Professor Tanaka Death – Heart Attack

professor tanaka death

Charles Kalani Jr., known to wrestling fans as Professor Toru Tanaka, has died at age 70

1930-2000 (Age 70)

The man who entered the halls of wrestling legend as the Japanese villain “Professor” Toru Tanaka was actually a Hawaiian native. Tanaka would team with another Hawaiian-turned-Japanese villain, Mr. Fuji, terrorizing the WWWF during the 1970’s.

Tanaka was a frequent offender in the WWWF battling the promotion’s most beloved babyfaces in singles and tag team action.

professor tanaka actor

Tanaka appears on set for ‘The Perfect Weapon’ (1991)

Tanaka was also a Hollywood regular, with 46 film and TV credits according to the Internet Movie Database.

Although Tanaka seemed to always play a villain, he was loved behind the scenes as one of wrestling’s kindest souls, despite a reputation as a legit tough man.

Hawaiian Puncher

Charles Kalani was born on January 6, 1930 and began studying jiu-jitsu in 1939 (eventually earning the rank of Danzan-Ryu Black Belt). A troubled youth, Kalani reportedly turned his life around under the direction of his high school football coach, Rev. Kenneth Bray.

Kalani played football in high school and at Weber Junior College in Ogden, Utah.

Kalani was subsequently drafted into the Army and stayed there for the next ten years, earning the rank of sergeant.

professor tanaka wrestlerEnter the Villain

After serving in the Army, Kalani entered the world of professional wrestling, taking on the identity of the villainous “Professor” Toru Tanaka, the stereotypical Japanese villain with the requisite knowledge of martial arts to torture opponents.

Tanaka employed a combination of power skills, martial arts, and his feared Japanese sleeper submission hold.

Tanaka was wrestling in Australia when World-Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) champion Bruno Sammartino saw him and took notice. Sammartino suggested WWWF owner Vince McMahon Sr. hire him and soon, Tanaka was working in the WWWF.

Tanaka challenged Sammartino for the WWWF championship and also formed a much-dreaded tag team with the late Gorilla Monsoon. However, it would be with another Hawaiian star that earned Tanaka his first piece of championship gold in the WWWF.

On June 1, 1969, “Professor” Tanaka won the short-lived WWWF International Tag Team Championship with Mitsu Arakawa (yet another Hawaiian wrestler billed from Japan), holding the belts until December 9, 1969.

professor tanaka mr fuji

Professor Tanaka and Mr. Fuji won WWWF tag team gold in 1972.

Another Hawaiian wrestler proved an even more successful teammate for Tanaka – the late Mr. Fuji.

In 1972, Mr. Fuji (aka Harry Fujiwara) joined the WWWF, teaming with Professor Tanaka under the guidance of manager The Grand Wizard.

The two heels both shared the notorious habit of throwing a handful of salt into an opponent’s eyes at the right moment; a tactic that helped both men win more than a few matches. On June 27, 1972, Fuji and Tanaka won their first WWWF Tag Team Championship, defeating Sonny King and “Chief” Jay Strongbow.

The evil duo’s eagerness to ensure their opponents got their daily recommended allowance of salt culminated in a legendary showdown. The hot summer of 1972 proved even hotter during a taping of Championship Wrestling where Mr. Fuji and Professor Tanaka battled WWWF World Champion Pedro Morales and Bruno Sammartino.

During the match, Fuji blinded both Morales and Sammartino with salt, leading to Morales and Sammartino mistaking each other for their opponents. By the time order had been restored, Morales and Sammartino wanted to fight each other, leading to the first Showdown at Shea supercard. After making amends, Morales and Sammartino challenged Fuji and Tanaka unsuccessfully for tag team gold.

Fuji and Tanaka maintained a stranglehold on the WWWF Tag Team championship, reigning for 337 days, and that was only their first reign.

After losing the belts to Haystacks Calhoun and Tony Garea, Fuji and Tanaka regained the belts. Although their second reign only lasted 64 days, they were far from finished.

mr fuji professor toru tanaka

Tag team champs: Mr. Fuji and Professor Toru Tanaka

Fuji and Tanaka found success in Georgia Championship Wrestling, winning the promotion’s tag team championship before returning to the WWWF in 1977. Now under the management of “Classy” Freddie Blassie, Fuji and Tanaka struck WWWF gold for a third and final time in the WWWF winning the WWWF tag straps on September 27, 1977 and holding them until March 14, 1978.

The two heels exited the WWWF, but continued winning tag team championships in regional promotions before they parted ways in 1979.

From Ring Villain to Screen Villain

Professor Toru Tanaka retired from the squared circle in the early 80’s, making a successful transition to Hollywood. Tanaka appeared in a number of films and TV shows including the A-Team, Missing in Action 2, The Running Man, Black Rain, Darkman, 3 Ninjas, and Last Action Hero.

On August 22, 2000, Kalani died in Lake Forest, California from a heart attack at the age of 70.

toru tanaka david nuuhiwa

5 years before his death, Professor Tanaka with fellow Hawaii native David Nuuhiwa Sr. at the Shoshin Ryu reunion (1995)

Charlie Kalani was survived by his wife Doris, daughters Cheryle Kalani and Karen Kalani-Beck, son Carl, sisters Jeanette and Charlene, brother Robert, and six grandchildren.

Per Kalani’s wishes, his ashes were scattered off the Hawaiian coast.

What are your favorite memories of “Professor” Toru Tanaka? Be sure to leave them in the comments section below.