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Where Are They Now? Kaientai
Getting both Taka Michinoku and Funaki together for a conversation isn’t as easy as taking a walk down the block.
It’s even harder when you don’t speak a lick of Japanese. Unfortunately, whoever did the voice dubbing for the two “EEEEEEEVILLLL” Superstars during their WWE tenure wasn’t available. So to get the skinny on Kaientai, WWE Classics set up a long-distance call from WWE headquarters in Stamford, Conn., to San Antonio, where Funaki currently resides and runs his own wrestling school. During our conversation, he took on another role, translator for his tag team partner.
From there, we dialed out to Japan, where it was just after midnight. Michinoku, the inaugural WWE Light Heavyweight Champion, took a break from the bustling nightlife to catch us up on his career in the Land of the Rising Sun, where he still competes, in addition to also running a wrestling school and promotion. ( CLASSIC PHOTOS | CURRENT PHOTOS | VIDEO PLAYLIST)
During a rowdy international conversation, WWE Classics learned that Taka and Funaki got their starts in Japan in the early 1990s. As they explained, all the wrestling companies in their homeland hold open tryouts for prospective students to earn places in their dojos. Taka caught on with Michinoku Pro Wrestling, the company from which he took his ring name. Funaki landed in the school of New Japan Pro Wrestling.
The two honed their craft for nearly a year before pairing up as a tag team in 1994. According to Funaki, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
“Taka’s style was based around high-flying, but mine was very traditional mat wrestling,” he explained. “There was a little confusion at first, but our timing was good. It took a little while, but it eventually came together.”
Despite the fact that the two found their biggest success in America as part of Kaientai, they weren’t members of the group’s original incarnation in Japan. Taka and Funaki were added to the team in 1995, joining Dick Togo, Mens Teioh and Kaz Hayashi. The exciting stable of wrestlers caused a stir in Japan, so much so that American companies had to take notice. After a show-stealing match at ECW’s inaugural pay-per-view, Barely Legal ( WATCH), Michinoku was on WWE’s radar, and would be making his debut on a much bigger stage soon.
“The Great Sasuke was making his WWE debut and needed an opponent,” Taka explained of the renowned masked Japanese wrestler. “He recommended me.”
Michinoku and Sasuke, one of his mentors, wowed the WWE Universe at In Your House: Canadian Stampede in July 1997 ( WATCH), as well as on the following night’s Raw. ( WATCH) Taka made such a big impression on WWE officials that he soon earned a full-time contract. Despite the fact that he spoke very little English, he jumped at the chance.
“I wasn’t nervous at all [about moving to America],” Michinoku said. “It was a great opportunity. I was very excited for the American lifestyle and to learn about a different culture.”
Taka quickly became the centerpiece of WWE’s new Light Heavyweight division, winning the tournament to crown the very first champion. His overseas success made him a star in his homeland, but the competition began to run a little thin in WWE. Wanting to prolong his stay in America, he asked WWE officials about bringing in a few of his old running buddies.
“Taka asked them if they were interested in any more Japanese wrestlers,” Funaki said. “They said a few more would be good, so he called me and asked me if I wanted to come to WWE.”
The answer was simple for Funaki.
“My dream, since I was a kid, was to wrestle in America,” he said. “It was easier than I thought it would be. I got a phone call from Taka and my dream came true.”
Funaki was joined by Togo and Teioh, and the three invaded WWE the night after WrestleMania XIV, when they attacked Taka. ( WATCH) Led by the devious Yamaguchi-San, the latest incarnation of Kaientai made life hell for Michinoku. Eventually, Taka couldn’t beat them by himself, so he joined them.
The group caused havoc on Raw during a racy rivalry with the controversial Val Venis ( WATCH), but by the end of 1998, Togo and Teioh headed back to Japan. Taka and Funaki may have lost their allies, but they had no intention of leaving the U.S. so quickly.
“We were always thinking about how we could stay in WWE for a long time,” Funaki said. “We were so small in WWE [size-wise], we needed to think about how to make ourselves valuable. We thought about what looks good, how to speak better English, all sorts of things.”
It turned out that their mastery of English wouldn’t need to be a big concern. In fact, they’d have all their talking done for them. Shane McMahon had an idea for Kaientai’s interviews to be shoddily dubbed over by voice actors, an homage to the cheesy English versions of Japanese monster movies. Taka and Funaki weren’t sure what to make of the goofy voiceovers, where “Taka” would declare that they were “EEEEVILLLL” before letting out an over-the-top cackle. “Funaki” would then seem to be in the midst of a lengthy diatribe, only for his voiceover to bellow one word: “INDEED.” Kaientai rolled with the punches and found it was working. ( WATCH)
“We were confused, but every night we did it, the crowd loved it,” Funaki said.
Michinoku quickly agreed before adding: “Then, we got Kaientai T-shirts!”
They rode their newfound success and popularity with the WWE Universe until late 2001, when a shoulder injury led to Taka’s departure from WWE.
Funaki, now on his own, was searching for a way to stay fresh. The opportunity didn’t come in the ring, but backstage, when an official gave him a microphone and asked him to handle some interviewing. Funaki instantly became SmackDown’s No. 1 announcer.
“I was so excited,” Funaki said about the new opportunity. “I was so happy to be on TV.”
Funaki balanced his announcing duties with a busy in-ring schedule on SmackDown, competing in the fast-paced, high-flying Cruiserweight division. He managed to defeat Spike Dudley to capture the Cruiserweight Championship at Armageddon 2004. ( WATCH)
In 2008, WWE fans learned that Funaki was also an expert in the martial arts. Ditching his ring gear for a traditional Japanese gi, he became Kung Fu Naki, a persona he was pitched years ago by another Superstar.
“It was Hurricane’s idea,” Funaki said. “He said he needed a partner, like Batman needed Robin. He said he needed Kung Fu Naki.”
While the idea came to fruition without the superhero, Kung Fu Naki found new life on SmackDown, where he crane kicked many opponents on his way to victory. ( WATCH) Unfortunately, Funaki’s run in WWE came to an end in 2010, a result of neck surgery following WrestleMania XXVI.
Today, Taka Michinoku and Funaki are still closely involved in the business they love.
Taka returned to Japan, where he now operates Kaientai Dojo, a wrestling school and promotion. When he’s not tending to his dojo, Taka enjoys spending time with his wife, although he can often be found on his laptop, checking Twitter and Facebook. Michinoku might be really into social media, but don’t think Taka just sits around all day taking selfies with his phone. He also keeps a full schedule of wrestling dates in Japan.
“Any promotion going, I’ll wrestle for them,” he proudly said.
Funaki settled in San Antonio instead of heading back to Japan. He also runs his own wrestling school, Funaki Dojo, where he imparts the knowledge he picked up in his 12 years with WWE to the next generation of wrestlers.
“I want to help young wrestlers get to WWE,” he said. “I learned a lot while I was there, so I teach them whatever I can.”
Outside of his school, Funaki hangs out with his children and can often be found watching football.
“I’m a big Green Bay Packers fan,” he told WWE Classics. “I went to a Packers game and fell in love with the team.”
Though both members of Kaientai often found themselves wondering how they could survive in WWE, they’ve both discovered that they’ll always have a place in the professional wrestling world.
Follow Taka Michinoku on Twitter @Takam777.
Follow Funaki on Twitter @Shofufu824.
For more information on Funaki Dojo, visit www.FunakiDojo.com.