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Q&A with VIVA VAN on NJPW Academy, Tokyo, VPW + more!

4 months ago

Q&A with VIVA VAN on NJPW Academy, Tokyo, VPW + more!

By: Thom Fain

VIVA VAN might seem enigmatic; gothic, standoffish and intense. But when you talk to her, her passion shines through and it’s easy to find someone relatable and strongwilled. She’s collected arms full of belts on the independent circuit, based out of the West Coast – and after a cup of coffee over in AEW, VIVA VAN decided to take it to the next level by graduating from the NJPW Academy in Southern California as part of its first cohort of female wrestlers.

I’ve seen how far she’s come in the ring since working as PCW Ultra’s fighting champ, and was pulling for VIVA  in the ring at Tokyo Joshi Pro-Wrestling’s 10th Anniversary Show at Korakuen Hall back in December. I couldn’t help but feel the tinge of pride, and even thought a couple of times, maybe she could pull this off and win the International Princess Title. That was not VIVA’s night, but as she would tell you, VIVA VAN doesn’t plan to stop there.

It’s not in her nature; she literally can’t give up. And that is the genesis of what it means to be “Hellbent,” something VIVA talks about in our interview which you can watch on YouTube or read below.

VIVA plans to come to Tokyo and mix it up with the very best, a big part of why she wanted to train at the NJPW Academy. She sets her sights high even as she pulls up others around her, while keeping an eye on her ancestral motherland of Vietnam where she wants to help them grow the fledgling but vibrant scene.

It’s the “Hellbent” way, after all. And if you ask her, she’ll tell you all about it.

VIDEO VERSION:

Monthly Puroresu:
I am live in Tokyo, although we had some technical difficulties connecting (because I ended up at Manga Land, an internet cafe). But I’m so happy to be talking to you. I’ve followed your career for three years now, right? We met in 2021 for the first time and our paths just kind of kept crossing. And we wanted to talk with you about your journey through the NJPW Academy and obviously your time in Los Angeles. But first, why don’t you introduce yourself to anybody that will be watching and tell them who the Hellbent Vixen is – give them a glimmer into your, your life.

VIVA VAN:
Well, hello everyone. Thank you for having me. My name is VIVA VAN, the Hellbent Vixen, the face of the West Coast, the War Vixen, the Belt collector, and the very first Vietnamese American woman pro wrestler.

Monthly Puroresu:
Great, and obviously you have come up through a very tough nut to crack – the Los Angeles wrestling scene. Any of us who’ve lived in LA know, there’s so much entertainment going on – everybody has so many options – and just in order to stand out is pretty difficult. Can you walk us through your creative process and how you went a rookie and training to the Hellbent Vixen and the champion you are today?

VIVA VAN:
When I had first started wrestling, I don’t think the West Coast was known for pro wrestling. If you were to talk about indie wrestling, you had to go to the midwest or the east coast. That’s where it was, where it was all about. And when the pandemic had hit, I think it hit the West Coast even harder because we had a complete shutdown whereas in the midwest and west coast, they were still able to have some shows here and there but with certain requirements to go along the COVID protocols. I think one of my goals was, “I’ve never seen any other wrestlers out here repping West Coast really hard. Why is no one proud to be from here?” And I think that if someone were to just step out and be like, “I’m West Coast, I’m proud of it”, I think it’ll get people to look this way. Because I knew a lot of other indie wrestlers that were moving to the East Coast to get more work.

And I felt like that wasn’t an option for me. Like, why couldn’t we look this way? So let’s just make noise. Like you said, everything’s really scattered out here in the West Coast. So I would go to DEFY in Washington. I would go to Portland, Oregon with DEFY as well, and up and down along the coast of California for BTW, FSW in Vegas, AWF in Arizona; and just keep working up and down the whole west coast and just keep repping it, keep promoting it, and it just eventually got over.

Monthly Puroresu:
And the process of getting over and the process of really connecting with fans is unique on the West Coast, where you really have to put in a little extra effort. But you have such a presence both in the ring and on social media. How did adding different elements to the Hellbent Vixen happen for you creatively? Was it feedback from working DEFY, which is a pretty thriving scene up in Seattle, or feedback from your colleagues down here, maybe at PCW Ultra – walk us through creative process for you.

