2011: The Year of the Woman

Originally Published in Fair to Flair Quarterly Issue 4

“Of All Time” – CHIKARA – 2011-04-16 – The Arena – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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Manami Toyota is the greatest wrestler of all time. Here is a photograph of her wearing a T-Shirt stating that she is the greatest wrestler of all time. There are no caveats about gender here; Toyota is better than any man, woman, or child to set foot in a wrestling ring. She didn’t have much choice in the matter. She joined All Japan Women’s Wrestling at the height of its popularity, meaning that, if she didn’t perform, there were 10,000 other teenage Japanese girls dying for the chance to take her place on one side of the ropes, and a couple dozen all-time greats on the roster ready to dropkick her teeth in on the other.

The back of the shirt is Toyota’s rap sheet: Ten Wrestling Observer rated “Five Star” Matches. Two “Match of the Year” awards. Outstanding Wrestler of the Year 1995. A record four wins of AJW’s WWWA Title (the most prestigious title in women’s wrestling history) as well as a reign with the top titles of other major promotions like JWP, GAEA, and Oz Academy. Reading between the lines you see a woman who has spent an astonishing 25 years in the rigorous world of Joshi Puroresu, most of it in the main event against the likes of Aja Kong, Bull Nakano, Kyoko Inoue, Mayumi Ozaki, and the rest of the 90’s crew that took Joshi Puroresu to new heights both commercially and artistically.

It’s impossible to overstate how important Toyota has been, hence the unapologetic T-Shirt. I gave it to her on her second tour for CHIKARA. Toyota was, of course, the first Joshi wrestler the company brought in. The second night of her debut she mainevented a sold-out show in Manhattan. Fans were chanting her name before she even made an entrance. It didn’t matter that she was Japanese and had never wrestled in America. It didn’t matter that her heyday was some time ago. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t speak English. It certainly didn’t matter that she happened to be a woman, because her career has transcended all of that.

She is one of the most important and influential figures in the sport. So, I gave her this T-Shirt. She liked it very much.

“We’ll Feel It All Tonight” – Anarchy Championship Wrestling – 2011-06-26 – Hooligan’s – San Antonio, Texas

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Rachel Summerlyn is quite possibly my favorite person in all of wrestling. She’s simply an amazing person and it has been an honor to watch her grow into an equally amazing wrestler. This photo was taken at what was the very high point of her career so far, the ACW 3rd Annual American Joshi Queen of Queens Tournament.

The tournament featured some of the top female wrestlers in the country in what is now one of the most important annual wrestling shows in the US. All the matches were superb, and Rachel putting on three epic battles in one night, in her third attempt at winning the tournament, is the sort of thing wrestling legends are built on.

Rachel is as down to earth a person as you’ll meet, but the weight of her accomplishments that night and throughout her career seemed to hit her post-match. She broke down in tears and gave a heartfelt speech thanking her supporters for their love, and letting them know she loves them back.

Real talk, real emotion from of the realest people I know. Nothing fake.

The Blood Covered Angel of Austin – Anarchy Championship Wrestling – 2011-07-17 – The Mohawk – Austin, Texas

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Scot Summers is a massive beast of a man. His striking appearance pegs him as a favored patron at the local bar, tattoo parlor, MMA gym, and county jail. He’s held every title in ACW and it’s a crime he isn’t more well known outside of Texas. That being said, all of that is his blood.

During their ACW Anarchy Televised title match, Rachel countered a dive by Scot with a flying chair, opening a wound on the top of his head. The gash poured until Scot’s face, the apron, and Rachel herself were covered in his blood. He did not stop fighting and, half blind, managed some offense on Rachel. Ultimately, inevitably he succumbed to a brutal rear naked choke and passed out as the referee called for the stop. Then in a surreal moment of transcendence Rachel, like ‘an angel covered in blood,’ rose and claimed her new title.

It was this moment that made Rachel the undisputed MVP of ACW. ACW was one of the best companies in 2011, and the efforts of this woman helped that immensely.

“You Are Now Watching The Throne” – CHIKARA – 2011-07-31 – The Arena – Philadelphia, PA

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CHIKARA is a promotion that takes pride allowing wrestlers of all sorts, be they men, women, band geeks, luchadores, generic luchadores, arachnids, dairy products, demons, viking war gods and everything in between, to compete against one another. Through all that one wrestler stood out as the single most beloved by fans in 2011, and that was the “Queen of Wrestling” Sara Del Rey.

This was only somewhat surprising. She’s one of their most skilled athletes and was involved in one of their hottest story lines against their top villains. The only thing that could have kept her from surpassing guys like Mike Quackenbush and Eddie Kingston was the fact that, well, she wasn’t a guy.

