Today on the blog, we introduce a new series that focuses on some of the tragic incidents that occurred throughout the history of professional wrestling. Unlike the Wrestling with Sin series which deals more with incidents involving drugs, arrests and suicides…’Grappling with Tragedy’ will focus more with unfortunate things like accidents that happened through the years. Incidents that in many ways, tragically altered the wrestling business.
Kazuharu Sonoda was a Japanese wrestler who was trained in the All Japan Dojo in the mid 1970’s. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, Sonoda was never a main even star anywhere he wrestled. Instead, he was a mid carder at best who would usually wrestle under a mask known as ‘The Magic Dragon.’ Sonoda wrestled throughout Japan and then traveled overseas to further his wrestling training.
At times, Sonoda wrestled without the Magic Dragon mask as ‘Professor’ Haru Sonoda. He competed in Puerto Rico for Carlos Colon’s World Wrestling Council and various U.S. territories including Texas and Georgia. It was in the States where Sonoda often teamed with one of his former trainers…Akihisa Mera…better known as ‘The Great Kabuki.’ The duo would ultimately be paired with one another in some way…for the remainder of Sonoda’s career.
While the pair did tag frequently, they were both known to play the same gimmick at the same time. It all started with Akihisa Mera’s Great Kabuki character becoming very popular in the States. Many promoters wanted to book Kabuki for their respective territory. The Great Kabuki was primarily booked in Texas for Fritz Von Erich’s World Class promotion. On the side, however, Kabuki’s manager Gary Hart started taking bookings outside of WCCW…mainly for Georgia Championship Wrestling.
Hart said that Akihisa Mera would make an additional two thousand dollars in revenue for outside bookings. When Fritz got wind that Hart was booking Mera outside of World Class, he became angry and refused to allow it to continue. The problem was, Hart already had an agreement in place with Georgia booker Ole Anderson for The Great Kabuki to appear in his territory. With Fritz not budging on allowing outside bookings, Hart went back to Ole and delivered the bad news.
Ole became incensed and told Hart that he already advertised Kabuki for their weekend show. That’s when Hart came up with the suggestion to send Kazuharu Sonoda in Mera’s place and play the Kabuki character. At first, Ole flat out refused the idea, but Hart was able to convince Anderson that Sonoda could pull it off and no fans would be the wiser. Sonoda had pretty much the same body type as Mera and knew all of the Great Kabuki’s mannerisms.
The switch worked and soon Mera was using Sonoda more and more to portray the Kabuki character across the country when he was double booked. Akihisa Mera would take the bigger shows and Kazaharu Sonoda would take all the smaller shows. It isn’t known if the promoters were aware of the switches and were in on the ruse or if they were played like the fans. Either way, the plan was working and both wrestlers made money out of it.
In November of 1987, Tiger Jeet Singh was booking a five week wrestling tour of South Africa. The Great Kabuki was booked for the tour. At the time, Sonoda had just gotten married to a woman named Mayumi. As a nice gesture, Akihisa Mera offered the big money tour to his friend Sonoda. It would also double as a honeymoon for the newlywed couple. All Japan promoter Giant Baba offered to pay for Sonoda’s flight and honeymoon stay in South Africa.
On November 27, 1987…Kazuharu and Mayumi boarded South African Airways flight 295 in Taipei, Taiwan headed for Johannesburg, South Africa. About thirty five minutes into the flight, a fire broke out in the cargo area of the plane. Before long, the fire had engulfed the entire back end of the 747 aircraft. The fire destroyed all the electrical aspects of the plane and the pilots would lose contact with air traffic control. As the plane was headed for an emergency landing on the island republic of Mauritius…the back end of the plane broke off due to the extreme heat from the fire.
The plane would crash into the Indian Ocean killing all 159 passengers and crew on board. News of the disaster quickly made it across the globe and made front page headlines in Japan partly due to the fact that one of the deceased was a professional wrestler. It was later revealed that another All Japan wrestler named Raja Lion was also scheduled for that flight, but decided to take a later one at the last minute…averting his own demise.
As you could imagine, Akihisa Mera and Giant Baba were both filled with grief and guilt over the incident. Baba reportedly never fully got over his guilt and took that grief with him to his grave. The weeks and months after the crash, a full fledged investigation took place with some believing the fire was no accident, but a terrorist attack. That conspiracy was never proven true and the cause of the fire remains somewhat of a mystery to this day.
While Sonoda was never a main star in Japan or the United States…he did create a legacy for himself. One of his prized students that he was training…debuted just three months after his untimely death. That student was none other than the future Japanese legend….Kenta Kobashi. Kazuharu Sonoda was just 31 years old at the time of his death.