By Joseph R. Svinth
Copyright © Joseph R. Svinth 2006. All rights reserved.
Tokugoro Ito was a leader of the Seattle Dojo from 1907 to 1911, and a leader of the Rafu Dojo in Los Angeles from 1917 to 1921. He was also a famous professional wrestler of his day.
Tokugoro Ito, ca. 1909. After photo by Rogers. Art by Dan Deever 2001. All rights reserved.
Ito was born in 1880. He joined the Kodokan on January 15, 1899, and by November 1899, he was ranked 1-dan. Following graduation from Tokyo Higher Normal School, he won a major judo championship. This secured him a job teaching judo at Tokyo Imperial University. Promotions followed: 2-dan on May 26, 1900, 3-dan on January 10, 1901, and 4-dan on January 14, 1904. But, wanting to see the world, he went to Seattle in 1907.
When Ito disembarked SS Tango Maru on July 10, 1907, he was 27 years old and single. Although he listed his occupation as merchant, there are some indications that the Seattle Japanese Association had brought him to Seattle to intimidate union organizers and patrons of Chinese-owned gambling houses and brothels. So, picture Ito as Jack Palance in a Japanese version of Shane, and you may not be far wrong. Unfortunately, details remain unclear. So, all that is known for sure is that Tokugoro Ito spent most of his time in Seattle working as a professional wrestler.
Many sources credit Ito with establishing the Seattle Dojo. This is not exactly true. The Seattle Dojo was probably founded in 1904, and its first leader was Iitaro Kono, a Kodokan 2-dan who arrived in Seattle on May 20, 1903. Nonetheless, Ito's impact was profound. According to Sego Murakami, who trained with Ito in Los Angeles around 1916, "Ito was very, very strict. He ran the dojo according to Kodokan rules. When he would walk into the dojo, everyone would stop practice and turn to bow to him." This was rather in contrast to Kono, whose style the Seattle Times described on March 10, 1907 as follows:
Always with a smile, Kono takes the novices who come to him one by one and patiently teaches them the rudiments of his art, slipping and gliding with them over the mat, encouraging and instructing them in a low voice and occasionally throwing himself to show what the pupil should have done to him. If one of the more advanced members of the class succeeds in genuinely tumbling him upon his back, no one is more pleased and amused than Kono. Of course, he outclasses the rest, but there are several among his pupils who can and do give him a hard time.
Early students at the Seattle Dojo included the future boxer and newspaper editor, James Y. Sakamoto.
Ito's first mention in Seattle's English-language press came as the result of an exhibition held at Egan's Hall on April 18, 1908. During this show, Ito wrestled with Inako a bit, then had someone explain the proceedings to the audience in both English and Japanese. "Judo," said the writer for the Seattle Times, "is an all comprehensive word… It not only means the jiu-jitsu …[but also] all the games that expand the chests and develop the general physique of the men from Japan."
On January 8, 1909, the Kodokan promoted Ito to 5-dan. Probably Ito received the news in the mail a month or so after the fact.
On September 2, 1909, Ito had a jacketed wrestling match with a Los Angeles wrestler named Eddie Robinson. The match was scheduled for the evening before Japan Day at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. It took place at Seattle's Grand Opera House, and it was scheduled to last twenty minutes. If there were no decision in this time, there would be a ten-minute break followed by another twenty-minute bout. This pattern would continue until there was decision, which in this case meant one man or the other surrendered unconditionally to the other.
Contest rules required both men to wear canvas jackets and prohibited striking with the clenched fist, gouging, biting, or kicking. Everything else went – and did. Said Portus Baxter in the Post-Intelligencer the following morning:
Robinson started out by jabbing Ito three times straight in the face… Before the first bout was two minutes old, blood was flowing from Ito's nose…
Ito locked his legs around the white man and began to 'scissor' him. Next he got a strangle hold, using Robinson's neck cloth as a tourniquet, and slowly forced the American into submission by the process of strangulation. The time was 10 minutes 55 seconds.
The second bout lasted three minutes… Again the Japanese tied on the tourniquet and Robinson's face went red and then black. He was helped to his corner, and in spite of the vicious fight they had gone through, the Japanese was the first to assist Robinson. That was a piece of real sportsmanship.
