Manami Toyota retires from pro wrestling

Manami Toyota is perhaps the greatest wrestler you’ve never heard of – at least, unless you’ve an interest in the Japanese women’s version of the sport, known as joshi puroresu. There, she has been its almost undisputed queen for much of the past three decades. That covers the span from her debut on August 5, 1987, at the age of just 16, through to her farewell show which took place on November 3 in Yokohama’s Daisan Bashi Hall. She was in the vanguard of, and a significant force in, the joshi resurgence which took place during the mid-nineties, when women’s wrestling crossed over beyond its usual audience. That likely peaked with the Big Egg Wrestling Universe cross-promotion show at Tokyo Dome in November 1994. A crowd of more than thirty thousand attended the event, which ran for more than ten hours.

If you’ve only ever seen the WWE Divas, then joshi will come as a shock, with monsters like the aptly-named Aja Kong punting their opponents around the ring with brutal efficiency. Toyota was slightly-built in comparison: billed at 150 pounds, and that likely an exaggeration for marketing purposes. But her bouts against far larger opponents were still credible, because of three main things. First, her incredible technical ability: there’s good reason a video exists on YouTube called “Top 60 Moves of Manami Toyota“! Secondly, her fearless high-flying. for example, I remember a match outside in the rain, where Toyota was still climbing up the light rigging and flinging herself off it. Third, an insane level of stamina. She could wrestle 60 minutes non-stop, and at a pace few wrestlers of either gender could match.

Yet that intensity is what led to her retirement, Toyota increasingly suffering from neck and shoulder issues as a result of the in-ring punishment she both took and dished out. Or, should I say, her second retirement. For Toyota first “quit” due to a silly unspoken rule of the All Japan Wrestling promotion that its women wrestler had to retire at the age of 26, whether they wanted to or not. Toyota would continue for two decades after that point, surviving the fall of AJW and the resulting disintegration of the joshi scene into a slew of smaller, independent promotions. Her feuds and partnerships with the likes of Toshiyo Yamada, Akira Hokuto and Kyoko Inoue remain unmatched, even now. And, of course, Toyota would not go out quietly, wrestling fifty opponents at her retirement show, before then fighting a best-of-three falls match against her designated heiress, Tsukasa Fujimoto.

Legendary pro wrestling writer Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (WON) called Toyota “one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time, regardless of gender,” and awarded 5+ stars to more of her matches than any other woman. Melter was famously stingy with those rankings: few would see more than one in a year. But at the peak of her career and talents, between 1991 and 1995, Toyota was involved in seventeen such matches, including three in one week. She was part of WON’s Match of the Year in both 1992 and 1995, and won named its Most Outstanding Wrestler in 1995. Neither award is divided by gender, meaning she beat all men that year as well. She was just that damn good.

Below, you’ll find a playlist including 11 of the 17 five-star matches. They might help give you some insight as to why many regard her as the greatest of all time.

Bolivia’s Fighting Cholitas

Professional wrestling is perhaps more international than you’d expect. While traditional territories – USA, Japan, Mexico and the UK – still remain the powerhouses, there is hardly a country in the world without its own local pro federation. But even I had not heard of Ecuador’s cholita luchadoras. Cholita is a term used for the native women there, usually found at the bottom of the social pyramid, both in terms of wealth and education. So the term translates as the “fighting cholitas“, who use pro wrestling as a way out of poverty, and to help them at least approach the average wage there, which is around $270 per month.

While initially intended purely for local consumption, it has achieved renown, both local and internationally, and become a tourist attraction. Local company “Andean Secrets” – run by one of the cholitas – runs excursions that pick visitors up at their hotel and take them to one of their shows at the Multifunctional Centre in El Alto. Tourists have to pay five times the cost for locals, but the price does get them ringside seats. In style, it’s closest to Mexican lucha libre, with the good girls (technicos) going up against the rudos, who cheat. abuse the audience and collude with a corrupt referee to try and achieve victory. You can generally tell who’s who from the names they choose. There’s an almost standard format to these: Chela la Maldita, Sonia La Simpática, Juanita La Cariñosa (Affectionate), Rosita La Rompecorazones (Heartbreaker) or Silvina La Poderosa (Powerful).

An exception is the matriarch of the cholitas, known as  Carmen Rosa. She was part of the original group of cholitas and one of the three who made it through the training program. She said, “For me, wrestling is my life; it is in my heart. It makes it hard for me to choose between wrestling and my family. They have asked me to stop fighting and sometimes I think about quitting, but I can’t. My heart beats fast at the mere mention of wrestling, or when I go to see a show, not to mention when I am about to enter the ring. There is nothing I love more than wrestling.” But even after a decade, she’s not fully professional: her day job is running her family’s local snack-bar.

