When the Great Muta, 10-time world champion Keiji Muto’s demonic alter ego, climbs into the ring one final time alongside Darby Allin and Sting on January 22 for Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Great Muta Final “Bye Bye” event, the stage will overflow with history. Muta’s announced opponents—Hakushi (Jinsei Shinzaki), AKIRA, and Naomichi Marufuji—bring plenty of it, each having teamed with and challenged the retiring wrestler in their turn. Thirty-year-old Darby Allin, currently the AEW TNT Champion in his second reign, will offer the least history, as he’s the youngest man in the ring by nearly a decade and a half (Marufuji is a relatively youthful 43; Hakushi and AKIRA are both 56). But Allin is joined at the hip in AEW with the enigmatic sexagenarian Sting, and Sting is connected with the 60-year-old Muta in ways that go beyond the amount of time they’ve spent together in the ring.
This is a fitting end for the Great Muta gimmick, which is how most domestic wrestling fans came to know Muto when he burst onto TBS screens to feud with Sting at the tail end of the 1980s. That was the red-hot rivalry that set both of these face-painted titans on their respective paths. They looked very different then: Muta wasn’t bald; was still painting his face instead of wearing a mask that has hair on it; and was as jacked a Japanese wrestler as had ever graced American shores to that point. Meanwhile, Sting was in the “Surfer Sting” phase of his career, sporting a blond flattop and partial face paint, and was still bodybuilder big; he wouldn’t transition off steroids until 1990, he’d later tell The Ringer’s Cameron Hawkins. This is how wrestling fans who came of age in the waning days of the 1980s will always remember the pair, since the wrestling fixed in the amber of your memory is whatever the wrestling was when you fell in love with the sport. It isn’t, of course, the end for Muto himself; he will wrestle his final match, as Keiji Muto, the New Japan Pro-Wrestling Dojo blue-chipper who made good, on February 21.
The pairing was fortuitous, though fortuity was the order of the day in WCW circa 1988-89, when the promotion was overflowing with all of the best non-WWF talent in the world, primed to run off the legendary Ricky Steamboat–Ric Flair and Terry Funk–Ric Flair world title feuds for the better part of 24 months. Muto was a rising prospect in New Japan Pro-Wrestling, a black-belt judoka who had shared the IWGP Tag Team Championship in 1987 alongside Shiro Koshinaka, and he’d already had some regional success in North America under his White Ninja and Super Black Ninja gimmicks (he even lost his hair in a hair-versus-hair match in Puerto Rico as the latter, prefiguring the chrome dome that would define his mature years).
Sting, meanwhile, spent much of 1986 through 1989 as a rising prospect in the U.S., gaining seasoning under the watchful eyes of Eddie Gilbert and Bill Watts as the tag team partner of Jim Hellwig (later known as the Ultimate Warrior) before being spun off into a singles career that saw him taking then–NWA World Heavyweight champion Flair to a memorable time-limit draw at the first Clash of the Champions event in March 1988. Sting won his first title, the NWA Television Championship, from seasoned grappler Mike Rotunda on an episode of World Championship Wrestling that aired April 1, 1989. By the time he would cross paths with Muta, he too was earmarked for future stardom.
When the Great Muta was first introduced in WCW in 1989, he was identified as the son of the Great Kabuki (Akihisa Mera). He entered the wrestling ring with the kanji symbols identifying him as a ninja painted on his face, which was typically bisected by an identical color of paint. Veteran manager Gary Hart—who developed Mera as the Great Kabuki and claimed to have “perfected” the Muta gimmick as well—wrote in his autobiography, My Life in Wrestling, that he originally called the wrestler “the Fabulous Muta,” changing it because it seemed too close to the female wrestling legend “the Fabulous Moolah” for comfort. However, no other sources corroborate this, including Muta himself, and many previous Japanese heels had used “the Great” in their nicknames.
Hart offered a nuts-and-bolts explanation of how Muta was intended to be distinct from Kabuki, a sort of upgraded version of the latter. The younger, better-looking, and more muscular Muta “wouldn’t do nunchuk demonstrations or use the samurai sword” like Kabuki and wouldn’t wear Kabuki’s extremely baggy, multi-colored outfits. The only similarities between the two would be the distinctive green mist Kabuki utilized via a “packed condom the size of a pinky-tip”—a Japanese wrestling trope explored in detail for The Ringer by Kenny Herzog—and the face paint, though Hart “wanted the Great Muta to paint his face in an attractive way and not in a scary, ugly way.” In prior matches with the likes of Eddie Gilbert, Scott Hall, and Steve Casey, Muta racked up wins and disqualification losses, remaining unbeaten in the ring and even getting over with crowds that began to cheer his high-energy style, which included the then-rare moonsault from a 240-pounder that would, over time, severely compromise the knees on which he landed.