In Robinson's corner, said Ed Hughes in the Seattle Times: "Kind friends held Eddie's head while he heaved up everything but his Adam's apple. Then it was that one of those doubting Thomases who always has a seat at the ringside and usually comes in on a pass, made the remark: 'I guess this bout was on the square.' If Ito and Robinson were only fooling last night, the militia would be called out if the real thing was put on."
The referee -- though one wonders why one was required -- was Benjamin Franklin Roller, a former University of Washington professor turned professional wrestler. (Wrestling paid better than teaching, said Roller.)
Two weeks later, on September 18, 1909, Ito staged another judo demonstration for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. Although thirty male and two female judoka participated, the highlight of the evening was Ito throwing five men in succession.
Meanwhile, the promoters Jack Curley and "Kid" Herman Lanfield announced that they had arranged for George Braun of San Francisco to meet Ito in Seattle. Braun claimed to have beaten all the best jujutsu men in California, and, said Ed Hughes of the Times, "like a good many others who come from there he cannot be convinced that there are any good athletes outside of that state." Braun also closed his custom-made judo jacket with a belt made of twisted American flags. This irreverence offended Ito, who insisted that Braun wear a simple cloth belt during their match. Otherwise, the uniforms Ito and Braun wore were similar to those worn today, though jacket sleeves were approximately elbow length and trousers were hemmed at the knee rather than the ankle.
The Ito-Braun match took place at the Seattle Theatre on November 12, 1909. The main event was scheduled for 8:30 p.m. and Seattle Athletic Club's wrestling instructor Tom McDonald was the referee.
When Braun strutted in, he boasted that he would eat the Japanese alive. Ito just walked in. Once the wrestling started, the relationship changed. "Braun proved to be an awful false alarm," Ed Hughes wrote afterward. "Ito won the first bout in two minutes and twenty seconds and he took the second bout and the match in just forty-three seconds."
When the men shaped up for the first bout Ito stood erect in an easy attitude watching the Frisco champion make a lot of silly motions with his hands and grimaces with his face. Finally Braun lunged in and got hold of Ito's jacket. The Japanese broke the hold easily and grabbing Braun by the collar he kicked his feet from under him and slammed him to the mat heavily. In a twinkling Ito got a strangle hold and flopping over on his back he wrapped his legs around Braun, rolled off the canvas with him and calmly waited for Braun's wind to be shut off…
Braun had lost his strut when he came on for the second round… He made a headlong dive for Ito's legs. He got them all right, but he also got Ito's stubby, strong fingers gripped around his throat. Ito dropped on his back, carrying Braun with him, and again he wrapped his legs around the white man's body, holding him as if in a vise. That cruel grip on the throat did the work…
Ito knew Braun was done, for even before the referee patted him on the back Ito suddenly released his hold, straightened Braun to a sitting position, and hit him a thump between the shoulders to wake him up… After a lot of slapping and kneading, Braun's eyelids finally fluttered, and in a half gasp he wanted to know if many were killed when the roof fell in. He did not have a word to say about eating Japs alive then.
Unsurprisingly, Seattle's Japanese community went wild. The editor of the Seattle Times went wild, too, and called for an end to professional jujutsu matches. The problem was that, in this era of Jack Johnson and White Hopes, "The audience was mainly composed of Japanese and they enjoyed the performance hugely. The white men were not so well pleased."
During March 4-8, 1910, Ito staged a four-day sumo tournament in Seattle. The "bouts took place in a big basement, and it was banked from floor to ceiling with Japanese," said Portus Baxter of the Post-Intelligencer. Other European Americans in attendance included William M. Inglis, George F. Vanderveer, and Tom McDonald, all from the Seattle Athletic Club.
On March 16, 1910, Ito participated in another professional wrestling match. His opponent was Julius Johnson, and the venue was Seattle's Grand Opera House. From Poulsbo, Washington, Johnson was the 1908 Northwest AAU middleweight wrestling champion and the wrestling coach for the Norwegian Turners (e.g., Turnverein, or gymnastics association). Because the Seattle sports knew that Johnson could wrestle, they awaited the match eagerly.
