In the wake of his retirement, Tiger Hattori reflects on a legendary career spanning six decades.
Tiger Hattori called an end to a remarkable career on February 19 2020. Just before his hand slapped three for the final time, he sat down with njpw1972.com to discuss an incredible life in wrestling.
–So, first of all, what brought about your decision to retire?
Hattori: Hey, I’m 74, man! I have two grandkids. Last few years I’ve been thinking the time was coming, and now all of a sudden I’m 74. About five or six years ago I had spinal stenosis, too. I couldn’t move my feet for a while.
–What caused that?
Hattori: Wrestling, obviously! Every now and then the referee gets caught in between the wrestlers right?
–We’ve seen you get bumped a few times over the years.
Hattori: Occupational hazard. Anyway, if I kept going, it would be a problem for everyone else. There needs to be referees who can enforce everything better in there. I’ve been incredibly lucky, to do this for so long.
Hattori: None at all. I’ve had so much fun. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still want to do it at least a little bit, but more than anything I don’t want to be a hindrance.
–I know you were in Florida for the New Beginning USA tour, and a lot of wrestlers from that region came out to see you.
Hattori: Yeah, that was in Tampa. Jerry Brisco, Brian Blair, Steve Cairn… about a dozen guys came. Blair isn’t quite on Hiroshi Hase’s level politically, but he’s in the local council, which is pretty cool. And his niece is a wrestler, she’s come to Japan a few times for matches.
–STARDOM’s Chelsea Diamond.
Hattori: And Chad (Karl Anderson) got in touch and invited me to his house. Guy’s got a huge palace. Three floors, six bathrooms, a pool. At the back of the house is a huge lake that must have crocodiles in it or something.
–When Anderson entered the LA Dojo in 2006 he had nowhere to live, and stayed with Rocky Romero’s parents.
Hattori: Now he’s got a bunch of kids, a big house, a doorman for crying out loud! It’s a real American Dream. It’s these success stories that are so interesting about this business. Chad said ‘thanks for everything’ and that was such a nice thing to hear from him.
My refereeing debut and Hogan’s debut match were about the same time. We both sucked!
–Refereeing is a very physically demanding job. You always have taken great care of yourself, especially before an event.
Hattori: I used to run a lot. But I was always an athlete, ever since I was a kid in middle and high school. I did judo, then I wrestled.
–In Meiji University you were All Japanese in Greco Roman wrestling. You were quite accomplished. Moving pro was a natural extension, then?
Hattori: Right. After I finished university, I won the American national championship in Florida, and the sponsor of that tournament happened to be the CWF: Championship Wrestling from Florida. This was the 70s, when Jerry Brisco, the Funks, Dusty Rhodes were all around.
Hattori: Back then, Hiro Matsuda was wrestling there and he invited me to teach in his school. So I was teaching the wrestlers and some kids amateur stuff. That was my in.
–And then you got into refereeing?
Hattori: That’s how it turned out, yeah. Man, I sucked at first though!
–The legendary Tiger Hattori sucked at first?
Hattori: It was in ’77 in front of about 400 people in Miami. I remember I was refereeing Hulk Hogan and Willem Ruska, and everybody involved in that match sucked ass.
–You knew Hogan before his debut. Okada tells a story where Hogan saw you and called out ‘Masao!’ (Hattori’s real first name)
Hattori: A young Hogan lived with his mom under my apartment. I used to live with his friends, and he was in a band with these guys. They’d be practicing guitar and it’d drive me nuts. But I went to a few of his gigs, and when he wanted to get into wrestling, he came to Matsuda’s school.
–And the rest was history, bad debut aside.
Hattori: We both debuted around the same time, and we both sucked. I learned from Frenchie Bernard, who was a great referee and close friends with Andre the Giant. Him, Sonny Myers, Karl Kox, they taught me everything.
–You were a manager as well?
Hattori: Right, when Masa Saito was tagging with Great Kabuki. Man, that was a blast. We did about 320 matches a year. In Miami there were about 10,000 people there, and main eventers would get 8% of the gate. Masa and Kabuki were living it up.
–They were, but you weren’t?
Hattori: Not me, man, I wasn’t a wrestler! But the payoffs weren’t bad I guess. You have to remember that in those days there was a lot of anti-Japanese sentiment, from the war. I’m a small guy, with a Japanese flag. I’d get a lot of trouble. Smacked on the head. The police gave me a bunch of trouble as well in those days. It was a different time. The three of us would get in a lot of trouble with the fans, we’d end up in the courthouse a bunch of times. These days, none of it would fly. But it was a different era, then.
My English? It’s still terrible!
–There was an old episode of World Pro-Wrestling in the early 1990s when Masa Saito was doing predictions for the G1. He started talking about you and alluded to a fight in Roppongi that you apparently came out on top of…?
Hattori: Oh, I’ve been in a ton of fights. I can’t really remember. I do remember one time we were in a bar with two American football players… I don’t think Masa was there… Oh, it was Road Warrior Hawk. He flattened one of them and I took on the other one.
–I can imagine Hawk in a barroom brawl. Were you relying on your amateur roots?
Hattori: Oh, I dunno, man… I’m not a fighter…
–You just said you’d been in tons of fights!