That’s par for the course – as another example, Benita La Intocable (the Untouchable, one of the most high-flying of the cholitas) was training to be a nurse. Because the pay received is still peanuts by Western standards – typically no more than thirty dollars for their night’s work – but it’s an improvement on the very limited opportunities available to cholitas, typically as maid or other menial work. For until recently, the indigenous men and women had suffered a long history of discrimination, denied education, health care and public presence. The election in 2006 of the first Bolivian President from their group, Evo Morales, has helped address things, but there’s a reason the cholitas fight in El Alto, not the more prosperous La Paz.

They first entered the ring around the start of the millennium, the idea of local promoter Juan Mamani. Initially intended purely as a gimmick during a period of audience decline – he also considered using midgets – it took off in an unexpected way, with over fifty women showing up for that first open try-out. But after years under Mamani’s thumb, in which the women took the risks, and the associated damage, while his promotion, Titanes del Ring (Titans of the Ring) took the profits, there was a schism. Carmen and others among his top wrestlers left in 2011, starting up their own independent association, Diosas del Ring (Goddesses of the Ring), to gain the fruits of their own efforts. [Mamani allegedly then hired another woman, to play what I guess was Carmen Rosa v2.0!]

It was initially a struggle, with the women struggling to find even a place to train, and some of the defectors subsequently returning to Mamani – a man whom National Geographic once described as “a tall, angular man whom it would be kind to call unfriendly”. But Carmen and her colleagues persisted, and now they’ll get close to a thousand people attending their weekly events. She has become a celebrity, and not just in El Alto or even Bolivia. Carmen has traveled widely as a result, including trip to America and Peru, as well as being brought to London for 2015’s ‘Greatest Spectacle of Lucha Libre’ festival at York Hall.

The most immediate difference any wrestling fan will notice, is the costumes. While in America, wrestlers typically wear a limited amount of tight-fitting clothing, intended not to interfere with their moves, the cholitas come to fight in the traditional native costumes, consisting of multiple layered skirts (typically five or six), and little bowler hats which perch on top of their long, braided hair. [Bonus fact: the angle of the hat indicates marital status] It seems implausible they would be able to do anything requiring significant movement, but you’d be surprised. Also worth noting: the women need particular endurance, due to the altitude. Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, is the highest in the world, and the nearby low-income suburb of El Alto, home of the cholitas, is more elevated still, at over 13,500 feet above sea-level. Simply breathing is hard work, that far up.

The matches are not limited to women vs. women, with the cholitas taking on their male counterparts, as dictated by the storyline. It’s a one of a kind breed of professional wrestling, and a take which goes beyond the first impression of the unique style. For it is sports entertainment, not just based on athletic talent combined with the struggle of “good against evil,” but a version which offers social and political commentary too. Below, you’ll find a playlist of Youtube videos, including both documentaries and other clips, which give a bit more insight into the world of the fighting cholitas.

“Sometimes my daughters ask why I insist on doing this. It’s dangerous; we have many injuries, and my daughters complain that wrestling does not bring any money into the household. But I need to improve every day. Not for myself, for Veraluz, but for the triumph of Yolanda, an artist who owes herself to her public.”
  — Yolanda La Amorosa

GLOW

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“Fully deserves a GLOWing review.”

I have only vague memories of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which never quite made the same cultural impact on the far side of the Atlantic as in their native country. I seem to recall seeing a couple of episodes, deciding it was a bit crap, and then slapping in a Megumi Kudo barbed-wire death match tape instead. But my interest was rekindled by the wonderful documentary, GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and it appears I may not have been the only one. [Incidentally, we re-watched the doc after finishing the series; it’s still very much recommended, and likely even better as a parallel version to this] The creators of the show were inspired by the same film to create their take, a heavily fictionalized telling of the show’s origin, from auditions to their first TV taping.

It focuses on Ruth (Brie), a largely failed actress, who goes to the audition out of desperation. There, she meets the motley crew of other women, whom director Sam Sylvia (Maron) – a veteran of B-movies such as Blood Disco – has to try to lick into shape. The main dramatic tension is between Ruth and Debbie (Gilpin), a soap-opera actress, with whose husband Ruth had an affair. Their spat inspires Sam to recruit Debbie, who would provide much needed star-power – but convincing her to get on board is an issue in itself. And there’s then the issue of her severely strained relationship with Ruth. While this may give their in-ring conflict credibility, it comes at a cost.

