TOKYO — With his sleek sunglasses and camouflage pants, Japanese wrestler Makoto Tsuruzono gives off an air of invincibility as he tries to goad his opponent into attacking him.
When the bell rings and the match begins, the unfortunate "Chest Man" can do little but try to fend off the blows raining down on him from Tsuruzono's muscular arms.
Both men are wheelchair bound, but see their disability as no bar to life as wrestlers.
"I can say with pride that no one can defeat me in the ring of handicapped pro-wrestling. I have the confidence in myself," said a victorious Tsuruzono, 34, as he sat in his wheelchair.
"You can live with pride if you feel you are second to none when doing something, no matter how trivial it is."
Tsuruzono and "Chest Man" were two of the 18 wrestlers -- men and women with and without disability -- taking part in a WWF-style event in Tokyo organised by handicapped wrestling group "Doglegs".
The competition attracts contenders with a variety of challenges, ranging from psychological problems to those like Tsuruzono whose left leg was amputated and whose right is withered.
One of the bouts pitted "The Blind Giant", against a profoundly deaf opponent.
Others featured a man with chronic depression and an alcoholic, as well as a number of confrontations between people with varying levels of paralysis.
Organiser Yukinori Kitajima said he has faced opposition over the twice-yearly bouts since he started them 20 years ago.
"We have received calls of complaint in the past, with some people saying a show like this was unpleasant and that they didn't want to see the handicapped around in public," he said.
The able-bodied Kitajima, who used to work as a carer, strongly objects to how the handicapped are treated in Japan.
"The Japanese traditionally tend to treat the mentally or physically disabled as something that should be kept out of sight.
"But they have their own desires. They want to make money and date girls, living freely just like their peers," he said. "They aren't tame sheep.
"Do you think they are happy just living life on welfare from the state?
"I want to help change society by showing disabled people doing something like this and fighting in the ring."
And for some first time spectators, watching half-paralyzed men and women punching and kicking each other really did change their opinions.
Takatsugu Suzuki, one of about 200 spectators at the bout in western Tokyo, said he had mixed feelings about the fights.
"We are physically and mentally able but sometimes feel compelled to hold ourselves back at work or in our everyday lives," said the 38-year-old business school student.
"They fight with real energy, which I suppose is a way of communicating how they feel. I felt encouraged by watching it."
He said it was uncomfortable to watch a man with a dislocated neck, but also inspiring.
The match, in the "miracle heavy class" division, was fought by a man whose neck was supported by a brace and a 36-year-old woman with partly paralysed legs and arms. Medical staff stood by at the ring side.
Yasuyuki Kaneshige, 31, a loyal Doglegs fan who has been wheelchair bound since childhood, said he enjoyed the wrestlers' powerful performances.
"I think this is a great way for the handicapped to express themselves openly in public," he said. "I might think about getting in the ring myself."
Kitajima said he was aware that the Doglegs may look like a freak show to some people. But he stressed: "The wrestlers are all volunteers."
Koji Onoue, director general of the Japanese chapter of the Disabled Peoples' International, said he is fully behind disabled wrestling "because it shakes up stereotypes".
"The handicapped once lived in corners of hospitals or care homes, but many now feel confident enough to come out into society and face new challenges," he said.
"They should not feel they have to hide their bodies or be ashamed."
Masako Yano, 63, said at first it had been tough to see her disabled son, Shintaro, in the ring.
"But once I started watching it, I found myself being entertained," she said, adding she had always felt uneasy about how Japanese people treat the disabled as if they are untouchable.
As she sipped a beer with her son following his unsuccessful bout against Kitajima, she admitted to being frustrated when he loses.
But she is also fiercely proud of him.
"My son is never the same as the healthy ones because he has many disadvantages and inconveniences.
"But in the ring, he can stand as an equal to his rival."
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