Lost in the news this week was the death of one of the most historically significant wrestling promoters in history. Takashi Matsunaga, the key architect of All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling, passed away on 7/11 from pneumonia at the age of 73.
Matsunaga was the key one of the four brothers who ran the most successful women’s wrestling promotion in history.
Their unique marketing tactics, of using young girls as both pro wrestlers and singing idols created the most popular women wrestling stars ever, notably The Beauty Pair (Jackie Sato & Maki Ueda, later replaced in the team by Nancy Kumi) in the late 70s, and The Crush Gals (Chigusa Nagayo & Lioness Asuka) in the early and mid-80s.
Matsunaga had been suffering from diabetes and been hospitalized of late. He had spoken with Akira Hokuto of late and told her that when he got out of the hospital, he wanted to promote one last nostalgia show with all the big stars.
During their 80s merchandising heyday, they ran more than 300 shows all over Japan per year, drawing between 1,500 and 4,000 fans for regular shows, and larger crowds a few times a year for big arena spectaculars. They likely sold more merchandise per capita than any promotion in history. At the peak of the promotion during the heyday of The Beauty Pair and The Crush Gals, their ratings in Japan for a weekly television show were equivalent to what the NFL was doing in the United States at the same time.
Probably their most successful star, Nagayo, was both a rock star and an incredible worker in the ring with the most passionate fan base of any wrestler in history. To this day, in pro wrestling or MMA, not Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, Kerry Von Erich, Dusty Rhodes or Chuck Liddell could match the reaction I saw that woman receive live in her heyday. They also created one of the great heel characters of all time, in the overweight face-painted monster who used the kendo stick as a weapon long before anyone called it a cane, in Kaoru “Dump” Matsumoto, who later became a famous talk show personality. Matsumoto was followed by Keiko “Bull” Nakano, who was something of the Jumbo Tsuruta of women’s wrestling, a stellar athlete fantastic worker who was a top star, but didn’t have quite the charisma to set business records. And they also created the woman, born Erica Shishedo, a half African-American half-Japanese woman who never knew her father, a U.S. serviceman, whose entrance music started out, “God made the devil just for fun. When he wanted the real thing, he made Aja Kong.”
The peak of women’s wrestling in Japan would be the mid-80s Crush Gals phenomenon. But the biggest event in women’s wrestling history was a November 20, 1994, show at the Tokyo Dome, where 32,500 fans paid $4 million. That show more merchandise than this past year’s WrestleMania. They did $612,000 just in program sales. The program was equivalent to the program the NFL would put together for the Super Bowl, and something no other pro wrestling promotion in history has ever come close to producing. Most of the crowd stayed for a show that lasted ten hours (2 p.m. in the afternoon, ending at 11:56 p.m.), featured a 60-piece marching band, a parade of wrestlers representing 11 different flag-carrying federations that looked like a scaled down version of the Olympic games opening ceremony.
The special effects of the ring entrances were something only the Pride promotion years later could approximate. There was not just the pyro and pinwheel fireworks, but laser light shows corresponding to the music of the entrance, and with the lasers also making the faces of the biggest stars in a light show on the Tokyo Dome roof. The entrances made it appear wrestlers were entering in cages on space ships (actually brought in by hidden lowered cranes from backstage but the visual effect with steam coming from the stage to the bottom of the entrance vehicle looked like ships levitating in mid-air), in giant balloons, with acrobatic Ninjas and amidst a parade of Harley Davidson motorcycles. Every match had it own corporate sponsor. It was one of the greatest pro wrestling shows in history at that point in time.
The festival included not only women’s pro wrestling matches, but a freestyle wrestling match featuring then world champion Doris Blind of France, facing the debuting 16-year-old Kyoko Hamaguchi, who later won five world championships and two Olympic bronze medals. It’s a funny symbolism of the time, as it was supposed to be the idea of people seeing Hamaguchi, the daughter of famous pro wrestler and trainer Heigo “Animal” Hamaguchi, for the first time on this big show, and a few years later, she was to be the woman who would become the next superstar of the sport. Instead, women’s pro wrestling fell apart, and she became a well-known celebrity, appearing in many television commercials as well as once being the nation’s flag bearer in the Olympics, in the field that was supposed to be the stepping stone.