This is a great deal of fun, striking a very impressive balance between the drama, comedy and – to my surprise – the wrestling elements. For the show does a particularly good job of explaining both the appeal of the sports entertainment in question, and the work that goes in to making it look good. Here, it probably helps that real wrestlers were involved: Chavo Guerrero was the main consultant, and his uncle, Mando Guerrero, helped train the original GLOW ladies in the eighties. Fans will also spot John Morrison/Johnny Mundo, Brodus Clay, Carlito and Joey Ryan in various roles. It’s not at all a parody of the sport; to a significant degree, the original GLOW felt like that. But it also does extremely well at linking the wrestlers and the characters they play, and showing how the latter evolve and develop out of the former.

So Ruth becomes “Zora the Destroyer”, a Soviet antagonist to Debbie’s All-American “Liberty Belle”, whose frosty face-offs mirror the women’s real-life grievances. It’s these, along with the other characters, who are the show’s greatest strength: even relatively minor supporting ones are deftly sketched, and feel like real people, rather than caricatures. Special credit to Maron, who takes a character that could be a real bastard (far and away the most significant man) and gives him depth and humanity. Yes, he can be that bastard – but he knows what he’s doing, and genuinely cares about making the show the best it can be, even if he has to tread on a few toes to get there. Having been on the fringes of both B-cinema and independent wrestling, we’re aware of how true to life that is, and based on the doc, it doesn’t appear too different from Matt Cimber, the show’s actual director.

The two lead actresses did virtually all their action – there was occasional use of stand-ins, but mostly for reasons of fatigue. Brie said, “Wrestling matches are meant to be done once a day for maybe 20 minutes. But then we would shoot them for 10 to 12 hours so our stunt doubles became our tag team that we could tag in when we needed a rest.” Otherwise, it’s almost all the actual women, and that adds a level of authenticity to proceedings that helps. If no-one’s going to mistake the pair for Manami Toyota and Akira Hokuto, they’re perfectly credible, given the original show’s undeniable limitations in the area of actual wrestling. 

If you’re a child of the 80’s – and those were my teenage years – you’ll be in heaven, as this is a true period piece, from the music, through fashion, to things as basic as telephones. With wires. Attached to the wall. [It was a dark, dark time…] There is an occasional tendency to drift into feminist showboating, and some of the off-GLOW drama feels more like it comes from one of Debbie’s soaps. Otherwise, this is near-perfect, and certainly the best truly original series which Netflix have produced to date.

Created by:: Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch
Star: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, Sydelle Noel

From Parts Unknown: Fight Like a Girl

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“Ringpocalypse now.”

Perhaps surprisingly, this is not the first attempt to cross over between the worlds of zombies and pro wrestling. There was also the imaginatively-named Pro Wrestlers vs Zombies, which included Roddy Piper, Kurt Angle and Matt Hardy. This is much lower-budget, Australian and almost certainly contains nobody of whom you’ll have heard. But what both movies share is that… they aren’t actually very good. And that’s a shame, because I’m pretty much the ideal target audience, being a fan of both wrestling and horror. That this one has a heroine, should be another factor in support of it, but it ends up falling apart and devolving into a second half that is little more than a procession of uninteresting set-pieces.

Though in fairness, the makers deserve credit for persevering with production in the face of numerous calamities. The IMDb page lists a few of these, which should stand as a warning to anyone thinking about venturing into the creation of low-budget cinema:

The first edit was completed by the end of 2009 but, due to inexperience and lack of technical know-how, it was completed without location audio… Most of FPU was shot in an abandoned warehouse with no power, requiring a large generator to run lights, the noise of which can be heard in every shot at this location. By 2011 location audio had been re-synced but due to a falling out with those responsible was never delivered to the producers.

During production the director’s car was written off by a drunk off-duty police officer, the insurance money was just enough to allow shooting to continue… In a pivotal scene depicting the death of a main character the actor playing the part of the killer failed to turn up and didn’t return calls. An attempt was made to shoot the scene from a first person point-of-view, but in post production a random beam falling from out of shot was added to create the death scene instead.

All of which is likely more interesting than the finished film, unfortunately. Still, all production problems aside, what of the plot? Charlie (Dwyer) is the daughter of Buffalo Daddy, a wrestler who died in the ring. She’s now training in his footsteps, while working at a video-game company. Their current game, “From Parts Unknown”, involves the use of nanobots to… Well, it’s a bit vague on the details, but to cut to the chase, the nanobots get loose, turning everyone they encounter into flesh-munching monsters. It’s up to Charlie, and some of her pals, to fend off the impending zombie apocalypse.