In July 1989, TV champion Sting was pulled into a feud alongside Ric Flair that would pit him against Gary Hart and his J-Tex Corporation. (The name was a reference to the fact that its two most prominent members, Muta and Terry Funk, were from Japan and Texas, respectively.) A match at the July 1989 Great American Bash pitted Sting against the “undefeated” Muta, and for those of us watching carried a real sense of danger for the Stinger: Anything could happen, as both men were riding hot streaks. It was a fun match, with both men displaying the speed and athleticism they would gradually lose in later years, that culminated in a strange finish: Sting hit a back suplex and went for the pin, but Muta got a shoulder up before the three count. The referee initially gave the win to Sting, though Muta celebrated because he thought he’d won the match. The outcome was a bit confusing at the time and certainly still is in retrospect; it was ruled a draw and a double-pin after some conversation, but Muta clearly kicked out and Sting’s shoulders weren’t on the mat. Muta would show up later that night to attack Flair, thus pulling Flair into a feud not just with Funk but also with Hart’s entire stable, and Sting would hit the ring to make the save. This set the stage for the angle that would define Muta’s run in North America and get Sting over before eventually winning a world title.
Before Sting and Flair could join forces to settle their differences with Funk and Muta, Sting had a 15-minute match with Muta that was broadcast on TBS on September 1 that ended in disqualification when Hart interfered. It’s a sharper match than their meeting at the Great American Bash, as chemistry had developed between the pair, and it set the stage for a no-disqualification match at a WCW house show two days later in which Muta defeated Sting for the NWA Television Championship. At Clash of the Champions VIII, Sting and Flair teamed up to defeat Muta and Dick Slater by disqualification, though the match’s shocking ending—Funk jumped Flair from behind and tried to suffocate the champion, scandalizing TBS executives—merely built heat for the big blowoff match between the rivals.
At the inaugural Halloween Havoc pay-per-view in October 1989, Sting and Flair fought Funk and Muta inside a huge, covered cage. It was a no-disqualification match that could only end when Ole Anderson, seconding Sting and Flair, or Hart, seconding Muta and Funk, threw in the towel. What followed was an extremely physical main event, ending when Anderson hits Hart, sending Hart’s towel flying and causing guest referee Bruno Sammartino to award the match to Sting and Flair.
At Starrcade ’89: Future Shock in December, Muta—still the TV champ—would lose to Lex Luger by disqualification and be pinned by Sting and Flair in short, exciting matches as part of the pay-per-view’s “Iron Man” round-robin tournament, finishing last out of the four men in the process. Although Sting had certainly racked up the wins by this point, he wouldn’t actually get to reclaim the TV strap from the Great Muta, as Muta would drop it to Arn Anderson in a solid match on NWA Power Hour in January 1990 as he prepared to leave his full-time role in WCW for a triumphant return to Japan.
Memories differ regarding how well the pair got along during their time in the spotlight. Sting, talking to The Ringer, emphasized that he “loved working with [Muta] in the United States,” and Muta, by asking Sting to retire the gimmick with him, surely has fond memories as well. Gary Hart, who died in 2008, saw things differently, claiming that Sting “did everything in [his] power to kill us off,” even stating that things got so heated after the Great American Bash that he offered to fight Sting (there is no corroborating record of any of this, though J-Tex stable member Dick Slater was alleged to have roughed up Sting a few years earlier for being uncooperative).
There would be a handful of other matches in the years to come involving Sting and Muta, but none would be as fresh as these early encounters, and despite the seeming finality of Sting’s various wins, he would never actually get real closure here. This is something matchmakers would thereafter play up whenever those two locked horns or joined forces, and something that even AEW fans were left wondering about when Muta appeared on an episode of AEW Rampage to help Sting and Darby Allin vanquish the House of Black faction: Would he attack Sting, or assist him?
It’s critical to understand how, following Keiji Muto’s successful run in WCW, the Great Muta persona was introduced and perceived by the Japanese audience. When Muto returned to Japan in April 1990, he resumed his role as the athletic, young babyface who seamlessly blended acrobatics with technical acumen.
However, when he made his Japanese debut as the Great Muta against Shiro Koshinaka on September 7, 1990, he did so by unveiling a style that was out of sync with the precision attack associated with Muto. Instead, the Great Muta confused Japanese fans by competing with a host of heel tactics, including flagrant bites, weapon strikes, and blowing the poisonous, condom-concealed green mist. It was a style that was consistent with the modified kanji symbols painted on his face, essentially indicating that he was a fiery ninja from Hell.
