Torch Flashbacks 5 Yrs Ago: Zavisa finds hope for Japanese women's wrestling
Jan 12, 2003 - 4:04:00 PM
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The following is a reprint of the Chris Zavisa's Torch Newsletter column covering the future of women's wrestling in Japan from five years ago last month.
-Jason Powell, Torch assistant editor
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Torch Newsletter Archive
By Chris Zavisa, Torch columnist
Column: There is still hope for Japan women
Originally published: Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly newsletter #472
Cover dated: December 27, 1997
Regular readers of this column know that I am a great fan of Japanese women's wrestling, especially of the All Japan Women's promotion. But over the last six months, those of us who wear our AJW hearts on our sleeves have been involved in something of a death watch for the promotion.
The well-documented financial reversals of the Matsunaga Brothers have taken Japan's oldest surviving promotion and plunged them into legal bankruptcy. Because most wrestlers' paychecks stopped in the spring, a majority of workers waved good-bye. Only eleven AJW wrestlers remain. In October and early November it was rumored that what remained of AJW would soon be scattered to the wind as they fulfilled scheduled dates that were long-standing contractual commitments.
But then several things happened, giving many of us hope that a phoenix was striving to rise up from the ashes.
Akira Hokuto, one of the greatest female workers of all time, announced she was quitting GAEA and would now take bookings with her old employer, AJW. Two-time WWWA World Champion and former WWF Women's Champion Bull Nakano showed up at an AJW show with a new, slimmed down body and announced that she was seriously thinking of making a comeback with the group after the new year. It is not clear how much of a schedule either woman will work and it is obvious that neither is in their prime and are on the downside of their careers. But when the ship is sinking, you grab on to even the older life preservers if they can help save you from drowning.
In October, the FUJI television network preempted the AJW TV show causing many to speculate that they were pulling the plug on the 30 year old relationship. However, they broadcast shows both in November and December and have even changed the format, pouring money into a new set and design concept which makes the product look far more modern and hip. The promotion has been reassured that FUJI intends to carry AJW at least through the spring of 1998.
Every year the promotion issues a lavish, oversized calendar titled "The Best of Ringstar." It usually hits the market in September; this year there was no sign of it as late as Thanksgiving. However, better late than never. AJW has just released the 1998 calendar, but the question remains whether the promotion will exist when the December page is hanging. There were two concessions made to the calendar this year. First, instead of a 12 page calendar, they cut the length in half placing two months on one page. The calendar also uses stock photographs from GONG and Weekly Pro rather than hiring photographers for special shoots as they have in the past. But just having a calendar is a sign of life.
But probably the most delightful and optimistic development is the work of 17 year old Momoe Nakanishi. The one constant criticism of the promotion over the past five years was their seeming inability to develop even one major new star to replace the aging veterans who were retiring. The last real star they developed was Chaparita Asari, but her diminutive size gives her the same promotional handicaps that Rey Misterio Jr. is plagued with. They have several women who should develop into acceptable mid-card performers, but so far, nobody who is the next Hokuto, Toyota, or Nagayo.
Well, all that criticism can be placed in the dumpster. AJW now has a talent whose age and ability could well propel her to the levels achieved by the above three legends. Momoe Nakanishi was born on July 7, 1980. She became a professional wrestler at the tender age of 16. For much of the last year, she existed in that netherworld of the AJW green girls, only allowed to work with each other and even then only allowed to do the restricted moves and work limited matches. The word out of AJW was that Nakanishi was learning the game far faster than anybody in the promotion's history. But the few times we saw her, there was nothing special about her work.
The promotion lost big time when over half of the veterans departed in the summer and fall of this year. But for every loss there has been a winner. AJW found itself down to a skeleton crew of just eleven and had to elevate Nakanishi much sooner than they would have otherwise planned. Starting in August, the 17-year old was paired with veterans in semi-main events and even featured bouts on TV. She looked incredibly poised and performed like a much older, much wiser veteran.