There are occasional moments that are fun, such as the guy who seizes the chance to channel his inner Bruce Campbell, gleefully quoting Army of Darkness. However, it topples over far too often into self-indulgent stuff, that I’m sure had everyone involved cracking up on set, but triggers less than a faint smile in the viewer. The action scenes are disappointing too: I was expecting to see zombies getting suplexed through tables ‘n’ stuff – instead, it’s just the usual, humdrum removing of the head or destroying the brain, which we’ve seen too often before. I won’t give up though; maybe the third undead ‘rassling film will prove to be the charm. They just need to get Lucha Underground involved somehow.

Dir: Daniel Armstrong
Star: Jenna Dwyer, Elke Berry, Mick Preston, Josh Futcher

Lucha Underground: Hitokiri vs Pentagon Dark

If like us, you’re lucky enough to get Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network, consider yourself fortunate, since its mix of action, horror, SF and the other genres we love is right up our alley. Perhaps the jewel in the crown is Lucha Underground, a pro wrestling show that crams more into one hour (less commercials) than WWE manage in a bloated three hours of RAW. For the purposes of this site, it’s particularly notable for its roster of women wrestlers that (again, unlike WWE) are treated little or no different from the men; Mexican luchadora Sexy Star recently had a brief reign as the federation’s top champion, something no woman has ever managed under Vince McMahon. But the last show in November blew them all away.

Some storyline background is necessary. Last year, one of LU‘s top villains, Pentagon Dark, attacked and, using his signature move, broke the arm of Black Lotus, in her role as bodyguard to the federation’s owner, Dario Cueto. Since then, Lotus has been looking for revenge, and found her opportunity a month or so back during the show’s Aztec Warfare episode. Her intervention, along with three other women wrestlers known as the Black Lotus Triad, potentially cost Pentagon Dark his shot at the title. Now it was Pentagon’s turn to seek revenge on Lotus, and Cueto set up a a gauntlet match in which he would get his change to fight her – but only if he could first defeat, one by one, the three other members of the Triad.

All three, using the names of Doku (which translates roughly as “poison”, Yurei (“ghost”) and Hitokiri (“assassin”) are played by top fighters from Japanese women’s wrestling: Kairi Hojo, Mayu Iwatani and Io Shirai, respectively. I’ve largely been out of touch with puroresu of late; used to be a huge fan, but I hadn’t even heard of the Stardom promotion from which this trio come. That’s going to change going forward, for all three made a strong impression – even if Doku and Yurei lost the first two matches to Pentagon. They both had their arms broken in much the same way as Lotus, albeit only after having their own moments. [Doku, in particular, took such a pounding, I wondered if she had a side-job as a stuntwoman]

But what it did was set the table nicely. For one of the problems of inter-gender matches like this, is the inevitable difference in size and strength between the opponents. By Pentagon having had to go through two tough matches to reach Hitokiri, taking no small amount of damage on the way, it helped level the playing-field. The other main issue is a frequent sense that it’s “wrong” to hit a woman: while true on an everyday level, of course, this is pro wrestling, and such rules shouldn’t apply. They didn’t here, and there was never any sense of Pentagon holding back. He didn’t need to, since Shirai’s reputation is as one of, if not, the best woman wrestler in the world, and she absolutely lived up to that. Anyone who thinks wrestling is “fake”, should watch the bout below. Staged, yes, in the sense the outcome is predetermined, and the action is done in such a way as to look devastating, while not being lethal.

Yet, there’s much here that can only be described as jaw-dropping, even for someone like me, who has been watching wrestling for close to 20 years. For instance, there’s Pentagon basically skipping Hitokiri through rows of chairs like a pebble across a lake. Or the drop-kick as she tries a handspring off the ropes. Hitokiri gave as good as she received too, right from the get-go with a hellacious moonsault off the top rope onto the outside, and her dive off the second floor of the building onto Pentagon. Again, moves like that helped balance the scales, with quickness, agility and a reckless disregard for personal safety countering a larger and stronger opponent. The net result was the finest man vs. woman wrestling bout I’ve ever seen, and arguably one of the greatest such fights across any genre.

[Spoilers follow] After the bout, with her top minion having taken care of Pentagon, Black Lotus came out and took her vengeance, breaking his arm, as he had done to her last year. Worse was to follow, as Azteca Jr – another previous victim of Pentagon’s limb-snapping – seized his chance, coming to the ring and breaking the other arm too. We’ll have to wait and see what happens; I’d love to see the Triad stay on long-term in LU, even if the commingling of Japanese and Chinese elements is a little “Yellow Peril”-esque. But I’ve also read Shirai has been signed by WWE, so her time here may be limited. Still, we’ll always have this match, which even less biased observers have said, “might be the greatest debut in Lucha Underground history.”

GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling

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“A thoroughly satisfactory snapshot of a pop-culture element from another era. “

It has now been almost a quarter-century since GLOW was cancelled in 1990, and there still hasn’t been anything quite like it on television in the Western world: a pro wrestling federation entirely populated by women wrestlers. The brainchild of David McLane, and funded by Pia Zadora’s husband, the owner of the Riviera casino in Las Vegas, GLOW was a marvel of eighties low-budget television, mixing self-effacing comedy (it depicted McLane as having his office in a phone booth) with larger-than-life characters such as Matilda the Hun, and of course, wrestling matches. This documentary tells the story of the federation’s rise and fall – largely through the eyes of the women, as McLane and Matt Cimber, the show’s director, both declined to be formally interviewed (which is a shame, as it would definitely have provided another dimension for the film).

It’s a fascinating story, of something which probably never should have worked, but succeeded in a way that remains unmatched. Almost all the women had no wrestling experience, but were trained under Mando Guerrero (the brother of late WWE superstar Eddie) to develop skills that, from the relatively brief clips shown, weren’t much worse than certain current WWE divas I could mention. The stars didn’t just work together, but also roomed together, with rules governing their behaviour, more reminiscent of A League of Their Own than late-eighties Las Vegas! They don’t hold back on their distrust of Cimber and his often dubious motivational methods, insulting the women, but respect the fact they were allowed input into and control over their characters, which were often just larger-than-life versions of themselves. There’s also cringe-inducing footage of a match where one of the wrestler seriously damaged her elbow, proving again the fallacy of “wrestling = fake”.

But the most touching part, which gives the film an emotional heart not often seen in documentaries, concerns “Mount Fuji”, a.k.a. Emily Dole, a Samoan and former shot-putter, who was part of the roster. However, her weight (over 300 lbs) caused her health to deteriorate, and when she was located during filming, she was unable to walk, but still spoke very fondly of her time with the girls. One of the GLOW wrestlers, inspired by the documentary, organized a reunion, bringing women together who in some cases hadn’t seen each other for twenty years. I won’t say any more than that, but let’s just say, it’s been a bad season for allergies here in Phoenix. :) It’s a fine ending, that wraps up the loose ends and completes this in more than adequate fashion.

Dir: Brett Whitcomb
Star: Mount Fiji, Tina Ferrari, Ninotchka, Big Bad Mama

FMW: Torn to Shreds

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“Megumi Kudo: the real ‘Barb Wire’…”

I really wanted to use little barb-wire icons to mark this one, instead of the usual stars, but whenever I typed in “barb wire jpg” into search engines, I always seemed to find myself staring at Pamela Anderson.  Yes, get those digressions out of the way early, that’s what I always say…

This is the sixth in Tokyo Pop’s ongoing series of releases featuring Japanese wrestling from the FMW (Frontier Martial-arts Wrestling) federation, and while the others have all contained women’s matches, it’s the first to concentrate exclusively on this angle. So credit to them for putting out what is – correct me if I’m wrong – the first official release of Japanese women’s wrestling in the West. Unfortunately, that’s largely where the credit stops as far as they’re concerned.

To start with, FMW are a long way from being the best Japanese federation for women’s wrestling – they don’t even bother these days, having given up several years ago (these bouts largely date from 1995, so are hardly current) and think they might even have gone bankrupt now. Secondly, in line with FMW’s policy of hardcore – they’re kinda the Japanese equivalent of ECW – the women have largely been chosen for their willingness to do the extreme stuff, rather than any actual wrestling ability. This shows itself most prominently in the case of Shark Tsuchiya, whom I’ve encountered on several “unofficial” tapes, and is definitely one of the worst pro wrestlers I’ve seen. It’s significant that the best wrestler to be seen in this title is KAORU, who’s actually from another federation.

Thirdly, while they could have cherry-picked the best matches, most of the fights here are off one card, including lame rookie bouts not really worthy of note. [People like Sonoko Kato might be good now, but she had a lot to learn in those days…and was unlikely to do it in FMW] Fourthly, and most damningly, since the others are perhaps less within Tokyo Pop’s control, the two presenters are awful. John Watanabe is clueless, while his irritatingly fey partner, Eric Geller, annoyed me in a disturbingly Tarantino-esque way. On the DVD, you can at least switch to Japanese commentary during the matches, but you will want to skip their inter-bout “banter”.

