Skip to main content

Sumo star and pro wrestler Koji Kitao passes away


Koji Kitao, who was one of the biggest stars of his era in sumo, and went on to a less distinguished career as a pro wrestler, passed away on February 10, which had been kept secretive and was just reported today in Nikkan Sports in Japan.

Kitao, known at the time as Futuhaguro, was being groomed as sumo's new young superstar in the late 80s, promoted to Yokozuna level (only the 60th man in the hundreds of year history of that sport to reach that level) in 1986. But he was kicked out of sumo the next year for hitting the wife of his stable boss, who fired him and he was kicked out without a hearing.

His promotion to Yokozuna was controversial because it was done not so much because he had been dominant, although he was very good, but he was 6-foot-7, and 22 years old and those in charge felt the sport needed a new young superstar. He never won a tournament as a Yokozuna, the only sumo of his rank never to do so, but he did place second in his last tournament and was only 24 when he was kicked out.

Futuhaguro was still one of the biggest sports stars in Japan at the time.

New Japan Pro Wrestling saw his size and name value and signed him, and he was being groomed to be the top star in the company at first. He actually did some matches in the U.S. under a mask first, but that was kept largely secretive in Japan, and his debut was on February 10, 1990, at the Tokyo Dome, which was the first time New Japan legitimately sold the Dome out. His short win over Bam Bam Bigelow drew 25 million viewers on TV-Asahi.

But he didn't last in New Japan. He was deemed lazy, and would complain that his opponents weren't selling enough for him. In particular, he and booker Riki Choshu didn't get along and New Japan fired him.

He was quickly hired by Genichiro Tenryu, himself a former sumo star, who Kitao had more respect for. 

Still, he didn't last long there either. He was booked to lose to Earthquake John Tenta, and did the job. He was furious, because Tenta was a former sumo who was nothing in the sport as compared to Kitao. He felt that everyone knew in a shoot sport he was a superstar and Tenta was nowhere close. In a rematch two days later, he refused to do a second job and the match fell apart. The match turned into a weird semi-shoot standoff. Kitao kicked the referee to end it and then got on the mic and said that pro wrestling was fake. So he was fired again.

In 1992, UWFI signed him and had him beat one of their top guys, Kazuo Yamaszaki, with the idea of building to a big match with Nobuhiko Takada. Once again, he had issues with losing, so a compromise was reached for the match to be a draw, which made no sense since the company didn't do draws in main events. During the match, Takada purposely knocked him out with a kick to the head, which got Takada over huge to the Japanese fans, and Kitao again was fired.

But Kitao accepted the loss and eventually made amends with Tenryu and returned to his new WAR promotion.

Kitao then moved to MMA, including a match in UFC where he lost to Mark Hall, who was about 190 pounds, and who broke his nose with a punch. He also did a worked match on a Pride show where he defeated Nathan Jones, who later came to WWE.

His wrestling career ended in 1998. He worked that year with WAR, doing a number of tag matches against Abdullah the Butcher, and also worked with Lance Storm. He had a retirement match later that year and never came out of retirement.

Kitao worked on the 1991 WrestleMania show at the Los Angeles Sports Arena, teaming with Tenryu to beat Demolition (Barry Darsow & Brian Adams). At the time WWF had a working agreement with SWS, Tenryu's group, owned by a billionaire far richer than Vince McMahon, so to make him happy, they had Tenryu & Kitao get a win over one of their top tag teams at WrestleMania.