Part 7 of an in depth look at the growth of women’s wrestling, from noted ring historian The Phantom of the Ring.
The Phantom of the Ring
Lipstick, Dynamite and Glowworms Part 7
Crushing the Opposition.
There is an old Japanese proverb to the extent that one arrow may be broken, but ten in a bunch are unbreakable. This was certainly true of the promotional philosophy pursued among the women.
The AJW discovered that their biggest stars of the First Golden Age were the Beauty Pair. However, with the restrictive early retirement age for women wrestlers, the Beauty Pair disappeared and business began to flag. But not for long; the next superstars were literally just around the corner and their pairing was a calculated risk – albeit one that paid off beyond all expectations.
Tomoko Kitamura was a 17-year old girl (born July 28, 1963) with not many job prospects. Athletically inclined, she wanted more out of life than just an office job and the usual marriage route for young Japanese women. Being a fanatical wrestling fan, Asuka auditioned and was accepted for training by AJW in 1980. Renamed Lioness Asuka, her progression was rapid, so rapid that she made her professional debut on May 10 of that year. She was an immediate success, quickly becoming a fan favorite and winning her first title — the AJW Junior Championship — in 1981. She followed that up on July 19, 1982 in Tokyo by winning the AJW Singles Championship from Masked (Crane) Yu. She dropped the belt on January 8, 1983 to future nemesis Kaoru (Dump) Matsumoto, then won it back on June 1, 1983 in Omaya (Saitama Province). She vacated the belt on January 18, 1984 because in 1983 destiny took a hand as she formed the most popular tag team of all time, male or female, The Crush Gals.
Chigusa Nagayo was born on December 8, 1964 in the town of Omura, located in Nagasaki Prefecture. She was quoted as saying her childhood dream was to become a doctor. This was due to the fact she went to the doctor almost daily for a checkup because she suffered from tuberculosis and asthma. Her mother had her own remedy for her sickly daughter, and that was for young Chigusa to take karate lessons. Amazingly her health improved dramatically within a year and led to her lifelong interest in athletics. But just as one thing gets better, another one goes bad: just before she entered high school, her family, which owned seven restaurants, ran into huge debt. The upshot of all this was that her family was forced to split up and live separately, ending young Chigusa’s dream.
Then, almost by accident, she spotted a want ad for female pro wrestlers. She saw this as the answer to her family problem. If she could become a pro wrestler, she could help support her family. In the early days, she noted, the practice and exercise schedule was grueling, and claimed many aspirants. But for Nagayo, thanks to her early karate training, it paid off in spades. Already deemed ahead of the curve, Nagayo made her pro debut on August 8 1980 against Yukari Omori. Less than two years later, on May 15, 1982, she defeated Itsuki Yamazaki for the vacant AJW Junior title. She would drop the belt on August 10, 1982 to Noriyo Tateno. (My sources tell me the AJW Junior Title was for young wrestlers highly regarded by the promotion, and used as a yardstick to determine their charisma.)
Nagayo was an anomaly in Japanese women’s wrestling due to her weight. She stood 5’5” and weighed in the vicinity of 180 pounds. Women who looked like that were usually cast as heels. Looks didn’t matter: Devil Masami was one of the most beautiful women wrestlers ever to grace the ring. She would definitely be in my top ten in that category. But because of her weight she was a heel.
Perhaps it was the weight that prompted the AJW to team her with Lioness Asuka as The Crush Gals. In the gym they displayed great chemistry, and the decision was made to team them. But while they were making their reputation as a team, Chigusa won the AJW Junior Title for a second time when she defeated Noriyo Tateno. But, amazingly, she vacated it the same day; AJW could no longer fight the popularity of the Crush Gals.
Crush Gal mania began to take off. Young fans caught on and embraced these two young women like no others. AJW began to notice that whenever the Crush Gals were on television, the ratings jumped tremendously, drawing a 12.0 consistently. Fuji-TV, which carried the show, wanted the duo to be more properly showcased, and so it was decided to match the phenoms against another very popular tag team, the champion Dynamite Girls. The Dynamite Girls consisted of Yukari Omori as the tough veteran of the two and Jumbo Hori, who was the tallest joshi wrestler at the time. They wrested the WWWA Tag Title from Devil Masami and Tarantula on June 17, 1983 and held the belts until August 25 1984, when they relinquished them to the Crush Gals.