In the betting on the main event, the Japanese preferred Ito, while the European Americans preferred Johnson. Due to reported weight differences, the odds were about even: Johnson weighed about 160 pounds while Ito was said to weigh about 143 pounds (but probably weighed more). Johnson admitted that he was at a disadvantage wearing the jacket, but he believed that he could use his greater weight and strength to "put a few of the punishing holds of wrestling on the little brown man."
Pay for the event was the winner getting 65 percent of the gate (minus expenses) while the loser got 35 percent. The referee was the Seattle Athletic Club's James W. Morrison. Preliminaries included sumo.
Ito won the match. Said Ed Hughes of the Times afterward:
Ito lay on his back with his bare feet raised straight up. He put his feet into Johnson's stomach, and balanced him so nicely that every time Johnson lunged forward to get a grip on Ito's throat, the latter raised Johnson's body just enough to make him fall short in his clutch and then gently inched his way along the mat on his back out of danger. He kept Johnson's fingers twitching at his throat for fully a minute and all the time he was getting himself out of danger. It was a very clever trick and timed to the fraction of a second with every hostile move on the part of Johnson.
Added Portus Baxter on March 17:
The Japanese call that hold the 'erijime,' and it is as deadly as a noose. The second bout was much the same as the first... The hold was slightly different, one wrist being across the opponent's throat. It is called the 'hadakaji,' and is just as punishing as the other.
Before the main bout, four of Ito's pupils at sumo, or Japanese wrestling, gave a very interesting exhibition. Sumo is much different from jiu-jitsu, but contains all of the latter's undeniable qualities of speed and fast footwork.
Although sorry that Johnson lost, Baxter noted that judo matches were exciting.
There is more excitement packed into one minute of jiu-jitsu than in ten rounds of boxing or ten days of wrestling. The hand-to-hand, body-to-body style of combat, the rough-and-tumble rules, as well as no small measure of racial feeling, stirs the blood of the spectators. White and brown men were carried off their feet last night by the furious work of the two combatants, and the opera house was a pandemonium while the wrestlers were struggling on the canvas mat.
These wins made Ito notorious in Seattle and "a number of fellows in town," Ed Hughes wrote in the Seattle Times, "are scratching their heads trying to think of some white man who can beat him." The consensus was that Seattle needed someone familiar with jacket wrestling. Tim Harrington, a Cornish (e.g., British jacket) wrestler from Butte, Montana, was wished for, but everybody figured he was too old. Still, a letter was sent to Butte saying that a good Cornish wrestler could "get a man's sized contract by coming here to down Prof. Ito."
On October 27, 1910, Ito staged a judo exhibition for Seattle's Japanese community. The venue was the recently opened Nippon Kan Theatre and the occasion was a visit by Tsunejiro Tomita, who had been judo founder Jigoro Kano's first training partner. In early 1905, Tomita and a younger judoka named Mitsuyo Maeda had established a judo club at 1947 Broadway in New York City. "It is part of the system of judo to smile while we are at practice," Tomita once told a reporter for the New York World. And, at the time of his Seattle visit, Tomita was surely smiling, for he was on his way home to Japan.
In January 1911, Ito organized a three-day sumo tournament at the Nippon Kan. Results of this tournament were not published in either the Times or Post-Intelligencer.
In May 1911, Ito participated in a jacketed wrestling match with Joe Acton, a British catch-as-catch-can wrestler living in Everett, Washington. Acton (who was apparently no relation to the Joe Acton who taught wrestling at Portland's Multnomah Amateur Athletic Club from 1898-1908) said he had done a lot of jujutsu-style wrestling in England. This is possible, as the British judoka Yukio Tani defeated the "celebrated Light Weight Joe Acton," as Vim Magazine termed him, in just seven minutes in 1904.
Anyway, Acton met Ito at Seattle's Grand Opera House on May 18, 1911. The preliminaries included four of Ito's students having sumo and judo matches. In the main event, Acton provided Ito's easiest victory to date. Said Ed Hughes:
After he found out that he could handle his man Ito gave an exhibition of a number of ways in which a good jiu-jitsu man can disable an opponent. He did not put his man away in a hurry, as he used to do, but showed a number of different holds. Jiu-jitsu is really one of the most entertaining and instructive of the arts of self-defense, and if a man of Ito's ability could be secured to meet him, a bout that would be worth going miles to see would result.
