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    Monday, August 29, 2016

    Mr. Fuji (1934-2016)

    The trope of the devious Oriental heel is an old one: whether it’s in movies, literature, visual art, or sports. In the world of professional wrestling, the cunning and wily Asian character is losing favor, giving rise to popular performers like Shinsuke Nakamura, Hideo Itami, and Asuka. Yet when it comes to that trope of crafty Japanese heel characters, few stand out more than the man who wrote the book on it: WWE Hall of Famer Mr. Fuji.

    Born Harry Fujiwara, the Japanese-American Honolulu native began his career in Hawaii in 1965. Less than a month after his professional wrestling debut, Fujiwara won his first world tag team championship with Hawaiian wrestling legend King Curtis Iaukea. In 1972, Mr. Fuji debuted in the World Wide Wrestling Federation alongside Professor Toru Tanaka, forming one of the most formidable tag teams of the era. Under the tutelage of the Grand Wizard, Fuji and Tanaka defended the WWWF Tag Team Championships against Pedro Morales and Bruno Sammartino, in a main event-billed tag team feud that lasted throughout 1972.

    In 1985, with multiple tag team title reigns under his belt, Mr. Fuji retired from active competition and quickly transitioned into being one of the iconic heel managers of wrestling’s new boom in the 1980s and the 1990s. Like in his wrestling career, Mr. Fuji’s trademark attack was to throw salt into his opponent’s eyes: a move that ensured championship reigns—and massive boos—for the wrestlers he managed. First managing George “The Animal” Steele and “Magnificent” Don Muraco, Mr. Fuji guided Demolition to the WWF Tag Team Championship in 1987. The storyline set up a rare double turn, with Demolition turning on Fuji and the devious manager aligning his services with the heel Powers of Pain. Towards the beginning of the decade, Fuji also managed the Orient Express to a high-profile feud with The Rockers and the Legion of Doom.

    For many of us, though, Mr. Fuji is synonymous with the sly and sneaky old man who accompanied the legendary Yokozuna to the ring in the early 1990s. Mr. Fuji guided Yokozuna to main event and championship success. Under Mr. Fuji’s management (and with more than a few handfuls of salt thrown into his opponents’ eyes), Yokozuna won the 1993 Royal Rumble, and lorded over the wrestling ring with two WWF World Championship reigns. Toward the end of his wrestling career, Mr. Fuji transitioned into a face, but his trademark heel mannerisms remained etched in the memories of millions of wrestling fans.

    Just a few hours ago, the WWE reported that Harry Fujiwara—one of the most accomplished tag team wrestlers and most successful managers of a long wrestling boom—has passed away at the age of 82. Mr. Fuji has lived a long career and a full life in the squared circle, perfecting the craft that many heel managers aspire to reach and perhaps even exceed. It is a career that culminated in a WWE Hall of Fame induction in 2007: one that celebrated both his storied history as a competitor, and his venerated career as a manager.

    While the Oriental tropes of Mr. Fuji’s gimmick may no longer have a place in a cosmopolitan, global wrestling scene, it’s his heel work that still counts as a touchstone for many. Few wrestlers and managers today capture the nuances of Mr. Fuji’s work, whether it’s throwing salt into the eyes of his opponents behind the referee’s back or clobbering them with his cane in frustration. Those things—along with his skills in delivering the vintage Oriental heel promo—are things that performers today can look up to as wrestling tries to fill the gaps made by a changing worldview.

    Sure, wrestling may not have a need for another "foreign heel," but Mr. Fuji’s career lays the foundation of the ringside heel work that we're missing out today. Mr. Fuji’s presence and actions on ringside as a manager not only draws out reactions and drama to the story, but it is the kind that legitimates heels as champions, contenders, and forces to reckon with. His mastery of ring psychology is unparalleled, and is something we could use a lot more of today.

    Devious, cunning, and brilliant, Mr. Fuji’s legacy lives on in both tag team wrestling, and in ringside among wrestling managers.

    Rest in peace, Mr. Fuji.
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    Item Reviewed: Mr. Fuji (1934-2016) Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Marck Rimorin
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