Part 8 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 8
The Beginning of the End
After almost two decades of unrivaled popularity, AJW began, amazingly, to self-destruct. What’s even more amazing is that it all could have been stopped, or at least delayed, by a simple rule change: get rid of the mandatory retirement rule.
For AJW performers, the mandatory retirement age was 26. This was because the product was aimed at young women, and it was thought that young women would not want to come out to see older women, past their “prime,” fight. It was also believed that the longer a star stayed with the promotion, the more power she gained, especially if she remained a superstar, as in the case of The Beauty Pair and the Crush Gals. Power transforms into demands for more money and a hand in the booking. And the older stars resented doing jobs to their younger coworkers, diminishing the stardom they worked so hard to build.
If new talent was able to be developed, it didn’t matter what the older stars thought – they weren’t running the show. But the fatal flaw in this scheme was that many stars did retain their following and were sorely missed when they were forced to retire. Another factor not taken into consideration was that young audiences are notoriously fickle; apt to change gears when the next new fad comes along.
In the case of AJW, the retirements of the Crush Gals and Dump Matsumoto placed a huge dent in the box office. Dump was the most hated heel in Japan, male or female. Asuka would be missed, and Chigusa Nayago was the most popular Joshi star in the sport’s history. How would AJW replace the irreplaceable?
That wasn’t easy, but we’re going to look at some of the stars that blossomed after the Crush-Matsumoto era came to an end.
In the heel category, it was easy. Bull Nakano inherited the throne from Matsumoto. Keiko Nakano was born on January 8, 1968 (1968-01-08) in the city of Kawaguchi, in Saitama Prefecture. She applied to the AJW Dojo at the age of 15 and was accepted. Trained by Jackie Sato, she blossomed and after only a few months, she made her pro debut under her real name on September 23, 1983. Due to her size, (5’7”, over 200 lbs.), it was determined her role would be that of a heel, and that was the role in which the fans quickly accepted her. Less than a year later, on September 13, 1984, she defeated Yumi Ogura for the AJW Junior Title.
The popularity of Dump Matsumoto caused AJW to look for a tag partner for a feud with the Crush Gals. Nakano was a natural. Her name was changed to “Bull” (as noted before, short for bulldozer). She was given a rather bizarre appearance with half of her head shaven, wearing the remaining hair in a spiked do and using lots of black eye makeup; later she would paint a spider’s web on half her face. (This was typical of the attitude AJW had with its heavier women. Except for the striking exception of Nagayo and Jumbo Miyamoto, who were over with the fans from the beginning and so remained babyfaces, heavier women were often made up and outfitted in a bizarre manner. Without her makeup, Nakano is very pretty) She was also noted for carrying nunchuks to the ring, invariably using them on her opponents.
Bull and Dump became the most notorious tag team in AJW history; their crowning glory coming when they dethroned the Crush Gals for the WWWA Tag Title minus the injured Lioness Asuka on August 23, 1986. Nakano also had a couple of Singles moments, defeating Mika Komatsu for the vacant All Japan Singles on July 25, 1985 (She would hold that belt until January 28, 1988, when she dropped it to old nemesis Yumi Ogura); and later wining the All-Pacific Singles Title from Mitsuko Nishiwaki (June 18, 1989). She also won the annual Grand Prix, a tournament begun in 1985 to determine the number one contender for the WWWA Championship, the promotion’s top prize, by defeating Yumiko Hotta in the finals. Nakano was the fourth wrestler to win; Lioness Asuka was the first, followed in 1986 by Yukari Omori and in 1987 by Chigusa Nagayo. (Although she was the 1988 winner, it took Nakano until January 4, 1990, to win the strap.)
When Matsumoto retired, Nakano was promoted to lead heel. She was a better worker than Dump, but not as charismatic a personality. Therefore, in line with her push, she was given her own group. Called the Prison Gate Party, its members included Condor Saito, Grizzly Iwamoto, Aja Kong and Bison Kimura. (Kong and Kimura left Prison Gate Party after Nakano won the WWWA Title to form a group called Jungle Jack and feud with Nakano.)