I can safely say that unless you were lucky enough to live in Japan during the mid-80s, you really have no idea of just how popular the Crush Gals were. They had several top 10 pop singles. They opened new stores, appeared on popular Japanese television shows (all on the Fuji Television network of course), and even threw out the first pitch at several Japanese baseball games. Their television appearances outdrew the men on more than one occasion. Their style of dress was widely imitated and they also inspired a rush of applicants to become pro wrestlers (over 800 applicants in 1985 alone.). Not even the loss of the tag titles to Crane Yu and Dump Matsumoto on February 25, 1985 diminished their popularity. In fact, it may well be said that the emergence of a strong heel alliance further fueled the popularity of the Crush Gals. In the movies it is rarely noticed, except by the Academy, that the supporting actor often makes the lead actor even more effective (and popular). It worked this way with the Crush Gals. And the credit for this should go to perhaps the most charismatic heel ever to grace Japanese wrestling. Her name was Dump Matsumoto.
Kaoru Matsumoto was born on November 11, 1960 in Kumagaya, Saitama Province. She joined AJW in 1979 and made her debut in 1980, against whom I have no record. (Can someone write in and help here?) Within three years she was on her way to stardom, defeating Lioness Asuka for the AJW Championship on January 8, 1983 before dropping it back to Asuka on June 1, 1983.
In AJW, one must not only be proficient as a singles star, but also as a tag wrestler; and this is where she especially excelled. Tagging with her first partner, Crane Yu, the duo stripped the Crush Gals of their WWWA Tag Team titles on February 25, 1985. Their reign only lasted two months due to the retirement of Yu. The Crush Gals regained the titles on May 16, 1985 when they defeated Matsumoto and new partner Keiko “Bull” Nakano. It was during this time that Matsumoto acquired her nickname of “Dump,” which was short for “Dump truck,” a reference to her size (5’4″ – 220 lbs.) Her new partner, Keiko Nakano (of whom more will be said later), was nicknamed “Bull,” short for “Bulldozer.”
Dump now parlayed her newfound popularity (during this period she was the most hated joshi wrestler by a far distance) into stardom. She formed the stable Gokuaku Domei (loose translation: “Atrocious Alliance.”) with Yu, Condor Saito, and Nakano. Their feud with the Crush Gals was over the top in popularity. Television matches handily won their time slot and sometimes ended up as the highest rated show for the week. Arenas sold out early when a Crush Gals versus Gokuaku Domei match was scheduled. Matsumoto’s stable was what today would be referred to as hardcore. They wore outlandish face paint and used chairs, chains, garbage cans, and whatever else they could find as weapons.
The highlight of the feud was the first women’s hair vs. hair match in Japan between Chigusa Nagayo and Dump Matsumoto. It slowly built on television and climaxed on August 28, 1985, with the two meeting in one of the most memorable matches in Joshi Puroresu history: the famous hair vs. hair match.
According to a Japanese friend of mine who was at ringside, the match was extremely brutal. The ending came when Chigusa, covered in blood, was knocked out when Dump used a pair of brass knucks. Dump then made a performance of getting out the shears and proceeding to shave Chigusa’s head. The crowd was screaming in disbelief and throwing objects into the ring, unusual for Japanese fans. They also called for Lioness Asuka, who was at ringside, to come to her partner’s aid. They cheered loudly as Asuka jumped into the ring to guard against further attacks on her now shaven partner. My friend said he had never seen anything like it before, or since. It was Wrestling Melodrama at its height. If you can find this match anywhere on the Internet, by all means watch it. You will not be disappointed. My friend told me that after the match, more than one spectator vomited from the excitement and gore.
Those who thought that couldn’t be topped were surprised when on September 10, 1986, Dump and her gang interrupted as the Crush Gals performed a concert in the ring, and Dump proceeded to cut up Nagayo’s clothes. This led to a second hair vs. hair match, which generated even more box office interest than the first. Chigusa versus Matsumoto was still what everyone wanted to see. The second match took place on November 6, 1986, before a sold out house with several thousand turned away. The course of the match followed the first, with Chigusa getting the snot kicked out of her by Dump. Blooded and seemingly beaten, Chigusa looked helpless as Dump moved in for the kill. But, suddenly Chigusa grabbed Dump and executed a rollup pin for the victory. This time it was Dump who had her head shaved.
Dump switched gears to work as a single and made an unsuccessful, but spectacular bid for the vacant WWWA World Heavyweight Championship on December 12, 1985. She lost to Devil Masami in one of the most intense and bloodiest battles I have ever seen. Masami was a wild woman and paired with another like her, the result was fireworks and hardcore that puts the old ECW to shame.