According to Henry Furukawa, writing in the Post-Intelligencer on May 21, 1911:
Ito threw his opponent on 'Hijaguma,' and before he could get on foot grabbed Acton on his jacket collar and choked him breathless in three minutes, ending the first bout. Acton was actually dazed and seemed unconscious for a few moments.
The second bout was over in two minutes, Ito getting the dreadful arm hold in a short time and Acton gave in. In all Prof. Ito's jiu-jitsu matches in Seattle he won them in such deciding manner that his opponents looked like nothing but 'dubs.'
Ito was in Portland on the evening of June 9, 1911. By now, his weight was up to about 160 pounds, which meant he was about the same size as the 165-pound Farmer Watson. The first fall took 5 minutes, 33 seconds, and ended with Ito getting an armbar stranglehold. Afterward, Watson remained unconscious for about a minute. The second fall took three minutes, and ended with Referee Mike Butler stopping the match when it became clear that Watson would be unable to escape Ito's jacket stranglehold.
In 1912, Ito joined Mitsuyo Maeda in Cuba. In January 1907, Maeda had left New York for Britain. In March 1908, Maeda went to Belgium but he didn't like the country or the language so he soon returned to Britain. From there, he went to Spain, Italy, and France. In December 1908, Maeda went to New York. After a few days there, he went to Havana. In Cuba, his act proved very popular, so Maeda brought a physically larger judo 4-dan, Shinshiro Satake, to Havana to be his partner. (It looks better to the audience when the smaller wrestler throws the larger.) In July 1909, Maeda and Satake went to Mexico City, but there was much political unrest in Mexico, so the two men returned to Havana in July 1910. In Cuba, Maeda issued challenges to Frank Gotch and Jack Johnson. Of course, those two worthies ignored him, as there was no money in such a match. Meanwhile, Maeda told other judoka about the money he was making in Cuba. This in turn led to the arrival of Akitaro Ono in 1911 and Tokugoro Ito in 1912.
Together, the four Japanese were billed as the Four Kings of Cuba. Because Satake had joined the Kodokan first, he was arguably the senior, followed by Maeda, Ono, and Ito. From the standpoint of rank, Maeda was technically the senior, having been promoted to 5-dan on January 8, 1912. Ito, however, told the Los Angeles Times that he was the strongest judoka of the quartet.
During 1913 and 1914, the Four Kings traveled throughout Central and South America. In El Salvador, the president watched a demonstration and then hired Maeda to teach the army for two months. Soon after, the Salvadoran president was assassinated, so the Four Kings left the country. The Four Kings also spent time in Panama, where they participated in shows in the Canal Zone. In February 1918, the Los Angeles Times had this to say about Ito's recollections of this portion of the South American trip:
He [Ito] laid out every man who took a chance. The champion of Panama, a little smaller than a house and weighing 195 pounds, challenged him to a rough-and-tumble. That's where the judo star shines. The champion didn't wait to be knocked out but quit after the second round. Had enough. At an American mining camp in Peru, 14,000 feet up on the Andes, that country's two best wrestlers were taken on simultaneously by Ito. They were heavyweights and somebody had to catch them to prevent falling clear off the range. Time, fifty-seven seconds. There were many similar contests.
During 1915, the Four Kings wrestled in Brazil, and then, on January 9, 1916, they separated. While Maeda went to Britain and Satake went to Mexico, Ito went to San Francisco.
On February 5, 1916, Ito had a match with the San Francisco wrestler Ad Santel. Ito lost this match, apparently after striking his head on the floor and being unable to continue. However, when the two men had a rematch on June 10, 1916, Ito won handily. Wrote Howard Angus in the Los Angeles Times on February 1, 1917, "Ito threw Santell (sic) around the ring like a bag of sawdust… When Ad gasped for air, the Japanese pounced upon him like a leopard and applied the strangle hold. Santell gave a couple of gurgles, turned black in the face and thumped the floor, signifying he had enough."
In January 1917, Ito went to Los Angeles. It took him little time to find the local judo club.
