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Oral History of Pro Wrestling’s 1995 Historic Excursion into North Korea

In 1995, long before Dennis Rodman sparked international outcry with similar trips, a most unlikely group of Americans visited North Korea against all advice: a troupe of major professional wrestlers, a pair of wrestling officials, Muhammad Ali’s photographer and Ali himself.

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

[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

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.

Hawkamania

by Maffewgregg

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.