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MASA SAITO PASSES AWAY

By Mike Johnson on 2018-07-16 12:20:00

Japanese wrestling publication Weekly Pro Wrestling broke the sad news this morning that former AWA World Champion Masa Saito, who had an incredible career that spanned the United States and Japan, passed away due to complications from Parkinson's Disease.  Saito was 76 years old.

Saito first broke into professional wrestling after representing Japan in freestyle wrestling, during the 1964 Summer Olympics, where he placed seventh.  He was broken into the business by Hiro Matsuda and was well known for a very physical style that included lots of suplexes, to the point that one variation of the move (popularized in the United States by Shawn Michaels as his original finisher after turning heel in 1992) has been commonly referred to as the Saito Suplex.  He was also the originator of what is now known as the Sharpshooter. Saito was a brutish wrestler, who brought hard physicality with his clotheslines  Everything he did looked legitimately painful and he was an excellent in ring performer, to the point that nothing I am about to write will properly convey his excellence and importance.

Saito ventured to the United States and Canada, working for a number of NWA territories in the 1960s and '70s, where he played the Japanese foreign heel, an easy character to get heat in the decades that followed World War II.  Everywhere Saito went, he was an important part of that territory as a villain.  He teamed with Kenji Shibuya to win the San Francisco version of the World Tag Team Championship. He held the NWA Hollywood Beat the Champ title twice.  He captured the Florida Championship and held it for several months and also teamed with Ivan Koloff for a run with the Florida Tag Team Championship.  In Vancouver, Saito teamed with Gene Kiniski to win the Canadian Tag Team Championship..  He held the Alabama Heavyweight Championship several times.  

Saito moved to the World Wrestling Federation in 1981.  Managed by Lou Albano, Saito teamed with Mr. Fuji, playing the foreign menace villain role.  They captured the WWF Tag belts several times, feuding with Jay and Jules Strongbow.   Bully Ray noted today that the first match he ever saw was with Saito and it made him want to become a tag team wrestler.  WWE acknowledged Saito's passing shortly after it was announced.

After his WWF run, Saito moved on to Verne Gagne's AWA where he and Jesse Ventura teamed as the Far East-West Connection and worked a lot with Hulk Hogan, but the run would turn out to really be the end of a pretty long, successful run in the United States as his career was halted following a conviction for battery of a police officer that led to Saito being sentenced to serve two years in prison. 

In 1984, Saito and Ken Patera were arrested after an April 1984 incident where they had attempted to get food at a McDonalds in Wisconsin, but were turned away as the restaurant was closed.  Someone through a small boulder through the McDonald's window.  Patera later claimed that Saito wasn't even at the McDonald's and that another person threw the rock.   Police arrived to investigate at their hotel.  The claim from the police was that Saito wasn't cooperating when he was questioned, which if you think about where the wrestling business was at that point, it wasn't likely a foreign heel was going to break kayfabe to anyone.  The situation turned ugly with the wrestlers getting into a huge brawl with the police, some of whom were badly injured.   One officer was knocked out and when a second wave of police arrived, Patera and Saito were brawling with two other police officers.  In the end, Patera and Saito were subdued and arrested.  It was the end of Saito's full-time career in the United States.

After being released from prison, Saito returned to Japan, where he worked for All Japan and New Japan Pro Wrestling.  In New Japan, Saito feuded with Antonio Inoki, including a memorable 1987 Island Death match on Ganryujima Island that allegedly lasted two hours in a battle all over the Island, which of course, Inoki won. 

Saito won the AWA World Championship from Larry Zbyszko at a New Japan Dome Show in February 1990, having a short run with the title before losing it back to Zbyszko.  Saito also made appearances in WCW as part of that company's working agreement with New Japan.  He did commentary for New Japan and was involved in many facets of New Japan.  

Saito retired in 1999. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's the following year but still made appearance from time to time, including a convention appearance in Los Angeles where he reunited with Fuji for the last time.

On behalf of everyone associated with PWInsider.com, we'd like to express our deepest condolences to Saito's friends, family and fans.

A number of those in the wrestling industry paid tribute to Saito today:


 

 

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