Masahito Kakihara Inspired Japan As He Beat Cancer & Won At Wrestle Kingdom

Hamish Woodward

At Wrestle Kingdom 12, Masahito Kakihara made a shock return to New Japan Pro Wrestling after beating cancer, winning a royal rumble to raise money for his friend and former wrestler, Yoshihiro Takayama, as he battled his new-found paralysis.

It was a heartwarming moment for fans at the Tokyo Dome, and was a real feel-good story to kick off Wrestle Kingdom.

Kakihara was a shoot fighter who made the jump to pro wrestling, bringing his unique style with him. He was a star of the iconic UWFi promotion that inspired the NWO in WCW, bringing a realism to wrestling that would not look out of place in Antonio Inoki‘s IGF promotion (read more about Inoki-ism here).

The story about Kakihara’s journey from his battle with cancer to winning at Wrestle Kingdom 12 was a heartwarming one. In this article, we’ll explore Kakihara’s battle with cancer, his big return to NJPW and how he raised money for Takayama amid his recent injury crisis.

Masahito Kakihara Was Part Of The Storyline That Inspired The NWO

In the 1990s, the New World Order (NWO) in WCW became the biggest and most popular faction of all time. Millions of their iconic t-shirts were sold to eager fans, with Kevin Nash still receiving thousands in royalties form the WWE every month.

However, that storyline was directly inspired by the Union of Wrestling Forces International (UWFi) invasion of New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW). This was a last-gasp attempt for the UWFi to stay in business, and collaborated with NJPW booker Riki Chosu to put on a cross-promotion super card that has gone down as one of the all-time great Japanese wrestling events.

Masahito Kakihara was one of the UWFi fighters, who preferred a more realistic-style of pro wrestling, who actually managed to pick up some big wins over the NJPW wrestlers. He managed to beat big stars like Kensuke Sasaki, Shinjiro Otani and Yuji Nagata en route to the Tokyo Dome, making him one of the biggest stars of the invasion storyline.

While the event ended with Nubohiko Takada being forced to tap out to Keiji Muto’s figure four leg lock, he would fight his way back to challenge for the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, beating the WWE Hall of Famer in one of the biggest shocks in wrestling history.

Kakihara would leave the UWFi in 1998, moving to All-Japan Pro Wrestling. He was joined by Yoshihiro Takayama, whom he had teamed with in UWFi as “Kingdom”, and were joined by Gary Albright to form the “Triangle of Fear” stable. He stayed for three years in AJPW before making the jump to New Japan Pro Wrestling, spending five years in Japan’s biggest promotion.

In 2014, Kakihara Was Diagnosed With Cancer

In 2006, Masahito Kakihara left New Japan Pro Wrestling. Kakihara’s last match was a five-minute draw with Koji Kanemoto at the Best of the Super Junior XIII, before he retired from the ring and left the promotion – seemingly for good. He was only 34 at this time, so it seemed a rather premature retirement for a wrestler seemingly yet to reach his prime.

However, it was a cervical spine injury that forced his retirement.

He wrestled a few more matches in the years since, but he mainly stayed out of the ring due to his injury. He did make occasional appearances as a commentator for NJPW, and worked backstage for the company, but his in-ring career came to an abrupt end. This was the last fans heard about the former UWFi star until 2014, when Kakihara revealed a horrendous diagnosis that changed his world forever.

On December 30, 2014, Masahito Kakihara posted on his personal Facebook account that he had been diagnosed with Malignant lymphoma and will be undergoing treatment. The news came just before he was due to hold a training session for the public that week, attempting to teach the next generation of wrestlers with the skills he had acquired since his debut in 1990.

The Japanese star announced that he was to be hospitalized for treatment for the cancer, which looked to be a long and arduous process. The wrestling world reached out in support for the wrestling legend, taking solace in the fact that stars like Kenta Kobashi had also battled cancer and won.

At some point between the announcement and his return to NJPW at Wrestle Kingdom 12, Masahito Kakihara underwent treatment and beat his cancer diagnosis. He then moved on to help raise money for another former New Japan wrestler who was struggling with his health.

He Returned At Wrestle Kingdom 12 To Help Raise Money For Yoshihiro Takayama

The annual New Japan Rambo – NJPW’s own version of the Royal Rumble match – had a particular goal in mind for the 2018 edition. While the match is usually just an excuse to pile as many young wrestlers and Japanese legends onto the Wrestle Kingdom card, the match at Wrestle Kingdom 12 was used to raise money for one of the companies fallen stars.

Yoshihiro Takayama is a former New Japan wrestler who, as mentioned, teamed with Masahito Kakihara in the UWFi and AJPW. He wrestled for NJPW long after Kakihara’s retirement in 2006, lasting 11 more years as a full-time wrestler. Sadly, disaster struck in his last match and he was paralyzed from the next down, changing his life forever in a split second (you can read more about Yoshihiro Takayama’s injury here).

During the New Japan Ranbo at Wrestle Kingdom 12, ROH wrestler Cheeseburger was the fan favorite and the man the fans wanted to win the match. That was until the UWFi legend Masahito Kakihara made his startling return in the match, and the fans knew he was the man to win. His cancer battle was common knowledge for the Japanese fans, and seeing him back in the ring again was a heartwarming moment for everybody in the Tokuo Dome.

After winning the match by last eliminating Cheeseburger, Kakihara grabbed a t-shirt to pay tribute to Takayama, while encouraging others to donate to the now-paralyzed NJPW legend. He was asked about his friend in the post-match press conference, in which Kakihara had some heart-warming things to say about his friend.

“Unlike me, he is truly one of the greats”. Masahito Kakihara said about Yoshihiro Takayama. “His inner strength is unbeatable. The reality is, he’s in a very difficult situation. But I believe he will recover and return. I hope so.”

Wearing Takayama’s trademark t-shirt, Kakihara continued, “I want to tell him directly that I was able to get back in the ring at the [Tokyo] Dome. I hope that my feelings can help him in his recovery, even just a little bit.”

You can watch the full press conference below:

Sadly, Takayama is still bed bound and unable to move. He has been sent home from hospital with the hope that he will one day recover, but it is a long road ahead. Hopefully, he can follow in the footsteps of Hayabusa and step into the ring one last time, under his own power.

Learn more about wrestlers who were paralyzed in the ring.

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