clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Keiji Muto’s Grand Journey as the Great Muta

The Great Muta wasn’t Keiji Muto’s first gimmick, but it became his greatest. Here’s how Muto grew Muta’s legacy, from “the Pearl of the Orient” to the Shining Wizard.

WWE/Ringer illustration

Earlier today, Keiji Muto wrestled his last match ever as the Great Muta in the Yokohama Arena in Yokohama, Japan. Without a doubt, Muta is one of the first Japanese wrestlers that many American pro wrestling fans ever saw. As many are saying their final “Bye-Bye” to Muta, we look back at Muta’s journey, from his spectacular displays all over TBS for NWA/WCW through his work in New Japan Pro-Wrestling, All Japan, Pro Wrestling NOAH, and beyond.

The Great Muta debuted in the NWA in March of 1989; his last match as a regular in the promotion was at the Clash of the Champions in January 1990 (he would return sporadically through the ‘90s, including weird house-show matches like teaming with Stan Hansen against Sting and P.N. News, and singles matches against Mr. Hughes and Taylor Made Man). In less than a year, he changed professional wrestling in America forever and became a legend. Muta would also use the momentum from his run in the U.S. to become a huge star in Japan, both under his real name, Keiji Muto, and as his alter ego, the Great Muta.

Muta is winding down his legendary career. He is one of only four wrestlers who have held all three major titles in Japan (the GHC Heavyweight Championship, All Japan’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship, and the IWGP Heavyweight title).

George Scott, the booker of the NWA in 1988, came to legendary manager Gary Hart and asked him to create another Great Kabuki. Kabuki was a huge star in the territories in the early 1980s, especially in Texas and Florida. He was managed by Hart and would wear elaborate face paint and blow green mist into the eyes of his opponents.

Hart didn’t want to recreate Kabuki, but did have the idea of creating Kabuki’s son. “I wanted to present him in a less scary manner than I had with his ‘father,’” Hart wrote in his book. “I wanted to present this new character like he was a superhero that happened to be managed by a very bad guy.”

Hart scouted Keiji Muto, a young Japanese wrestler with an amateur wrestling and judo background that was trained in the New Japan dojo. Muto had been working in the U.S. in Florida as the White Ninja and in Puerto Rico and Texas as the Super Black Ninja. The athleticism and flashy moves were there, but without the presentation that Hart would bring.

Hart took Muto and gave him face paint like Kabuki, although, unlike Kabuki, he wanted the face paint to be more beautiful and artistic than terrifying and scary. They dressed Muto in karate gis with elaborate designs—outfits that would get even more elaborate when Muto returned to Japan. “The no. 1 thing Gary Hart said to me was, ‘When you step into the ring, don’t wear what a normal person can afford,’” Muto remembered via email. “That means, for example, competing in a judo uniform that anyone can buy.”

Young Muto was an athletic phenom: 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, with the agility and explosiveness of a much smaller man. His moonsault was a thing of beauty and grace, and the kind of acrobatic dive that wrestling fans had never really seen on a big stage. In addition, moves like Muta’s handspring elbow and his power drive elbow drop had the kind of athletic snap to them that was really missing from American wrestling at the time (a.k.a. a scene that was dominated either by jacked-up power wrestlers like Hulk Hogan and the Road Warriors or technicians like Ric Flair and Ricky Steamboat). Even Randy Savage, who had some of that fast explosiveness when he debuted in the WWF, had bulked up tremendously by 1988.

Muta’s aesthetic was also effortlessly cool: colorful face paint, spooky green mist, and a herky-jerky wrestling style which really made him stand out. Even with the stylistic inspirations from the Great Kabuki, Muta was unique in the way few wrestlers really are; he created his own archetype, and clearly served as an inspiration for the more athletic wrestling style which would come to the forefront in the 1990s and beyond.

Muta was a phenom from the start. He would wrestle enhancement talent on World Championship Wrestling or Main Event and his work would pop off the screen. He quickly became one of the most popular wrestlers in the NWA despite ostensibly wrestling as a heel. In the summer of 1989, Muta moved into a feud with Sting, a fellow face-painted athletic marvel. They had some of the most memorable matches of the 1980s, matches which felt 10 years ahead of their time. “Muta was so much like me, and I was so much like him…we were both around the same age and coming up at the same time,” Sting told The Ringer. “[We were trying] to be innovative in our own ways and add something that perhaps no one else had done before.”