Nakano and Condor Saito won the WWWA Tag Title from the Red Typhoons (Kazue Nagahori and Yumi Ogura). An angle was worked with the new hot tag team, the Fire Jets (Yumiko Hotta and Mitsuko Nishiwaki) wherein the tag title was declared vacant after an out of control brawl in a January 5, 1988, match. No matter, for Nakano teamed with Grizzly Iwamoto to defeat the Fire Jets on February 25, 1988. (The Fire Jets turned the tables on July 19, 1988, in Tokyo.)
Stardom also had its Singles perks, as when Nakano won the vacant WWWA Championship in a tournament final against Mitsuko Nishiwaki. She would hold it until November 26, 1992, when she dropped it to upcoming superstar Aja Kong.
Nakano traveled to Mexico in 1992, where she became the first CMLL Women’s Champion, defeating Lola Gonzales after the two were the last standing in a 12-woman battle royal on June 5. (She would drop the belt on March 21, 1993, to Xochitl Hamada.)
In 1994, she returned to the World Wresting Federation, coming in as a friend of Luna Vachon (whose makeup and hairstyle rivaled Nakano’s for sheer bizarreness). She almost immediately entered a feud with the WWF Women’s champion, Alundra Blayze (Debbie Miceli). A series of inconclusive matches led to a showdown for the WWF Women’s Championship on November 20, 1994, at the Tokyo Egg Dome. The match was part of a card called the Big Egg Wrestling Universe
show and was a howling success, with Nakano going over for the belt. Although we tend to downplay the achievements of Bull Nakano, given her ring persona, we forget that she is the only woman ever to have held the WWWA Championship, the CMLL Women’s Championship, and the WWF Women’s Championship; no mean achievement.
Nakano kept the belt until she lost it back to Blayze on April 3, 1995, in Poughkeepsie, New York. As Blayze was scheduled to be out of action for rhinoplasty and a boob job, the WWF planned an angle revolving around Bertha Faye (Rhonda Singh) coming in to feud with Nakano. Singh was familiar with the Japanese style; ironically, she was the role model for both Matsumoto and Nakano. However, the angles went right down the drain when Nakano was caught in possession of cocaine. The ensuing scandal (one of many for the WWF) necessitated her firing.
In 1995 Nakano appeared at WCW’s World War 3 PPV, teaming with Akira Hokuto to defeat the team of Cutie Suzuki and Mayumi Ozaki. The match was deemed so good that it was repeated the next night on WCW Monday Nitro with the same result.
Nakano returned to Japan for a brief respite competing in AJW, then returned to WCW in 1996 for a feud with Blayze, now going by her original ring name of Madusa. This would be her last hurrah in an American wrestling ring, as she returned to Japan for one more year before retiring in 1997, interestingly, without the traditional retirement ceremony.
Now permanently retired, Nakano began to diet, losing much of the girth she was forced to maintain in order to remain as one of AJW’s monster heels. She dropped from a peak weight of 250 pounds shortly after returning from America to to 140 pounds. She triumphed her achievement in a book published in 1998 that documented her daily diet and routine.
As of this writing, Nakano is residing in Orlando, Florida, pursuing a career with the Ladies Professional Golf Association. I wish her nothing but the best in this endeavor. She is a survivor.
Establishing the heel star would be far easier than finding a new top babyface. For one, heels are easier to hate; for another, a babyface needs that special charisma to click with an audience, a far harder task than being hated. One wrestler who filled that demanding role was Manami Toyota.
Manami Toyota was born on March 2, 1971, in the city of Masuda, which is Shimani Prefecture, located on the southwest corner of Honshu, Japan’s largest island. Now, I’m going to do a sidebar here: Manami’s last name is sometimes given as Toyoda, which I believe it is, as Toyoda is a popular surname in Japan. The founder of Toyota motors had the surname Toyoda but, according to legend, was convinced to change his name to Toyota by a fortune teller for good fortune. It is entirely conceivable that the brain trust at AJW changed her surname to capitalize on the popularity and familiarity of Toyota Motors. If the reader dismisses this as mere speculation, I ask him or her to keep this in mind: Wrestling does not have a history, it has a past. In all the research I have done, facts about the stars were often hard to come by. Therefore, in order to fill in the necessary blanks and perhaps persuade someone to come forward and supply the needed information, speculation is a necessary option.
