George Rey Urbano: The First Filipino Wrestling Star in the World
Wrestling has always had a worldwide audience, ever since the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) was founded in 1948 as a governing body for professional wrestling. Based in America, the NWA began promoting brawling matches on television back in the early 1950s. By 1961, canned wrestling programs (men’s and women’s) were seen regularly on late-night Philippine TV over DZBB Channel 7.
GEORGE REY URBANO. For over three decades, this trailblazing Philippine-born wrestler made waves in the American wrestling circuit as Rey Urbano, Tokyo Tom, Taro Sakuro, and his most famous wrestling persona—the Great Kabooki.
Curiously, Filipinos did not catch on to wrestling despite their love for contact sports, preferring boxing instead. After all, the boxing world included many Filipino champions—Pancho Villa, Ceferino Garcia, father and son Cely and Anthony Villanueva, Flash Elorde, among others—fighting figures of our national pride. They were the best reasons to root for the sport—not alien names like Bobo Brazil, Gorgeous George, Killer Kowalski, and the Fabulous Moolah.
It wasn't until the mid-1980s when Filipinos took a second look at wrestling. By then, the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) had taken command of the sport, booking champions and producing big wrestling events, beamed on cable TV from huge venues like Madison Square Garden and Shea Stadium.
SMACKDOWN SOUVENIR. A 1950s fight program from the first golden age of American wrestling features a match between Rey Urbano of Manila versus Axel Cadier of Sweden.
WWF signed up and headlined wrestlers Hulk Hogan, André the Giant, Roddy Piper, and Bret Hart in shows like WWF Superstar, which was set amid music, lights, and much theatrics. Merchandising gimmicks were launched for its pool of talents, spawning action figures, video games, and toys. When the programs went into syndication, they were lapped up by a mainstream audience who found new heroes to idolize.
The entry of Filipino-American grapplers further fueled the Filipinos’ crazy fascination, and later, obsession, with wrestling. There was Dave Batista (David Michael Bautista), a hulking 6’6” wrestler who was snapped up by WWF (now World Wrestling Entertainment or WWE) in 2000. Now retired, Batista remains visible in action films like Riddick, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avengers: End Game.
Benny Cuntapay (B.Boy) has also successfully fought in the All-Pro and Combat Zone Wrestling, while T. J. Perkins, who used to fight as “Pinoy Boy,” won the inaugural WWE Cruiserweight Championship in 2016. In March 2019, Fil-Am Michael Paris (aka DJZ), a two-time Impact X Division Champion, was reported as being squired by WWE.
REY OF LIGHT. Rey Urbano resplendent in a Philippine Muslim costume.
The extraordinary feats and skills of these world-class Filipino matmen, however, were foreshadowed not too long ago by a Manila-born strongman who blazed trails by breaking into the competitive world of international wrestling—in his time, the only professional wrestler in all of the Philippines: George Rey Urbano.
Born in Manila on April 25, 1924 to Juan and Sixta Urbano, Rey had quite a comfortable life. His father was a successful inventor and businessman and also the cousin of famed movie director and actor, Manuel Urbano (screen name: Manuel Conde), who made waves in Venice in 1952 with his opus, Genghis Khan.
COMING TO AMERICA. As a student of the San Francisco City College, Rey Urbano (right) was a valuable member of the school football team in 1948.
Four-year-old George Rey, his three older siblings (Belen, Marina, Isidro), and their mother Sixta moved to America in 1928 to follow Juan, who had gone there ahead to set up a manufacturing business. Sixta boosted the family income by selling jewelry pieces. The children went to schools in the San Francisco area where they settled.
Things were going well for the family until tragedy struck in 1939 with the death of their mother. Rey was only 15 then, still a student at the San Francisco Polytechnic High School. To make things worse, his father, Juan, decided to return to the Philippines to look for business opportunities in the field of movie production—an obvious influence from his showbiz cousin whose career was about to peak.
Left in the U.S. in the care of relatives, Rey immersed himself in football and judo. The war in his native Philippines cut short his college dreams, and so, at age 19, like his brother Isidro before him, he joined the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment in early 1943.
REMEMBER THIS ALAMO SCOUT. 19-year-old Rey Urbano was a member of the 1st Filipino Infantry Regiment in 1943. He and his brother would also sign up as volunteers of the Alamo Scouts.
The two brothers would later volunteer to become Alamo Scouts, an elite reconnaissance unit that saw action in the jungles of New Guinea. The next year, Rey and Isidro were deployed to the Philippines as part of the Allied landing forces.
When the war ended, the young veteran left his military career to go back to school. In 1947, He entered San Francisco City College, which had an excellent football program. Though a bit short for the sport (he was 5’9” and 200 pounds), Rey became an outstanding player of the 1948 team, which snagged a mythical national junior college championship.