Sting continued, saying that he and Muta “tried to be different, tried to [think] out of the box,” saying that they would try “new attitudes, even new moves” on their quest to “evolve with the wrestling industry.” And Sting stands firm in the fact that “Muta definitely did that in Japan, and I think I did it here in the United States.”

Hart began managing Terry Funk as well and formed the J-Tex Corporation, bringing in Dick Slater, Buzz Sawyer, and Muta’s old Florida tag partner Kendo Nagasaki. Muta and Funk would end up teaming together in an electrified cage match at Halloween Havoc against the dream team of Ric Flair and Sting.

While Muta was on a huge hot streak, booking turmoil in the NWA ended up cutting his memorable run short. Initially, the plan was to feud a babyface Muta against Funk and Hart after Funk’s feud with Flair was over, but instead, the NWA booking committee moved Funk into a non-wrestling role. At Starrcade ‘89: Future Shock, NWA ran a round-robin tournament between the biggest stars in the promotion—Flair, Muta, Sting, and Lex Luger. Muta had come into that tournament undefeated but ended the tournament with a 0-3 record, which basically killed his momentum and led to the end of both Muta and Hart in the NWA. Muta would finish up his run by dropping the TV title to Arn Anderson and ending the feud with the Four Horsemen in a cage match at Clash of the Champions X: Texas Shootout (a match overshadowed by the Horsemen turning heel and Sting’s knee injury).

Muta would then return to New Japan Pro-Wrestling, and return to wrestling under his real name, Keiji Muto. Muto won the IWGP Tag Team Championship in his first match back, teaming with Masahiro Chono to defeat Shinya Hashimoto and Masa Saito. Muto would revive the Muta gimmick for special occasions, including a Japanese match against Sting at the co-promoted NJPW/WCW show Starrcade at the Tokyo Dome. In the 1991 G1 Climaxa yearly round-robin tournament run by New Japan—Muto was able to advance to the finals, where he lost a grueling match to Chono. After that match, they celebrated in the ring together along with Hashimoto where they were dubbed the “Three Musketeers” of New Japan, officially shifting the promotion focus from the stars of the previous era like Riki Choshu, Tatsumi Fujinami, and Antonio Inoki onto a new generation.

Muto would return to the Great Muta persona to win his first IWGP Heavyweight Championship, defeating Choshu in August of 1992. He would defend that title as the Great Muta, beating wrestlers like Hashimoto, Scott Norton, and Sting, while wrestling without the paint as Keiji Muto on normal New Japan shows. Muta would go on to win the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in a title versus title bout with Chono in January 1993 at Fantastic Story in Tokyo Dome; this was during the period when the NWA title was split away from the WCW World Heavyweight title. Muta would lose the NWA world title to Barry Windham back in WCW at Superbrawl III, but would continue to hold the IWGP Heavyweight title for a year, even wrestling Hulk Hogan at the Fukuoka Dome in May of 1993, and defending the belt against his “father” Great Kabuki in June. Muta lost the title to fellow “Musketeer” Hashimoto in August of 1993 and went back to wrestling, primarily paintless, under his real name.

He captured his second IWGP Heavyweight title in 1995, this time as Keji Muto, defeating Hashimoto. He held that title until the January 1996 Tokyo Dome show, where he lost it to Nobuhiko Takada (who was the leader of the UWFi army, a shoot-style promotion that had invaded New Japan).

The Great Muta would return as part of the nWo Japan angle, which found Muta playing a very similar role to Sting in the U.S. version of this story. Old rival Masa Chono, who was the leader of nWo Japan, would attempt to recruit Muta, who would remain inscrutable. This struggle leaned into the inherent duality of his character. At one point, Muta would team with the nWo while Muto would be their opposition. Eventually, Muta won the internal struggle and became a full-time member of nWo Japan, including wrestling on WCW Monday Nitro and Bash at the Beach as part of the nWo vs. WCW angle.

