Kazuo Sakurada, who wrestled predominantly as Kendo Nagasaki passed away on Sunday at the age of 71.
The performer, who had a sumo background prior to professional wrestling had been living in Chiba, Japan at the time of his death.
He competed in sumo from 1964 until 1971 and then began wrestling in June 1971 for the JWA (Japan Pro Wrestling Alliance) that shut down two years later sending Sakurada to All Japan Pro Wrestling.
While working for Stampede Wrestling in Calgary, Sakurada defeated Leo Burke for the North American heavyweight title in May 1978 and held it until September losing to Paddy Ryan. With Mr. Hito, the pair won the tag titles in Calgary in February 1979 from Keith & Bret Hart and again in July of 1979 beating Dory Funk Jr. & Larry Lane.
Although he had a nearly 30-year career in professional wrestling, one of his greatest accolades is sharing the responsibility with Mr. Hito (Katsui Adachi) as the original trainers of Bret Hart.
The two were working in Stampede Wrestling when Hart decided to drop his dreams of going to film school and enter the family business in 1977.
In his book Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling, Hart wrote about his early training sessions under Sakurada and Adachi:
Katsuji Adachi and Kazuo Sakurada kindly began instructing me in the dungeon at Hart house. I thought I could learn the wrestling stuff in a week or so, but they continued to show up every morning, week after week, putting me through basic training for three or four hours a day.
My father taught me submission wrestling down there, but Hito and Sakurada taught me pro wrestling. I owe them everything. I learned to perfect my balance; how to lock up, which is when wrestlers first make contact during a match; how to throw and be thrown, how to make the desired sound when hitting the mat; and how to break my fall using my feet and hands, heads tucked. I knew that a good worker never makes contact with bone, never forces things. I learned to protect knees, shoulders, hips, teeth, and eyes.
I ended each training session with Hito and Sakurada by taking fifty slams in a row. With everyone, I was taught simple things some wrestlers never learn, like how to get up from lying flat on my back by throwing out my leg and using my elbows to roll to my knees.
It was working under the moniker of Kendo Nagasaki that he gained his most fame. It is a character well remembered in the UK where Peter Thornley made it famous prior to Sakurada’s use of the name.
Sakurada would travel to Florida Championship Wrestling, Memphis, the AWA, Southwest Sports in Texas, and the World Wrestling Council in Puerto Rico among his many stops throughout his career. In Puerto Rico, he teamed with Mr. Pogo to win the WWC tag titles three times between October 1987 and July 1988. The final title win was on July 23rd, one week after the murder of Frank Goodish where Nagasaki & Pogo defeated Chris & Mark Youngblood, who left the company and went to WCW.
Sakurada and Pogo also participated in New Japan’s Japan Cup Tag League (now known as the World Tag League) in 1987 and finished with nine points. The tournament was won by Antonio Inoki & Dick Murdoch, who defeated Tatsumi Fujinami & Kengo Kimura in the final.
In 1989, he went to WCW as ‘The Dragonmaster’ and was part of the J-Tex Corporation under Gary Hart and remained until 1990 when Sakurada returned to Japan. He had stints in FMW, SWS, and formed his own group called Network of Wrestling that closed in 1995.
During this period, Sakurada had his lone MMA fight on a Shooto card in September 1995 on Sakurada’s 47th birthday. It was not pretty with Sakurada being knocked out by kickboxer Zane Frazier in 36 seconds. Frazier was competing in his second MMA fight after debuting at UFC 1 two years earlier and losing to Kevin Rosier in the tournament quarter-final.
That led the way for Nagasaki and Shinya Kojika to form Big Japan Pro Wrestling, a promotion that continues to run twenty-five years later, although Sakurada only stayed with Big Japan for four years after its launch.
He wrestled his final match on July 7, 2000, on an Onita Pro card teaming with Ichiro Yaguchi, Shoji Nakamaki & Yase Yaguchi losing to Onita, Exciting Yoshida, Mitsunobu Kikuzawa (a 23-year old Kikutaro) & Naoshi Sano.
It is believed that Sakurada had a malfunction with his pacemaker that led to his death on Sunday at the age of 71.