The Great Muta is treated as a distinct personality of Keiji Muto, with neither persona retaining any of the memories of the former, but with each personality being aware of the other’s existence. During interviews, Keiji Muto would speak of the Great Muta as a separate individual, while occasionally acting as his spokesperson and agent. The concept of the Great Muta being the son of the Great Kabuki is still maintained, at least as far as the demon itself is concerned. By some manner of unholy ritual, the demon that possessed Mera sired a progeny that possessed Keiji Muto, giving rise to a newborn, kabuki-painted demon. To this day, the mythology crafted by WCW and Gary Hart is honored by the New Japan Pro-Wrestling website, which refers to the Great Muta’s year of birth as 1989—he was “born” in the service of fighting against Sting, in other words, and will now “die” alongside him on January 22.
It’s worth noting how the shifting winds of wrestling politics facilitated all of the above, as well as the subsequent Muta/Sting matchups, intermittent though they might have been, that followed. You see, at no point prior to 1990 did New Japan even have a reasonable expectation for its roster to work with the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Champion, as territorial exclusivity to NWA membership was acquired by the Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance promotion founded by Rikidozan, and then swiftly scooped up by Giant Baba and All Japan Pro Wrestling following the demise of the JPWA in 1973.
Between 1954 and 1989, the JPWA and AJPW had monopolized the talents of every flagship NWA champion from Lou Thesz to Ricky Steamboat, with New Japan founder Antonio Inoki’s sole cracks at the NWA title materializing when he wrestled under the JPWA banner prior to 1972. Had it not been for All Japan’s withdrawal from the National Wrestling Alliance in 1988, it’s probable that the rivalry between Sting and the Great Muta would never have attained traction outside of WCW’s wrestling rings. New Japan would have been in little danger of permitting their budding superstar to drift off to All Japan, and Sting’s ties to what was then a consolidated NWA-WCW national promotion would have precluded any chances that a dyed-in-the-wool WCW wrestler being groomed for main-event success would have floated into New Japan.
However, the rapidly evolving landscape of professional wrestling created strange bedfellows. The formal business agreement struck by WCW and New Japan created previously unprecedented opportunities for talent exchanges between the two promotions. This partnership enabled flagship New Japan stars like Tatsumi Fujinami to finally wrestle and defeat Ric Flair for the NWA Worlds Heavyweight Championship, and it simultaneously multiplied the opportunities for wrestlers like Sting and the Steiner Brothers to attain greater exposure before a Japanese audience.
In the case of Sting, the cooperation between the two companies enabled the Japanese audience to experience the rivalry that their incipient ace had engaged in prior to his triumphant return. Although Sting was declared to be an archrival of Muta’s from the U.S., this was a case in which the tale was told rather than shown prior to 1991. The two would finally lock horns on the undercard of the WCW/NJPW Supershow 1991 at the Tokyo Dome in New Japan, with Muta conclusively defeating Sting in front of his Japanese countrymen. After 10 minutes of fairly crisp action, the Great Muta used the green mist to stop Sting dead in his tracks, then hit a crossbody for the pinfall.
Sting and the Great Muta would cross paths during each of the Stinger’s next two trips to Japan, albeit as partners in successful takedown of Akira Nogami and Hiroshi Hase, then in a critically acclaimed match against the Steiner Brothers in which the amateur wrestling behemoths tossed the still-sizeable Sting and Muta around like featherweights. Only another confusing finish—this time a dual-pinfall situation that saw Sting pinning Scott Steiner slightly ahead of Rick Steiner pinning Muta—detracted from the hardest-hitting of their team-ups.
The bifurcation of Keiji Muto’s personalities led to one of the most curious title reigns in the history of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, or of any other major wrestling promotion. When the Great Muta defeated Riki Choshu in August 1992 to secure his first reign as IWGP Heavyweight champion (while simultaneously acquiring Choshu’s Greatest 18 Club Championship in the process), he became the unquestioned king of New Japan while Keiji Muto remained bizarrely beltless. This illusion was played up to such an extent that Muto would not refer to himself as the IWGP champion, and would not make any appearances bearing the IWGP title belt unless he was adorned in face paint (a similar angle was worked in the late 1990s, when Muto was seemingly opposing the nWo Japan faction while Muta was participating in it; during this time, Muta would have many matches alongside or against nWo Sting, played by Jeff Farmer).
Among the curious scenarios created by Muto’s alternate personalities included his first brutal defense of his IWGP title in 1992 against the late Shinya Hashimoto just three days after teaming with him as Muto. Muto teamed with his friend and frequent tag partner Hiroshi Hase in the early ’90s, only to famously bludgeon Hase and leave him bleeding when he donned the face paint two nights later (although in fairness, Hase caused Muta to bleed in one of the most famous bloodbaths in wrestling history). There were also occasions when Keiji Muto would lose non-title singles contests, as he did against Scott Norton less than one month after capturing the IWGP championship, only for the Great Muta to take revenge against that same wrestler while successfully defending his title.