The big move came on Oct. 18 in Yokohama for the annual Wrestlemarinpiad show. Nakanishi was teamed with kicking specialist Kumiko Maekawa against bad girl heel tag team champions Etsuko Mita and Mima Shimoda. Earlier this year, the promotion re-teamed Mita and Shimoda and returned to the days of Dump Matsumoto allowing them to use furniture, weapons, and the blade to bring a more violent style to the group. Their opponents have mainly been the team of Maekawa and veteran Tomoko Watanabe. Maekawa is a mediocre wrestler who needs to be carried by more talented people. But Watanabe was unavailable for Yokohama so they went to the youngster instead.
Nakanishi turned in a performance worthy of a five-year veteran ranked among the world's ten best workers. She carried her team with a variety of offense and selling that played to the dramatic strengths of the Mita and Shimoda team. I cannot remember anyone that young and with so little experience who looked so good in the ring. When Chaparita Asari was developing, the device that got her over was her use of acrobatics in her wrestling. She could do things that the others could not do and her high risk maneuvers such as the Sky Twister Press awed the crowds.
Nakanishi is not a one-move or big-move wrestler. She does not yet have a fancy set of moves which are intended to wow the crowd. She simply does every basic move extremely well. And she can do moves that are amazing for a 17-year-old. During the Yokohama match she duplicated Kyoko Inoue's run-climb up the ropes and did a gorgeous sunset flip twisting to the side taking the opponent to the mat. During a brawling sequence she was tossed into the chairs and literally flew over seven rows. Her selling reminds me of a female Kikuchi or Kobashi, filled with emotion and pain. At the end of the second fall she took a chicken wing superplex from Shimoda off the top rope. She hit with such force that you would have sworn her neck was broken in the same manner that a young Hisaki Uno did ten years ago. But Nakanishi is more solidly built and she survived the stiff bump like a veteran.
The word from Japan is the promotion is extremely happy with her progress. The big push will continue and the sky is the limit for her. The only possible drawback could be her height. Most of the AJW veterans who went on to be stars were a few inches taller than Nakanishi, who stands at just 157 centimeters. That makes her just a hair taller than Mayumi Ozaki of the JWP group. Of course, Ozaki's size has not stopped her from becoming one of female wrestling's bigger names. In late December, AJW named Nakanishi as their 1997 MVP.
One of the differences between the worlds of American and Japanese wrestling is the availability of books written about the sport. In the U.S., book publishers tend to avoid pro wrestling like a plague carrier. The unspoken belief is that such a group of inbred morons could not possibly ever read an actual book. In Japan, dozens of volumes are published each year and many stay in print for many years. But with the exception of Saturo Sayama's infamous "Kayfabe," nearly all hide the true nature of the business and they protect its worked structure.
The Yomiuri Shimbun company, publisher of a 10 million daily circulation newspaper, has just released a 328 page book which breaks new and controversial ground in the world of Japanese professional wrestling, "Kaisen! Puroresu Shooto Senseen" is written by 38 year old Tadashi Tanaka. The titles most direct translation is "Declare War! Pro Wrestling Shoot Proclamation." Tanaka was born in Osaka, Japan, educated at Doshibisha University in Kyoto, and then emigrated to the U.S. where he earned a masters degree from Columbia Business School. He has been a longtime fan of both the Japanese and American versions of wrestling. He has also immersed himself into the underground publishing world of insider wrestling publications such as the TORCH. All of these background experiences combined to create a one-of-a-kind book which has no predecessor or peer.
Tanaka may outrage some traditionalists by exposing the worked nature of pro wrestling and emphasizing the financial and business side of the major promotion. The book is not intended to be only read by the usual hardcore fan, but rather is aimed at the much broader general audience. It is no secret that Japanese insiders fear their business secrets may be exposed and many are not eager to see that happen. But Tanaka is not some eager-beaver investigative reporter out to do a slash-and-burn expose of something he has contempt for. Tanaka loves pro wrestling, and loves the ins and outs of it as a business. He believes that the more you know about the business-side of wrestling, the more you enjoy what happens in the ring. It is a philosophy I have always agreed with and heartily endorse.
