo's entire career once his hepatitis struck saw him reduced to low-stakes comedic tag matches.
- Determinator: Tsuruta had actually gone to university as a basketball player, but he realized that his dream to compete in the Olympic Games weren't realistic in that sport due to the high chance that the Japanese team would not reach the Olympics proper. He decided to pursue amateur wrestling, since he surmised that there would be far steeper native competition were he to enter Judo. However, he was unable to jointhe Chuo University wrestling team. Undeterred, Tsuruta took up wrestling with the club at the Japan Self Defense Force through their physical training school, and despite not being part of the Force proper eventually earned the respect and advice of the coach there (an Olympian himself). Through six hours of daily practice and bodybuilding sessions three times a week, Tsuruta remodeled his physique for wrestling, and the Chuo University team changed their tune when, entering as independent from any team, Tsuruta won bronze at nationals in November 1970.
- Expy: Stylistically in the 1970s he was, babyface fire and jumping knee notwithstanding, a Japanese version of his trainer Dory Funk Jr., with perhaps some Jack Brisco sprinkled in. Dory himself later commented that Jumbo was the only man outside his family to ever truly master the Funks' signature spinning toe hold.
- Face: He was among the first Japanese wrestlers to get over as a good guy in the United States after World War II. While Rikidozan had technically preceded him by two decades, he had only been booked as a true babyface in the San Francisco area, which had a significant Japanese immigrant population. While no tape of his 1973 Amarillo work has surfaced, there are 1970s American matches in circulation where he is clearly accepted as a face.
- This didn't sustain through his entire career, as there is tape of numerous American matches in the 1980s where the crowd is clearly against Jumbo. This is most notable in his AWA title run, but there's also a 1982 Mid-Atlantic match against Tommy Rich where one can see this.
- FaceHeel Turn: He'd crossed the line a few times before, mostly during the Choshu feud, but fairly soon after Tenryu split from him and established himself as a threat, Jumbo flipped a switch.
- Failure Is the Only Option: Jumbo received many shots at the NWA World Heavyweight Championship over a fourteen-year period, the first being against his trainer Dory Funk Jr. a mere eight weeks after his professional debut, and the last being against Ric Flair in 1987. He had been considered as a possible option in the 1970s, but as the NWA became more insular in the 1980s (especially when Vince McMahon began his territorial expansion), they became unwilling to even allow Giant Baba to purchase a brief one-week reign for Jumbo, as he had previously done three times for himself. The result of this was that, while Jumbo would get a shot at the belt every year or two, he could never pull off the win. This actually came to have a major effect on his reputation, as he would become known as the Zensenman ("Good Fight Man") in the early 1980s as a result of this.
- This would finally be somewhat Averted when, in February 1984, Jumbo won the AWA World Heavyweight Championship from Nick Bockwinkel, after having previously lost four title matches against him (albeit in indecisive circumstances). While not as prestigious as the NWA title, it was a well-respected belt to the Japanese audience. Unlike Baba, whose NWA reigns had him win the belt from the current champion and then drop it back the next week, Jumbo also held the title for three months, and even held numerous successful defenses in America before dropping the belt to Rick Martel.
- Farm Boy: Jumbo was the son of grape farmers, and credited his participation in these duties with his childhood athletic prowess. (His brother inherited the property and still sells grapes there, while having also turned the house into a museum dedicated to Jumbo.)
- Finishing Move: Bridging belly to back suplex, Powerbomb. Also the butterfly suplex in his Wakadaisho days.
- Game-Breaking Injury: When Hepatitis B struck in 1992.
- Gender-Blender Name: Tomomi is a unisex name, but it has a noted proximity to the feminine Tomoko. He was even given the name because of how small he was at birth. Tsuruta would be consistently teased for his name into adulthood, hence why the fan contest to rename him for the ring eventually happened.
- Genius Bruiser: He had a bachelor's degree in political science and later earned a master's degree in coaching.
- I Know Collegiate Wrestling: At Chou University. He won amateur championships in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling in 1971 and 1972. He went to the Olympics in 1972 but didn't win anything. He also trained in sambo with Victor Koga, and might have picked up some catch knowledge from Billy Robinson during his work with AJPW.
- Lightning Bruiser: Even when he bulked up by forty pounds in the 1980s, he would regularly dish out jumping knees and dropkicks, and was no stranger to diving from the ropes either.
- Named by Democracy: After his return from Amarillo, a fan contest led to him being given the name "Jumbo." Japan had rolled out their first Boeing 747 around this time, so the word was in vogue.
- Red Baron: A few, depending on the era. In his 70s run, it was Waka Daisho ("young boss"). In the early 80s, it became Kanzen muketsu no eisu ("ace of perfection"). Finally, starting from the mid-1980s onward, he would be known as Kaibutsu ("monster").
- Signature Move: The jumping knee, Thesz press, and lariat would all qualify.
- Tag Team: With multiple partners throughout his career. These can roughly be divided into four eras, though they overlap slightly. From 1973-1984, he teamed regularly with Giant Baba. Genichiro Tenryu finally transitioned into being his primary partner afterward, and this lasted until spring 1987. After a transitional period throughout the rest of the year, Jumbo then teamed up with former tag rival Yoshiaki Yatsu, becoming the Olympians (Yatsu had competed in Montreal in 1976). After Yatsu left the company as part of the SWS exodus in 1990, Jumbo would strike an alliance with his last partner, Akira Taue. (As Taue was an Expy of Baba, as well as an ex-sumo like Tenryu, one could say that Jumbo came full circle in this regard.)
- Villainous Breakdown: Jumbo's main-event career ended more-or-less with one of these protracted over two years.