An article by Mike Mooneyham
(Published Dec. 5, 1999)
There are many words that described Hiro Matsuda.
Honest. Honorable. Humble. A wrestling heel of legendary proportion, but a man with a heart as big as they come.
Hiro was just as his name sounded. He was a hero; to his family, his friends, and the scores of wrestlers who have him to thank for their right to be called a professional wrestler.
Hiro Matsuda, whose real name was Yasuhiro Kojima, passed away Nov. 27 at his Tampa, Fla., home of colon and liver cancer. He was 62 and left behind a rich legacy in the wrestling business.
Matsuda was more than the stereotypical, salt-throwing, judo-chopping Japanese heel. He was an accomplished wrestler, coach, trainer and businessman, all of which he did with equal aplomb. He owned part of the Florida Championship Wrestling promotion, one of the hottest territories in the business at that time, and later trained much of the top talent coming out of that wrestling-rich state, a lengthy list that included the likes of Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan) and Larry Pfohl (Lex Luger).
[ad#MikeMooneyham-336×280]At the same time very few in the industry were as influential as Matsuda in promoting the growth of wrestling in Japan and maintaining strong relations between the wrestling companies in the two countries.
“He was the ultimate Japanese ambassador of goodwill who not only promoted the fitness of the Japanese people but demonstrated it in his everyday life,” 14-time world champion Ric Flair said of Matsuda, who was a longtime representative of the New Japan Wrestling promotion. “He was also a tremendous amateur wrestler. He was the consummate gentleman, a great asset to our business who will always be held in only the highest regard.”
Matsuda, who played baseball in Japan before coming to the United States in 1961 to pursue a a career in pro wrestling, held a slew of titles, not the least of which included two reigns as NWA world junior heavyweight champion, the result of classic matches with the legendary Danny Hodge. His style was poetry in motion.
“It was beautiful to watch,” recalled former amateur and pro mat star Don Curtis. “He was a long, rangy guy, but he was quick as lighting. When he started going after you, it was something to watch. We had some very interesting workouts.”
Hiro Matsuda, however, may be remembered more for his sheer toughness outside the ring than inside the squared circle, having been known on many occasions to protect the business by whatever means necessary.
“He was the franchise wrestling backbone of the Florida territory as a heel before Jack Brisco,” said former NWA world champion Dory Funk Jr. “But he was also the Florida policeman
the policeman at the gate. If anyone wanted to get into the business, they had to go through Hiro Matsuda first. We’d turn them loose with Matty and find out if they really wanted to be wrestlers. Consequently we didn’t have a lot of guys come into the business at that time.”
Burrhead Jones recalled Matsuda’s toughness when he and strongman Sailor Art Thomas worked a program in Florida during the early ’70s with Matsuda and Dale Lewis. Jones remembers an unusually large fan who wanted to get into the action one night as the heels were pounding the local favorite, Thomas, who was one of the most muscular men in the business at that time.
“Here’s this guy about 6-7 and 260 who wanted to fight because Lewis was beating up on Art Thomas,” said Jones, who added that the promotion later arranged for the fan to have a personal tryout with Matsuda.
“Matsuda pulled the trigger,” Jones laughed. “That guy left with his clothes in his hands. We found out about a week later he was still in the hospital. Hiro stretched him from pillar to post. Florida back then was a killer territory. Anyone in that territory could hurt you – the Briscos, Dale Lewis, Eddie Graham, Bob Roop – they all knew pro wrestling inside and out. They knew how to apply a hold and how to apply the pressure. All of them may not have looked like good pistols, but they were. And Hiro was the best.”
Matsuda settled in the Tampa Bay area in 1962 and trained aspiring wrestlers at the old Sportatorium in Tampa, home of the Championship Wrestling from Florida television program.
“We referred to it as the dungeon,” said B. Brian Blair, who trained with Matsuda for two summers 20 years ago. “That’s where Hiro put us through the mill. He taught us discipline.”
Blair recalled that about 100 wrestlers tried out under Matsuda those two years. Only Blair, Bollea (Hogan), Paul Orndorff and Ray Hernandez (Hercules) stuck it out, he said. Matsuda wouldn’t allow them to enter the ring until they’d done 1,000 push-ups and 1,000 squats.