Toyota had a rather uneventful, normal childhood. She was good at basketball and swimming in school. But her real passion, like so many other Joshi stars, was watching AJW matches on Fuji-TV. She applied to the AJW dojo in 1985. Accepted after a grueling audition, she was trained by Jaguar Yokoda along with classmates Akira Hokuto, Erika (Aja Kong) Shiseido, Mima Shimoda, Etsuko Mita, Nobuko (Bison) Kimura, and Toshiyo Yamada. All in all, not a bad class.
Brought along slowly, Manami Toyota made her professional debut on August 5, 1987, against Sachiko Nakamura. Fans noticed her 5’6”, 135 lb. frame; but the AJW management thought her too thin, so she bulked up to about 150 lbs.
Though she was brought along slowly, working mainly prelims, she caught on with the fans enough to win the AJW Rookie of the Year Award in 1988. Her big break, however, came on May 6, 1989, at the very first Wrestlemarinpiad show, held at Yokohama Arena. Toyota teamed with Mima Shimoda to defeat Etsuko Mita and Toshiyo Yamada in a match that many observers thought stole the show. The match was noted for its flashy and double-team moves, dramatic near-falls, and Toyota’s high-flying style. From this point on she became known as someone not to miss. With a great buildup on television over the summer, Toyota was rewarded with her first title, the AJW Championship, which she won from Mika Takahashi on November 18, 1989. Due to tag team commitments, she defended the title only about three or four times, the highlight of which was a fantastic match against future nemesis Kyoko Inoue on August 1, 1990. (She vacated the title on September 1.) On June 17, 1990, she won the AJW Grand Prix defeating Yumiko Hotta in the finals. As noted before, this tournament was held to determine the number one contender for the WWWA title. In reality it is the promotion’s way of crowning a future star. The only downside of the year for Toyota was the death of her mother, with whom she was very close, just as she was achieving stardom.
Given her all-out style and the number of high risk maneuvers she routinely incorporates into nearly every match, it would seem her risk of injury is high. Any one of her drop kicks off the top rope to the floor could result in physical disaster. Amazingly, she has suffered only one serious injury – a broken right foot while touring Mexico in 1992, and even that did not prevent her from doing dives and Asai moonsaults just days later on a floor with no protective mats.
Toyota’s next step up the singles ladder was her defeat of Bison Kimura for the All Pacific Championship on October 7, 1990, in Tokyo. Though she held the belt until losing it to Suzuka Minami on March 17, 1991, she had only defended it once. This was because of her other career in tag teams. AJW was convinced their real strength was in tag competition. Ever since the Beauty Pair took Joshi by storm, new combinations were always being sought, and Toyota was no exception. At first it was believed that Toyota and Mima Shimoda, coming off their success at Wrestlemarinpiad, had what it took to be next Beauty Pair or Crush Gals. But, to AJW’s astonishment, it developed that Toyota had much better chemistry with Toshiyo Yamada, with whom she had been feuding for two years. Yamada’s style was the opposite of Toyota’s high-flying antics, which not only made them great opponents, but also provided the necessary difference for a good team. Yamada was slightly built and short-haired, a good contrast with the heavier and long-haired Toyota. Yamada’s specialty was a rapid paced kicking style which she learned from watching idolized Chigusa Nagayo and Akira Maeda. Together they were dubbed the “The Sweethearts.” On January 19, 1992, they captured the UWA Women’s World Tag Team Championship from KAORU and Lady Apache. On March 20, 1992, they captured the WWWA Tag Titles from Jungle Jack (Aja Kong and Bison Kimura) in Tokyo.
But their singles feud was far from over: it reached its climax on August 15, 1992, with a dramatic Hair vs. Hair match at Korakuen Hall, for the IWA Women’s World Title. However the match ended with a unique twist that got the pair over bigger than before. Toyota won the match, but in a stunning reversal, did not want Yamada to get her head shaved, and ended up being restrained by four prelim girls. Yamada told Toyota that because she agreed to the match and lost, she wanted to have her head shaved. This show of respect brought the pair back together in the eyes of the fans.
