By January, 28, 2001, All Japan Pro Wrestling had fallen on hard times. The core group of talent which had dominated the industry in Japan for a decade, selling out Budokan Hall routinely for years, had moved on to form Pro Wrestling NOAH. All Japan, in truth, had no business running a show in the Tokyo Dome. But they did, largely to honor one man - the most legendary gaijin in Japanese wrestling history, the incomparable Stan Hansen.
Thirty thousand fans chanted his name as Hansen made his way to the ring. In 1982, he would have been mortified. He was a heel and one of the best; it was a different time, and a crowd cheering him on would have meant an epic failure on his part. A generation of fans, however, had grown up watching Hansen, grown to respect, admire, and appreciate him. It was a fitting tribute.
Hansen, one of the very best wrestlers in the world for not just one, but two decades, has written the most interesting book ever printed about the industry in Japan. The Last Outlaw isn't your standard wrestling memoir. You know the kind I mean - a few road stories which may or may not have happened, a few shots at political enemies, and a passel of inaccurate information. This is more akin to Bret Hart's excellent book Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling.
Like Hart, Hansen goes into great detail about his life on the road. It's interesting when he's discussing Amarillo or Mid South, but business, as they say, really picks up when Hansen arrives in Japan in the 1970's. I've always been curious about what life is like for an American wrestler in Japan. What are interactions with the native talent like? How do the fans respond outside of the ring? What is it like to travel to obscure parts of the country, places not often seen by foreigners at all?
Hansen tackles all of these issues and plenty more. And he does it from a unique perspective. He worked for both Inoki's New Japan and for Baba's All Japan as a top foreign talent. Very few men can make the same claim. It's compelling stuff. Stan covers the differences between the two groups behind the scenes and shares his memories of all the great wrestlers to come through Japan in the 1980's and 1990's.
The book is not without it's flaws. Written with wrestling historian Scott Teal, it's strong with dates and the facts. But at times the narrative loses its flow as Hansen jumps time periods. There are also a handful of stories repeated almost word for word in various parts of the book. It doesn't detract much from the experience. It's similar to talking with your grandfather about World War II - sure he may tell the same stories over and over again, but there's some comfort in the familiarity.
In the end, Hansen delivers one of the best wrestling books to date. He talks openly about his successes and his failures. He doesn't give himself or his friends a pass for irresponsible behavior. Like most in the industry, Hansen has experienced loss, and you can sense how hard it was for him to write about fallen friends like the great Bruiser Brody. But Hansen is unflinching. He tells his story and it's a great one. Well worth seeking out this hidden gem of a book.