VIVA VAN:
For my creative process, I’m VIVA all the time, but when I’m in the ring, it’s just x100. You know, just turn it up. And then when I’m out the ring, I’m still VIVA VAN, but I’m just more calm, more chill. And a lot of people think that Hellbent means that it’s related to hell or whatever, that I’m evil. No, that’s not what it means. Hellbent means you trying to achieve something at all costs. You don’t give up.

Monthly Puroresu:
You’re fierce, independent.

VIVA VAN:
Independent, fierce. You don’t give up and you’re just willing to push it through all the hard times. That’s what I try to give off because I felt like my whole life a Vietnamese girl growing up in LA already doesn’t make sense, right? So my whole life I’ve always felt like I’ve had to prove people wrong. And so that’s who I am: I’m proving people wrong. You guys don’t wanna look over here in the West Coast? Well watch. I’m gonna make a whole bunch of noise and you guys are gonna look this way finally. And now everyone is proud of me. Now the west coast is thriving with more promotions are opening up on the side. And now when I talk to other wrestlers from the east coast, they’re all like, “We want to go over there now. This is where it’s at now”.

Monthly Puroresu:
Obviously Kitsune and Spark Joshi have come up when we look at joshi specific wrestling – women’s wrestling of course – how did you see that evolving? Did it happen more quickly than maybe you thought it would? Obviously joshi was so hot and they were adding more and more subscribers to these streaming services, which made it accessible. The IWC, or whatever you want to call it, the online fan community, is extremely passionate, which I’m sure you’re probably in the middle of a lot of that passion. So can you tell us about that connection with those fans, and were you surprised at all to see you know, 300, 400, 500 people showing up to these kickoff shows for these joshi startups?

VIVA VAN:
I was surprised because I think the first Spark Joshi show was at 11:00 AM on a weekday, right? Was it a weekday?

Monthly Puroresu:
I remember. It was a weekday. It was 11:00 AM on a Wednesday,

VIVA VAN:
11:00 AM and it packed out.

Monthly Puroresu:
It was great.

VIVA VAN:
So that surprised me because I was kind of like worried about like, “Man, I don’t know if anyone wants to wake up that early on a weekday.” What if people have work, school or regular everyday life is, What if they can’t make it to the shows? Wrestling shows are usually at nighttime when you’re off of work, off of school or whatever. But it worked out and people made time for it, so that shocked me, but I think like people love Japanese wrestlers and every wrestler wants to go to Japan, and that is a big thing to do. and that’s the next step to do in your career. Combining with the thriving West Coast scene and also women’s wrestling is growing rapidly right now. I think all three of those things just help blow it up.

Monthly Puroresu:
That’s a perfect storm for VIVA VAN. I mean, you, your timing couldn’t have been better. We looked back at the pandemic. You and I met at a fan convention. It was all WWE fans. Those of us indie minded people were just kind of off in our own little corner. And fast forward a year later in 2022, you’ve got so many championship belts. I saw you wrestle Rachel Ellering, I saw you obviously I ring announced and commentated your matches with Spark Joshi, then you get the deal with the New Japan Academy. How did that come together? Did Rocky Romero scout you? How did you end up in the LA Dojo?

VIVA VAN:
Well, I’ve been talking to Rocky for about a year or two. I reached out to him telling him that I wanted an opportunity for New Japan STRONG. And so a few times it didn’t work out, but I just wanted to work my way up. So I decided, “Things didn’t work out the way it was supposed to, but that’s okay. Things happened. But let me just join this academy and work my way and prove myself, and to the school that this is where I wanna be and this is where I belong”. And that’s how it worked out.

Monthly Puroresu:
Fighting spirit is central to any Japanese wrestling ring, and New Japan specifically because that was passed down from Antonio Inoki. And like you said and I can relate as well, having to work harder than everybody else around you and always feeling like an outcast. Always feeling like you have to channel your fighting spirit just to take what appeared to others as maybe a simple step. Do you feel like having that fighting spirit, always swimming against the stream helps you in a New Japan environment where there’s a lot of hard workers in that ring and it takes a very specific mindset to compete and succeed?

