How North Korea held the biggest event in wrestling history
The Korean War never really ended.
South Korea did not agree to the 1953 armistice and so China, North Korea and the United States have never formally made peace with one another.
While the conflict has largely faded from American memory – so much so that it is often referred to in The States as ‘the forgotten war’ – the same cannot be said for North Koreans.
Hatred of the USA and fear of an imminent American invasion permeates every echelon of North Korean society.
At school tug-of-war competitions, the rope is often tied around an effigy of a US soldier – commonly shown with a comedically large nose.
The Sinchon Museum of American War Crimes is one of the country’s top tourist destinations.
Americans are even blamed for the country’s terrible internet connection.
With such an ingrained hatred for all things American, it would be safe to assume that professional wrestling is taboo in North Korea because, well, does it get any more American than pro wrestling?
The biggest wrestling star of all time, Hulk Hogan, has an entrance theme which includes the lyrics: “I am a real American, fight for the rights of every man.”
One of the biggest annual pay-per-views in the sport during the 1990s was the Great American Bash.
With wrestling inextricably intertwined with American patriotism, it would be completely farfetched to even dream of the sport coming into contact with the people of North Korea.
Well, in 1995, that’s exactly what happened, when Pyongyang hosted the most heavily attended professional wrestling event in the sport’s history.
The event was produced by World Championship Wrestling (which, back in the 90s, was as big as the WWE) and New Japan Pro Wrestling, and the card boasted household names such as Ric Flair, Antonio Inoki, and Road Warrior Hawk.
The event had been brokered by Antonio Inoki, a Japanese professional wrestler who had a famous exhibition fight with Muhammad Ali back in 1976.
Inoki was also a member of the House of Councillors within the Japanese Diet.
Inoki was well versed in using wrestling as a geopolitical tool. In 1990 he had travelled to Iraq to negotiate with Saddam Hussein for the release of Japanese prisoners at the onset of the Gulf War. He agreed to host a wrestling show in Baghdad, following which all 41 Japanese captives were released.
He hoped that by taking Japanese and American wrestling into North Korea he could ease regional tensions and win re-election in the 1995 Japanese House of Councillors election.
For WCW president Eric Bischoff meanwhile, this was a huge opportunity to gain publicity for the company as it competed with Vince McMahon’s WWF/WWE.
That said, Bischoff ran into some trouble in trying to convince his top stars to travel to the Hermit Kingdom. Hulk Hogan rejected the offer, saying something along the lines of “I’m going to sit this one out, brother.”
On his podcast 83 Weeks, Bischoff explained that “Everybody knew it was a country run by a dictator and it was a country that was off limits. I think fear of what people didn’t know was a much bigger issue than I thought it would be. I look back at it now and it was stupid. I probably wouldn’t do it again today.”
Despite the US requiring its citizens to request permission to travel to North Korea, the wrestlers that travelled did not check in with Washington first, and instead “just went” according to Bischoff.
They brought Muhammad Ali along with them, too.
Upon arrival in what Bischoff described as the “desolate desert” of North Korea, the groups of American and Japanese wrestlers were split into pairs and had their passports confiscated.
Each pair had an assigned ‘guide’ – most likely a member of the Korean equivalent of the Secret Service.
The wrestlers had reason to feel like they were being spied on because, well, they were. This was best shown when WCW star Scott Norton made the mistake of calling North Korea a “shithole” over the phone to his wife. Military personnel immediately burst into the room, and Norton was arrested.
He escaped with just a warning, having been “sure” that he was going to be shot dead. The wrestlers were careful not to say anything that the all-seeing all-hearing regime might find offensive for the rest of the trip.
The event, which was branded the ‘Collision in Korea’ but officially known as the ‘Pyongyang International Sports and Culture Festival for Peace’, was hosted over two days in April 1995.
1995 was a big year for North Korea. The country’s founder and leader Kim Il-Sung had died in July 1994, and the world was unsure of the path in which his successor, Kim Jong-Il, would take the country.
The reported crowd sizes of 150,000 on the first day and 165,000 on the second – which are larger than any Wrestlemania crowd in history – could on the surface be perceived as evidence of the Hermit Kingdom opening up to external influence.
The truth instead is that most of the attendees were there against their will. Most sat in silence during the event, stunned by the extravagance of what was expected to be a simple amateur wrestling show.
The fans did show some excitement when Inoki – who is of Korean descent – beat the blonde-haired American Ric Flair in the show’s main event.
Photos of a ‘beaten up’ Flair were used in anti-American propaganda by the North Korean regime in the following years.
This was really the highlight of the show, which in the end turned out to be a bit of a damp squib despite the record-setting audience figures.
It should have been a watershed moment for wrestling, but the pay-per-view broadcast only managed 30,000 buys – way below what WCW PPVs were typically drawing at the time.
It should have been a watershed moment for North Korea’s relationship with the West, too. Just 19 years earlier, US soldiers were being axed to death on the North/South Korean border. For American celebrities to even set foot on North Korean territory was a huge step.
Again though, nothing really came of this overture. Frosty relations between the US and North Korea were not thawed by the Collision in Korea, and remained fractious throughout the remainder of the 90s and into the 21st century.
Despite the historic meetings between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un a couple of years back, North Korea continues to show no signs of opening up to the rest of the world.
You’d get pretty long odds on any high-profile wrestling promotion heading to Pyongyang any time soon, meaning that the Collision in Korea is going to remain a unique footnote in the history of both North Korea and the history of professional wrestling for many years to come.