Because Chigusa Nayago suffered an ankle injury in December, 1985, that forced her out of action, Dump and Bull Nakano accepted an offer from the WWF in early 1986 to tour. The tour was delayed as Nakano and Condor Saito lost to the Jumping Bomb Angels (Itsuki Yamazaki & Noriyo Tateno). Billed as the Devils of Japan, they might have had some good matches, provided they were matched against women who were familiar with the joshi style. Unfortunately, they were paired against Velvet McIntyre and Dawn Marie (not Psaltis of ECW fame) in Boston on March 8, 1986, who provided little in the way of opposition. They met McIntyre and Linda Gonzales in Madison Square Garden on April 5, 1986, which proved to be their last. I witnessed that bout and the sight of Matsumoto coming down the aisle in Samurai armor was, for me, unforgettable. She looked like the Samurai robot in the Japanese science-fiction classic, The Mysterians. (Bill Kunkel will love this allusion.) The match itself was more like the squash matches the WWF showed on television. McIntyre and Gonzales couldn’t execute anything against the Japanese superstars. Dump returned to Japan to lose an intense battle to Chigusa Nagayo for the All Pacific Championship in Tokyo, Japan on April 5, 1986.
The Crush Gals, meanwhile, were now healthy and set their sights on the Jumping Bomb Angels. The Jumping Bomb Angels as mentioned previously, consisted of Noriyo Tateno (born December 1, 1965, in Ashikaga) & Itsuki Yamazaki, a couple of AJW veterans. Trained at the AJW Dojo, Yamazaki began her career in 1980 and Tateno in 1981. Tateno stood a 5’5” and weighed 165 lbs. She came from a background in swimming and track. Of Yamazaki, nothing is known; I could not find a smidge of information on her except for the fact she lost a AJW Junior Title bout to Chigusa Nayago and defeated Noriyo Tateno for the AJW Singles Title on February 28, 1984, in Sagamihara in Kanagawa Province. She vacated the belt on February 25, 1985, reasons unknown. Tateno, for her part, was mainly a preliminary wrestler who occasionally rose to mid-card level. Her moment of glory came when the defeated Chigusa Nagayo for the AJW Junior Title on August 10, 1982, in Fukushima. She dropped the belt back to Nagayo on January 8, 1984, in Tokyo. According to my sources Tateno had ability galore, and played the schoolgirl gimmick, popularized earlier by Mimi Hagiwara, but never really clicked with the fans. That is, until she hooked up with Yamazaki at the Dojo.
Their styles complimented each other perfectly and it was decided to package them as a tag-team. I have trouble with the genesis of the name “Jumping Bomb Angels.” I have read that it was given to them upon their arrival in the WWF, but looking at AJW Title history, I see them identified as The Jumping Bomb Angels. Now, knowing both Vince McMahon and Japanese culture as I do, I find it ludicrous that McMahon had the Japanese frame of imagination to come up with that moniker. It sounds to me like something AJW would come up with and is perfectly in keeping with their high-flying style. The oddest thing about The Jumping Bomb Angels was that they did far better in America, winning the WWF Women’s Tag Title at the Royal Rumble on January 24, 1988 (over the Glamour Girls, Leilani Kai and Judy Martin, who regained the title on June 8, 1988), and a Survivor Series, than in Japan, unlike practically every other Japanese wrestler that toured the States.
I read somewhere that in January, 2004, the WWE approached Yamazaki to recommend a Japanese woman wrestler they could use. She suggested Takako Inoue. In an interview with Nikkan Sport Inoue said she was “very happy with her workout,” stating that she “wants to be more than a sexy WWE Diva, because if they want me only for my sex appeal I’m not interested. I am a wrestler first and foremost.”
Guess who didn’t get the job.
Prior to her retirement, Yamazaki’s last appearance in a ring was in 1991 for World Championship Wrestling, wrestling at the WCW Wrestle War pay-per-view, where she teamed with Mami Kitimura to defeat Miki Handa and Miss A. Yamazaki is now retired and living in New York City, where she is the owner of Japanese restaurant GO. (Karen recently told me she saw Yamakazi and her daughter when she made a personal appearance, and they said they reside in Jersey City.)
Tateno remained active after Yamazaki’s retirement, competing with the LLPW (Ladies Legends Pro Wrestling) in Japan.
