Monday April 27th, 2015

Twenty years ago this week, long before Dennis Rodman sparked international outcry with similar trips, a most unlikely group of Americans visited North Korea against all advice as invited guests of the government: a troupe of major professional wrestlers, a pair of wrestling officials, Muhammad Ali’s photographer, Howard Bingham, and Ali himself.

The unlikely ambassadors were offered a rare glimpse into the bizarre, isolationist autocracy as part of the International Sports and Cultural Festival for Peace, a massive effort to demonstrate North Korea’s vitality to the outside world and its own citizenry. The celebration’s main event would be two nights of wrestling at Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium, featuring a mix of performers from North America and Japan in front of respective crowds of 150,000 and 190,000—the largest professional wrestling audiences ever.

Those in the traveling party would be familiar to many wrestling fans: the legendary Ric Flair; Rick and Scott Steiner; Road Warrior Hawk; Scott Norton; Too Cold Scorpio; Sonny Onoo; Eric Bischoff, president of Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling; Chris Benoit, a Canadian; and a slew of Japanese stars.

The shows’ headline bout was between Flair and Antonio Inoki, a Japanese star of such wattage that he had parlayed his popularity into a seat in Japan’s House of Councillors—an equivalent of the U.S. Senate—while heading his own political party. The trip was largely Inoki’s doing in the first place. Reeling from scandals that would help doom his re-election bid later that year, Inoki, as he often did, saw an opportunity to make diplomatic inroads where many would not. His mentor, Rikidozan, often described as the godfather of Japanese pro wrestling, was born in North Korea, where he was still revered as a national hero. Through their connection, Inoki enjoyed ample goodwill in a country that otherwise considers Japan an enemy.

Inoki’s wrestling promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling, on the other hand, had a working relationship with U.S.-based WCW, with which it would occasionally collaborate on supershows. Meanwhile, Inoki and Ali shared a history through a controversial 1976 boxer-versus-wrestler match in Tokyo, thus an enticing recipe for an attempt at bodyslam diplomacy.

Unfamiliar as they were to each another, pro wrestling and North Korea make for something of a fitting pair: in many cases the only thing more fascinating than either’s outward theatrics are the stories from behind its curtains. The result of their meeting was one of the oddest tours in pro wrestling history, with culture clashes, unscripted fisticuffs and tense interactions with the ever-present state officers that left some fearing for their lives.

Despite the attendance records shattered by the two Pyongyang shows, the historic event has been reduced to a curious footnote in mainstream American wrestling culture. For its 20th anniversary, SI spoke about the experience with many of the Westerners on the trip, as well as former CNN correspondent Mike Chinoy and the Asia Society’s Orville Schell, both of whom reported on the event. (Two of the North American wrestlers on the tour, Benoit and Hawk, a.k.a. Michael Hegstrand, have since died.)

Below—in their own words, edited for clarity and space—are the recollections of those who were there.

‘We Cannot Guarantee Your Safety’

Eric Bischoff (WCW president): Working for Turner Broadcasting, I had been able to make a personal acquaintance with Muhammad Ali back in '93 or '94. He’s a wrestling fan. Sometime in early '95, Antonio called and asked me for help in trying to get Muhammad Ali to come over to this event that he described as a world peace event. I thought, well, the little that I know about Muhammad and the kind of things he was interested in—it sounds unique. I said, ‘Where is it?’ I assumed it was in Tokyo. Then he said it was in Pyongyang, North Korea. Oh, wow. That’s really out there. Then he asked me about bringing some of the wrestlers that worked for me and Turner Broadcasting over as a part of this big show and asked if I would be there as a guest. I thought, Wow, what a phenomenal opportunity.

Mike Chinoy (CNN correspondent): Part of the thing about the North Koreans is that their sense of what resonates and picking their foreign interlocutors is often somewhat... off. When Bill Clinton was president, they invited Roger Clinton to come.

Orville Schell (Asia Society): They have this very literal sense of engaging the outside world and that you do it through these kind of old-fashioned, Stalinist festivals. They want to look as if they’re actually negotiable in the world, so they have to somehow pull in some pieces of the outside, at least to make it look to their own people as if—you know, the classic statement, “we have friends all over the world”—North Korea is beloved everywhere. It snaps its fingers and the greats of every field come running.

Chinoy: It was a pretty important period in the broader diplomatic landscape because Kim Il-sung had died the previous July. Kim Jong-il had just taken over and there were all these doubts about where North Korea was going. They clearly wanted to make a point, but so often in North Korea, the way they make it lends itself to such confusion because it’s done in such a weird way that it utterly muddles the message.

Bischoff: Part of this trip was Inoki’s way back into mainstream political awareness in Japan. And he had good relationships with certain people within the Japanese government, which helped facilitate this.

So I reached out to Muhammad and he and the people that work for him were actually quite excited to do it. That was the easiest part of it.

Antonio Inoki, Sonny Onoo and Muhammad Ali
Antonio Inoki, Sonny Onoo and Muhammad Ali
Courtesy of Sonny Onoo

[With Ali on board, Bischoff also invited Sonny Onoo, his longtime friend and a Japanese-American WCW consultant. Inoki’s first choice for his opponent and co-headliner was not Flair, but Flair’s biggest on-screen WCW rival at the time, Hulk Hogan.]

Bischoff: They had a long history that dated back into the '80s, so it would have been a great thing for Inoki in many respects. So I asked Hulk, and I might as well have asked him to row a boat to Pluto. It was not gonna happen.

[Bischoff then asked Flair.]

Ric Flair (wrestler): I was pretty involved in politics back then. I called [then North Carolina senator] Jesse Helms and he told me not to go. I called Carroll Campbell, who was the governor of South Carolina, and he didn’t like it either.

Bischoff: Ric is the type of guy—he likes the adventure. He likes to do something new and different. He certainly loved the idea of wrestling Antonio Inoki. He knew that would be a classic kind of matchup for him. Antonio was an icon and a big part of wrestling history, especially as it pertains to Japan. So Ric was excited about that. Ric was not excited about going to North Korea because there was so much he didn’t understand or know. Quite frankly, if he would have understood and did know anymore than he did, he wouldn’t have gone.

Flair: I worked for Bischoff. They wanted me to go, so I said yeah.

[The other American wrestlers on the show became involved by being under contract with New Japan at the time. All were paid their standard rates for the shows.]

Scott Norton (wrestler): I was wrestling in Japan. I’m in the locker room drinking a protein shake. Masa Saito and [Tiger] Hattori walk up to me and say, ‘Scott, end of this month we go to North Korea. We have big match. You’re booked.’ I looked at them and I went, ‘Okay. North Korea? Just me? Everybody go.’

Rick Steiner (wrestler): It was like ‘North Korea, holy cow. That’s communist. Nobody’s ever been in there. Are we gonna be safe? Are we gonna be okay?’ But the Japanese company, we’d worked for them a while. I trusted them.