Ultimately, the Great Muta added Sting to his list of successful IWGP title defenses in November of 1992, and then he would momentarily unify the IWGP and NWA world titles two months later by defeating Masahiro Chono at the Tokyo Dome. The remainder of the year would prove less successful, and Muta would drop his NWA Worlds Heavyweight championship to Barry Windham the following month at WCW’s SuperBrawl pay-per-view, would cleanly lose a non-title match against WWF champion Hulk Hogan in May, and would finally lose his IWGP title to Shinya Hashimoto in September before teaming with Hogan as the Great Muta to take on the Hell Raisers (Hawk and Kensuke Sasaki)—only to be beaten by Hogan again, this time as Muto, without a demonic layer of paint obscuring his face.
While Sting and Muta each made appearances on one another’s home turf during the middle portion of the 1990s, interaction between the two was infrequent. Contrary to what casual American wrestling fans raised on the J-Tex Corporation story line might have suspected, Great Muta sightings were allocated to clearly defined segments of Muto’s wrestling career, and the demon was not being unleashed in a willy-nilly fashion. Despite Sting always being a painted wrestler in his “Surfer,” “Crow,” and “Joker” iterations, most American wrestling fans were completely oblivious to the fact that face paint on Keiji Muto was the exception rather than the rule. Although Sting and Muto continued to partner during Sting’s mid-’90s appearances in New Japan, it would take events that were far more significant to justify unleashing the demon in Japan again on a regular basis.
During later unveilings of the evil ninja in New Japan, the mystique of the Great Muta was severely undercut by Keiji Muto’s rapidly balding hair, as well as his unmistakable weight gain. Whatever size Sting had lost, either through a change in his steroid supplementation regimen or a refinement of his training practices, Muta had evidently gained. The supernatural mystique and supposed immortality of a demon, alas, is hindered by signs of mortality.
By the time the Great Muta returned to WCW in 2000, he had already wrestled his final match as the face-painted edition of the demon in a New Japan wrestling ring, having unsuccessfully challenged Kensuke Sasaki’s Power Warrior persona for the IWGP championship. While recovering from a knee injury that had him looking for less hard-hitting in-ring work, Muta engaged in his longest uninterrupted stay in the United States in a decade, teaming with Vampiro and the Kiss Demon (Dale Torborg, son of former Chicago White Sox and New York Mets manager Jeff) to annoy Sting. It also marked the longest period in just as long that Muta was not depicted as a credible main-event threat, with his Dark Carnival tag team with Vampiro cheating its way to a one-day title reign at the expense of KroniK during Vince Russo’s hot-potato booking period of 2000. He would also have an unmemorable final Great Muta singles match against Sting.
In 2001, Keiji Muto would become the striking symbol of the shifting landscape of pro wrestling in Japan, and initiated his rebirth through actions that at first threatened to confine the character of the Great Muta to the prior decades. In short order, Muto shaved his head, grew a goatee, reinvented himself as the leader of the inter-promotional faction Bad Ass Translate Trading (BATT), and sparked a reimagining of ground-based running attacks with the invention of his Shining Wizard knee strike. Moreover, Muto did what had previously been regarded as an unimaginable feat in Japan’s era of promotional isolationism and favoritism toward in-house talent when he defeated Genichiro Tenryu to capture All Japan’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship, and basked in the surrealism of the moment by posing next to a life-size image of the deceased Baba.
In 2002, Muto completed his full-time transition to All Japan Pro Wrestling’s roster. It was only after completing this migration that Muto announced the return of the Great Muta, this time as a debuting AJPW talent. This edition of the demonic entity would no longer be decorated by face paint that smudged, smeared, and disappeared as matches progressed. Instead, the paint was replaced with a mask that maintained its haunting vibrance—and Muta’s now-missing hairline—throughout the contests.
As the Great Muta and Sting aged, both became much more concerned with timing, psychology, and their legendary presences. Sting’s pre-taped cinematic street fight match with Darby Allin against Ricky Starks and Brian Cage at AEW Revolution in March 2021, and Muta’s final singles match against Shinsuke Nakamura (which ended with a memorable mist-swapping kiss that later landed Muta in some hot water for his use of a gay slur to refer to Nakamura) in January 2023, vividly speak to how these two sexagenarians—once athletic marvels, now slowed in the case of Sting and hobbled in the case of Muta—have learned to do a lot with very little. Now, in the final act of their in-ring drama, they will make the most of what they have left in the service of ending it all.
Ian Douglass is a journalist and historian who is originally from Southfield, Michigan. He is the coauthor of several pro wrestling autobiographies, and is the author of Bahamian Rhapsody, a book about the history of professional wrestling in the Bahamas, which is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter (@Streamglass) and read more of his work at iandouglass.net.