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Thunder Sugiyama (1940-2003)

Real NameTsuneharu Sugiyama

Lifespan - 7/23/40 - 11/22/03

178cm 125kg - Itoigawa, Niigata, Japan

Athletic BackgroundWrestling (`64 Olympics), Judo (Meiji University)

Teacher(s) - [JWA Dojo]

Professional BackgroundJWA(`65-`66), IWE(`66-`72), All Japan(`72-`76), New Japan(`77-`80)

AliasesTsuneji Sugiyama, Koji Sugiyama, Tokyo Joe

Groups - Okami Gundan

Peak Years`66-`73

Place in HistoryOne of the curious aspects of Japanese culture is how sport stars can become such huge media stars.  Thunder Sugiyama is probably best remembered to a generation of fans for his role on a popular children’s show, however that was after a long and successful career as both an amateur wrestler and a professional wrestler.  Sugiyama wrestled for the prestigious Meiji University and was a national champion during his time there.  He competed as a heavyweight in Greco-Roman at the 1964 Olympics Games alongside fellow Meiji alum Masa Saito who wrestled as a heavyweight in Freestyle.  The Games being in Tokyo that year made many Japanese athletes into mainstream celebrities for a time and both Sugiyama and Saito, who did not even place, were able to join JWA with some fanfare.  Despite the notoriety that Sugiyama, Saito and Rugby player Masatake Kusatsu, none of these men made their names in the JWA.  However, he jumped to the new IWE promotion in his sophomore year with Kusatsu.  While the IWE might not be remembered as well as other companies, it was the first real competitor to the JWA and had a diverse product.  In addition to featuring top stars from Europe, they brought over stars from the AWA and had colorful cast of native Japanese stars.  In 1969, Sugiyama knocked off Billy Robinson, the company’s inaugural champion, to win the IWE’s top heavyweight title.  He held the title for two years, which was one of the longest in the company’s history.  Turning back challenges from Eduardo Carpentier, Mad Dog Vachon, Larry Hennig and others established him as a top star for the company.  During his reign, he and the Great Kusatsu captured the tag titles twice.  He left for All Japan upon their formation and was a frequent partner of Giant Baba’s and kept strong with only a handful of losses to top gaijin wrestlers.  To Western eyes, Sugiyama looked short and blubbery, his signature “Raiden Drop,” where he repeatedly sat upon a downed opponent, seemed a bit ridiculous.  Within Japan, Thunder Sugiyama was a powerfully built athlete, not unlike many sumo wrestlers, and he was unquestionably popular with the crowds and his finish was over.    Sugiyama, likely discontent with his stagnant pro-wrestling career, retired and focused on acting and other opportunities like his vending machine and catering businesses.  He returned to New Japan as part of a unique heel stable alongside Umanosuke Ueda, Hiro Matsuda and (to bring it full circle) Masa Saito.  He finished out his career here with this low key run.  After retirement, diabetes took its toll on Sugiyama up until his death in 2003.