Norton: At that point in time of my life, I wasn’t reading USA Today for world news; I was reading USA Today to see how the Vikings did. I wasn’t aware of what was going on in North Korea too much—I was going a hundred miles an hour with my hair on fire, you know?

Too Cold Scorpio (wrestler): I was a little excited and a little nervous all at the same time. I didn’t know nothing really about North Korea, other than being a communist country. I didn’t even know we were allowed to go over there and wrestle.

Norton: I talked to the Japanese guys all the time and they were just freaking. They were nervous.

Sonny Onoo (WCW consultant): When I told the Japanese embassy I was going there, they said, “...no.” There’s a big issue about Japanese citizens being kidnapped by North Koreans. I guess I’m a little nutty. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There was no clearance. ‘You understand we cannot guarantee your safety’—that was about the last thing they told us.

Bischoff: I didn’t think too much about it. I didn’t ask permission. I didn’t ask anybody in Turner Broadcasting before I left. I had friends that worked at CNN in the news division. I thought, I’m just gonna pick a couple brains to make sure I won’t end up in jail. I asked them, flat-out: ‘What will happen if I go over there without permission from the government and bring 15 very high-profile celebrities with me?’ They said, ‘Ah, the State Department may detain you, they may make you sit in a room and make you answer a bunch of questions, they may make your life uncomfortable or miserable kind of as a slap on the wrist for doing something you shouldn’t have done. But they’re not gonna put you in jail.’ I said, ‘Great. If I’m not going to jail, I’m on a plane.’

‘Landing on Mars’

[Because those traveling from the U.S. could not travel to North Korea directly, the group gathered in Nagoya, a Pacific coastal city in central Japan, where a North Korean plane was sent to retrieve them.]

Norton: We’re sitting there waiting for the plane and you hear this huge commotion and it’s Ali with his entourage. He’s pointing at us. He kept saying, ‘I want you! I want you!’ I’m kind of looking around and all of a sudden I’m realizing he’s talking to me. This is the most unbelievable thing. The cameras are clicking and people are going nuts. He’s got his dukes up. This is Muhammad Ali, man. I’m just some greenhorn in the business. I had so much respect—I mean, I watched every single round this guy had ever fought. It was unbelievable. He had time for everybody. He was so cool. He shook everybody’s hand. You could clearly see that he had some issues with the Parkinson’s. But he was bigger than life.

Bischoff: It was the Japanese government that worked with the North Korean government to allow North Korean military transport to fly us into North Korea. So they came in, we jumped on the transport, and flew off to North Korea.

Onoo: It was an old plane. It had a North Korean flag on it. I distinctly remember looking for my seatbelt and there wasn’t any. People were kind of freaking out.

Bischoff: It was a prop plane and it was a transport plane, so it was not the most comfortable plane. For someone like Scott Norton, who weighed close to 375 pounds, it was a little uncomfortable. And he was claustrophobic in the first place.

Scott Norton
Scott Norton
Image via YouTube

Norton: This thing looked like it flew in World War II, man. It was a mess, old and rickety. It was just a heap. We try to order a beer and they give everybody a different kind of beer and they’re all hot. There’s nothing refrigerated. The flight was terrible.

Rick Steiner: It was shaking, rattling, air pockets. There wasn’t much being said except a few prayers.

Scorpio: We were told to be careful about talking bad about their country because nine times out of 10 the plane is filled with microphones and bugs. That was one of those things like, Oh, my gosh, what are we getting into?

[The flight’s lone highlight was Ali, whose charisma and personality continuously wowed the group.]

Bischoff: I had a chance to sit right next to him on the plane and we talked a long time about his memories of professional wrestling and how it affected his career. He literally modeled the Cassius Clay persona after a professional wrestler named Gorgeous George. It was the first time I’d ever heard that story and to hear it directly from him was just fascinating. It was just he and I chatting on a plane. It’s still magic. I get giddy.

Norton: You ever see that gimmick where you can make a dollar bill disappear? He acted like nobody saw it and he did that. He was so happy to meet everybody. He was trying to entertain everybody the whole way.

Bischoff: His sense of humor was very much intact as well as every aspect of his mind that I could tell. He just had a hard time communicating. But he would whisper. He would kind of lean in. He could whisper fairly articulately in your ear. He just couldn’t talk loudly.

Scorpio: Even with his hands shaking, when he signed his name, his name was perfectly signed. It was perfect handwriting—better than mine. I was just blown away to get his signature. And to actually take a picture with Muhammad Ali meant more to me because my dad, when he was younger he used to spar with Cassius Clay as a semi-pro boxer

Norton: He loved Hawk because of Hawk’s interviews in pro wrestling. He would tell Hawk, ‘I want you’ and start to do the same thing he did with me. Hawk had his little spiel: He’d go, ‘WELL...’ and start cutting a promo on Ali. And Ali would just sit there and laugh like a little kid. ‘Do it again!’ The more Ali laughed and liked it, the more Hawk cut promos on him.

Terry Funk is a guy in the business and a pig farmer and Hawk always talked about how his pigs would multiply so fast. And when Hawk would do this, he would talk like this redneck Texas lingo. Ali knew who Terry Funk was and everything. Hawk had me laughing, but I thought Ali was gonna fall out. It was so funny. ‘Tell me about the pigs again, Hawk.’

[As their arrival neared, excitement was tempered.]

Bischoff: I looked out the plane—and even at that time, I spent a lot of time in the desert. I live in the desert now. The desert in Arizona is nothing like the desert in North Korea. It was the most barren, stark, void of any kind of life—plant life, animal life, birds, anything—that I’ve ever seen. I literally thought we were landing on Mars.

Onoo: We could see almost eight lanes of highways—four lanes going one way, four lanes going the other way. There was a skyscraper, like you would see if you flew into Minneapolis or Atlanta. But they were all gray. And what I remember was, This looks a lot like a Klingon empire. Everything was gray. Nothing was painted. And one of the reporters told me, once we landed, that a lot of these buildings had nothing in it. It was just a facade.

Scott Steiner: The buildings were the same color as the cement on the sidewalk. It looked almost like The Walking Dead or something. 

Bischoff: The arrival was very formal. I felt like I was in a ballet on a Russian stage somewhere—it was that choreographed and controlled. But it was kind of cool too, because I had never experienced anything like that. I had never been a guest of a foreign government, particularly one that was a dictator. So it was cool.

Norton: We went in this airport and they were turning lights on and half the lights didn’t come on. There was dust caked everywhere. Nobody had been through this airport in years. If you were an antique collector, you’d be in heaven, because this place is old. Ain’t nobody been in it.

Bischoff: Almost immediately, they separated us into groups of two and assigned each of us a handler, or 'minder' as they called it. And that person’s job—ours was a woman and she was a member of the North Korean version of the secret service or CIA—was to basically chaperone us 24/7 and make sure that we didn’t do anything wrong. She was also there to educate us, or indoctrinate us as the case may be. And the first thing she did was ask for our passports, which was their way of saying, We control you. What good is a passport in North Korea? It’s not like you were gonna run to the embassy with it. You can’t jump on an airline and get out of the country. It’s a worthless piece of paper once you land on their soil in terms of its ability to help you. But the idea that they would say ‘give it to us,’ and you had to give it up, kind of made the point.