The very next match was another freestyle wrestling match, featuring Miyu Yamamoto, the 1994 world champion in women’s freestyle wrestling, a pretty girl who was also expected to become a superstar in pro wrestling a few years down the road. Instead, she became better known for being the older sister of Kid Yamamoto, and marrying Enson Inoue.
There was also a shoot boxing match (essentially San Shou) and an eight-woman multi-promotional tournament won by Akira Hokuto (now the wife of Kensuke Sasaki) to determine the best woman wrestler in the world, featuring world champions from EMLL (now CMLL), LLPW, WWA and IWA.
Takashi Matsunaga was the third oldest of five brothers, and while they would switch around as far as who was running the company, he was always considered the true promotion brains and guiding light of the promotion. The others rotated positions, working as president, vice president, chairman and vice chairman.
The oldest brother of the five had no involvement in pro wrestling. Of the others, youngest brother Toshikuni Matsunaga, who died in 2002 of cancer, served as president of the company for a while, although usually held the title of vice president. He worked with local promoters outside of the Tokyo market. He also worked as a referee of some of the main events.
Kunimatsu Matsunaga, the second youngest, also refereed and worked in the front office, and at one time served as company president. He was also a referee, using the name Jimmy Kayama in that role. He was the road manager and the person who would give the finishes at the house shows. He passed away in 2005, believed to be from suicide when the family fell into such bad financial shape.
Kenji Matsunaga, who is still alive, the second oldest brother, served as president of the company when Takashi was chairman. He was also chairman. He worked using the name Chung Mameruta at one point, and his son referees under the name Bob Yazawa.
The reason the brothers had gimmick ring names is because before they ran the company, during the early and mid-60s, they were running and competing in pro wrestling matches designed more along the lines of today’s MMA. They were worked matches, with the theme of Judo vs. boxing, wrestling vs. boxing, etc. The brothers did worked matches against each other, acting as if they were star fighters from different disciplines. It was legit since all four brothers had excellent judo backgrounds, and Kunimatsu, under the name Jimmy Kayama, really was a pro boxer before playing pro boxer in the worked mixed matches.
It is believed that Japanese women’s wrestling originated in 1948 as part of strip shows. But most trace the history of Japanese women’s wrestling to November, 1954, when a major newspaper brought Mildred Burke as the WWWA world champion for a five-night tour, which included three sold out shows at the 13,000-seat old Sumo Hall in the Kuramae section of Tokyo.
Burke, the face of women’s pro wrestling from when she and husband Billy Wolfe popularized the sport, had been world champion for most of the period from 1937 until 1954. After the couple got a divorce, Wolfe, notorious for sleeping around with the prettiest of the women while Burke would be on the road, wanted to get the title on the younger and prettier Nell Stewart, who he would end up marrying. She refused to do it. Burke, whose photo holding a double biceps pose was used in police departments around the U.S. in her heyday as a way to shame officers to get into shape, was by reputation, a genuine shooter. So Wolfe had to set up a match in Atlanta as a shoot match for the world title. June Byers, who had been trained heavily by shooter Ruffy Silverstein to take Burke’s title, made Burke tap to a kneelock in the first fall. She kept the move on, dislocating Burke’s knee. Burke went another 30 minutes, defending the knee, to a stalemate, before the Georgia State Athletic Commission stopped the match at the 48:00 mark. Byers claimed to be world champion, while Burke claimed that since she didn’t lose two falls, she was still champion. Wolfe had his title back and Burke was essentially blackballed from the major U.S. promoters, and drew big crowds in Japan and Cuba as world champion.
But it was that WWWA title belt that Burke defended on the first tour, the famed “red belt,” that symbolized the real world historical world championship, or at least that’s how it was presented in Japan, that would be the focal point of Matsunaga’s promotion years later. It was the same belt worn by the top women’s wrestling legends All Japan Women’s Wrestling run.
The popularity of the Burke tour led to the formation of the all Japan Women’s Wrestling Club, Tokyo Women’s Pro Wrestling, Tokyo Universal Women’s Pro Wrestling and All Japan Pro Wrestling Association (a woman’s group) in 1955. On September 10 and 11, 1955, the champions from all of those promotions ran a tournament to crown a champion, won by Keiko Endo.