There’s only one bout here that’s genuinely memorable, and it’s purely on a geek-show level. It’s part of the long rivalry between Shark Tsuchiya and the queen of FMW, Megumi Kudo, and is notable for it being a barbed-wire match, with the ropes of the ring being replaced by strands of (entirely genuine, I might add) barbed-wire. Having seen Kudo fight in cards for other promotions, I know she can actually wrestle, but there’s no sign of that here, stuck as she is with a useless lump like Tsuchiya. The bout follows almost the same pattern as all their others: Tsuchiya brutalises Kudo, Kudo bleeds, Kudo comes back gallantly.

The only major change here is how much Kudo bleeds: it’s buckets. I’ve seen few men’s matches as gory, and this is certainly among the worst of women’s bouts (there was a cage match pitting Shimoda and Mita against Watanabe and Ito that may come close). Kudo takes some severe bumps, particularly against the folding table that just won’t give, taking four attempts to break it [the Japanese must make them of stronger stuff!] You’ll probably find yourself shaking your head as Kudo’s face becomes totally red, a mask of blood.

The DVD offers some extras: brief highlights from an additional bout, extra footage of Watanabe and Geller (oh, joy…), a picture gallery of FMW wrestlers and some cheesecake footage of Kudo, which you’d be advised to watch before you see her gushing blood, as that will likely destroy any cuteness factor present for her. In other words: nothing to sway the vacillating purchaser.

As mentioned, it’s good to see this release, even if as an introduction to Japanese women’s wrestling, it’s largely a failure, being neither representative, nor good enough to attract the casual viewer. Meanwhile, the hardcore fan will likely have the bouts already, and will certainly possess better. This is a shame since there are some phenomenal athletes to be found, and it’s an area deserving of exposure here, particularly given the largely-woeful state of mainstream women’s wrestling. If it opens the gate to other, better titles, it’ll have performed an excellent, much-needed job, but on the whole, you should go for some of the unofficial tapes available through the Internet: names to look for would include Manami Toyota, Akira Hokuto, Aja Kong, Kyoko Inoue and Mima Shimoda. And definitely not Shark Tsuchiya…

Star: Megumi Kudo, Shark Tsuchiya, KAORU, Combat Toyoda

IWA Mid-South: Queen of the Deathmatch

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“Only women bleed…”

The Hardcore genre is denigrated by some pro-wrestling fans as “garbage wrestling,” but I’ve never quite felt that way. To be good, you still need many of the same skills necessary to be good at the more regular end of sports entertainment: ability to work the crowd, sell the offense of your opponent, put over a storyline, etc. It’s true, you don’t need much in the way of technical aptitude to let someone break a fluorescent light-tube across your head, but the willingness to do so is certainly worthy of undeniable respect (if coupled with questions about your sanity). The bottom line is, there are good “garbage wrestlers” and there are bad ones. We’ve seen both in our previous coverage of the genre, when we wrote about FMW: Torn to Shreds, where we saw Megumi Kudo and Shark Tsuchiya, who represent the two ends of the spectrum.

We’ve also spoken before about the gulf betwen Japanese women’s pro-wrestling and the largely pathetic excuse for it put out by the WWE, where two minutes of a glorified cat-fight passes muster as a title match. You need to abandon network TV and go down to the independent level if you want to look for anything comparable – in style, if not necessarily in quality – to joshi puroresu, and it’s there that we found this. The IWA Mid-South federation had been holding annual “King of the Deathmatch” tournaments for quite some time, the first being won by Ian Rotten, one of the most well-known/infamous garbage wrestlers (current WWE heavyweight champion, C.M. Punk was part of the 2004 event, in a non-deathmatch bout). But in 2006, they also staged a similar event for women wrestlers.

Of course, this being independent wrestling where the phrase “card subject to change” is a given, the eight women scheduled to complete ended up being seven and a man. MC Ian Rotten said that Delilah Starr had a car-crash on the way here, and another competitor, LuFisto, had broken her hand fighting another notorious garbage wrestler, Necro Butcher, in a Canadian Death Match tournament called “Bloodstock”. Taking advantage of the open spot was SeXXXy Eddy, a male wrestler with a long history of intergender matches, which his in-ring persona thoroughly enjoyed, as you can imagine from his name. The roster also included reigning IWA women’s champion Mickie Knuckles, Rachel Putski (grand-daugher of WWE Hall of Famer Ivan Putski), and two joshi wrestlers, Mayumi Ozaki and Sumi Sakai.