[pagebreak]

Tourists

[The group was immediately whisked away for a standard tour of the country, accompanied not only by their minders but also by omnipresent members of the state press.]

Norton: We get into these little cars, these little piece-of-s--- Mercedes Benzes that they thought were the bomb. I mean, these things were freaking battery-powered. And they all look the same, this funny green-yellow color.

Bischoff: The first thing that we did was stop and pay homage to Kim Il-sung, who had just died barely a year before. I was in the front of the line with Antonio Inoki and a gentleman by the name of Masa Saito, who was a big part of the New Japan organization. And the cameras were rolling. And they were not just cameras, they were the old style—you know, clickclickclickclick. It was like stepping back into the '40s or '30s.

Onoo: If you can imagine Batman with the battery pack around his waist—this was a one-man camera guy. He was actually doing the cameras. The battery was for the light. He was literally winding the camera himself.

Scorpio: They were pretty much filming everything, everywhere we went.

Bischoff: And they were all hovered around us while a Korean interpreter was explaining to us the monuments and how important the Great Leader was—they always referred to him as the Great Leader—to their country and how the people worshipped him and loved him, all of that. Then we were asked to leave a flower at this memorial, so we each were given flowers.

Schell: They buy it for you and then charge you. You have to put it in front of the statue and then they take videos of you. And then they take the flowers back and sell them to the next guy.

Bischoff: There were people standing there that were literally crying a year after (Kim Il-sung) passed. Now, were they real tears? Were they trained? Were they obligated? Where did the emotion come from?

Scorpio: I think it went as well as could be expected considering that a lot of us younger wrestlers didn’t have any idea why we were laying flowers for somebody that we had nothing to do with. I really tried to pay attention to our handler to understand what was going on, but I wasn’t catching all of it.

Bischoff: They took us to what looked like a version of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. They explained that this was a memorial that was built to honor the 52,000 North Koreans who were incinerated at the hands of the Americans during the Korean War. Mind you, she’s explaining this to me while the cameras were rolling. You know, dropping the flowers, stopping and paying homage—whatever, it’s a formality and showing courtesy and respect. I had no problem with that at all. But at that point, when I was being told about this memorial and about this horrible night of essentially carpet-bombing the North Koreans by the Americans, with thousands of North Koreans burned alive at the hands of the Americans, the tone of it became very obvious and I knew that my reaction was gonna be critical. I didn’t wanna offend anybody so I didn’t wanna give them a kind of argument like I wasn’t believing or accepting what they were saying. But at the same time, I didn’t wanna look sympathetic. The first time in my life I was actually cautious about my body language and the way I could be perceived.

Onoo: Eric would say, ‘You know, I was born after the war. I really don’t know. War is a nasty thing.’ Eric had a pretty good standard answer. We were smart enough not to irritate those people.

Bischoff: According to the handler, Hiroshima and Nagasaki never happened. The Koreans won World War II.

Onoo: They would ask a question like, ‘Don’t you think Japan should pay for all their war crimes?’ And I would say, ‘Well, one, I was born after the war. And two, I live in Iowa.’ That was my standard non-answer excuse.

Bischoff: After that we might have taken a ride to see all the great agricultural accomplishments of the North Koreans that didn’t exist.

Rick Steiner: I remember taking a bus to one of their religious statues. Everybody was working in the field and they had suits on. That was different.

Scott Steiner (wrestler): We went out to the countryside and watched these poor people still plowing their land with ox. Then later on that night, we were eating in the palace. So there were extremes.

Flair: The guy working with me saw my Rolex watch. The first thing he said was, ‘You know, I wouldn’t earn that kind of money in a year.’ I wanted to say, ‘You know, well, sorry. Do you want it or what?’

Bischoff: We were on the ride back to the hotel and there was one last moment of ‘this is just nuts.’ Our handler was in the car with Sonny and and she said something to the effect—I don’t remember the exact words—of, ‘Oh and I must tell you, this is not America.’ And I said, ‘Please explain.’ She goes, ‘You must not touch our women.’ And I said, ‘Excuse me?’ She goes, ‘You must leave our women alone.’

First of all, no problem there. They all look emaciated and very ill. Not that that idea would have crossed my mind in the first place. But: I gotcha. I was thinking that. I didn’t say it. I just looked at Sonny and went, ‘Wow, this is crazy. They think we’re here to rape their women.’ We were animals. We were demons. That’s the way that North Koreans, probably since the early ‘50s, have been portraying Americans. So you can only imagine the way they looked at us and were reacting to us. They hadn’t even allowed us there before. We were like the first freaks from the zoo to show up.

Schell: They were the incarnation of exactly the nightmare North Korean version of an American: big, strong, belligerent and aggressive. Our collection of North Korean original poster art (at the Asia Society) has depictions of Americans and they’re horrendous: pictures of American G.I.s with babies on the end of bayonets and stuff like that.

In a funny way, there was a mixed message there. It was: ‘We’ve gotten the most famous Americans in the world here’—at least that’s the way those wrestlers were portrayed. On the other hand, Koreans could look at them and sort of confirm their conception of this unpredictable wild beast type of American that was in the propaganda.

[The tour wound down in Pyongyang, where the group would stay for two days before performing.]

Bischoff: The city itself is just one big concrete box. There’s no real style. It looks like most of it was built in the '60s and '70s. But the streets were extraordinarily wide throughout all downtown. There were perfect 90-degree intersections and highways going through the center of downtown, except there were no cars because of the economy being as destitute as it is. Nobody had bicycles, let alone cars. So I ask about these streets and my handler told me that the streets are designed to function as airport runways in the case of war. The streets weren’t made for cars. They were made for fighter jets. I thought, That’s just crazy. But it was another in a series of crazy things.

Norton: We get to our hotel room and I’m telling you, it was just like the airport. It smelled like somebody’s basement that had a flood. It was terrible. And this room was enormous—it had these big canopy beds and theater-like curtains, real heavy, like the gold piping. It was like being in the 1940s for something. Hawk’s room was next to mine. His room was just as big. I’m talking 1,500-square foot rooms. It was like a small condominium.

Onoo: ABC’s Deborah Wang came to us in the hotel lobby and said to us she’d been trying to get to North Korea ever since she became part of ABC. She kind of made a joke. She said, ‘Really, the only reason I get to come here is covering you guys? Are you serious?’

Norton: We went upstairs to this restaurant that was on top of the building. It had a rotating restaurant up there. Flair was going nuts. He was so freaked out that they took our passports. ‘Scotty, you think we’re gonna get out of here?’ I says, ‘Ric, I have no idea, man.’

Onoo: Their television had two channels. One was nothing but Kim Jong-il and the Great Leader, 24/7. And while we were there, there was a pro wrestling channel, just for us. Some of it was black and white. A lot of old stuff. I don’t know where they got their videos.

