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Bull Nakano & 1990s AJW

1 year ago

Bull Nakano & 1990s AJW

By: Fumi Saito, introduction by Thom Fain

The importance of Bull Nakano cannot be overstated. As joshi puroresu historians will gladly tell you, the energy surrounding All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling (AJW) in the early ‘90s was equal parts revolutionary and kinetic. While Miss Elizabeth provided arm candy for “Macho Man” Randy Savage in the U.S., over in Japan young women and men alike flocked to arenas big and small to see a rotating cast of joshi wrestlers vying for the top prize in AJW: The WWWA title, colloquially known as the “Red Belt,” much like the premier championship in STARDOM today.

The “Ace” of AJW during this time was unquestionably Bull Nakano.

Fans in the West might remember her from the famous feud with Alundra Blayze in WWF, which continued in WCW during the so-called Monday Night Wars, when Blayze jumped ship and returned to the ring name she used in Japan: Madusa.

But it was the early part of the decade when Nakano was the most feared women’s wrestler in the world. Monthly Puroresu editorial advisor and veteran wrestling journalist Fumi Saito can tell you exactly how massive of a figure she actually was, and the circumstances that allowed her to pave the way for joshi stars we enjoy watching today.

Fumi: You could say the 1990s was the era of Bull Nakano [in joshi puroresu]. But, this wrestling boom was of a different nature than the era of the Crush Gals. You see, when Nakano was a big star, male fans flocked to the arenas for AJW, while during the Crush Gals’ big run, it was driven primarily by female fans.

–The Crush Gals era was centered on female teenage students.

Fumi: The Crush boom peaked around 1984, but Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka wrestled for another five years. Nagayo retired from All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling (AJW) in 1989. Both later returned to action, but it was the Crush Gals who drove joshi puroresu popularity in the 1980s, and really they left the scene in 1989.

–It was Bull Nakano who aced the post-Crush Gals AJW, wasn’t it?

Fumi: Bull Nakano did not immediately assume the top position of AJW. The All Japan Women’s “Ace” would wear the WWWA championship [the so-called Red Belt] in those days. And the next big championship match was between Nakano and Mitsuko Nishiwaki. That being said, there was certainly a move to make Mitsuko Nishiwaki a proper “Ace”.

–After her retirement, Mitsuko Nishiwaki married Ozeki Kaio, becoming the proprietress of the Asakayama stable.

Fumi: Until then, All Japan Women’s never had a lineup of heel wrestlers at the top. Nishiwaki’s ace lineup was a very realitybased group. Since the days of Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda [the Beauty Pair], it had been a given that the top All-American Women’s wrestler would be a babyface. However, Bull Nakano-san soared in popularity while sporting a unique look with her signature makeup and ring attire. Really, I think it was a gamble on the part of AJW.

–Sort of like Sting, or the nWo, which those of us in our mid-30s who grew up in the West remember being fans of.

Fumi: See, Bull Nakano is a totally different person behind the scenes, but very serious once she puts on the makeup and goes out the curtain. Lights go down, music hits, and she’s got that stare in her eyes and all about her business. As a character, she was very much like The Undertaker or Sting, like an otherworldly person.

–I think [refreshing the scene] helped create more business for AJW.

Fumi: I had been covering the sport [as a journalist] for Deluxe Pro Wrestling magazine and had written about AJW since the days of the Crush Gals. I recall when the teenage girls with pom poms who cheered for “idol” type wrestlers of the Crush Gals boom, they began disappearing from the venues. Shortly after the boom, AJW entered into business decline. That was from 1989 to 1990. Then, Rossy Ogawa and I invited Madusa as the first foreign wrestler to live in Japan. Madusa had become the AWA World Women’s Champion and was a star in the U.S., so I was skeptical that she would actually come. But she came and had the full experience, actually living in a one-bedroom apartment in the Meguro area of Tokyo and studying at a Japanese language school.

–Isn’t Meguro ward where the AJW building was located? Madusa really went for it.

Fumi: Madusa and Nishiwaki published a photo book and CD together, and AJW tried to promote her… but, it was Bull Nakano-san who took over the position of “Ace” due to her strength and ability. Nakano was putting on knockdown, drag out fights that wowed everyone who watched. That’s what made her “the Ace”, the closer, and the home run king all at once. The believability of her matches… it was truly on another level. And, because of Bull Nakano’s popularity, more men came to see joshi puroresu. They were also enjoying Universal Pro Wrestling around 1990 – 93.

–It was the first organization in Japan to import Mexican lucha libre.

Fumi: Universal Pro Wrestling’s “Ace” was Yoshihiro Asai – before he transformed into Ultimo Dragon. Then, as part of featured matches, All Japan Women’s wrestlers made guest appearances. Aja Kong, Bison Kimura, Kyoko Inoue, and others put on a spectacle. Fans who weren’t into Joshi Puroresu gradually began to say, “Lucha is cool, but the best thing I’m seeing is All Japan Women’s wrestling.”