The CHIKARA fans didn’t care. They formally crowned the “Queen of Wrestling” as their favorite in her match with Claudio Castagnoli at Chikarasaurus Rex Night Two. The crowd was about twice as loud for Sara in this match as they were for the whole rest of the card. They desperately wanted to see the Queen kick Claudio’s smug face in and, as pictured, she obliged.

Sara’s popularity hasn’t waned in spite of an zig-zag creative direction that saw her tap out to Quackenbush (giving up her quest to be the 1st CHIKARA Grand Champion), but also go undefeated at JoshiMania against Tsubasa Kuragaki, Ayako Hamada, and Aja Kong.

Here’s hoping we get through the formalities and Sara becomes the next woman to win a major title in a predominantly male US promotion.

“There’s No Sex In Your Violence” – SHIMMER – 2011-10-01 – Berwyn Eagles Club – Berwyn, IL

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Here we see Kana begin to viciously choke out Mia Yim with the Kana Lock. It’s not apparent here, but the two are actually quite fond of one another. They have a bit in common. Both are known for having serious, martial arts influenced wrestling styles while also having no qualms about embracing their sex appeal. They’re two examples that, in spite of popular belief in the US, female wrestlers don’t have to choose between their femininity and their talent.

The bigger picture here is that this match happened because fans made it happen. Kana came to America largely due to popular demand. Instead of merely lamenting the sad state of affairs found in mainstream wrestling, a small group decided to focus their energy on making positive change. They started the “#TeamKana” movement. Instead of complaining about bad wrestlers to uninterested corporate conglomerates, they talked up this excellent wrestler to promoters that actually like their customers. A number of other fans joined in their evangelism and a few months later Kana was on a plane to Chicago for both the SHIMMER tapings and a stint in CHIKARA.

Change is possible, and beautiful.

“The Indescribable Moments of Your Life” – SHIMMER – 2011-10-01 – Berwyn Eagles Club – Berwyn, IL

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It took six years, 17 tapings, and 45 matches for Cheerleader Melissa, the most loved woman in SHIMMER, to finally win the title she was always destined to hold. As a longtime fan of Melissa’s, this felt like the crowning achievement of her 12 year career.

We’ve seen her travel from the UK to Canada to Mexico to Japan and beyond, facing, beating, and generally dominating the best everywhere she went. We’ve seen her in SHIMMER always being called upon to put on the toughest, most grueling, highest caliber matches. We’ve seen her after the match, or two, or four in one weekend, sit bruised, battered, in obvious pain, nursing an injury and still putting on a smile for her many supporters. We’ve seen her be underused and underappreciated by other, irrelevant, companies. We’ve seen her, undeterred, continue to improve in all aspects as a wrestler.

And finally, after an amazing bout with the incredible champion Madison Eagles, we saw it all culminate. We saw Melissa, exhausted and in tears, being handed the SHIMMER title in what was certainly the pinnacle of both her career and the companies’ history. It was an unforgettable moment, the kind that makes you fall in love with wrestling all over again.

“No Pictures!” – Anarchy Championship Wrestling – 2011-11-05 – Fun Fun Fun Fest – Austin, Texas

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Portia Perez is my least favorite person in all of wrestling. Arrogant, rude, offensive, and totally lacking in any respect for Pro Wrestling journalists. Here she tries to block my camera while at the same time insulting a fan. Still, for reasons beyond comprehension, people pay to see Portia (and buy her T-Shirts which read, simply, “Portia Perez Hates Me.”)

This show took place at an ultra-cool, progressive Austin music festival called Fun Fun Fun Fest. ACW secured it’s second 3 day stint at the annual event last year, which is pretty shocking considering how generally unhip wrestling is. There’s not too many wrestling companies that you can put on before Childish Gambino and M83, but ACW is different. It cast a wider net than the average wrestling show, while at the same time appealing to purists with great grappling and innovation.

One of the aspects of the company that’s allowed it to stand out in the crowded Texas wrestling scene is its shocking treatment of female wrestlers: they’re treated as wrestlers. There are no gender barriers in the company. All athletes are given equal opportunities regardless of sex. In fact, Portia Perez won the ACW Heavyweight title (though her reign was brief due to some wrestling karma involving Robert Evans).

The ACW fans have responded in a strongly positive manner. The mere announcement that an “American Joshi” (what ACW calls its women division) draws an ovation. It should be noted that the ACW crowd contains a lot more women than the average US wrestling promotion, many of them do not, have never, and will never watch any wrestling besides ACW (quote, “I hate when my husband watches wrestling on TV, but I love this.”)

Treating women as equals gets women to watch, doesn’t drive purists away, and helps wrestling rehabilitate its thoroughly uncool image.