[Other excursions outside Pyongyang offered the group indelible memories of their most celebrated traveling partner.]

Onoo: We went to visit Rikidozan’s home. And as I was walking back to our vehicle, I feel something on the back of my head. Somebody’s tapping me. I turn around and it’s Muhammad Ali, punching me on the back of my head. So I got a picture of me and him squaring off. I will always cherish that.

Sonny Onoo and Muhammad Ali
Sonny Onoo and Muhammad Ali
Courtesy of Sonny Onoo

Rick Steiner: He was always hamming it up. I guess at that stage of the game, he was just happy to be anywhere.

Onoo: He was sharp as a tack. You had to really listen to him because he couldn’t talk real loud, but he was certainly generous and very kind to us.

Norton: They wanted us to go pay our respects to whatever this cat’s name was. We start walking up these stairs, the whole group of us—Muhammad Ali, Inoki. We were walking up these—it seemed like a thousand steps, maybe more—to worship their first dictator, who started all the crazy s--- over there. Muhammad Ali, he’s kind of having a hard time. The next thing you know, he starts kind of bouncing around. You always kept an eye on that guy when he was around you because it was so... prestigious. He snaps out of the Parkinson’s and took his jacket off—I watched this, I was amazed. He took his jacket off and untied his tie. And he started jogging up these stairs.

Scott Steiner: There was no shaking. It was weird how when he went back to training, he was fine. That’s what his body remembered. He started running those stairs and I just went, Holy s---.

Norton: I asked [Howard Bingham, Ali’s photographer and friend], ‘What’s going on with him, man?’ He said when he pulls out of the Parkinson’s, he exercises. I come running up the stairs and I see his head bouncing up and down, then you see his shoulders, and his hands. The sun’s kind of behind him. It was like a dream. Here’s Muhammad Ali at the top of this thing, just like Rocky, and he’s shadowboxing. This is Ali, brother. I just stood there and looked at him and went: Wow.

‘These Dudes are for Real’

Scorpio: You had to always have a suit and tie on the whole week. That was one of the requirements of their government. No Zubaz, no sweatpants. Now, once you got back to your room, if that’s what you wanted to do to relax, that was fine. But if you wanted to go in the streets, you had to have a professional look on.

Rick Steiner: They wouldn’t let us walk around or do anything. I remember trying to do it and then these three guys told me I had to go back inside. We were confined to the hotel. That’s all we could do—hang out there, play cards, try to work out, eat, sleep. Not much to do.

Scorpio: If you came out of your room and ended up in the lobby, your guide was there. If you went out of the hotel and wasn’t getting on the bus or with a designated driver taking you to an event, you wasn’t walking around that country by yourself. I’m pretty good about losing people, but not over there. That ain’t happening.

Bischoff: Most of the time when we weren’t out on tour being shown something, we were in our hotel eating and drinking like kings.

Scorpio: For me, it was just flipping through the channels seeing the same stuff on it, being amazed at, wow, this is all that they’ve got to watch. You’re better off looking out the window and just people-watching. Certain people had to wear these special costumes—the flower, the colorful costumes— the whole time we was there. Other people had to wear the black and white suit. Most of them had suit jackets. You found very few women who had their own clothes, it seemed like. Every once in a while you’d be like, ‘Look! Look! There’s a person there who has their own clothes on.’ That was the thing—trying to find somebody in the crowd who had something different on.

Rick Steiner: Everybody had to get up at the same time to eat breakfast, same time to eat lunch, same time to eat dinner. You weren’t on your own and eating whatever you felt like. Everybody ate together.

Onoo: They took us to a park one day and had a dinner for us: Korean barbecue. I remember the Steiner brothers—the meat they gave us was certainly not the steak that our guys were used to. And they were like, ‘Ah, I can’t eat this s---.’ And we’re like, ‘Hey, you guys, come on.’ We had to kind of remind those guys of where we were.

Rick and Scott Steiner
Rick and Scott Steiner
Courtesy of WWE

Rick Steiner: Some of it it was edible to us. Some of it was a challenge. I didn’t know you could screw up eggs, but scrambled eggs—they had a different taste to them.

Scott Steiner: They tried to treat us right but the food was f------ terrible. The only thing we had to eat that I could really stand was the fruit. It’s a good thing I brought my own tuna fish.

Scorpio: We was having a whole lot of birds for dinner. When we got to the hotel, it was full of pigeons. As time went on, pigeons started to disappear. That’s all I’m saying.

Norton: We got to go to their capitol building. The only super good dinner we had was there. We had a hell of a floor show. They entertained you—dance shows. They had like 24 women doing this dance show to Korean music.

Rick Steiner: It was kind of their traditional dance and performance, I guess showing us kind of like a Broadway play or something, just to give us some entertainment for the night.

Norton: They would change into different outfits right in front of your eyes. They were on top of things when it came to that. That they did very, very well. [Scott Steiner] wanted to see how all these girls were changing.

Scott Steiner: You know how Katy Perry changed during the Super Bowl? But we’re talking like 30 people and they would all change their outfits right away. Being me, I just wanted to see.

Norton: Scotty was jacked. ‘I just gotta see it. I gotta see how they’re changing their clothes like this.’ He couldn’t figure it out. Nobody could. He says it’s the lights—they’re shooting different color lights. But I says, ‘Their skin stays the same color.' And he said, ‘Hey, you’re right.’ He just couldn’t stand it. If you ever want a time not to be curious, man—he’s in the capital building trying to sneak around.

Rick Steiner: My brother was quite inquisitive. If there was something he couldn’t figure out, he was gonna find out how they were doing it.

Norton: So the knucklehead went backstage.

Scott Steiner: Yeah, they didn’t want no part of that. They shook their finger at me, like, Go! So I just turned around and walked away. I wasn’t worried.

Norton: Man, they got him. They escorted him back to the table. I said, ‘Scotty, these dudes are for real.’

Flair: Ali and I went to the equivalent of their White House for dinner. Just us two. It was beautiful. There was a very high-ranking official saying the basic thing that they want to tell us, which is that at any point in time if they wanted to destroy us, they could. Suddenly Ali said, ‘No wonder we hate these sons of bitches.’ Just clear as a bell. I said to him, ‘Don’t start talking now, buddy.’

[pagebreak]

‘Our Best Behavior’

[Ali’s comment would carry no consequences, but it was far from the trip’s only close call.]

Bischoff: Back in '95, I would get up every morning and run four or five miles before I’d eat breakfast or anything. I just had to run. And it was in the spring, so the weather was pretty nice. Not thinking, I brought my running gear with me and got up at like 5:30 in the morning, got cleaned up and decided to go out for a jog. Evidently, my minder, she probably didn’t anticipate [it] because we didn’t have anything to do until 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning. It was still dark when I left the hotel and I just started running.