The first round got under way with a Staple Gun Match between Knuckles and Ann Thraxx: it was best of 13, so the first to embed seven staples in their opponent won. Knuckles was busted open immediately, but this was very much equal opportunity carnage: as the pic on top shows, the red, red blood contrasted nicely with Thraxx’s bleached blonde hair. The score was tied at six with a staple to Knuckle’s crotch, but she took the win by tacking a dollar bill on Thraxx’s nose. Next up was a disappointingly bland thumbtack match, with Putski taking on Vanessa Kraven in ring containing a small box of tacks: it was Kraven’s first death-match, and you could tell her heart really wasn’t in it. Add another skill to the list necessary to succeed as a garbage wrestler: commitment.

The third match was improved, though from a strictly aesthetic and visual sense, was hard to watch. Amy Lee – about as far from a WWE diva as it’s possible to get – took on SeXXXy Eddy, who was wearing what can only be described as a “banana hammock”. This was a “Four Corners Of Pain” bout, with the corners of the ring behind home to barb-wire/salt, mousetraps, fluorescent light-tubes and..,er, lemons? Life gives you lemons, you…stage a death-match. That said, this was mostly fun for Eddy’s antics, not least his epic selling of the mousetraps: though he won, he took care in the post-match interview to put Amy over, for which he deserves credit. The first round finished with Mayumi Ozaki taking on Japanese colleague Sumie Sakai, in a Barbed Wire Ropes and Boards match: this was basically a squash, Sakai taking all the damage, as Ozaki prevailed.

Moving on to the semi-finals, the first pitted Knuckles against Putski in a Taipei Death Match. In this, the wrestlers’ fists are taped, dipped into glue and then in broken and crushed glass, to turn their fists into nasty weapons – its use here may have been because the most infamously bloody of these was between tonight’s MC, Ian Rotten, and his “brother” Axl, at a 1995 ECW show. This one is not much less messy, especially when the two wrestlers set up on facing chairs, and take turns whaleing away at each other’s foreheads [a common target in this kind of wrestling, being an area not likely to incur permanent damage, but capable of generating plenty of the red, red kroovy, as A Clockwork Orange called it, running down the face]. Knuckles prevailed, but hard to say who lost more blood.

Osaki took on Eddy in a two out of three, light-tube log-cabin match. You’re wondering what a light-tube log-cabin is, aren’t you. Those are fluorescent tubes, taped together in a square, four to a side and maybe stacked four interweaved rows or so high. They make a very satisfying crunch when you drop your opponent through one, as we discover here. One thing wrestling fans know, is “two out of three” anything means the first two will inevitably be split, and that’s the case here: Ozaki gets backdropped through the first log-cabin, but comes back with a flying kick off a chair to send Eddy into the second. She takes the win after he tries a high-risk manoeuvre off the top rope, only to be grabbed by his banana hammock and flipped through the deciding log-cabin. Ozaki, again, appears to avoid significant damage.

The final, between her and Knuckles was officially described as a (deep breath!) “No Rope Barbed Wire Fans Bring The Weapons Electrified Lighttubes Cage Match”. Basically, pretty much anything went, inside a steel cage which came already furnished with a ladder, beer barrel, barbed-wire ropes, a host of other offensive shrapnel (barbecue fork, baking tray, and bizarrely, a light-up magic wand with a star on the end) and enough fluorescent light-tubes to illuminate Vegas – yes, some of which were plugged in and working, for added emphasis. It is, I think, the first wrestling bout I’ve seen where the referee wore eye-protection. Knuckles hadn’t even bothered to clean up after the last bout, coming to the ring still covered in dried gore from her semi-final.

This one was relatively brief, and must confess, I actually found it somewhat disappointing, especially considering it was supposed to be the grand final. It felt almost as if both women had been drained by the previous encounters, so (understandably) had little energy left for their third match of the night. There was some breaking of glass and some mild use of foreigh objects, but it lasted only a little more than seven minutes in total, before Knuckles kicked through one of the electrified light fixtures into Ozaki’s forehead, following up with a pin for a three-count and victory. She didn’t really get to enjoy her title for long, as LuFisto and Kraven came in, blindsided her and left Knuckles draped in a Canadian flag, obviously intended to set a grudge-match up for the next IWA Mid-South event,

This is not great wrestling, by any means: matches generally proceed at a sluggish pace, and the format offers little scope for any significant degree of technical skill. But I have nothing but total respect for the participants, who put their bodies on the line for the entertainment of the audience, with a cheerful lack of concern for safety. If they were getting paid tens of thousands of dollars, I could perhaps understand it, but the paying crowd here probably numbered a hundred or less, so the compensation for their efforts can have been little more than token. Such willingness to suffer for your art (and there is no doubt in my mind, that pro wrestling is indeed an art), can only be applauded.