“Top Rope Exploders Make the Loudest Sound” – JWP – 2011-12-23 – Korakuen Hall – Tokyo, Japan

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Hailey Hatred, literally and figuratively, here is at the highest point in all of Joshi Puroresu. She was defending the JWP Open-Class Championship, the oldest and most respected title in the scene, against Tsubasa Kuragaki.

While Joshi has had a rather long history of inviting wrestlers to test themselves in the women’s wrestling Mecca, it’s been a while since the glory days of Madusa and Reggie Bennett. It had even been a bit of time since Sara Del Rey and Cheerleader Melissa slept on their first dojo mats when Hailey came along. A downturn in Joshi, and Puroresu overall, saw the near extinction of the gaijin female wrestler. Hailey fought long and hard and all alone for years to earn a permanent spot in the hierarchy. The battle paid off with her becoming the first foreign wrestler to win the JWP title (which she held concurrently with 5 other titles).

Also, thanks to the doors Hailey has reopened, several other women from the US and Canada, including Mia Yim, Portia Perez, Nicole Matthews, and Rain, have made their way to Japan recently.

Unfortunately Hailey did lose the title in this match, in spite of delivering a massive top rope exploder to Kuragaki. It was her first singles pinfall loss in Japan. She’s spent the past few months in North America, reasserting her dominance here before conquering her adopted home once again.

“And We Will Be Victorious” – REINA – 2011-12-24 – Edogawa Friend Hall – Tokyo, Japan

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I saw Kellie Skater wrestle in three different countries in 2011. That speaks more to her dedication to the sport than mine, though. A product of the Australian wrestling scene, Skater mixes hybrid wrestling with impromptu workout routines in an at once amusing and menacing package. Since 2009 she’s traveled from Bacchus Marsh, Australia (a place she swears is the “awesomest place on Earth”) to work with the world’s best in the US, Canada, and Japan.

Here, she gets her pump on with Kyoko Kimura. Skater’s three month stint in the world of Joshi was a dream gig for the young Aussie. She worked for several promotions and faced top talent like Io Shirai, Natsuki Taiyo, and Kana. She clearly made the most of this learning opportunity, judging by her work at the recent SHIMMER tapings where she had standout matches.

Kyoko, known for light tube death matches, diving from the balcony of Korakuen Hall, and bloody brawls with Kana, has added a new line to her resume in the past year: MMA fighter. She’s currently 2-0-1 and set to face undefeated, top 5 ranked Rin Nakai in May. Pro Wrestlers don’t always have the best of luck when crossing over to MMA, but given her age and the wear and tear she’s had as a wrestler, Kyoko has exceeded all expectations.

“Hello Thailand!” – Ice Ribbon – 2011-12-25 – Korakuen Hall – Tokyo, Japan

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Here Emi Sakura celebrates her final Ice Ribbon Tag Title win. It came just a few days before she’d leave the promotion, which she founded.

When I first came to Japan in 2008 when Ice Ribbon was still using blue training mats for a ring. It seemed less a promotion and more an after school program where Emi set wayward tweens straight by teaching them the ways of puroresu. Flash forward 3 years and the promotion had grown up in ways that could no one could have been predicted. It’s solidly one of Japan’s most popular Joshi companies, and has a cult international following that has lead to a TV run in Thailand and excursions in the US and UK.

That TV deal was foreshadowing. Emi’s next move after leaving Ice was to move to Bangkok to start Girl’s Pro Wrestling Thailand. It’ll likely be similar in concept to Ice Ribbon and build off the connection.

Thailand has a little known, but significant, history with Joshi Puroresu. All Japan Women’s was massively popular in the country during the late 80’s and early 90’s. Tens of thousands of people attended AJW’s tour events, packing arenas for shows, shopping malls for signings, and parking lots just to get a glimpse of the Crush Girls as they rushed into their hotel rooms.

If any of that spirit remains in Bangkok, Emi will find it and create more teen wrestling sensations.

“Pro Wrestling Is Destroying Someone Else’s Dreams To Achieve Yours” – Ice Ribbon – 2011-12-25 – Korakuen Hall – Tokyo, Japan

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Hikaru Shida weeps upon winning the ICEx60 title, the top singles belt in the promotion, for the first time. She took it from her former tag team partner Tsukasa Fujimoto, seen slouched in the corner in defeat.

The path these women took to main-eventing Korakuen Hall was fairly interesting. They both initially came into contact with wrestling by way of acting gigs for a wrestling related film. However they both had athletic backgrounds and displayed a genuine interested in the sport. So, instead of being sent to Florida to fight unconvincingly over a plastic tiara, they went through proper, intense, unforgiving Joshi Puroresu training. They beat the odds and came out on the other side as proper, intense, unforgiving Joshi Pro Wrestlers. These are two of the most promising stars in wrestling and have glorious futures ahead.

They still find time to act a bit on occasion.

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