I remember it being so eerie. The sun was coming up. There was not a person on the street, not a car on the street. Then all of a sudden, the streets started filling up. It was like it was coming to life. And it was because North Koreans—most of them—walk to work. And almost every one of them wears a suit to work. Now, keep in mind, I was younger then so I was in better shape, so I was like 5’11,” maybe 190, 200 pounds. I had on bright red sweatpants and a black baseball cap that was turned backwards and I think a yellow shirt. And I’m running down the street at the same time all these Koreans are flooding the street. It went from nothing to a mass of humanity in 15 minutes.

Now the sun’s up and they can see me, and they would see me from 20 yards away and they would stop and move to the side, like, Oh my god, what is that coming my way? It’s one of those evil Americans that are gonna rape and murder and pillage and torture. They diverted their eyes and they turned away and moved out of the way. I kind of felt like, wow, this is like what Moses felt. This is parting the Red Sea here.

Onoo: I remember Eric coming back and he says, ‘I just went running.’ I said, ‘how was that?’ He says, ‘Well, I got a lot of looks.’

Bischoff: I got back to my hotel and my handler was there already. I got a big earful about how that would never happen again. She was very firm, very direct, very stern. So from that point on, Ric Flair and I would just run up and down the stairs of the hotel. We didn’t dare go out of the hotel. We were told we couldn’t, that there would be severe consequences.

[As one of the show’s organizers, the rest of Bischoff’s ventures around North Korea came in a chauffeured car. The wrestlers mostly traveled by bus, with exceptions noted by some.]

Scorpio: They had provided Mercedes for guys that wanted to ride in them, with the driver. You had a choice if you wanted to ride on the bus with the boys or you wanted to act like you was big-time like Ric Flair and ride in a Mercedes Benz.

Norton: We all make a deal. I made a deal with Eric, I made a deal with New Japan—that’s your deal. You agreed to it. You’re a man. Well, you’ve got professional complainers, and that’s what Scorp was.

[For the trip’s first few days, Flair was accompanied in his car by Road Warrior Hawk. Before one outing, Hawk decided to return to the bus, only to seemingly have second thoughts before departing.]

Scorpio: We see Ric Flair outside standing by the door doing the Ric Flair thing—brushing the hair, checking the Rolex, trying to make sure that everything was right. Hawk had been riding with him for one or two days and then he felt like he wanted to be one of the boys again on the bus. So when he had seen Ric Flair, he was like, ‘Oh, Ric looks like he’s waiting for somebody, maybe he’s looking for me and wants me to ride with him.’ Me being the smartass I be, I said, ‘F--- that p----, let him ride by himself.’ And he said, ‘What’d you say?’ I said, ‘You heard me. I guess [Hawk] didn’t like that and got offended and called me an [expletive] and next thing you know I was whooping his a-- on the bus.

Norton: Scorp was the one that provoked that situation. He was saying stuff about Flair and Hawk defended Flair. When Hawk started in the business, Flair had Mike’s back. Flair helped him a ton. This is a loyal dude. But Mike was wrong too. I wish it had never happened. It was embarrassing. It was one of my best friends. I felt bad that Mike did that. But again, I understood that you could only take so much.

Scott Steiner: Scorpio did a number, man. I don’t know what Hawk was thinking. He grabbed Scorpio, both hands on his chest, and Scorpio started punching. Hawk kept his hands on his chest. S---, he punched him like 10 times. The bus stopped. You could tell the Japanese representative was kind of freaked out, because the North Korean guy was in there too and they’re wondering what the hell was going on.

Too-Cold Scorpio and Hawk
Too-Cold Scorpio and Hawk

Rick Steiner: We had to be on our best behavior—don’t do this, don’t do that. We were always on guard. That’s why I couldn’t believe it when those guys got in a fight. Like, what the heck? I kept waiting for some guys to come out of the ditch and shoot ‘em on that bus.

Scorpio: Fortunately I had trained in Japan, so I went up and down the bus and to everybody that was on the bus—Korean, Japanese and American—and apologized to everybody. We’re supposed to be over there for a peace thing and we, the Americans, are fighting amongst ourselves.

Norton: It was just kind of an unfortunate thing. That could have been avoided very easily. It was a down part of the day.

Scorpio: There was just a lot of tension that had built up that was unnecessary and had gotten blown out of proportion, all about nothing. After that, the bottom line is, if I whoop your a--, if you whoop my a--, when it’s all said and done, we still have to work together. It’s a business. I think that’s why we was able to go ahead and squash it and get along.

[No horror story would compare to Norton’s.]

Onoo: When we got there, apparently he wanted to call home. The only way you could call home from our hotel to the United States was to get an operator and the operator calls China. They connect from China and your phone rings and that’s how the connection goes.

Norton: The operator’s in the basement and we’re on the seventh floor. She would ring your room, but I had to run the stairs because the elevators would move so slow. I kept missing the call. I couldn’t get through for two days. When I finally got through to my wife, it was $17 a minute. At that point, I didn’t care. She accused me of partying and going crazy and kind of abusing the relationship. She goes, ‘Oh you went out with all the guys and you’re just having a blast.’ She was madder than hell. I said, ‘You don’t understand what kind of s---hole we’re in.’ And all of a sudden the phone went dead.

I go, She hung up on me. I can’t believe this. About two minutes later, I get a knock on my door. POWPOWPOWPOW! I thought it was Hawk kidding around or something. I pull the door open and here’s this little North Korean prick that was assigned to me and some armed guards. Military dudes. They say, ‘You can’t talk about North Korea like that. What’s the matter with you?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’

‘Come with us.’

Onoo: Scott Norton—you’ve got to imagine this guy. This guy has like a barrel of a chest, weighs about 300 pounds, his head is probably one and a half or two times the size of a normal human being’s.

Norton: They take me out of my room and take me downstairs. We might have went out of the hotel. I’m not sure. It was underground. They take me to this room and start telling me, ‘You can’t say that about North Korea.’ I says, ‘You’re tapping the phones?’ ‘We’re not tapping the phones.’ I say, ‘Listen, pal, I got in an argument with my wife.’ ‘We don’t argue with our women here. Our women don’t argue with us.’ Now I’m getting scared. These guys got guns. Nobody knows where I’m at.

Then this guy comes walking in and man, it was like this dude meant something. He’s talking to the guy that was following me around and looking back at me with this look like he was just so disgusted with me. This conversation was going on for at least a minute and I’m just going, God, they’re gonna kill me. I’m not coming out of here. This is it. And I’m like, ‘My wife thinks I’ve been partying and we just got in an argument.’ I’m sitting here debating with them. Anyways, the guy says something to the guy following me, he left, and he told me: ‘No more. No more bad things about North Korea.’ Then they led me back to my room.

I go back in my room to call Hattori and say what happened. They cut my phone off. It was dead. I didn’t get to talk to my wife again or nothing. That was it.

Scott Steiner: He was like, ‘S---, let’s get the hell out of here, man.’ It was kind of humorous. Well, it was kind of funny but kind of like, Wow. If they’re bugging us, imagine what their real citizens have to go through. The North Koreans have to deal with that everyday.

Onoo: I don’t think after that his room was ever cleaned.