VIVA VAN:
I always wanted to expand my skills. Before New Japan, I was with Rikishi at KnokX Pro. And Rikishi has taught me so much about TV work, how to work the camera, storytelling. I know so many different movesets already. And then Rikishi helped me with psychology, but I’ve always wanted to learn the Japanese style wrestling. So joining New Japan Academy was a no-brainer for me, especially if I’ve already shown interest that I wanted to do New Japan STRONG, and I’ve always been a firm believer of earning your spot and working for it. And that’s exactly what I did.

Monthly Puroresu:
You did. You succeeded. And like you said, it’s a big dream for a lot of wrestlers now that maybe wasn’t five, seven years ago, before Kenny Omega and before Thekla, who I spoke with and I spoke with Giulia, NJPW STRONG Women’s Champion. I’m sure you’d love to mix it up and get in the running for that title. Before this became really popular that wasn’t really a path I think that wrestlers aspired to. It was: Hopefully you stand out in your local indie, hopefully you have a good trainer like Rikishi or Booker T and then hopefully you get the call-up to WWE, but now there’s a lot more rodeos in town. The fans like independent style wrestling. They like Japanese style wrestling. And you made your dream come true. You made it to Korakuen Hall, and I saw your promo after the match in that little backstage hall. The media are always having to run down those stairs and try to capture you guys.

VIVA VAN:
My hair all messed up, all sweaty from that.

Monthly Puroresu:
You couldn’t help but see how much it meant to you. And I know how much it meant to you. Why don’t you tell everybody what that was like when you started talking to Tetsuya Koda and TJPW and your experiences at Korakuen in front of those fans, which are very different fans than American.

VIVA VAN:
The fans there are amazing, they’re very different. I’ve had so many like photos, match photos from fans, just tagging me on Twitter. It took me a whole week to be able to retweet every single photo that was posted. I’ve never experienced that before. The fans out there are really, really diehard. I thought fans out in the United States were diehard.

Just from the moment of me making my entrance, like they were clapping to the beat of my music, which I’ve never experienced. I mean, I hear people yelling, screaming my name, but it’s so different from hearing them like actually listening to the beats in my music. It just changed the whole atmosphere of the entrance and made it way better in my opinion. But it definitely meant a lot to me because That was another goal of mine, to go to Japan and make a name for myself out there.

Monthly Puroresu:
I think you’ll get another opportunity. It sounds like you impressed. Would you say hopefully you’ll get back out here.

VIVA VAN:
That is the goal. And I do want it to be a longer tour this time.

Monthly Puroresu:
Good. And I wanted to talk a little bit about when you grew up, did you watch wrestling growing up? Were you an Attitude Era kid? Like divas?

VIVA VAN:
Yeah, I was but I did start watching a little before the Attitude Era as well. But I got in through a PlayStation game that my dad had got me. I wasn’t too close to my dad, but like, so I guess like his way of like making up for lost time, he bought me this PlayStation when I was seven or six or seven years old, and he bought me the WrestleMania arcade game with it.

Monthly Puroresu:
I remember that one.

VIVA VAN:
I was so obsessed with it, but I didn’t know that these wrestlers were real wrestlers. I thought it was just characters in the game until I was talking to my friends in school one day about it and they’re like, “Oh, you should actually try watching SmackDown every Thursday night”. So I actually did, and it was right around when I think Attitude Era started.

Monthly Puroresu:
It was a very different era, and you can say what you want. There was some sass. I wanna talk about that as well because you harness some of that “diva” and the fans now they’ll say, you see the comments online with like anime profile pictures and they’re typing in all lowercase and they’re so passionate. They say, “Don’t sexualize the wrestlers”. Do you think incorporating some of that diva, I mean, you have some great photo shoots, very sexy, if I can say so respectfully. Isn’t it kind of okay to appreciate that aspect and appreciate the wrestling at the same time?