“He was all class and a wonderful person,” said Funk. “His word was so good you could always count on it. But at the same time in the wrestling ring as a shooter, he was a tough SOB. There was just nobody any tougher. His type of guy will be deeply missed in the wrestling business.”
Other performers from that generation echoed similar sentiments.
“Hiro Matsuda was one of my all-time favorites,” said longtime Florida star Jerry Brisco, now a front-office employee with the WWF. “He was a role model for me and many other young athletes coming up during that era. He was an inspiration to everybody and probably one of the most well-conditioned athletes to ever walk the face of the earth. He was a true athlete in every sense of the word and a true man in every sense of the word. He embodied the old-fashioned Japanese morals and if he was your friend, he was your friend for life.”
The list of grapplers Matsuda trained reads like a “who’s who” of professional wrestling. Names like Hogan, Luger, Orndorff, Keiji Muto, Scott Hall, Ted DiBiase, Dick Slater and Mike Graham are just a few of the many who came through his training camp.
“He was responsible for many superstars who developed during the Florida Championship Wrestling era,” said Brisco. “I’d like to think myself and my brother were two of them. When Hiro was putting on his camps, they were notorious throughout the world as being some of the roughest camps ever. My brother and I had been in the business for quite some time when we decided to work out with Hiro. We went down to his gymnasium, which is very close to Brisco Brothers Body Shop here in Tampa. We went two-a-days with Hiro. Needless to say, Hiro whipped up from one side of the court and down the other side.”
Brisco noted, however, that the grueling workouts eventually paid dividends for him and brother Jack.
“We were pushed until our tongues hung out,” said Brisco. “But it was the finest shape we ever got in in our lives and we had a bunch of opponents squealing shortly after that because of the condition we were in. At the end of the workouts, we’d enjoy a six-lack together. There was no body finer in this industry. My hope was always to beat Matsuda in the mile after one of these workouts. Once I beat him in the mile, but it took me about four months to get up the endurance. We bought a six-pack, sat down and celebrated, and I didn’t go back to his gymnasium again for a workout. But I always went back to have a cold brew with him.”
“There was no other finer man in the world than Hiro Matsuda,” added Brisco. “I’ll always remember him and he’ll be very dear to my heart, He’s somebody I’ll tell my kids and my grandkids about, because he was a wonderful, wonderful person. No matter what phase of life you’re talking about, Matsuda was the man. We’ll all miss him.”
“Some guys were great in the ring. Hiro Matsuda was class from the ring to his personal life,” said Cowboy Bill Watts, whose career often intertwined with Matsuda’s in the Oklahoma, Florida and Atlanta territories. “You could count on his word. His word was his bond. He was just a very special person.”
Matsuda, who was a top draw wherever he appeared, came through the Carolinas in the late ’60s as part of a tag-team with The Missouri Mauler (Larry “Rocky” Hamilton), and they enjoyed some of their greatest bouts with another “bad guy” tandem – Rip Hawk and Swede Hanson.
anson, who teamed with Hawk to defeat Matsuda and Duke Keomuka for the NWA world tag-team belts in Tampa in 1964, expressed shock over his longtime friend’s death and said he had just sent off a Christmas card in the mail.
“I’m deeply saddened. He was one hell of a wrestler and gentleman. We had some great times with Hiro,” said Hanson. “When Rip and I were overseas in Japan, Hiro would always send over a bottle of Canadian whiskey to us at the bar. We never forgot that.”
Matsuda never stopped training, Blair said. Even in his 60s, he could do hundreds of push-ups and squats. Blair, who wrestled as one of the Killer Bees with Jim Brunzell in the WWF during the mid-’80s, said: “We never knew wrestling as sports entertainment. He trained us to believe we’d have to fight for our lives. He used to kick us and say, `Come on, boys, I’m an old man and you can’t even keep up with me.'”
Funk, son of the late Amarillo legend Dory Funk Sr., first met Matsuda in the mid-’60s while he was making appearances in Florida for promoter Eddie Graham.
“I didn’t actually wrestle Matsuda here, although my brother (Terry) did quite often. Shortly before I became world champion, my father (who booked the Amarillo circuit) flew Matsuda out to wrestle me. We wrestled on Amarillo television to a one-hour draw, which was very unusual and unique at that time.”