Show Time

[Finally, after two days of downtime, it was time for two nights of shows. The venue was Pyongyang’s May Day Stadium, the largest stadium in the world. Having no idea what to expect, the wrestlers got their first glimpse of the record-setting crowd while on their way to the show.]

Scott Steiner: We crossed one bridge and we could see the people maybe a mile down, crossing the other bridge. They were all walking. It was like a bunch of ants crossing the bridge. It was just a sea of humanity. It was kind of hard to grasp.

Norton: Me and Flair were taking the little crappy limo to the event the first day. I said, ‘Ric, man, we’re really drawing. Look at this.’ The driver looks back and says, ‘Excuse me, what do you mean by draw?’ I says, ‘That’s a term we use for when a lot of people are coming to see us.’ He says, ‘No, nobody really wants to come. It’s forced attendance. If they don’t show up they get a bullet in the head.’ And I went, ‘...all right then.’

Schell: In North Korea, you never know what the hell is going on, but usually tickets are not bought. They are distributed by the work units—by a factory, by a ministry, by a school. They get parceled out by the ministry of culture or sports or whatever, so people both can go and have to go. It’s very important that they fill the stadium because they don’t want those 10 foreigners to be there in an empty stadium. The whole thing is one just giant Potemkin village.

[The wrestling matches were preceded by a festival that dazzled the foreign guests.]

Bischoff: The show that the North Koreans put on at the stadium was far more elaborate and entertaining than the show that we put on in the ring.

Norton: It was like Cirque du Soleil times 10. It made the Super Bowl look like a high school j.v. football game. They went through all these dance moves. They had a trapeze going on and then through the whole thing here comes the military with that march and they marched them in there and they got that weapon right behind them on that launcher and showed it to everybody. I’m going, Holy moly. What the hell are we doing here?

North Korean Crowd
North Korean Crowd
Image still courtesy of CNN

Bischoff: Everybody in the seats had a 3’ by 3’ or 4’ by 3’ flag that had an image on it. Think of it as a pixel. So if you step back and took a wide view of the stadium from overhead, like if you were a blimp looking down on the stadium, you would see a blue and white dove circling in the seats in the arena. Their timing was phenomenal, so it literally looked like a fluid dove completely moving around the stadium. Then it changed from the dove to the written word. Then more pictures and all these different images that were happening. It was like watching a video. But it was live. It was people sitting in the seats putting up these flags and it was 170,000 of them. It was the most amazing thing I ever saw.

Onoo: I remember asking and those people practiced that for like six months.

Schell: They do this all the time. Whether these people have jobs or families, who the hell knows. They can almost make it like a movie, by changing the cards so that a missile or something is flying through the air. It really is an astounding feat of coordination but it bespeaks an enormous waste of human energy—but also of the incredible craving North Korea has for respect and admiration.

North Korean Crowd
North Korean Crowd
Image still courtesy of CNN

[After the theatrics, Ali was introduced to the crowd as he waved from his seat in a box with North Korean officials.]

Bischoff: There was a good, respectful reaction. But again, that very much could have been because the North Koreans were told to react that way. They certainly didn’t have ESPN. They didn’t have pay-per-view, so they wouldn’t have seen a lot of his great fights. They didn’t have radios to listen to him against Foreman or Liston. There was no Thrilla in Manilla in their world. So I don’t know how much they really knew about him. But he did get a good reaction.

Schell: They would have appreciated that he was against the Vietnam War, that he was against sort of the American government in a way, that he was black, that he was rebellious, and that he was the champ. He was a global figure. The average Korean probably wouldn’t have (known Ali). The elite, who are in the foreign ministry or within the department, would.

Chinoy: He was essentially a political prop.

[pagebreak]

[Less predictable was how the massive crowd—​having barely, if ever, previously seen professional wrestling—​would react to the action in the ring.]

Bischoff: That was probably one of the things I was most curious about going into this. Everything in their life is drab and various shades of gray—the books they read, things they see on television, the music they hear. It’s all controlled by the state. Then you look at professional wrestling and even its most conservative presentation, it’s glitter, it’s fireworks, it’s flamboyance, it’s feather boas, it’s facepaint. It’s the carnival times a hundred.

Rick Steiner: There was no reaction. There was nothing. Wrestling in Japan is somewhat like that. It’s not high energy and people hollering and screaming. In Japan, you did a few moves and they clapped. Over in Korea, shoot, they didn’t do anything. They didn’t clap. They didn’t do nothing. I’ve never been through anything like that, so it was a totally new experience all around.

Schell: My impression was they were sort of dumbfounded. I mean, I’m dumbfounded when I watch this stuff and I’m American. It’s unbelievable.

[The responses were similar in the box where Bischoff, Onoo, and Flair—​who would only wrestle on the second night’s card—​watched the first show.]

Bischoff: It was like watching a wrestling event with Mount Rushmore.

Flair: They thought they were getting Greco-Roman wrestling. I remember sitting up there watching a match and a guy with the sports ministry says, ‘That guy can’t knock that guy down like that.’ I said, ‘I dunno, but he couldn’t knock me down.’ I didn’t know what to say to him. They had never seen pro wrestling. I thought, Here we go.

Schell: To me, it bespoke of the complete lack of convergence [between] what goes on in the DPRK and the outside world. They probably understood there was a certain dramatic flair, but they may have thought they were getting the top of the world’s wrestling pyramid, not realizing they were getting a circus.

[Nor did the wrestlers realize the circus-like atmosphere they would be entering.]

Scorpio: As long as I’ve been in the business and as many people as I’ve wrestled for, that was the only time I had stage fright. I’m a dancer—I run out, I dance—and to run out and just stop mid-action and look from the left to as far as I could to the right and to see all of those people performing, with the signs and the flags, it was just amazing to see.

Scott Steiner: The first time I got on the ropes and looked out there, I looked to the very top of the stadium. They were like toothpicks, that’s how small they were. I was like, Wow, I can barely see them, how are they seeing me? It was mind-blowing. But it was a fleeting moment. After that, I locked into the match.

[Still, the crowd did have an impact on many performers, even if not for its size. Because pro wrestling is a performance geared towards eliciting audience response, the North Koreans’ perplexity proved challenging.]

Norton: The first show, it was the hardest match I’ve ever had in my life. Me and [Shinya] Hashimoto went out there and beat the living daylights out of each other and they just sat there and looked at us. We went 20 minutes. They kind of booed once in a while, but it was terrible.

[In at least one match, their confusion could be understood. During the bout between Scorpio and Shinjiro Otani, an accident threw plans into disarray.]

Scorpio: I ended up slamming him on the ground and giving him one of my signature moves, which is a front flip into a leg drop. I had caught him just right with my heel and came right across the nose.

[The blow broke Otani’s nose and both his orbital bones. Despite the match being scheduled to last 10 minutes, Scorpio had to improvise a quick finish after just 2:37 of action]

Scorpio: Pretty much that was it—count him, one-two-three, roll him out, take him back. The match is over. There’s nothing really he can do. There’s nothing I can do. Still to this day if I go to Japan or if I see him, he never lets me live that down.