–The popularity in AJW entered its next boom period with some help of new ideas?

Fumi: When newer fans came to the venue of AJW, they found Dump Matsumoto’s Villainous Alliance was gone.

–So, ShuPro (Weekly Pro Wrestling) had diversity in how it featured women’s professional wrestlers on its cover quite often.

Fumi: Even wrestlers who had never been on the cover of ShuPro before had the courage or confidence to be on the cover if they thought, “This is it!” I think it was courageous and confident for Weekly Pro Wrestling to put joshi stars on its covers. Conversely and perhaps it’s a negative, but Gong Magazine only put wrestlers who were established stars on the cover – yet didn’t often put up-and-coming wrestlers on the cover with much thought. [Editor’s note: In Japanese culture, magazines and print media maintained then as they do now much more influence and popular consumption than in the West]

–Gong didn’t have the sense to put Megumi Kudo on the cover, for example.

Fumi: Weekly Pro”reflected an era with multiple promotions doing well. At that time, there were two long-established major organizations, New Japan and All Japan, and the UWF was split into three different companies. W*ING and IWA JAPAN were a spin-off from Atsushi Onita’s FMW, and the number of groups to keep up with kept growing, but none had matches broadcast on TV. In many cases, people first learned about what was going on in the organization through articles in ShuPro. The same was true for joshi puroresu.

–The Bull Nakano vs. Aja Kong war was on fire, even keeping up from the pages of the magazine. Bull’s guillotine leg drop off the top of the cage, which was on the cover!

Fumi: All Japan ran nearly 300 matches a year, and those two were clashing every day in tag team matches. Bull Nakano told me herself, that even though they didn’t exchange words the pair fought every day, so she knew the moment their bodies collided whether they were in good shape or not that day.

–Aja Kong, when you look back at that time, had the attitude “Every day was a fight to the death.” No matter how small the venue, you couldn’t let your guard down.

Fumi: Well, I’d rate Bull Nakano as the number one joshi wrestler of all time. But, I also don’t know of anyone who’s so radically different from the point they walk out from behind the curtain. In today’s parlance, they “turn on the switch.” You know, they appear on TV and become a TV personality. Bull-san is said to have been so nervous before a match, she used to throw up in the restroom beforehand. But she became a completely different person when she walked down that aisle.

–It’s been said that Aja Kong and her partner Bison Kimura were expelled from the tour bus for having a fracas, and the tour still went forward.

Fumi: Once they met face to face, it wasn’t camaraderie, but maybe there was some difficulty in fighting.

There were nearly 40 wrestlers on the AJW roster, and the hierarchy was strict. It’s like sumo, but there was a great sense of tension depending on the ranks, and the buses on the Zenjo tour are a unique world. There is no conversation on the bus. Each wrestler had a specific seat, separated by a curtain, with their own belongings. There were half-dried costumes hanging out to dry.

–It sounds like the bus doubled as their hotel room.

Fumi: The tension in their private life was also connected to the ring. After the Bull vs. Aja program was over, All Japan Women’s feuds started to go the route of interpromotional matches, with Frontier Martial-Arts (FMW), Japan Women’s Pro (JWP), and Ladies Legend Pro-Wrestling (LLPW) participating in the AJW shows, which would lead to FMW fans coming to AJW shows and vice versa. The talent moved back and forth between organizations more frequently.

–I suppose it’s why Bull Nakano and Aja Kong were heavyweights during those competitions, too.

Fumi: It’s hard to put it in a nice way, but I believe as heavyweights, they were born to be professional wrestlers. It was their calling, and they were larger than life.

–But at the top of the heap was Bull Nakano.

Fumi: This was certainly the heyday of Bull Nakano. There were of course other rivalries, but the pinnacle of the AJW boom was the all-star match at Yokohama Arena on April 2, 1993. That’s where Akira Hokuto’s win over Shinobu Kandori fought an epic battle. Hokuto vs. Kandori is still talked about to this day. That match was not the main event, but the semi-final.

–The main event was Toshiyo Yamada & Manami Toyota vs. Combat Toyota & Megumi Kudo.

Fumi: For those of us in attendance, it was an amazing atmosphere, but with a tough choice at the end. You could stay during the buildup of the event all the way to the main event, but you would miss the last train to leave the station. I happened to have a ride that night, so I stayed, and many fans did. Friendships were forged that night, as joshi puroresu fans would scatter to find whatever available bars that were open, and stay there together until the next train departed around 5:00 a.m.

–It’s strange and nostalgic to think back to how things were during that time period.

Fumi: The Matsunaga brothers, who were the AJW owners, didn’t book the cards for TV. So, the matches were not organized according to time slots with time limits. It wasn’t packaged to be over by 9:30 p.m. Everyone used the time as if their match was the main event.