To build his stamina and strength on the gridiron, Rey took to an alternate sport he was also avidly indulging in: wrestling. He underwent intense training in the school put up by the acclaimed Filipino wrestler Pantaleon Manlapig, who previously held many Pacific Coast titles under the name Tony Aguinaldo in the 1940s.
MENTORED BY MANLAPIG. Rey Urbano trained under Filipino wrestling legend, Pantaleon Catanghal Manlapig, who fought in Hawaii under the name Tony Aguinaldo. He held the Pacific Coast title in the 1940s several times.
Rey was instantly hooked. He came to master many fighting styles and techniques—Greco-Roman, Sumo, catch-as-catch-can styles. Bitten by the wrestling bug, he passed up a football scholarship from the University of Southern California, ignored his father’s pleading to return to the Philippines and be a movie star, and instead, chose to focus on a new goal: to become a professional wrestler.
STRIKING A FIGHTER’S POSE. Rey Urbano in his first official photo as a professional wrestler, taken in 1950.
He debuted in a match held in Honolulu, Hawaii on April 23, 1950, using his real name, “Rey Urbano,” and defeating Chico Garcia in his very first professional outing. The Ogden Standard-Examiner in Utah was effusive in its review of Rey’s performance: "Rey Urbano came here recently from the Philippines and has impressed with his ability under all kinds of fire… The Islander uses the side of his hand in a cutting manner not unlike the chopping knife he used at home in the sugar cane fields. It is both legal and effective."
Rey was on his way. The next year, Rey was billed in a match at the Los Angeles Olympic Coliseum, capturing the attention of the nearly 10,000 screaming wrestling fans who crammed the venue. The one sad setback he experienced was the death of his brother, Isidro, who was killed in action in the Korean War of 1952.
Though he found steady work throughout the west and southwest in the next few years, Rey realized that the crowd drawers of wrestling bouts were not the favorites like him, but the villains of the ring. In fact, they also brought in the big bucks. Thus, Rey, in a complete turn-around, shed his clean, good boy image to assume a villainous wrestling persona.
TURNING JAPANESE. Rey Urbano made a major career shift by becoming a wrestling villain in the person of “Taro Sakuro,” a name he used from the late '50s and '60s.
As it was just a few years after the terrible war in which the Japanese earned a reputation as heinous villains for their war crimes, Rey chose to be known as “Taro Sakuro.” In 1959, in his first fight in Tennessee, the bearded “Japanese” hulk in a short robe and wooden sandals, ascended the ring and struck fear with his evil eye gaze and calm but fearful exterior. Most of all, his behavior and fighting tricks disgusted the crowd—which he had hoped would happen—a despicable anti-hero the audience would love to hate.
Rey enjoyed immense success with his new wrestling character. In 1962, he won the NWA Southern Junior Heavyweight Championship, and, with Oyama Kato, the NWA U.S. Tag Team title. Promoters began matching him with more popular, more high-profile wrestlers. Needless to say, this move paid off, and he began collecting more susbtantial paychecks.
THE TERROR THAT WAS TARO. Rey Urbano as “Taro Sakuro” demolishes Alberto Torres in a 1962 fight.
As the new bad guy of wrestling, Rey had to deal with the backlash of fans. He survived a shooting, stabbings, and countless verbal and physical attacks. The most serious of all was being spiked in the foot by a woman using her sharp, stiletto-heeled shoe, a bloody injury that required surgery. He took all these in stride as occupational hazards that he had come to expect from the job.
Through all these, Rey carried on and retained the Japanese guise that helped revitalized his career. Appearing in Texas in 1965, he briefly became “Tokyo Tom” and a substitute for “Tokyo Joe,” a convicted wrestler who was banned from the ring. He introduced gimmicks like incorporating over-the-top karate chops and thrusts in his moves that had the audience reacting wildly.
Shortly after the Texas stint, Rey faced another difficult, life-threatening hurdle. He was afflicted with a brain tumor and underwent a crucial operation. Thankfully, the mass was benign. He spent his five-year long convalescence by going back to the California State University-Hayward to finish a college degree (Recreational Studies). He found gainful employment at a recreational park where he held P.E. classes and occasionally wrestled to raise funds for his advocacies.
THE GREAT KABOOKI. The most well-known wrestling character conceived by Rey Urbano was a huge, hulking menacing Oriental warrior, a villain the audience loved to hate.
Though doctors believed he would never wrestle again, Rey defied their dire prognostications and returned to the ring in late 1972 in a new incarnation. This time, he transformed himself into a villainous Japanese warrior of unspeakable brutishness, with a fierce-looking face painted for battle, and a name that no one will forget: The Great Kabooki.