Yomiuri has created an impressive package for the book. It is an oversized paperbound book measuring 7 1/2 by 5 inches. Tanaka starts out with a chapter on the UFC, complete with a history of martial arts, the Gracie family, and Jujitsu in Japan. He relates all of this to traditional Japanese samurai values and culture. He then throws in the usual UFC regulars like Dan Severn, Ken Shamrock, Maurice Smith, and shows how their style has rubbed off on pro wrestling figures like Yumiko Hotta, Shinobu Kandori, Yoshihisa Yamamoto, and Yoji Anjo. There is a discussion of K-1, Pancrase, and even pro boxing.
Chapter two gives a comprehensive overview of the world of pro wrestling for beginners. Tanaka goes through many promotions from the UWF groups through FMW. There are chapters comparing the wrestling business in Japan and the U.S., Japanese strong style promotion, ECW and its influence on other groups, and nearly every aspect of pro wrestling you can imagine.
The longest and most ambitious chapter in the book is the most controversial. Tanaka explains in detail how the pro wrestling business is structured, explaining its inside secret workings. He dissects the American pro game as well as the carnival origins of the industry. He explains how the Japanese product is carefully linked to a cooperative wrestling media. You have to wonder how this is going to be received by the publishers and writers of both Gong and Weekly Pro, the two glossy weekly magazines covering pro wrestling in Japan. In fact, Tanaka may have ruffled some feathers at Weekly Pro by disclosing that some of the so-called journalists on the staff are actually fictitious creations (just like Pro Wrestling Illustrated does in the U.S.) and that former editor Tarzan Yamamoto actually penned Sayama's book. Tanaka is the first to reveal that juicy bit.
If readers are tempted to compare this volume with Sayama's "Kayfabe," they will be on shaky ground. Sayama, or Yamamoto, used the book to expose how most wrestling moves require the obvious cooperation of both men in the ring. He gave many examples of traditional moves such as the lariat/clothesline, Irish whip, piledriver, and others which would be impossible without planning and cooperation. Sayama was attempting to garner more respect for the more realistic UWF style which he entered into when he left New japan in 1983. "Kayfabe" only went that far and stayed far away from exposing the inner-workings of the business and how the promotion really operates.
Tadashi Tanaka is not attempting to expose pro wrestling in Japan and drive it from the sports entertainment scene. Just the opposite. Tanaka loves the game and wants others to do so, too. He loves watching the Monday night shows filled with their insider and shoot comments that only the insiders in the business or reading publications like the TORCH can comprehend. He hopes his book can fill in many of those gaps for future viewers and their enjoyment of wrestling will only be further enhanced by additional knowledge and information.
One chapter that should get the attention of TORCH readers is the section detailing the American wrestling scene and the various insider publications that are devoted to it. The TORCH gets prominent and positive coverage along with the Wrestling Observer, Fighting Sport Newsletter, and Figure Four. Tanaka believes that much of the success of the Monday night shows and the resulting arena crowds are due to the weekly newsletters which create a heightened interest in wrestling as both sport and as a business.
"Kaisen" was released in Japan in mid-December. It is available only in the Japanese edition, but Tanaka has hopes that an American publisher will eventually issue an English language edition. If that happens, it is expected that the book would have to be divided into two volumes and edited down due to its size and the problem of going from Kanji, Hiragana, and Katakana into English. U.S. readers who want a copy of the book can probably obtain one through some of the various Japanese book stores which serve the Japanese population in the U.S. It is expected to sell for just over 20 dollars here.
Chris Zavisa of Plymouth, Mich. has been a Torch columnist since March 1991. His columns focus on the Japanese wrestling scene. He has travelled to Japan to cover major wrestling events. His e.mail address is cgnz@online or cz7749@aol.
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