Though the Jumping Bomb Angels were positioned to become the successors to the Crush Gals, a funny thing happened on the way to the forum. Chigusa recovered completely from her injuries and the Crush Gals were back. Interest in the Jumping Bomb Angels plummeted faster that a lead balloon, and in Osaka on March 20, 1986, The Crush Gals disposed of the Angels (who had to play the heels) to claim the WWWA Tag Titles for the third time. But again injury played a hand as Lioness Asuka injured herself in a match in August. This necessitated the dropping of the tag titles on August 23, 1986, to Bull Nakano and Dump Matsumoto, with Kazue Nagahori filling in for the injured Asuka.
Asuka recovered and the Crush Gals toured America for the WWF. But because they lacked the physical beauty the WWF demanded, they did not receive a push, though they did appear on television and wrestled the usual suspects, including Judy Martin, Leilani Kai (an excellent worker, conversant with the joshi style), Donna Christianello, Penny Mitchell, and Black Venus. All in all, it was a big disappointment, with the real losers being the fans and McMahon himself, who, if he had any sense, could have made women’s wrestling as big (and immensely profitable) in the U.S. as it was in Japan, and without resorting to T & A as the primary focus. I was always surprised that the Jumping Bomb Angels lasted as long as they did. Yes, I know the crowd took to them, but they worshipped the Crush Gals.
By this time, the allure of tag competition began to wear thin. A major factor was the retirement of Dump Matsumoto on February 25, 1988. Without Matsumoto to provide the necessary heat, the Crush Gals turned instead to the singles scene, a scene they had been exploring for a couple of years.
First, Nagayo dropped the All Pacific Championship she had won from Matsumoto on April 5, 1986, to Leilani Kai on August 21 of that year in Tokyo. She regained the belt in Osaka on August 21, 1986, and this time, she held it until her retirement on May 6, 1989. However, she reached the heights of AJW when she won the WWWA World Heavyweight Championship from Yukari Omori on August 22, 1988, finishing her opponent with a moonsault.
During the summer of 1987, Asuka had failed to dethrone WWWA World Heavyweight Champion Yukari Ohmori. However on October 20, 1987, Nagayo pinned Ohmori following a moonsault for the title. AJW parlayed this into a moneymaking feud of sorts, unusual because two babyfaces were competing. Think Bruno Sammartino versus Pedro Morales). Asuka now became Nagayo’s number one threat. Finally, on August 22, 1988, Asuka defeated Nagayo in one of the greatest joshi matches of all time to become the champion. The finish occurred when Nagayo suffered a shoulder injury when she lost he balance trying to execute a throw. The referee stopped the match and awarded the victory, and title, to Asuka. To her everlasting credit with the fans, Asuka refused to accept the championship under those circumstances.
A rematch was hyped for months, even though the duo kept teaming up in matches. Finally, on January 22, 1989, Asuka won the title cleanly. She kept it until her retirement. Back on the tag-team front, on March 4, 1989, the Crush Gals won the WWWA Tag Team titles for the fourth time, overcoming younger rivals Mika Komatsu and Yumi Ogura. Having reached AJW’s retirement age in 1989, Nagayo held a retirement show on May 6. Called Wrestlemarinepiad 1989, it drew a record crowd, which saw the Crush Gals perform a lengthy concert and wrestle just about everyone in the company. (My source noted sarcastically that she did more jobs on this one night than she ever did in her career. or would go on to do in the next ten years.) Asuka followed her friend and partner into retirement later that year. The biggest losers of AJW’s inane retirement policy were not only the millions of fans who idolized the duo, but also AJW itself, as business suffered a sharp decline for the first time in the promotion’s history.
Matsumoto, for her part, did not have a retirement sendoff. She did make a one night return in August, 1998, when she and fellow retiree Crane Yu squared off against Hyper Cat and Combat Toyoda. Dump turned instead to the cinema, remembered best for her character Bái Yá-Shàn in Ryoichi Ikegami and Kazuo Koike’s Crying Freeman series (Crying Freeman 2: Shades of Death, Part 1 - 1989;Crying Freeman 3: Shades of Death, Part 2 – 1990; and Crying Freeman 5: Abduction in Chinatown- 1992). Other movies include Scorpion Woman Prisoner: Death Threat (1991) and Okoge (1992). (Source IMDB)
Besides making appearances on several All Japan Women legends reunions, she has also made several appearances for the now defunct GAEA promotion. (And in November 11, 2007, ran her own show under the banner of Atrocious Alliance Produce at Shinjuku FACE.)