He took his Japanese character to heart, dressing in authentic robes, and performing the ceremonial sumo ritual of throwing salt in his fights, which he also used to blind his foes. Everywhere he made an appearance, the Great Kabooki was a daunting figure to behold, inspiring fear and awe. His triumphant rebound was met with roars from the audience, who lapped up his acts and antics in the ring, catapulting him again to national prominence.
THAT KABOOKI FACE. Rey Urbano was the first wrestler to use paint make-up to make his Japanese character more theatrical and more fearsome.
Rey, as The Great Kabooki, made a surprising comeback and toured the Midwest and the Southwest region. In 1973, he secured a spot in a Detroit promotion starring top wrestling star, The Sheik. He also worked the Great Lakes area, and wrestled in a few International Championship Wrestling shows. Approaching 50, he still managed to complete 22 matches that year but the toll of advancing age began to show, and he felt it.
To slow down, he accepted a job as a part-time chef in a California restaurant. He also seemed to have inherited his father’s creative genes. He devised “First and Ten,” a football board game, and “Knockout,” a boxing game, both for kids. He formed a company—Urbano & Associates—to market these, but they generated little interest, so he eventually sold them off.
THE NAME OF THE GAME. “First and Ten” was a gameboard developed by Rey Urbano, who inherited his father’s inventive genes.
With failed financial expectations, Rey returned to wrestling at age 58, reviving his Great Kabooki image. This posed some confusion, however, as by 1981, a younger Japanese wrestler by the name of Mera Akahishi, had started using the same name using the original spelling—the Great Kabuki.
In his 1982 to 1983 farewell tour with ICW in the Midwest, the Great Kabooki finished 16 matches, including one against the hugely popular Macho Man Randy Savage. His final fight was staged in a high school gym in Illinois. Like a true professional, he fought with his partner, Ratamyus, in a tag team match and won—this, despite an audience of only 250.
KABOOKI FOR THE KILL. As a wrestling villain, Rey Urbano was jeered and harassed by hostile fans, but he took all these in stride. He entertained fans with his nasty stage demeanor, tricky karate chops, and martial art moves.
In his twilight years, Rey joined an association of both retired and active wrestlers and boxers known as the Cauliflower Alley Club, which, in 1992, gave him recognition for his valuable contribution to the sport. Though he was married three times in his lifetime, Rey had no children; his family consisted of fellow wrestlers with whom he kept in touch regularly in annual reunions.
His fame reached the Philippines, but he was largely overlooked by his countrymen as they were more engrossed with rising boxers who were starting to win world championships in the '60s and '70s. His occasional trips to his original homeland were more for family visits.
Jun Urbano, the TV funny man known as "Mr. Shooli," remembers meeting his uncle twice. In one of his uncle’s rare homecomings, his family hosted lunch for him and he was served a specially large dish of kare-kare. They watched him eat until he finished everything off. Then, Rey turned to Jun’s mother, smiled, and hollered: “Okay! Now bring out the main dish!” His relatives were stunned at his voracious appetite. “Ang laking tao niya! (Such a big man)!” Jun Urbano recalled.
GOLDEN GEORGE. In his golden years, Rey Urbano became a member of a fraternal wrestling group and joined wrestling reunions for 15 years.
But Rey Urbano also had a big heart. In his own, quiet way, he managed to entertain hundreds of wrestling fans for many decades, never mind that he did not attain the great financial success he worked so very hard for.
Described as “an all-around good person,” Rey made many friends along the way. In all, he fought a total of 989 matches in his lifetime career under four names, and wrestled against revered names like Bobo Brazil, Bruno Sammartino, Randy Savage, and Mighty Igor—credentials that are nothing short of impressive.
Rey spent his remaining days in a Las Vegas nursing home, passing away on October 16, 2007 at the age of 83. He is interred at the Southern Nevada Veterans Cemetery.
Today, wrestling and its related full-contact disciplines like mixed martial arts, have a large, loyal Filipino fan base that continues to grow, thanks to a constant fare of TV wrestling shows: Raw, Smackdown, This Week in WWE, Bottomline, and UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), among others.
URBANO LEGEND. George Rey Urbano, (b. 25 Apr. 1924/ d. 16 Oct. 2007)
While Filipinos are currently rooting for Seth Rollins, Finn Bálor, The Miz Becky Lynch, and Alexa Bliss, they are also rediscovering their very own Dave Batista, Brandon Vera, T. J. Perkins, Michael Paris, and Kris Wolf who have become worthy sports icons for legions of Filipino fans. Add to that the name of George Rey Urbano—the Great Kabooki—a kickass Pinoy who came before them. Urbano broke barriers and made history to become the only Filipino international wrestler in the first golden age of American professional wrestling.
Zedric, Lance. By Any Other Name the Story of Alamo Scout George Urbano
Pictures used with permission from Mr. Lance Zedric, unless otherwise noted.
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