Kōji Kitao should have been great as a wrestler. He had the size, there with all and athletic ability. He was charismatic and popular with the general public, and he managed to work for a lot of people in his short wrestling career. Which should set off alarm bells immediately, because when he started in the early nineties, very few people moved around at the top level in Japan. If you were worth the effort, you were looked after, paid well and given opportunities, but there lies the caveat, if you were worth the effort. Even before he got to pro wrestling he had an ornery reputation. Apply that grumpiness to the powder keg tempers of a mid-nineties Puroresu locker room and you can see how things would go downhill fast, but it didn’t start like that.
Kōji Kitao was born on the 12th of August 1963 in Tu, Mie, Japan. He began his Sumo career while most children were still concentrating on exams and teenage awkwardness, he made his pro-Sumo debut at fifteen. Somewhat of a prodigy, he excelled in the devoutly hierarchical Sumo system. Regularly beating wrestlers at the Yokozuna level by the mid-eighties, he was 22 when he made that highest level himself after consistently good performances over an 18 month period. He hadn’t however, won any tournaments. With a couple of vacancies in the top tier, he was promoted from the rank and file fighters, the first to do so in forty years. He had reached the pinnacle of the sport. The trouble is when you are a Yokozuna, there is no down; you stay good or your quit. Kitao then embarked on a stunning run of mediocrity which questioned the Sumo Associations faith in him. He was perceived to be rude, blunt and intolerant, and later incidents in his wrestling life would echo these sentiments. After first being ostracised by his own trainees, and his Dojo boss, Tatsunami, he was surreptitiously kicked out of Sumo. Unwilling to resign, Tatsunami handed in his resignation papers for him without telling him and the Sumo association ended his career without appeal.
After a flirtation with the idea of being an NFL player, he then began training for the pro ring under Verne Gagne in Minnesota. The AWA was in its dying days as a promotion but was still running training camps that were known for their toughness and ability to produce top talents. He had made the connection through longtime AWA wrestler and former AWA Champion Masa Saito. Saito was a long time associate of New Japan, and would, in fact, become part of the front office in future years, so it was unsurprising to find Kitao in New Japan upon his return to Tokyo.
He lasted less than ten months in New Japan. Having made a much-heralded debut at the February Dome Show of 1990, defeating Bam Bam Bigelow no less, he was fired for showing disrespect to Riki Choshu. Choshu was a highly revered wrestler in the New Japan locker room and also heading to the front office, and while Japan’s relationship with Korea has been difficult to reconcile in the Japanese public’s mind, especially since the Second World War, there is far less of that attitude in wrestling because of Chosu’s work, but more importantly, the modern foundation of pro wrestling was the work of Rikidozan, another former Sumo who also happened to be Korean. Any kind of xenophobia towards Choshu, real or imagined pretty much ended Kitao’s hopes achieving anything.
He moved on to Super World Sports, were Genichiro Tenryu, another former sumo and a long time friend, was happy to have the young wrestler with crossover appeal . . . He managed two years this time, but it was an eventful two years mind. He worked Wrestlemania VII with Tenryu tagging against Demolition, giving millions of western fans their first taste of Puroresu. However, things couldn’t apparently last. With the WWF/SWS cross-promotion, WWF wrestlers were appearing on cards in Japan all the time, including the late John Tenta better known as Earthquake. Behind the scenes, a lovable giant of a man who embraced the series of god Awful gimmicks he was given by WCW and WWF and could laugh them off, he was actually a badass shooter having spent time with Stu Hart and the Calgary mob, as well as his own Sumo background where had worked at a high level, but not as high as Kitao’s. Treating this lesser Sumo as an equal was a step too far for Kitao who attacked Tenta in their match on April the 1st in Kobe. No selling Tenta’s offence, the match broke down and Kitao grabbed the house mic to denounce pro wrestling as fake. He was fired, again.
Maybe he realised he was in the last chance saloon when he got into contact with Nobuhiko Takada of the UWF-i. The UWF-i had grown out of Akira Maeda’s UWF Re-Born when that stable closed down its doors in 1992, based on a realistic shoot style, the matches themselves were real, it was just the finish that was predetermined. Kitao who wanted to be perceived as “Real” saw it as an opportunity, and like New Japan and SWS before him, Takada saw headlines and gate money in Kitao. They decided a draw would be the best way to open proceedings in their first encounter, however, Takada, ever the opportunist, saw an opening and intentional knocked Kitao out. It was another false start for Kitao, or so it seemed at the time, duped by a superior fighter.
But, Kitao had learned his lesson, he respectfully doted on the fans and bowed to Takada pre-match. His remorse seemed genuine, and with his new attitude, the wrestling world welcomed him back. SWS successor WAR hired him in the wake of the UWF-i closure, the two companies had been cross-promoting at the time, his old friend Tenryu giving him one last chance. He even got to go back to NJPW and reconcile with Choshu. He worked indies, started a dojo, and won one title the WAR World Six-Man Tag Team Championship, with Mochizuki and WAR rookie Nobukazu Hirai in October 1997.
After nine years in the business, he called it quits at Pride 4 in October of 1998. Pride would also be a place he would explore his MMA career retiring with a 1-2 record, it did support his need to be seen as legitimately tough. He leaves a complicated legacy, as noted wrestling historian and archivist Roy Lucier puts it “RIP Koji Kitao, you were a jerk, but you kept things interesting.”. Whilst his participation is seen somewhat as an embarrassment in its early years, he grew into the role, lost the chip on his shoulder and did some positive things. He trained Masaaki Mochizuki, Yoshikazu Taru, and Takashi Okamura who would help form Toryumon with Ultimo Dragon which of course would become Dragon Gate. There is no doubt he had a large influence on the business when he did the right thing, but the wrong thing was always to close at hand.