Mogusa Nina, a hard-drinking, fun-loving, 1-dan famous for his trick of doing a back flip on a newspaper without tearing it, is credited with establishing Rafu (literally "LA") Dojo in 1910. The first dojo, which measured maybe 20' by 30', was in a room behind a candy store on San Pedro Street. Like many other early judo schools, its floor was canvas over sawdust. The club had maybe seven or eight students, and the mat was open six nights a week.
By 1915, Rafu Dojo had a dozen students. This was more than the space could handle, so the club moved into a larger room located behind a pool hall. "We all liked it there," recalled Sego Murakami, who started at Rafu Dojo in 1914. "That was because the dojo was right next to a Japanese bath house. When we were finished with our lessons, we used to go next door and relax by taking a bath." (Anthony DeLeonardis, "The Lively Early Years of U.S. Judo," Black Belt, March 1967, 26-31)
Toward the end of 1915, Rafu Dojo moved yet again, this time to Yamato Hall on Jackson Street. Upstairs was a gambling joint known as the Tokyo Club. The dojo's senior instructor, a 145-pound Kodokan 3-dan named Senna, was involved with the gamblers from upstairs and Ito didn't like it. In fact, Murakami told Anthony DeLeonardis, "Ito told Senna sternly that he would never allow him back into the dojo because he didn't understand the true meaning of judo. But Ito relented later after Senna apologized and promised not to go back to gambling."
This suggests that Ito didn't mind working for gamblers but distrusted wrestlers who owed money to gamblers.
In Los Angeles, Ito began arranging a match with a German strongman named Wilhelm Berne. Berne said he knew all about jujutsu, having wrestled Japanese attached to the Barnum and Bailey circus.
To draw spectators, promoter Tommy Tominaga had Berne visit Japanese athletic clubs throughout Southern California. Berne bent iron bands around his arms, broke horseshoes in his hands, and used a long pole to lift eight or ten men at a time. Although wrestlers sniffed at the legerdemain, the Japanese working men were awed. "You know, I really didn't think Ito would be able to do anything against Bonner [sic]," Sego Murakami told Anthony DeLeonardis. "That Bonner was really big and strong. He could tear a telephone book in half with his bare hands."
The Ito-Berne match was scheduled for three 20-minute periods. Jackets were required and only eye and groin gouges were prohibited. This caused some speculation about whether boxing was allowed, but in the end, it didn't matter because neither man did any.
The doors to the Shrine Auditorium opened at 5:30 p.m. on February 10, 1917. At least two thousand Japanese and a handful of European Americans came to watch. Preliminary bouts in the catch-as-catch-can style started at 8:00 p.m. The Japanese watched these in utter silence. Then there was an hour and a half delay, as Berne refused to go on unless paid his share ($650) in cash, in advance. By the time the money was raised, it was nearly 11:00 p.m. Although the European Americans were restive, the Japanese Americans waited patiently for their hero to arrive. When he did, wrote Howard Angus in the Los Angeles Times:
Suddenly each one of those little brown men became a human volcano. They rose in their seats and shouted, 'Ito, Ito' in 2000 different voices.
Berne followed. The German stalked around the ring, almost twice the size of the little Japanese wrestler. The two came together. Berne chopped and kicked at Ito, but the little wonder from Japan eluded him so easily that Berne looked ridiculous…
Next, Ito threw the strongman. "It was a seionage [shoulder throw], I think," said Murakami. "We judomen all let out a cheer and began to feel a little better." Repeatedly, Ito tossed Berne. "Fourteen times in all he threw him," said Murakami. Finally, wrote Angus:
Ito went down under Berne. The latter grabbed for the Japanese throat. Ito wrapped his leg around Berne's arm and twisted. To save his arm from being broken, the German pushed Ito out of the ring, both tumbling into the crowd.
When they went on the mat again, Ito again went under, again wrapped his leg around Berne's arm and this time it gave way…
When the announcement was made that Ito had won, the Japanese went wild. They rushed into the ring and fairly stormed him. They threw him above their heads several times, caught him and carried him out of the ring with all the other Japanese who could not squeeze into the ring, yelling, 'Ito, Ito,' until it seemed their lungs must bust.