Muto was beginning to slow down in the ring, and his body was beginning to betray him. The moonsault is a punishing move on the knees of the person applying it. Gary Hart was worried about Muta’s knees back in 1989, writing in his book that “Muta used the moonsault as his finish, and would land on his knees to protect his opponent. He took a tremendous pounding on his knees.” By the end of ‘90s, a decade-plus of landing on those knees had taken away a lot of his explosiveness. Muto returned to WCW in the second half of 2000, functionally taking six months off to rest while working occasional short TV matches as part of the Vampiro vs. Sting feud during the dying days of the federation.

When he returned to Japan, he entirely reinvented himself, shaving his head and growing a goatee. He also changed his in-ring style, mostly dropping the moonsault and creating a new finisher: the Shining Wizard, a running knee strike to a kneeling opponent. When asked about this change, Muto explains, “I wanted to change my mind. ‘It’s time to find the battlefield.’” This new “Pro-Wrestling Love” version of Keiji Muto would lead to a late-career resurgence, placing him squarely back in the forefront of Japanese wrestling.

Muto formed a stable—BATT (which stood for Bad Ass Translate Trading)—with a mix of freelance wrestlers: Jinsei Shinzaki (a.k.a. Hakushi), Shinjiro Otani, Taiyo Kea, Hiroshi Hase, and UFC Hall of Famer Don Frye. BATT was featured in New Japan, Michinoku Pro, and a newly reconstructed All Japan, a promotion that was regrouping after Mitsuharu Misawa defected with nearly their entire roster to found Pro Wrestling NOAH. Muto would defeat Toshiaki Kawada in a first-time inter-promotional dream match, and then win the Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship from old rival Genichiro Tenryu. Muto then jumped full-time to All Japan, where he was appointed president of the company.

This Triple Crown reign was a revelation; after looking shot in the ring, Muto was back to having tremendous matches with Kawada, Tenryu, Steve Williams, and Taiyo Kea after most wrestling fans had written him off as a great worker. Muto would continue to wrestle for All Japan for most of the next decade, while also appearing sporadically for other promotions, including brief stopovers in Ring of Honor and TNA. In 2008, he returned to New Japan and won the IWGP title from Shinsuke Nakamura, while still wrestling primarily as part of All Japan. As the Great Muta, he defeated Suwama to win All Japan’s Triple Crown title, which meant that Muto was holding two of the major Japanese titles at the same time—one as Muto and one as Muta.

As Muto has gotten older, he has worked mostly as a special attraction, primarily in Wrestle-1, a promotion that he formed after leaving All Japan. In 2021, the nearly 60-year-old Muto joined Pro Wrestling NOAH and captured his third major title, winning the GHC Heavyweight Championship from Go Shiozaki. After losing the title in June to Naomichi Marufuji, Muto announced his retirement tour. The Great Muta wrestled his last singles match against WWE’s Nakamura earlier this month, and his final match as the Great Muta took place this weekend at The Great Muta Final Bye-Bye in a six-man tag where Muta, teaming with AEW’s Darby Allin and Sting, defeated Jinsei Shinzaki (who wrestled as Hakushi), AKIRA, and Marufuji. (Keiji Muto’s final match will be on February 21, 2023, against Tetsuya Naito in the Tokyo Dome at the New Japan versus NOAH Keiji Muto Grand Final: Pro-Wrestling ‘Last’ Love show.) “It is kind of bittersweet,” Sting shared with The Ringer ahead of their match. “Not only will it be Muta’s last, but I think it’ll be the last match I will ever have in Japan,” he says, calling it “a goodbye for Sting as well.”

It is a statement about what Muto has meant to professional wrestling that he could get cooperation from both AEW and WWE during his retirement tour; it would be hard to think of another wrestler with the juice to get that done. In many ways, the Great Muta was a gateway drug for hardcore wrestling fans; his run in the late ‘80s was years before the internet allowed fans easier access to Japanese wrestling. Tracking down Japanese Great Muta matches was often one of the first things wrestling fans would do when they got on a Usenet board or found a tape-trader website. The integration of styles from all over the world is what has defined 21st-century wrestling, and in many ways that integration began the first time Muta showed up on SuperStation TBS, spitting mist and flipping through the air.

Phil Schneider is a cofounder of the Death Valley Driver Video Review, a writer on the Segunda Caida blog, host of The Way of the Blade podcast, and the author of Way of the Blade: 100 of the Greatest Bloody Matches in Wrestling History, which is available on Amazon. He is on Twitter at @philaschneider.