VIVA VAN:
Yeah, I think that if you do whatever that makes you happy. I mean, not every woman wrestlers is gonna agree with me, but I like to do photo shoots. I was a model before I started wrestling, so I already have that background. But that’s fun for me. I like doing it. I like to express myself if I feel. I like to dress up a certain way and portray that or whatever. It’s just, you be different. You do you and you do what makes you happy. Everyone’s different.

Monthly Puroresu:
I like that. It seems like celebrating that girl that played WWF SmackDown on PlayStation and kind of incorporating what you watched growing up a little bit into a more modern setting. I think it’s very cool. I think your presentation is outstanding, so I just wanted to talk about that. It’s kind of okay, isn’t it? It’s okay for the fans to appreciate a diva being sexy, a diva, really owning that element of her character. Going back to TJPW, do you think you fit in a little bit better there, fit in a little bit better in STARDOM – two very different rosters?

VIVA VAN:
I think that I could fit in wherever I go. I think I have a lot to offer and I know I went with TJPW, but I am New Japan Strong. You know, I graduated with New Japan Academy, so that’s the category that I guess I fall into right now where I can’t really pick a slide between STARDOM or TJPW. But I think either promotion would be awesome.

Monthly Puroresu:
And for somebody that’s Asian American like you, like Zeda Zhang, whose matches I also called, she’s part of that Spark Joshi roster as well. Do you think it’s a little harder being Asian American versus maybe natural born Japanese athlete to find your place and find your spot and really stand out and capture people’s attention?

VIVA VAN:
I can’t speak for Zeda, but I can speak for myself. It was definitely harder for me because when I first started wrestling, I realized quickly there are no Vietnamese wrestlers. So then what do I do? How do I make myself stand out with this? But I also want to find other Vietnamese wrestlers. And that’s when I found VPW.

When I googled Vietnamese wrestlers, I found their first documentary on their school. And at the time, they didn’t have a ring yet, but I do remember them recording their first documentary in a boxing ring, which I thought was theirs. I reached out to them trying to ask for an opportunity, and they messaged me back. They’re like, “Hey, we love your work, we see your stuff on YouTube and we would love to book you. The only thing is we can’t afford a ring and we don’t have a wrestling ring.

 

From that moment, I knew that that was my calling. I looked around and saw there was not another Vietnamese wrestler, so I went to go look for them. And when I found them and I see that they couldn’t afford a ring, Vietnam is still developing and it’s huge like inflation I guess you can say.

Monthly Puroresu:
It’s much different than Japan, which I think is number four in GDP, thousands of malls, like people are just spending money left and right here, Vietnam is still very much developing.

VIVA VAN:
It’s still developing and wrestling has only been around for eight years in Vietnam. A very short, short time. I felt like it was my calling. I felt like this is what I was made to do. I was made to be the first Vietnamese woman wrestler to help other Vietnamese wrestlers get a start into this business or just help them out. I just wanna help them out and I just want people to know that we’re here.

Monthly Puroresu:
That’s very honorable and valuable. You’re not looking at WWE and aiming for the stars. You’re trying to bring people up along with you very gradually. I, I respect and commend you for that. Talking about your experiences in VPW – do you feel like you have a little bit of drawing power now and that you can go back and help them? And what was it like with Chris Jericho randomly showing up and the fans going crazy and, and taking all the videos of him? I loved seeing that. What was that like? And getting inducted along alongside Sumie Sakai into the Hall of Fame?

VIVA VAN:
VPW and I, we’ve been talking about having me come out there to wrestle for a few years now, and for it to finally happen; it happened at the perfect time. The time that TJPW brought me out, it just made sense. It was another six hour flight to go to Vietnam, then back to Japan after that. Eeverything just aligned with each other. And there’s been so many times that it was supposed to happen and it just didn’t happen. And for it to finally happen the way that it did, along with Chris Jericho, I think he had recorded a podcast like six months prior, and he has shown interest in showing up to VPW to record a documentary, which I’m very thankful for because I do believe that they need more attention on them. The world needs to know more about VPW because in Vietnam they pack out, and it’s a very big show for us. Iit was just an honor. I didn’t expect Chris Jericho to go when I went. I didn’t expect that at all. So that was cool.