Like Murakami, Angus was impressed by the ease of Ito's victory. Still, he recognized that Berne was a better strongman than wrestler and he remained curious to see how Ito would do "against a clever, scientific, quick-thinking wrestler."
Seeing a lot of Japanese money for the taking, the local promoters quickly picked up the challenge. Among these promoters were a couple of somewhat shady characters named Tim McGrath and Puss Halbriter. In March 1917, Ito told sportswriter Howard Angus that he didn't have anything against McGrath and Halbriter, but the outcome of his matches was far too important to trust to their hands. Therefore, he would only appear in matches approved by a newspaper editor named Kamima, who had arranged wrestling and judo matches in Japan before coming to the United States.
The first match approved by Kamima was a match with the "Greek Wildman" Gus Kervaras. This contest took place at Vernon's Maier Park on July 4, 1917. As usual, Ito won in two straight falls. Reported the Los Angeles Times afterwards:
Gus knew nothing about jiu-jitsu and felt about as much at home with Ito as a baby carriage at a birth-control meeting. Knowing nothing about the Japanese sport, Gus decided that the best way to make a showing was to make it a rough-house…
While Gus was unable to defeat Ito, it would be unfair not to mention that he won a quick decision over Tommy Tominaga, the Japanese referee. When Tominaga reproved Gus for his playful way of spitting in Ito's eye, the Greek charged on him and quickly drove him to a safe spot in the corner…
[Kervaras'] actions were uncouth and out of place. On the other hand, Gus did no damage by them, except to his own reputation, and without them wouldn't have lasted five minutes with the professor. Gus can put up a reasonably good bout as a wrestler, but as a jiu-jitsu expert he has nothing, absolutely nothing.
Ito's next public appearance came during a patriotic sports program staged at Exposition Park on September 1, 1917. Said the Los Angeles Times:
Higami and Higashi, Japanese, as the names imply, politely jiu-jitsued to a draw. [Pat] Higgins and Higami illustrated judo methods of throwing off opponents, after which Prof. Ito twisted one Nitta, and also Mr. Higgins, in exhibitions. Sato won a snappy jiu [jitsu] bout with Nagano.
Two weeks later, Ito was scheduled to meet 190-pound Dan Balsz in Calexico, Mexico. The occasion was Mexican Independence Day. A bullfight was scheduled for the morning and the wrestling was scheduled for the afternoon. Unfortunately, bull fighting was illegal in Mexico from 1915 to 1919, and the police stopped the bullfight. So, when Ito arrived the crowd was mean. Worse, Balsz didn't show. Instead, he sent Wilhelm Berne – and the thousands of Japanese in the crowd knew that Ito had already beaten Berne. So this was one unhappy crowd.
Recognizing the risk, Ito and Berne went through the first twenty minutes without a fall, and then during the first scheduled intermission, they joined referee Yankee Rogers running for the border. Said Rogers afterward:
I was in such a hurry to get out of that joint alive that I didn't stop to raise anybody's hand. If I had given any decision at all it would have been 'no contest' as they had wrestled for more than one period without any particular advantage and there was no decision to give.
During the fall of 1917, Ito tried to arrange a contest with heavyweight champion Ed "Strangler" Lewis, but Lewis went in the service and nothing came of this.
During the weekend of December 1-2, 1917, Ito organized an athletic event. The venue was Rafu Dojo, which was still at Yamato Hall on Jackson Street. Sixty participants were expected. According to the Los Angeles Times, "There will be thirteen contests each night for ratings, as the belts of three different colors will be awarded." A kendo exhibition that included some young women and a boxing exhibition featuring Pat Higgins, George Blake, and Leach Cross were also on the card.
Next, Ito decided he wanted to, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, "open up a jiu-jitsu academy where the most elite can learn the Japanese art of defense." Toward this end, he took a job teaching judo at the exclusive and influential Los Angeles Athletic Club. His first day of work was February 4, 1918. "When the professor steps into the gymnasium at noon today," said the Los Angeles Times, "and begins training his first classes it will be nothing particularly new to him, but it will mark a departure among American athletic institutions [on the Pacific Coast]. He will be the first Japanese instructor in such a club, and this will be the first club in which judo, the highest development of the art of self-defense and physical culture is taught." The innovation was owed to club vice-president Frank Garbutt, who the Los Angeles Times said was "always ready to go to the ends of the earth for an instructor provided he is the best of his kind."
