Shozo “Strong” Kobayashi, a major figure in the history of Japanese professional wrestling has died at 81.
Kobayashi’s career began in 1967 and was most closely affiliated with the IWE (International Wrestling Enterprises) group that launched in the late ‘60s prior to the launch of New Japan and All Japan in 1972.
The promotion had television exposure on Wednesday nights on the TBS network in Japan (not to be confused with the U.S. cable network) with Kobayashi as one of the key stars in the promotion. The group had a relationship with Verne Gagne’s AWA that began in February 1970 with Gagne wrestling Kobayashi in Hiroshima.
The IWE’s big tournament of the year was its World Series and in May 1972, the final came down to Kobayashi and Andre the Giant with a 37-minute finale. In the best-of-three falls contest, Andre was the only one to score a pin in the first fall while losing by disqualification and count-out in the remaining two as Kobayashi won the third annual event.
He won the IWE’s championship in June 1971 by defeating Dr. Bill Miller and held it until November 1973. He would drop the belt to Wahoo McDaniel but regained it later that month and went into 1974 as champion.
Without dropping the belt, he jumped to New Japan Pro Wrestling for a major match against Antonio Inoki that was staged at the old Sumo Hall and was a giant event on television in the country. It was billed as The Duel on Ganryu-Jima and drew 16,500 on a card that also featured Andre the Giant vs. Seiji Sakaguchi.
The following year, Kobayashi was part of the World League tournament (a precursor to what would eventually morph into the G1 Climax through several iterations). He advanced past the round-robin stage and was submitted by Antonio Inoki, who went on to win the entire tournament that year. Kobayashi competed in the 1976 tournament and again in 1980 when it was renamed the MSG League where he finished with 12 points.
He was a mainstay with New Japan throughout the rest of the decade and into the ‘80s. In 1980, Kobayashi and Haruka Eigen won the IWA world tag titles while both were with NJPW and held the belts for less than three weeks, losing them to Animal Hamaguchi & Mighty Inoue. IWE would go out of business in 1981.
Kobayashi teamed with Seiji Sakaguchi in the MSG Tag League tournament in 1980 where they finished in fifth place with 20 points. The loaded tournament included Stan Hansen & Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant & The Hangman (Neil Guay), Tiger Jeet Singh & Umanosuke Ueda, Tatsumi Fujinami & Kengo Kimura, Willem Ruska & Allen Coage, Kantaro Hoshino & Riki Choshu, Ox Baker & Johnny Powers, and the winning team of Antonio Inoki & Bob Backlund (who was WWWF champion at the time).
Kobayashi would venture to the U.S. wrestling for the AWA early in his career in 1971 and went to the WWWF when they had a working relationship with New Japan.
His career winded down in the early ‘80s, although he returned for a special tag match in March 1992 teaming with Seiji Sakaguchi against Tiger Jeet Singh & Umanosuke Ueda as part of New Japan’s 20th-anniversary celebration.