Monthly Puroresu:
So you didn’t even know.

VIVA VAN:
No.

Monthly Puroresu:
You were surprised.

VIVA VAN:
There was talks like, “Sure he’s planning to visit” but I didn’t know that it was going to be around the time that I was gonna be there with Sumie Sakai. So when it happened, it just felt like it was perfect.

Monthly Puroresu:
I mean, it sounds like a dream.

VIVA VAN:
It felt like a dream the whole entire time I was in Japan and Vietnam. It was just so amazing. I want to experience that again.

Monthly Puroresu:
You absolutely should. I mean, like you said, people clap along with your music. They love when Americans come over here. Tell me about your experiences with both the Vietnamese crowd, how they treated you and the Japanese crowd, how they treated you. Did you get to do autographs? Did you get to interact with them on a personal level at all? How was your treatment while you were in Vietnam and here in Tokyo?

VIVA VAN:
It was great. The fans, they bought all my merch.

Monthly Puroresu:
You sold out?

VIVA VAN:
Yeah, sold out. So I wish I brought more prints, you know because I was, I didn’t expect it to sell out like that. I thought there’s gonna be some leftover for me to bring to Vietnam. I sold out the batch that I made in for Tokyo, and then I had to make another batch before I went to Vietnam. And the fans have been incredible. The Vietnamese fans are very similar to the US fans.

Monthly Puroresu:
Rowdy?

VIVA VAN:
They’re rowdy, very rowdy. So I don’t know if they’ve learned the wrestling culture through YouTube. I know a lot of the VPW guys, they’ve learned wrestling through watching YouTube videos.

Monthly Puroresu:
That’s crazy.

VIVA VAN:
No, there was no one there to teach them. They’re self-taught, but they’re very good. And they’re growing and they’re getting better every day, every year.

Monthly Puroresu:
It reminds me of the guy in a Kane mask that you always see on Instagram, like drawing on choke flans on the subway.

VIVA VAN:
Oh, yeah.

Monthly Puroresu:
Just totally self-taught.

VIVA VAN:
The fans are very… They’re rowdy in Vietnam. And in Tokyo, I feel like they’re there for you. They cheer for you, they clap for you, but they’re more respectful. They know, they know boundaries.

Monthly Puroresu:
Boundaries – and that is so different between the two fandoms, right? I don’t even wanna look at your DMs, but but the fans here, they’re going all the way back to All Japan Women’s and you know, the culture of the Crush Gals, which is back in the 80’s and early 90’s. They learned those boundaries and they know it’ll be like buy the merch, get the photo op, but where that line is. So maybe in a developing scene like VPW, or even honestly in LA when I went and you at PCW Ultra in 2022, I think it’s pretty rowdy. A lot of cerveza, a lot of very rowdy guys there that but you know what I mean, that all that commotion helps, does it not?

VIVA VAN:
It gives energy to your entrance, to your matches. It just adds the whole element to what pro wrestling is all about.

Monthly Puroresu:
And what is that for you? What is pro wrestling all about? I know for me it came to my life at some very critical moments. It pulled me up. That’s why I started the magazine – Japanese wrestling specifically – I felt like watching Kenny Omega, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, and then later on Mayu Iwatani and kind of going down that rabbit hole on the joshi side. It lifts my spirits when I need it the most. Do you say that’s part of what makes wrestling magical? And what is, what is, what is wrestling really to you?

VIVA VAN:
Wrestling to me is my whole life. That’s all I do. That’s all I prepare for. And the journey of it is to just keep, keep going, keep proving people wrong and don’t give up and just show people what you’re all about and leave it all in the ring.

Monthly Puroresu:
And just to wrap things up here I don’t wanna take too much of your time. As I was dealing with a Japanese language application here at Manga Land. Before we got in, you walk in and there’s all these magazine covers with beautiful women like yourself. And I’m just like I can’t read anything

VIVA VAN:
Google Lens is my best friend.