–So it was an incredibly manic time (laughs).

Fumi: The following year, in 1994, AJW expanded to the Tokyo Dome. Looking back on it now, I am deeply moved by the Joshi Puroresu wrestling boom of that time… But, to tell the truth, those of us who were on the scene did not feel that it was a boom. It was more like we were swept away in the roar of the crowd. That’s what the wrestlers said, when they were doing the 5-star matches, while we were asking ourselves, “Will there be a boom in women’s wrestling?” because you didn’t know how special it was while living in the moment.

–It was a boom, but nobody knew it.

Fumi: It was a boom, and then it was over without the front office ever noticing. Rather than having the Tokyo Dome show as things were at their peak and ride the momentum, the promoters decided to cash in after it was too late. But back to Hokuto vs. Kandori, the story of Akira Hokuto took on a whole new life of its own. Even before that match, Akira Hokuto was a wrestler who was 10/10 in terms of skill, but after the legendary bout vs. Shinobu Katori, an upset victory, the fans looked at Akira Hokuto as an overnight sensation.

–I remember hearing Kandori was considered to have “no love for pro wrestling”.

Fumi: Shinobu Kandori didn’t become a joshi star because she loved pro-wrestling as a kid, she wandered into the world of women’s pro-wrestling as a continuation of her activities as a world-class judoka.

–The shoot match in which Kandori broke Jackie Sato’s arm, really accented her reputation [along with a changing of the times].

Fumi: It deviated from puroresu, and became a shoot. Looking back, Shinobu Kandori also opened that match with Akira Hokuto. Together they represented the organization throughout that rivalry, the leaders of LLPW. It was a good program for both fighters. When Akira Hokuto got her big break, it was only after Bull Nakano lost to Aja Kong in their third cage match, giving up the red belt in the process, before moving on to CMLL in Mexico and WWF in the U.S. with more worldly ambitions.

–It was not easy to be the “Ace” of the promotion, then.

Fumi: It was difficult to find someone to replace Bull Nakano. Aja Kong got the belt from her, but it was really hard to replace a top talent like Nakano. To produce the kind of match that’s convincing enough to beat Bull Nakano – she was so strong – it was really hard to have the title match where she was beaten is really hard. You really have to work hard to get into a title match program, and Jimmy Kayama used to decide who would become the champion. To become a top star in AJW you had to have actual ability, and in-ring talent, and charisma to be the star. To be in the title match picture, there was a certain legimtimacy to the hierarchy. And there was even a title match pay bonus for wrestlers in the title match.

–I can see why AJW was such a competitive environment.


Fumi: I would say that they had a different level of determination. Some fans were more interested in FMW, and some fans really liked JWP. It was good that there were options and alternatives. In fact, there are different styles and schools of wrestling, and in a broad sense, different ways of doing things. It’s a unique sport, slowly exported to the U.S. as well. It’s difficult for young fans today to understand what a big deal its expansion was, as the Internet hadn’t developed – no online videos. In those days, wrestling fans in Japan and the U.S. traded VHS tapes over mail.

Fumi: Manami Toyota was very popular. Manami Toyota’s athleticism stood out even among the AJW girls, who were all athletes. She had tremendous physical strength and could keep moving nonstop. I saw the full 60 minutes of Manami Toyota vs. Kyoko Inoue at Korakuen Hall, and it was nonstop action for all 60 minutes. This is about when prejudice against joshi puroresu was eroding, thanks to fights like that. In the days of Mach Fumiaki and Beauty Pair, there was this negative preconception [but Bull Nakano helped change that].

–But after the Tokyo Dome in 1994, the business collapsed in one fell swoop.

Fumi: We were confronted with the reality of a “boom period,” like in music or fashion. The Matsunaga brothers had the know-how to operate day to day as an entertainment company, but I don’t think they had much of a vision for the next decade or even the next three to five years.

–They thought it was more important to sell yakisoba noodles at concessions on the road, didn’t they (laughs)?

Fumi: The rivalry brought a boom period with some competition, but I think there would have been more AJW if the competition had been friendly among themselves.

–Still, there wasn’t much of a succession plan after Bull Nakano left, and after Hokuto-san left AJW for GAEA Japan,

Fumi: Joshi had to work really hard to get into a title match program, and Jimmy Kayama used to decide who would become the champion. To become a top star in AJW you had to have actual ability, and in-ring talent, and charisma to be the star. To be in the title match picture, there was a certain legimtimacy to the hierarchy, and even a title match pay bonus for wrestlers in the title match. While Bull Nakano was gone overseas, the boom period started to die. It was really hard to replace a top talent like her. To produce the kind of match that’s convincing enough to beat Bull Nakano – she was so strong – it was really hard to have that sort of title match.