Funk recalled his first trip to Japan as world champion in 1969. Dad Dory Sr. accompanied him on the tour, although Funk said Japan knew his father only by reputation, and there was apprehension on the part of the Japan Pro Wrestling promotion as to who would work with Dory Sr.
“They asked who would wrestle Dory Sr. at the meeting,” said Funk. “Everyone was quiet. Matsuda jumped up and asked to wrestle him, telling them it would be his honor. I’ve always remembered that and always appreciated him for that.”
“He was a real gentleman and one of the greatest wrestlers I ever knew,” recalled longtime ring rival Thunderbolt Patterson. “We made a little piece, too,” added Patterson, whose series of matches with Matsuda throughout Florida during the early ’70s were big money-makers.
“He was, without a doubt, one of the toughest. He was an ankle wrestler. He’d get that ankle, and you’d either give up or he’d break it. A lot of guys owe a lot to him. He also discouraged a lot of young men in the pit (the Sportatorium). But he was a very good man.”
“That territory (Florida) was built around the work of Hiro Matsuda,” said Funk. “Eddie Graham thought the world of him.”
So much that Graham strongly pushed for Matsuda to become the first Japanese NWA world champion. The nod, however, went to Funk Jr., who won the belt from Gene Kiniski in Tampa in 1969.
“Eddie Graham would have liked to have seen the world championship on Matsuda,” said Funk. “He had every qualification you could ask for as far as championship material. He was the quality guy who could have done it. His work was just excellent.”
Matsuda spent most of his pro career in Florida, where Funk booked after his championship run, and eventually bought part of the territory.
“I learned a lot from watching Matty, especially here in Florida,” said Funk. “Brisco came along and represented that same style. They had a heck of a run for a long time. Eddie (Graham) went the limit with the gimmicks, but he always had the wrestling foundation. And those two were the guys who did it for him.”
Curtis, who also spent much of his career wrestling and promoting in Florida, met Matsuda when he first came over from Japan.
“He had just come over and was a tremendous Japanese wrestler wrestling that style,” said Curtis. “But he wanted to become more familiar with the American style. I told him I would teach him if he taught me how to do that ju-jitsu. He could barely speak English, but he was very bright and extremely knowledgeable. He was all heart and had a great sense of humor.” Curtis said Matsuda traveled throughout the world to become a complete wrestler. “He wanted to develop an infinite knowledge of great wrestling. And boy did he do it.” The fact that Matsuda maintained such a strict training regimen made news of his death seem even more unbelievable to his longtime colleagues. “It’s so ironic because he was a training freak and kept in excellent shape,” said Curtis. “Hiro and I were friends from the day I met him,” said Watts. “He was a fabulous human being. Here’s a guy who still was doing 500 Hindu squats, 200 push-ups and walking four miles a day. The scariest thing is that disease doesn’t have any respect for physical ability.” Watts and Matsuda’s paths would cross many times during their careers. They both worked for promoter Roy McGuirk in Oklahoma, where Matsuda has classic matches with junior heavyweight legend Danny Hodge. The two later hooked up in Florida, where Watts booked for a year for Graham. “I got him out of retirement there (in Florida) because he was such a great athlete,” said Watts. “He loved the business. We got to enjoy that period of time there too,” said Watts, who later worked Georgia while Matsuda served as a liaison with New Japan. “He clawed his way up. He was never given anything. He was a special, special human being with great courage. You’d walk down the street with him, and it was amazing to watch the Cadillac way he walked. It was like his toes would never touch. He always worked for the good of the whole. He was a neat, neat guy.” Tim Woods, the former masked Mr. Wrestling, recalled a number of occasions in Florida when he and Matsuda would venture out into the community to help youngsters. “We spent a lot of time at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa and the Police Ath letic League of Tampa and the Kiwanis,” said Woods. “We would talk to youngsters about wrestling and tried to help them along the way. Hiro was always there to help people. He was a fine, fine man and very dedicated. He will certainly be missed.” Woods, who noted that Matsuda spoke several languages and did a lot of translation, also marveled at Matsuda’s training prowess. “He was an excellent athlete, always in the peak of condition. He was a physical specimen. He would do 1,000 leg squats that would have killed anybody else.” Matsuda is survived by his wife, Judith; daughters Heather Kojima of Venice, Calif., and Stephanie Kojima of San Francisco; and a sister, Hatsue Yokotsuka of Yokohama, Japan.