Atsushi Aoki was a much-beloved star of both NOAH and All Japan, with a career of nineteen years at the peak of the Junior Heavyweight Divisions on both companies. Widely seen a positive force that bound a locker room together, tributes have been especially touching from the Gaijin workers who he took under his wing.
Aoki started in combat sports as an amateur wrestler in high school, then joined the Japanese Ground Self Defence Force, the equivalent of the Japanese Army. At the end of his enlistment, he began his career in NOAH in 2000 under the watchful eye of Jun Akiyama in 2005. He would enter a cauldron of Junior Heavyweight wrestling with men like KENTA, Taiji Ishimori, Davey Richards, Naomichi Marufuji and Daniel Bryan, already established stars there.
He would be patient and bide his time scoring well in tournaments as a rookie as well as spending time on extended learning excursions in the UK with RQW, IPW and WXW in Germany. He would also become a popular wrestler in Mexico, working for Lucha Libre AAA throughout the 2000s. By 2009, he had an established following as New Japan invited him to the Best of Super Juniors tournament where he made the semi-finals losing to Koji Kanemoto.
In 2010, NOAH developed a series designed to build Aoki into an all round challenger; the Shining Magic 10-Match Series was designed to be a tough challenge to Aoki and help develop him as a wrestler and he would face off against the biggest names in the country over a two year period. He would not be successful in those matches, winning only two, but it put him up against the best heavyweights in the company and re-established him a star talent. He would set his sights on Tag wrestling in the foreseeable future. In Mexico, he would join Go Shiozaki and defeat another NOAH team of Takeshi Morishima and Taiji Ishimori in May and teaming with KENTA to win the Nippon TV Tag League and, some time later, Naomichi Marufuji to win the GHC Jr Tag team titles in October. However, there were dark clouds on the horizon of the King’s Road.
Kenta Kobashi had been sidelined in 2012 with neck injuries that had plagued the later part of his career. As his contract would come to an end shortly, NOAH decided to sever ties with perhaps their greatest champion. Angered by what they saw as a betrayal, Aoki, Go Shiozaki, Jun Akiyama, Kotaro Suzuki and Yoshinobu Kanemaru decided not to resign as their contracts would expire on the same day, Christmas Eve 2012. They would revive an old name; Burning. The stable founded by Kobashi and NOAH founder Mitsuharu Misawa. Shiozaki and Kanemura had been part of the second incarnation of the group in NOAH but it was All Japan that was the stable’s original home and that is where they would re-emerge with Akiyama in the lead.
Aoki and Suzuki would take the All Asian Tag Team Championships, one of the oldest titles in Japan, by March. There would be a run of in-ring success in the next seven years in both tag and singles ranks. As his mentor, Jun Akiyama, became the lead booker and President of All Japan, Aoki’s role grew to include talent relations where he became the President in 2016, he would also float seamlessly between the Heavyweight and Junior Divisions. Taking the All Japan Jnr. Title four times, which he was holding at the time of his death, in this run and competing in the Championship Carnival Heavyweight tournament twice.
While he wasn’t a member of Burning for very long, he was a perfect match for that stable’s philosophy on wrestling. Strong hearts and perfect technique, he very much embodied the King’s Road style that had been pioneered by his friends and mentors in the decade before his rise to prominence. A touching tribute from Zack Sabre Junior, a colleague in NOAH, summed up the man.
Aoki was like a big brother to me in the NOAH dojo. He took such great care of me & I learnt so much from him. He was a kind, witty and incredibly skilled man. I’m really devastated. RIP mate.
— ZSJ. Ⓥ (@zacksabrejr) June 4, 2019
He will be sadly missed. Atsushi Aoki was 41 years old.
Feature image courtesy of NJPW.