Ten days later, on April 25 in Yokohama, Toyota defeated Kyoko Inoue to gain the IWA Singles Championship. (This was a title created by Stu Hart’s Stampede Wrestling in December, 1987, for its hometown star, Monster Ripper, though she was defeated shortly thereafter in a tournament by Chigusa Nagayo. Due to a lack of women stars willing to come to Calgary on a regular basis, the title passed into the possession of AJW. Toyota defended that title about ten times over the course of three years, before she lost it to Reggie Bennett on May 15, 1995, reason being that she was also holding the WWWA Singles Title at the time.)
She and Yamada entered into a feud with Dynamite Kansai and Mayumi Osaki for the tag title, losing it at Dreamslam II, on April 11, 1993, and regaining it at the St. Battle Final event, on December 6, 1993.
On August 24, 1994, Toyota squared off against Kyoko Inoue in a unity match for the IWA and All Pacific Singles Championships. She won, but her reign would not last long. Toyota’s run with the two titles was not to last long. Pressure was on from the fans to see Toyota in a WWWA championship match. The first step towards this goal was for Toyota to vacate the All Pacific Championship. Then, on March 26, 1995, Toyota faced monster heel Aja Kong at AJW’s Queendom III show in Yokohama. The result was the crowning of a new champion. Toyota became the 39th champion in the history of the WWWA belt. At the same event Toshiyo Yamada defeated Takako Inoue and Reggie Bennet in a three-way dance for the vacated All-Pacific Title.
On May 7, Toyota made a title defense against Kyoko Inoue at the Korakuen Hall that has to be ranked as one of the greatest matches, male or female, of all time. The two fought to a furious 60 minute draw. Every stop was pulled out and the match itself was practically all action, where every hold furthered the story. It was so good that it ended up being voted as Match of the Year for 1995 in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
On June 27, Toyota dropped the WWWA Championship back to Aja Kong; however, she soon recovered by winning the 1995 Japan Grand Prix. The tournament used a round-robin format of two 8 woman brackets. On September 3, Toyota faced old rival Yumiko Hotta in the finals and pinned her in 23:39 to secure her position as the number one contender. (She finally got her chance on December 4, 1995, defeating a champion to become a two-time WWWA champion.)
On October 9, Toyota and Yamata dropped their tag crown to Double Inoue (Kyoko and Takano, no relation), giving Kyoko Inoue a bit of revenge over her old nemesis. Inoue gained a measure of revenge against Toyota, as Kyoko and her partner Takako Inoue won the WWWA Tag Team Championship from Toyota and Yamada.
Over the next year, Toyota defended the belt successfully, but on December 8, 1996, she lost in a match against Kyoko Inoue in a unification match for the WWWA, All-Pacific, and IWA Singles Titles.
A bit of weird trivia: In 1996, she made an appearance on a game show where a man paid $4,500 to wrestle her for five minutes in a ring of mud. Needless to say, she won handily, but, given her good looks, perhaps her opponent was the real winner.
That would be the end of her glory days: On November 28, 1998, she lost to Chigusa Nagayo after 15 minutes in a legends bout that pitted two of the best female wrestlers in history against each other. She also won the WWA belt for the third time on January 4, 2000, defeating Yumiko Hotta (Hotta’s almost like Toyota’s all-time victim.) She then played swap-the-belt with Kaoru Ito, losing it on September 17, 2000, in Tokyo; winning it back on February 24, 2002, in Yokohama; and then dropping it back to Ito on July 6, 2002, at Tokyo.
But the bloom was long off the rose. AJW was not drawing and Toyota was owed money. She signed a deal in 2002 with Chigusa Nagayo’s GAEA Japan wrestling group and feuded with her old partner Toshiyo Yamada as well as Dynamite Kansai. Her stay was short, lasting until 2004. She and partner Carlos (Reiko) Amano won GAEA’s AAAW Tag Titles from Double Kong on September 20, 2004, in Tokyo. Her last match was in August, 2007, at a tribute show held in her honor. As is the custom at these shows, she wrestled in every match.
There is much debate among fans as to who was the greatest of all time: Nagayo or Toyota. Both have strong arguments in their favor, but the only problem gumming up the works is that both were overshadowed by a wrestler I believe to be the greatest ever to step into a ring. That wrestler is none other than The Dangerous Queen herself: Akira Hokuto.
— The Phantom of the Ring
You can write to the Phantom care of Karen Belcher