Monthly Puroresu:
Anybody watching – get those translator apps. Make sure you have a battery pack and keep your camera ready. Well actually, before we get wrap things up, why don’t you tell us about your time in Tokyo specifically and the culture here. What were your perceptions? What did you have fun doing?

VIVA VAN:
It is so cool that it is safe to just walk around even at nighttime. Like I’ll see elderly people still walking outside. Like it’s that safe to just still walk around at night. And also just food. The food out there is amazing. I think I ate out of 7-11 almost every day though. But it was just amazing. Everything that you need is out of 7-11 . Your coffee, your food. Like they got it. They got you covered. And I was glad that I stayed next to one. And I know I noticed that there was an Anytime Fitness that was everywhere. So if you need a gym, Anytime Fitness is like one to go to.

Monthly Puroresu:
I’ve been, I’ve been hitting that myself.

VIVA VAN:
I shopped so much. I bought so many things for myself and my family to bring back home. I got to go to Disneyland. The train system and everything just makes sense out there. And it was just so easy to get around. The culture is so cool. I just, I love it so much. And I actually want to live there one day.

Monthly Puroresu:
Come on over.

VIVA VAN:
Then going back to 7-11 now over here in the United States, I’m like, “Man, this is depressing.”

Monthly Puroresu:
Oh it is. And living in LA, it can get extra sad when you see those 7-11’s and the people sleeping outside and things. There’s only 3000 homeless people in this entire country here in Japan. Oh, wow. The official count in LA was like 55,000. And we know it’s probably a lot more than that. So it’s just the way people take care of each other here, the way they take care of their streets, they take pride in every little thing they do. As a pro wrestling person, you might look at me and think I’ve had it easy. Sleeping in my car trying to get 25 bucks for a byline in a newspaper around 10 or 15 years ago. It’s not easy being a freelancer, a contract worker, which I’ve done for 15 years. And to really make it takes support along the way. The thing I like about out here is that you’re not walking out your door and somebody next to you’s trying to cut you down. It’s like the community very respectful and they take pride in every little thing they do.

VIVA VAN:
Everyone is mindful of each other, considerate of each other. I feel like if I needed to ask anyone for help, they would help me, Even there was a language issue. Like I could probably just pull out Googletranslate and people out there will still be willing to help you. It is definitely a different vibe because I feel like in the US you’re just kind of taught to just take care of yourself.

Monthly Puroresu:
It’s very individualistic. And it’s unfortunately hyper competitive to the point of maybe being a little bit self-defeating on our society there, because if you’re in it for yourself, you can’t trust anyone. It’s like Stone Cold said, “Don’t trust anybody”. The person next to you, you’ve got to be looking over your shoulder. And that’s not a fun way to live. It really isn’t. So if your dream is to come here. I hope you make it happen. I know as a wrestler, as a total package, I feel like you do well here. So we will be rooting for you, okay?

VIVA VAN:
Thank you.

Monthly Puroresu:
And to wrap it up for any little girls or any wrestling fans that are making that transition from fan to working in the business and training, what kind of advice do you have? How do you stay hold of that? Never give up attitude.

VIVA VAN:
Well what you gotta do is – it is not easy. There’s going to be people who try to discourage you from staying in the business, but if you really want it and you give it your whole heart, you will make it. You just have to keep reminding yourself to just keep pushing forward through all the hard times. And there’s gonna be people that will support you and will be in your corner, but you have to be strong enough, mentally strong enough to know there will be some that will try to discourage you, but you just have to keep pushing forward. And that’s just how society is and how social media is people. There’s just some people that like to bring you down. But there’s more support than the negative ones? Just focus on the positive.

Monthly Puroresu:
VIVA VAN, thank you so much. We’ll close this out. You’re one of my first in this new interview series. I cannot thank you enough. From the moment I saw you at the LAX fanfest to your work at PCW to making it to Korakuen Hall and, and just the outpouring of emotion I saw, I’m like, “That’s my girl”. I’m so proud. I’m very honored to have been able to call your matches and talk to you today. So thank you very much and we’ll be rooting for you.

VIVA VAN:
Thank you.