In 1996 Chigusa Nagayo, who by this time had founded GAEA, returned to America after negotiating an inter-promotional deal with WCW. She was repackaged as a face painted wrestler called “Zero” with Sonny Ono as her manager. GAEA grapplers Akira Hokuto & Toshie Uematsu were to take the women’s WCW title and the WCW cruiserweight women’s title respectively. Their opponents included the likes of Kaoru, Kato, Madusa and Malia Hosaka. But the booking was handled badly and the angle flopped badly. It would be the last time joshi performers would be used in a major role with an American wrestling promotion.
Asuka, for her part, came out of retirement in 1994, forming the Rideen Array, which included fellow wrestlers Jaguar Yokota and Bison Kimura. She wrestled for many of the new women’s promotions that arose at that time, such as J’ and ARISON. In 1998, she made a significant move when she joined GAEA Japan, the promotion run by her former partner, Nagayo. Asuka began her GAEA career as a top heel feuding with… Nagayo. In December Asuka turned up at a GAEA Korakuen Hall show and walked straight past to side with Mayumi Ozaki and Aja Kong. Asuka was now a full-fledged heel with a group of her own (the SSU- Superstar Unit, which consisted of Asuka, Mayumi Ozaki, Akira Hokuto, Aja Kong, Sugar Sato, Chikayo Nagashima, Kaori Nakayama, and Las Cachorras Orientales). On April 4, 1999, the former teammates met in the ring for the first time since their WWWA title match in 1989. The gimmick in this match was the presidency of Nagayo’s GAEA. It was a decent match, not up to their former standards, but Asuka got the win and became the president. A gimmick match with Aja Kong resulted in Nagayo the losing the GAEA AAAW title, and her job with the company she founded.
After several weeks of what she described as “intensive training,” Nagayo returned to GAEA several pounds lighter. She also brought a new attitude. She challenged Asuka for a rematch, which was set for September 15 at the Yokohama Bunka Gym. The match saw Nagayo use Asuka’s heel tactics against her, and end the match when she threw fire at Asuka to set her up for the pin. Following the match, Nagayo extended her hand to Asuka, who refused it.
In late 1999 Mayumi Ozaki founded a new faction in GAEA: Team Nostradamus, which consisted of former SSU members Ozaki, Hokuto, Kong, Sato, Nagashima and Nakayama. Several tag team matches took place between the new team and Asuka. On December 27, 1999, Nagayo and Satomura were battling Asuka and Kato when Team Nostradamus ran in to attack Asuka. The four combatants shook off the attack, and cleaned house. Nagayo extended her hand once again to Asuka and this time Asuka accepted, to the delight of the crowd.
The storyline became huge news in Japan. GAEA’s April 4, 2000, show featured the debut of the reunited team, who now called themselves Crush 2000. It was the biggest in the promotion’s history.
The reunion seemingly picked right up where it left off and the duo went on to win their fourth tag team championship titles, defeating Sugar Sato and Chikayo Nagashima for the AAAW Tag Championship in Tokyo on April 30, 2004. Their reign, however, was short-lived: they dropped the straps to Aja Kong and Amazing Kong in Tokyo on May 5, 2004.
Injuries finally stopped the Crush Gals. Asuka retired on April 3, 2005 due to neck injuries. Nagayo followed a week later after losing to her protégée Meiko Satomura in the main event of GAEA’s farewell card, Eternal Last Gong Show.
They were the consummate professionals in a sport comprised of consummate professionals. In an interview conducted shortly before her retirement, Nagayo admitted that being in the spotlight took its toll. “The more titles I earned, the more pressure I felt to hang onto those title belts.”
Nerves also played a large part: “Just before a bout, I would be backstage and hearing the audience scream and the sound of the gong would make me nauseous,” she said. “Sometimes, I wished I could run away but I knew I had to face my fear and told myself never to give up.” She noted that the majority of athletes shared her stage fright. “Every time I fight, I find something I could not do or something I could do. The majority of athletes are cowards. By that, I mean they don’t want to face their weaknesses. That’s true of life in general. However, I think that by finding one’s weakness, a person becomes stronger because they are not afraid to try again when something goes wrong.”
This is exactly why Nagayo became a superstar when others fell by the wayside.
If I haven’t mentioned this before, I’d like to give a great deal of thanks to Wrestling-Titles.com for their role in the research in this series. This is one of the best wrestling web sites on the Internet and a historian’s dream. If you haven’t visited there yet, please do so. It is DEFINITELY worth it.
– The Phantom of the Ring
You can write to the Phantom care of Karen Belcher