The Matsunaga brothers had a sister, Reiko Yoshiba, who was a pro wrestler during this era, so that was where their first connection to the business started. During this period, Takashi Matsunaga married Endo. Takashi Matsunaga, at that point a well respected judo star, always raved about how great Burke and the American women she brought on the first tour were. He also liked to claim he was ahead of the MMA curve, since he started doing the boxer vs. judo matches as early as 1952.
However, women’s wrestling in Japan was a short-lived fad, dead shortly after the big tournament of champions.
There were several attempts to bring it back, but they all failed without television. A group called Japan Women’s Alliance was formed in 1967, and they ran a tournament to decide their first champions. By that point, Matsunaga got hooked up with the group, and Endo became the world light heavyweight women’s champion.
Takashi Matsunaga was able to forge an alliance with Vince McMahon Sr., and in March of 1968, brought in the Fabulous Moolah as women’s world champion. Moolah had won a 1956 tournament and was recognized as women’s world champion in some parts of the country, as was Byers. Byers ended up retiring after an auto accident, leaving Moolah, who by that point booked women for most of the promotions in North America through her Girls Wrestling Enterprises company, as the most recognized champion. Moolah dropped her title on March 10, 1968, in Osaka, to Yukiko Tomoe, with the idea of building Tomoe as the big star of the group. Moolah got her belt back at the end of the tour on April 2, 1968, in Hamamatsu. However, Moolah failed to draw as Burke did, and the promotion went out of business.
It was at this point that Matsunaga and his three brothers formed All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling, running their first show on June 4, 1968.
They forged an alliance with U.S. promoter Jack Britton, who worked out of Detroit, to start an American outpost. They also set up their own training school, run by Kunimatsu Matsunaga.
Their first tour, built around Mary Jane Mull & Lucille Dupree as the International tag team champions, was a big success. The popularity of the house shows led the Fuji Network to start airing their television shows in November of that year.
The original stars were Tomoe, best known for beating Moolah, Miyuki Yanagi, Kyoko Okada as the pretty model type, who was known for using the octopus submission hold popularized by Antonio Inoki, and Aiko Kyo.
The group made a deal with Burke, who at the time was training woman wrestlers in Reseda, CA, but having difficulty getting them work since all the major promoters were working with Moolah. Her very limited operation was kept alive by selling film footage of her women’s matches through the back pages of low-rent magazines.
The return of Burke’s WWWA world title came when Marie Vagnone, who was the champion of Burke’s troupe, came to Japan for an October 15, 1970, title defense against Kyo. Kyo won the title and was the top star for two-and-a-half years, followed by Jumbo Miyamoto (something of a predecessor to Dump Matsumoto), Mariko Akagi and Kiyoko Hoshino (whose daughter wrestled in the 90s as Kairo Nakayama). The red belt was the symbol of the promotion for its entire run.
Their first national star was 16-year-old Mach Fumiake (Fumiake Watanabe), who won the WWWA title on March 19, 1975, from Miyamoto. She became the first pop star idol type, where she would sing as well as wrestle on television. It was at that point that ratings took off, fueled by an audience of teenage girls. During the summer of 1975, the Fuji Network moved women’s wrestling to a weekly weekend show. But Fumiake suddenly quit wrestling in January of 1976. In the early days, there was a pattern where a Japanese wrestler would lose the title to an American, and either the same Japanese wrestler, or a new one if they were trying to establish a new top star, would take it from the American.
After Fumiake won the title, the red belt became almost an exclusive province of the Japanese, with the exception of the 1979-80 run of Monster Ripper (who later became Bertha Faye in WWF but was a tremendous monster heel in her youth), La Galactica from Mexico (winning and losing in a 1983 feud with Jaguar Yokota) and Amazing Kong (TNA’s Awesome Kong), who feuded with Ayako Hamada over the belt during the company’s dying days in 2004.
Over the next decade, the promotion was unique. They held tryouts for teenage girls, created unique looks and characters. They knew their audience. It was almost exclusively teenage girls. The babyfaces they felt had to be the same age or a few years older than their audience. The heels were usually overweight, ugly cheating monsters. There was a mandatory retirement age of 25. The thought process was that it forced them to constantly create new stars for the next generation of teenage girls.