[The Norton-Hashimoto match served as the main event of the first night, which also included Benoit, wrestling under the moniker of Wild Pegasus, in a loss to Hiro Hase. But it was a tag- team match featuring a quartet of Japanese women—​ Bull Nakano and Akira Hokuto against Manami Toyota and Mariko Yoshida—​that “stole the show,” according to Dave Meltzer, publisher of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter, who awarded the bout four out of five stars in his review. The North Korean citizens in attendance might have agreed on the match’s noteworthiness, if for different reasons.]

Schell: Koreans are small, compact, understated, malnourished. Then you get these giant amazon women in tight-fitting wrestling suits throwing each other around the ring.

Bull Nakano and Akira Hokuto
Bull Nakano and Akira Hokuto
Image still courtesy of CNN

Chinoy: These female wrestlers were just completely from another planet. [Nakano] had hair dyed blue and it went straight up about six or eight inches. She was wearing this white sleeveless shirt over a leotard with calf-high boots. Another one was wearing a black leotard with partly opened arm coverings. She looked like a dominatrix from some S&M movie. And these North Korean men were sitting there staring. Whether they had any idea what this is about was completely beyond me.

Schell: Even though it’s had a revolution in the north, Korea is basically a confucian society where propriety, understatement, indirection, and sort of taming your wilder emotions and impulses is very important. This is very much a part of North Korean communist culture too. This is where the old sort of Confucian culture and Leninist culture fit together quite comfortably. So to have these giant amazons with their big hair hurling each other around—a good Leninist and a good Confucian, you couldn’t even dream of something more antithetical to the spirit of that other zeitgeist.

[The second night featured two other outstanding matches—​Scorpio versus Benoit, and the Steiners versus Hase and Kensuke Sasaki—​in front of an even larger crowd of 190,000. That audience, likely unbeknownst to them, was also witness to a historic main event between Flair and Inoki, two international wrestling legends who had never worked together before and never would again.]

Meltzer: I would say Inoki, Flair and Hogan would have been the three biggest stars of that generation and Inoki wrestled Hogan dozens of times and Hogan wrestled Flair dozens of times. But Inoki only wrestled Flair once, and it was on that show.

Onoo: Here we are, May Day Stadium. Can you be more American than Ric Flair? Star-studded robes, and his entrance music (“Also Sprach Zarathustra,” most famously used in the film 2001). If you can imagine that music playing, him marching to the ring. The audience probably had never seen anything like that. Blond hair, blue eyes, guy wearing a star-studded robe. I would like to know what they thought.

Norton: We’re all out there watching this match because Flair is just an incredible wrestler. I’m new to New Japan, a couple years in, and I’ve never seen Inoki wrestle before.

Meltzer: They were both older by that point. Inoki at that point was hit and miss. Flair had the ability to make almost anyone have a pretty decent to good match, and a great wrestler to have a great match. There was pretty much no question they would have a good match because Flair always had good matches.

Flair: The crowd didn’t respond to anything that I can remember until [Inoki] came out there. It certainly wasn’t because I was overwhelmingly [popular] with them. They probably said, Who’s this guy? But Inoki appealed to them.

Norton: Those two guys go out there and took that crowd from nothing to pandemonium. It was just amazing.

[Flair put on a vintage performance as the match’s heel, disrespecting the referee, using the ring ropes to his advantage, and slamming Inoki into the steel ring post. Eventually Inoki gained the upper hand during an exchange of punches, then waved his arms to egg on the awakening crowd as Flair begged off. Following a few more back-and-forth sequences, Inoki hit Flair with a kick to the back of the head and pinned him to win the match in just under 15 minutes as a number of fans stood and applauded. Inoki was presented with flowers and then exchanged handshakes with a group of fans who rushed to ringside. After returning to his feet, Flair pushed his way past a trio of jumpsuit-clad Japanese wrestlers to offer Inoki an extended handshake of his own.]

Flair: I had never met Inoki. I had never even seen him wrestle. We didn’t get to talk before the match. It ended up being okay for two guys that had never been in the ring together. Actually, it was decent.

Norton: I remember being in the locker room after and saying, ‘Ric, that was just unbelievable.’ He says, ‘You liked that, huh?’ I said, ‘Nobody said a peep during none of our matches and you two pricks go out there and tear the house down.’ He turns around and puts a hand on my shoulder and says, ‘Scott, I’ve been doing this a long time.’

Trip back

[With both shows done and successive record-breaking crowds in the books, the wrestlers’ duties were done. After a late post-show dinner, they returned to the hotel. The next morning they left for the airport for their flight to Tokyo.]

Bischoff: Everybody was ready to go home. We had enough raw carp. Everybody was kind of anxious to get back to Tokyo and find a McDonald’s.

Norton: We got back [to the airport] and I’m telling you, that plane hadn’t moved. That was the first time they started that son of a bitch up since we left it.

Rick Steiner: Nobody got their passports back until we were actually at the airport with the bags. I’ve never seen so many guys in a panicked hurry. ‘Are we getting our passports? Are we getting our passports?’

Bischoff: I actually bought a souvenir. I bought a bottle of liquor that I just gave away about a year ago. I don’t know what it is because it’s all in Korean, but it’s got a big snake in it. The snake goes right from the bottom of the bottle all the way up to the top, kind of elongated. It’s like the worm in a tequila bottle. I thought, That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.

Onoo: They kind of separated us. I remember Ric asking Eric, ‘Hey they want us to read some statement or something.’

Flair: They wanted me to make a statement saying that now that I had visited I understood why the United States was scared. I told Eric, ‘I can’t say this.’ I can’t remember what I said. It was worded totally different. I never said anything like that.

Norton: What they asked of Ric was absolutely insane. They wanted him to turn against his own country.

Flair (in his 2004 book, To Be the Man): This is how I was quoted by the official North Korean press agency: “Before I leave this beautiful and peaceful country, I would like to make a tribute to the great leader, Mr. Kim Il-sung, who had devoted his life to the Korean people’s happiness, prosperity and Korean unification. His Excellency, Kim Il-sung, will always be with us.”

Scott Steiner: Even though we got our passports back, I didn’t feel comfortable until we were in the air and touched down in Japan, to tell you the truth.

Rick Steiner: As soon as we hit ground and went through customs, man, everybody was cheering and hollering.

Norton: It was pouring rain and we walked off the steps of that plane and Flair, in his $3,000 suit, got on his hands and knees and kissed the ground and said, ‘I love Japan.’ That’s when he said, ‘We’re going out tonight.’ When Flair went out, you went out. We went out for sushi at like 1:30 in the morning. We had to go right back on the road the next day, but we stayed out late.

Scorpio: A lot of us was just happy to be back on Japanese soil, just to be able to be free again without having a tour guide and cameras and microphones and everything else all around us. You can go out and be yourself with the boys and get drunk and act like an a--hole because now you’re back in Tokyo.

