Masanori Saito, a former Olympian as an amateur wrestler and Hall of Famer as a pro, passed away on Saturday after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease.
Saito was 76.
Saito had the most successful long-term career of any Japanese native on the American scene, being a championship-level wrestler in multiple territories from 1968 to 1990. While Giant Baba in the 60s, Great Muta, and now Shinsuke Nakamura were as big or bigger stars, Saito spent the majority of his career in the United States as opposed to a brief version, and was always a headliner as a former Olympian who was a top tier in-ring worker, even with limited English speaking ability.
During most of his career he played the stereotypical salt-throwing Japanese heel, a role mostly played by Hawaiians rather than Japanese wrestlers in the 60s.
Saito was a top level in-ring wrestler, one of the most solid workers in North America during the 70s and well into the 80s, and considered top 10 in the world well into his 40s. He was one of Hulk Hogan’s biggest rivals in his AWA heyday.
In 1984, he was voted the Best Technical Wrestler in the world even though he was 42 at the time. He came back after missing two years due to being in prison over a brawl where he injured several police officers in Waukesha, Wisconsin, which in wrestling at the time was viewed as him protecting Ken Patera, his traveling partner.
He was a star in Japan, heavily recognized for his American success. He was also the innovator of one of the biggest finishers, the scorpion deathlock/sharpshooter, which he used first and later transferred to tag team partner Riki Choshu. It was Choshu’s success with the move that led to both Bret Hart and Sting using it as their finishers, and now is almost considered the classic finishing move among Canadian wrestlers and even emulated by people like The Young Bucks, who grew up as Bret Hart fans, and Cesaro, who uses it as a tribute to T.J. Wilson.
Saito had a major feud with Antonio Inoki, which was blown off by the legendary Jungle Death Match on October 4, 1987 that went 125:14, the longest match in Japanese history. The setting, a bout with no ring in the jungle, made it impossible to have a good match, but the uniqueness of it was viewed as one of the most legendary matches in the country’s history and led to many other location no-ring matches that followed.
Saito was extremely well respected in Japan, and it was wrestlers and reporters from that country who were the key in his being voted into the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame in 2009.
Saito was a former AWA World Champion, although that was well past the peak of the promotion. But he also held World Tag Team titles twice with Kinji Shibuya, in a legendary early 70s team, and twice with Mr. Fuji in the WWF, as well as with both Choshu and Shinya Hashimoto in Japan.
He had been battling Parkinson’s Disease since 2000. One of the key reasons for the “Beast in the East” WWE Network special from Tokyo actually taking place is that Brock Lesnar, who thought so highly of Saito, wanted to visit him with Brad Rheingans, and he coincided it with a WWE Japan tour to do business with it, and with Lesnar’s return to Japan, WWE made the show a special.