The promotion was also famous for their rules of conduct, the famed “three no’s.” No alcohol. No smoking, and no men. The women were based in Tokyo, with all but the biggest stars living in a dorm like environment. They had small rooms to live in. They had a gym where they trained on the bottom floor. There was a restaurant where the younger women who were in training and not working as wrestlers, as well as some of the undercard women worked, to augment income. While they ran at arenas, they also frequently would set up their own makeshift arenas on empty land in the smaller cities, almost like the circus coming to town. The younger women would set up the building, build the ring, and take the tickets. The stars would be at the gimmick table signing autographs and then work their matches. Then they would pack it in and go to the next town. They worked more shows then the men, and while they didn’t outdraw All Japan and New Japan during their heyday, during the 70s and 80s they were the No. 3 promotion in the country.
There was certainly the rumors that due to the environment they lived in that all of the women were lesbians. The movie “Gaea Girls,” largely based on the training for a promotion Chigusa Nagayo ran long after her Crush Gals days, documented well the savage and almost inhuman training the women had to get into wrestling. In the 80s in particular, every year, several hundred women each would send in applications for the annual screening process to be wrestlers. The ones with the best athletic credentials, or in some cases, with the best head shots, would be brought in for the tryout. The established stars would test them in a series of physical activities, lifting weights and different calisthenics, until they dropped. The ones who they felt had the most guts, or the most potential based on athletic accomplishments, or sometimes looks, would be chosen. They were put through a torture chamber. If they survived, they had the right to live a Spartan existence for so-so money (unless you were a superstar, as the Crush Gals were earning in their heyday as much as all but the highest echelon of U.S. and Japanese stars were at the time) for a very short run. The training, by our standards, was beyond brutal. But they produced the best wrestlers, many of whom on their first day in the ring were more advanced than Americans who had spent five years in the business. Most of whom by year three were better than all but the best of the American wrestlers. Then, for the most part, they’d go back to anonymity, working as waitresses or gym instructors. With the exception of Matsumoto, who became a talk show and game show celebrity after wrestling, and still, at 48, does some indie pro wrestling dates, most disappeared from public eye after their run was over.
This changed in the 90s when the three no’s were still rules, but relaxed a bit, and when they dropped the mandatory retirement. I was around the environment particularly in the early 90s. Coming to the dojo at night I’d bump into drunk young girls who may have been TV stars, but were really no different from any other teenagers. The big stars would live in apartments near the dojo, and would be seen in the area riding their bicycles around for both exercise and just to get around.
When Fumiake retired as the top star, the brothers, burned by putting so much effort into making a top star and losing her, came up with the idea of the concept tag team. On February 24, 1976, Jackie Sato & Maki Ueda were put together as The Beauty Pair. Part of the idea was that if one or the other decided to leave, they could have at least one authentic member and replace the other with a new one. Sato was more your stereotypical female jock clean-cut athlete than model. Ueda was presented as her pretty counterpart, with more of a stylish haircut than even the women with pretty faces and short haircuts that they had in the prior years.
With the exception of the Crush Gals, this period was probably the mainstream peak of the promotion. Although they would draw bigger crowds at major shows in the 90s when the workrate and characters like Manami Toyota and Aja Kong crossed over to the large wrestling fan base, from a ratings standpoint the peak periods were with the cross-marketing of pop singers and wrestlers to a very specific audience.
Sato was 18 and Ueda was 17 when the team got hot. They signed an RCA recording contract and had several top ten hits. A popular movie was based around their success, as well as an award winning non-fiction book.
Unlike Matsunaga’s death, that got almost no coverage, Sato’s death from cancer on August 9, 1999, at the age of 41, was a front page story in every sports section in Japan and one of the biggest news stories of the day.
During the peak of The Beauty Pair, about 15 million viewers watched the weekly wrestling show, more than Nitro and Raw combined at the peak of U.S. popularity, and in fact more than Monday Night Football does today.