[After a few days in Japan, including performing on a New Japan show at the Fukuoka Dome that drew 48,000 fans, many of the Americans on the trip returned to the United States. There had been some Western news coverage of the North Korean tour, including Chinoy’s CNN report and bewildered accounts from the Associated Press and Reuters. Yet when the Americans got back home, not only did Bischoff’s feared punishments fail to materialize, but also much of any reaction at all was non-existent.]

Mike Chinoy
Mike Chinoy
Image still courtesy of CNN

Bischoff: I thought, There’ll be some blowback when we get back and it’ll be a kind of important thing. But, nothing. I got back and it was kind of business as usual. My boss said, ‘Hey, next time let’s have a conversation.’

Scott Steiner: To tell you the truth, it really wasn’t a subject a lot of people asked about, other than a couple friends. You travel around the world, once you travel around a few times, you’re kind of numb to the fact of what you’ve accomplished until years later.

Rick Steiner: The thing about those trips is you experience all that stuff, and then you go home and you don’t see the guys for two or three weeks. It all sinks in and you get back and oh yeah, remember that trip? And blah blah blah, you’re back on the road, back in the United States, back having fun. Everything was back to normal.

[pagebreak]

‘It Just Vanished into Thin Air’

[That August, WCW aired a selection of matches from the two shows—dubbed with additional crowd noise and commentary from Bischoff, Onoo and WCW broadcaster Mike Tenay—as a pay-per-view called Collision in Korea. Two-months-old and divorced entirely from the company’s ongoing storylines, the offering drew only about 30,000 curious buys, a departure from the low six-figures typical of a WCW show at the time. It was a harbinger of the show’s odd, unremarkable place in American pro wrestling culture.]

Meltzer: In Japanese wrestling history, it’s a legendary show. In United States history, it doesn’t really benefit anyone and the guys who would want to claim it don’t. Flair could claim he was in the main event of the most-attended wrestling show of all time, but for a variety of reasons, he never makes that claim. There’s probably more unpleasant than pleasant about that trip. In his mind, I think if he would have drawn 30,000 people with his promos and things like that, he would probably take more pride in that than the fact that he flew over and there were all those people in that stadium that were kind of ordered to be there.

[The trip’s legacy was further complicated in 2001, when WCW was purchased and absorbed by Vince McMahon’s WWE. As the United States’ sole wrestling megapower and current owner of much of its former competitor's video libraries and histories, WWE’s influence on the industry’s narrative—direct and indirect—is immense. Its RAW Magazine published an article on the tour in 2003, one of the company’s few celebrations of the shows; Collision in Korea is one of a number of international shows from either WCW or WWE excluded from the WWE’s on-demand digital network. It is worth noting, however, that WWE arranged an interview with Flair for this story.]

Bischoff: Let me make this real clear. I really like Vince McMahon—the entire family actually. I respect them and I enjoyed working with them tremendously. It doesn’t mean that I drink the Kool-Aid. And I think the WWE likes to promote the fact directly or indirectly that one of the largest arena shows in the United States was (1987’s Wrestlemania III) at the Silverdome in Detroit with Hulk Hogan in front of 93,000 people. Well, that was half of what we drew. So no matter how you want to spin it or distort it or twist it or shade it, that fact is an inconvenient fact for the branding and the positioning that the WWE is so great at.

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Meltzer: WWE, they want to claim these records, so this kind of hurts that narrative.

Bischoff: Even wrestling fans don’t realize the significance of what we did. Just take the top line of it: without question, the most attended event in the history of professional wrestling. Now, there’s a caveat there. Were they paying customers? I don’t think so. Maybe. But the fact is, over the course of two nights, 350,000 people came to a stadium and watched professional wrestling with some of the biggest stars of the time. I think that’s a phenomenal achievement.

Meltzer: Nobody really talks about it. It’s funny because for the guys on there, your whole career you talk about performing in front of 20,000 people like it’s a highlight or 50,000 people—then you’re in front of 150,000 people and you talk about it like it was the worst part of your career. I just remember when the guys got back, more horror stories of ‘oh my god’ than ‘we just performed in front of over 150,000 people.’

Scorpio: I never was in front of that many people ever. At least, in the wrestling business, that’s one thing I can say that Hogan hasn’t done yet.

Meltzer: They’re the two biggest-attended pro wrestling shows ever. They were not the two biggest paid, but they were the two biggest—by a huge margin, actually. Every record’s always broken, but I can’t imagine how this one would be.

[As for the shows’ supposed diplomatic aims, their effect on either side of the Pacific was largely nil.]

Chinoy: It was over and it was forgotten. It had no political impact in the United States. It was not followed up by any other sporting contests. North Korea was into what was probably the three worst years since the Korean War in terms of the famine. It happened, it created a momentary stir, it had no political impact. It left the people who had come to either participate or watch it with some memories, and then it just vanished into thin air, as things often do with North Korea. Just another weird episode to add to the list.

[The event also evidently offered little political boost to Inoki, who lost his re-election bid to Japan’s House of Councillors that August, beginning an 18-year absence from government that ended when he was again elected to the upper house of the National Diet. Inoki has continued making frequent visits to North Korea, including for a 2013 meeting with North Korean officials that earned him a 30-day suspension from the Diet. Last August, he organized a second pro wrestling show in Pyongyang, featuring Japan-based American wrestlers. Held at a smaller arena, the reported attendance was 15,000.]

[For those on the original trip, the experience has proved a mixed memory.]

Onoo: I saw that as a privilege to go there, to see for myself. It’s the government we have difficulty with. It’s certainly not the people. Their kids looked like any other kid. I’m glad I went there and got to see the human side of the people of North Korea. At the end of the day, people are people. We’re all looking for some kind of happiness.

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Flair: I don’t have any fond memory of that trip whatsoever.

Norton: I got to witness that (Inoki-Flair) match and meet Ali. Otherwise, you can keep that country and those sons of b------.

Scorpio: It definitely was an experience in the world I wouldn’t change for anything, but it’s not something I would really want to do again.

Flair: Dennis Rodman and I are good friends and Dennis has wanted me to go back there with him three times. I said, ‘Dennis, you’re out of your mind.’

Rick Steiner: Going through it, s---, we were scared to death. But you come home and after it’s over, it kind of brings back some old memories and stuff that you went through and you’ve seen and got to be a part of. Muhammad Ali—that’s pretty monumental, to do something with him. You just remember the good things. It’s like anything else. You bust your a-- and never realize what kind of situation you’re in or how significant the event is until you look back years later, and holy cow, that was a big deal.

Onoo: Anywhere I go, if I tell people that I actually went to North Korea, they go, What? It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing. Or, I hope it was. It’s hard for me to believe, even today, that I was actually there.

Bischoff: That was probably one of the best experiences that I’ve had, outside of my children being born and having a great family. Of all the things that happened to me in my career—there’s been a lot—that, still to this day, stands out as something that I did, and every time I think about it I just go, I can’t believe I actually did that. That was amazing. That was crazy.

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