Date/time: November 3, 2006 at the Capital Sports Arena in Plainfield, Indiana.
Participants: Mickie Knuckles, Mayumi Ozaki, Rachel Putski, Sexxxy Eddy
Available through Amazon, as The Best of Deathmatch Wrestling, Vol. 4: Queens of the Deathmatch.

GAEA Girls

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“If you think wrestling is “fake” – think again…”

Out in the middle of the Japanese countryside is a square, unremarkable building that is the headquarters and training center for GAEA, one of the country’s leading women’s wrestling federations. Into this comes Takeuchi, making her second attempt to become a pro wrestler – the brutal training, under the glare of GAEA’s top wrestler Nagaua, caused her to give up last time. Will her second attempt prove any more successful? Can she get through to the final exam, and pass it to become a full member of GAEA?

There are moments here whih are just jaw-droppingly savage. For instance, Takeuchi, after failing to deliver dropkicks correctly, is on the receiving end of a truly malevolent one, which you swear came close to decapitating her. The next scene has Takeuchi being berated by the trainers for her failings: only eventually does the camera pan round to show the rookie, standing there, blood dripping from her face. And the emotional abuse through which Takeuchi is put, is possibly even worse. As proof of the world of difference between “fake” and “staged,” this is impeccable, and you can’t blame the other wannabes, who opt to leave, when they realize exactly what they’re in for. The grind behind the showmanship of pro wrestling has never been so well depicted.

The film’s weakness is the lack of background – and it’s significant, unless you’re fairly well-versed in the world of joshi puroresu. For instance, it’s never mentioned that Nagayo was one half of the Crush Gals, whom even Wikipedia calls “possibly the most famous and beloved women’s tag team of all time.” Without that knowledge, it’s hard to understand the respect she has, and why trainees put up with so much from her – indeed, though we see Nagayo in action, there’s nothing to indicate the elevated position she has in the sport, an icon of eighties Japanese pop culture. Similarly, there’s very little effort to probe into Takeuchi’s desires and dreams: why is she willing to go through this hell? I know enough about wrestlers and wrestling to have some idea, but for the uninitiated, I suspect the documentary will raise as many questions as it answers.

Dir: Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams
Star: Saika Takeuchi, Chigusa Nagayo, Meiko Satomura, Yuka Sugiyama

Below the Belt

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“Captures the true spirit of independent wrestling on the road. Especially the tedium.”

Rosa Rubinsky (Baff) is working as a waitress at a wrestling venue, when her swift dispatch of an over-affectionate coworker gets her noticed by a promoter (Bechler). He convinces her to try out, under the watchful eye of Mildred Burke [playing herself – she held the Women’s World Championship for about 20 years], and after some initial shock, discovers she likes the theatrical sport. Despite never having been outside the state of New York, she goes on the road, along with a set of other women wrestlers, and they travel up and down the East coast, putting on shows, though Rosa is still deemed too “green” to get in the ring. That changes after she meets the current women’s champion, Terrible Tommy (O’Brien, another genuine wrestler of the era). A bout for the belt is arranged, in which Rosa – known now as “Rosa Carlo, the Mexican Spitfire” – will take on Tommy for the title.

Inspired by the recently-republished novel, To Smithereens by Rosalyn Drexler, in turn inspired by Drexler’s brief career in the squared circle as “Rosa Carlo”, when she wasn’t hanging out with the likes of Andy Warhol, this certainly captures the non-glamourous side of the business well. If you’re used to the WWE and its divas, the women here will seem like they come from another planet, not exactly the skinny supermodels now near-exclusively seen: I don’t know about you, but Terrible Tommy sure put the fear of god into me, and some of the others have faces that could stop a clock. However, it just doesn’t make sense for Rosa to make her debut in a title match: from what I know of wrestling, you have a long apprenticeship before you get that far, and instead of ring action, this leads to lots of scenes in cars, as the women drive from city to city, interspersed with semi-random wrestling footage that makes no sense and serves no real purpose.

And then there are the montages… I didn’t realise this was a musical. Ok, the characters don’t sing, but it seems like every few minutes, there’s a song over a cinematic backdrop, to the extent that it goes beyond good, to bad, and then right through to a surreal point where it almost, but not quite, makes sense again. Negatives like that do outweigh the moments of truth, such as the promoter giving Rosa her ring-name despite her loud protests, or the comment that “Old wrestlers never retire.” This one is more a curtain-jerker than a main event.

Dir: Robert Fowler
Star: Regina Baff, John C. Becher, Annie McGreevey, Jane O’Brien