Hattori: I used to be tough y’know. And I know how to fight. I’d often have to pick up foreign wrestlers in Roppongi police station. Probably that time I was trying to stop the fight and it looked like I was part of it, yeah. But I was definitely confident I could handle myself.
–You taught pros how to wrestle, after all.
Hattori: Hey, I’m third Dan in judo, too. Then in university. Meiji Law. I used to introduce myself as ‘Hattori, from Meiji Law school’s wrestling club’ (laughs)
–Did you get in on a sports scholarship?
Hattori: No man, all on what I have up here.
–So you were academic and an athlete.
Hattori: Ah, at first. When I got into the wrestling club though, that’s where I went off the rails a bit.
–So one thing many fans might not know: where does the ‘Tiger’ come from?
Hattori: That was Bill Watts. I was with Killer Khan in Louisiana and Bill was the promoter there. He just pulls me aside and says ‘from today, your name is ‘Tiger’.
–As in ‘strong like a…’?
Hattori: No idea (laughs). I actually taught his son Eric when he was a kid.
–Maybe he told his dad ‘Mr. Hattori’s strong like a tiger!’. Was it Florida where you learned English?
Hattori: English? My English is terrible. Even with Masa. Masa could speak English, but because he was playing to that whole anti Japanese thing, he would only speak Japanese. Then I would translate in pigeon English. Man, if I had translated word for word the kind of things he said, we’d really be in trouble!
I respect Choshu the most. I just love the way he’s lived his life.
–You started refereeing in Japan in the 80s, not for New, but All Japan.
Hattori: Right. I was in Florida for ten years, and then Duke Keomuka, who was the vice president there, sent me with the Funks to AJPW, because they were doing business with Baba then. I remember Genichiro Tenryu coming over to Florida as well. He was a top guy in sumo, you know, so I was impressed he was able to gut it out starting from the bottom as a pro. It was around then, in ’80, I moved to New York as well.
–You came into New Japan in 1982, was that at Riki Choshu’s introduction?
Hattori: Choshu had come on excursion while I was in Florida. We had the same origin in amateur wrestling, so we had quite a few mutual friends. Then he went ‘Masao, come over here’ and off I went. That’s when I stopped being in the good graces with Baba and his wife Motoko. They had introduced me at the NWA general meeting and things like that.
–It’s surprising after the disciplined physical education you both had that even though you’re quite different in age, Choshu calls you by your first name.
Hattori: Old Mitsuo! He’s what, 70 now?
–Born in 1951, he’s 68.
Hattori: Tenryu is 70, so two years different. Mitsuo’s six years younger than me, huh? But we met in America, so there was none of the Japanese standing on ceremony. The CWF president was ‘Eddie’ to me, never ‘Mr. Graham’.
–You two really spent your wrestling lives together.
Hattori: We did. In ’84 he did the whole Japan Pro thing, I went with him. In 87 when he came back to NJPW, I came with him. ’02 in WJ as well. Thick and thin with that man.
–I remember in 2002 Choshu left to form World Japan, and when that collapsed he came back. Always with you.
Hattori: We left, we came back a few times. You make a lot of relationships and a lot of things change, but he’s the guy I respect the most in this business. I just like the way he’s lived his life. We’ve fought a bunch of times; he’s so stubborn that he never listens, but in the end, I love that guy.
–Do you know Choshu got to be a hot topic on Twitter?
Hattori: No idea, why?
–He’s quite new to it, so he uses it in an odd way, and he has his own particular character anyway. He called you out on there saying ‘Masao! Negro Casas is working in New Japan right now!’
Hattori: Ah, Casas has a lot of respect for Choshu. he took a lot of influence from him in the ring, in his ring gear. I’m on Twitter, but I don’t know how to use it, so I don’t bother. Can you reply to him for me? I’d just write something wrong.
–I don’t think I can take that responsibility! Come to think of it, you’ve been away from NJPW twice, and came back.
Hattori: There’s one person in the office, and I won’t say who, who always calls me ‘Mr. Flip-Flop’ because I left and came back those times. And I always say ‘It takes one to know one!’ because they did the same! I think it’s great that they have taken people back. For me, too, I wouldn’t come back if I didn’t see much benefit to it.
–As long as you can still work, you’re definitely still needed. You’ve said before that there are no real betrayals in the wrestling business. In America for instance, it’s very businesslike; moving from one promotion to another rarely has that many hard feelings.
Hattori: Right, if you can work, there’s a door open for you to come back, or even be a top guy.
–In recent years, a number of NJPW wrestlers have gone to ply their trade overseas, and you’ve always said ‘they’ll be back someday’.
Hattori: Well, a lot of times, it doesn’t just come down to what that person wants, but their families and a lot of other stuff too. There are a lot of foreign wrestlers who can make better money abroad, but still think ‘Ah, Japan’s better’. Japan’s a great country. That’s why (Will) Ospreay decided to live here, right? Shin-chan (Shinsuke Nakamura) is doing well over there though. I see him sometimes in New York. I always thought he’d do well over there. But you never know, maybe he’ll want to come back one day.
He’s a smart kid too, went to Aoyama University. He had a tough entrance into this business, but I’m happy to see him doing well.
More in part 2!