Ito did well at the Los Angeles Athletic Club. He mostly taught youths, sometimes even giving exhibitions at local high schools. He had several adult students, however, including Francis L. Daugherty, Pat Higgins, and Jim Sword. He also trained with Walter Miller and other competent catch-as-catch-can wrestlers. Still, he wasn't training nearly as hard as he had when he had trained solely at Japanese clubs. Worse, he appears to have become overconfident, because during March 1919, he was embarrassed publicly by the judo skills of a female vaudevillian named Lura Bennett. Although Bennett, who had learned her judo in Cuba from Mitsuyo Maeda, had no hope of actually beating Ito, the fact that she made Ito work for his points caused the local sports no end of amusement.
Shortly after the Bennett fiasco, Ito participated in Los Angeles' first postwar "finish" wrestling match. "Because of a scarcity of worthy opponents," said the Los Angeles Times, "it has been almost impossible for the [Los Angeles Athletic] club to arrange a bout for Ito."
Ito's opponent was Ted Thye, a competent catch-as-catch-can wrestler from Oregon. The agreement was that the first fall would be with both wrestlers wearing jackets, while the second fall would be in catch-as-catch-can. If a third fall were required, then a coin toss would determine the style.
The Thye-Ito match took place at the Los Angeles Athletic Club on April 3, 1919. While open to the public, as a finish match women were not allowed to attend. Preliminaries included both catch-as-catch-can and judo matches. Both men weighed about 158 pounds. Thye, at 27, was eight years younger than Ito, and at 5'8", was three inches taller.
Thye was sure he would win, but Ito was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying this before the match:
Mr. Thye is a hard man for attack. I think best American wrestler his weight, but I have confident belief in jiu jitsu tricks much superior to catch-can. This will prove itself in real finish fight with Mr. Thye and I have full intention make this statement good, which I hope public witness Thursday night. Judo dangerous to finish opponent, but I hope nobody hurt. I am pleased for opportunity of demonstration my art to win.
The match itself was shorter than the sportswriters expected. Said the Los Angeles Times afterward:
After three minutes of feeling each other out, Thye dropped the Japanese jiu-jitsu expert and both rolled to the corner of the ring with Thye on top and with Ito entangled in the ropes. Referee Pat Higgins brought the wrestlers to the center and in a few seconds Ito was on his feet again.
After the bout had gone approximately five minutes, Ito executed one of the well-known jiu-jitsu stunts, that of falling on his back, placing his foot in Thye's abdomen and hurling him through space. The moment Thye hit the canvas the alert Jap was on top of his prey, grabbing both sides of the jacket and thus obtaining a wicked strangle hold. Thye frantically patted the floor of the ring and instead of allowing his man to rise, Ito placed an arm lock on the half dazed Thye, causing the injury which prevented the Portland man from continuing with the match…
There are many who are wondering why the Jap did not release his opponent after Pat Higgins had gotten a head-lock on him and at the same time tugging with all his strength to pry the two men apart.
Thye proposed a rematch in catch-as-catch-can, but Ito, who would only wrestle in jackets, politely declined the invitation.
In June 1919, a former U.S. Army close-quarter battle instructor named Al Williams challenged Ito to a match. Unfortunately, Ito injured himself during training, and so the match was rescheduled for March 24, 1920. This rescheduled match also may have been cancelled; at least, I did not find the results in the Los Angeles Times. In October 1920, Jack Meyers, wrestling as Constantine Romanoff, challenged Ito to a "no-holds barred" match. Again, I found no results.
During late 1921 or early 1922, Ito learned that his father was ill, so he returned to Japan. There, he soon got a job teaching judo at a middle school in Kakunodate, in Akita Prefecture. His teenaged students included Hideo Ohba, who later became a high-ranking practitioner of Tomiki-style aikido.
Ito died in Nangai-mura, Akita Prefecture, on January 22, 1939. Cause of death was given as cerebral hemorrhage. Although ranked 7-dan at his death, he was mourned more in Seattle and Los Angeles than Japan.