Sato as a jock was believable, as she was a high school basketball superstar, who led her team to finishing second in the national tournament when she graduated and became a wrestler. She was a wrestling fan growing up of the first generation of stars like Aiko Kyo, Miyamoto, Akagi and Miyoko Hoshino. Born Naoko Sato, she was given the name Jackie, a male sounding name, which had cultural significance. She was the butch member of the team with the pretty Ueda. Japanese culture at that time had a unique element that allowed women’s pro wrestling to become so huge at the time. Teenage girls often idolized women athletes as role models. Indeed the Crush Gals were marketed the same way, with Lioness Asuka in the role Sato played, and Chigusa Nagayo in the role Ueda, and later Nancy Kumi, played.
The Beauty Pair’s biggest hit, “Kakemeguru Seishun” (Around and Around on Youth) sold more than 800,000 copies, a phenomenal figure for a sing in Japan in that era. By February 1977, they were so popular among teenage girls that the Fuji Network moved wrestling to a weekly prime time show. The show would feature three matches, with The Beauty Pair usually in a tag team in the main event, and two one-song concerts between the matches. The concerts actually got bigger reactions than the matches, with the shrieking young girls going crazy for very rudimentary singing.
Yumi Ikeshita & Shinobu Aso were put together as their heel rivals, The Black Pair. The feud between the two teams were all over the Japanese mainstream media, on every magazine cover for magazines aimed at teenage girls for a two-year period. As far as night-by-night house show business, from 1977-79, they actually outdrew the Crush Gals peak because almost every house show, usually in mid-sized arenas, were turning people away.
The brothers made a very gutsy decision in the summer of 1977, to replace Ueda with Kumi in The Beauty Pair, making Ueda the world champion, and built to a Sato vs. Ueda match.
Billed as the biggest women’s wrestling match of all-time, with the tag that it was the female version of Giant Baba vs. Antonio Inoki, the November 1, 1977, match drew 13,000 fans to Budokan Hall. Airing on prime time network television, the rating was even more impressive than the attendance, and is believed to be the most-watched woman’s wrestling match of all-time. Burke was brought in as the sole judge at ringside, as the two battled to a 60:00 draw, with Burke awarding the match and title to Sato. They had a rematch in February, 1979, at Budokan Hall, with the loser having to retire, with Sato winning and Ueda really did retire. Shortly after that point, the Fuji Network moved the shows back to a weekend afternoon slot.
The company was still doing healthy business over the next two years, but nothing like the 1977-79 period. The family decided to go with 19-year-old Toshimi Yokota (Jaguar Yokota) as the new star. Yokota beat Sato for the title on February 25, 1981, in Yokohama. The feeling was that there was no way for Yokota to ever get over as the big star as long as Sato was on the cards, so they went into a big program with Yokota vs. Monster Ripper (one of Sato’s big rivals) for the title, and after a few months, asked Sato to retire. She, like most of the short-lived superstars who they created, and discarded, left bitter. It was a cold business, with Sato working at a health club teaching fitness classes until doing a short-lived comeback with a rival promotion in 1986.
The next boom period came with the Crush Gals being put together as a tag team in 1983. The afternoon ratings caught fire with the same formula as the beauty pair, based around the Crush Gals feuding with heels like Matsumoto, Jumbo Hori, Tarantula and Crane Yu, and later Bull Nakano and Condor Saito. From the summer of 1984 through the fall of 1986, they were back in prime time, drawing big crowds everywhere, and selling merchandise the likes of which nobody has ever seen before. At today’s WWE, the idea of doing $11 a head in merchandise is considered impressive. They were sometimes doing as much as $30 per head, and that’s in mid-80s currency.
Again, that generation of young girls grew up. The difference between the Crush Gals and The Beauty Pair was the wrestling. The Beauty Pair were women who were solid athletes, but by today’s standards, hardly impressive in the ring. The Crush Gals, Yokota, and Devil Masami were the first generation of women wrestlers who were better than the men.
When Terry Funk and Bruiser Brody were in Japan as the top foreign stars and saw the matches, they were in awe. While many of the male wrestlers looked down on the idea of 130-pound women even being in pro wrestling, they gave them their props and said they were the best performers around. Still, it was not a view embraced even by Japanese wrestling fans. The Crush Gals were marketed to teenage girls. It was almost like the early days of Satoru Sayama as Tiger Mask, where he was a gimmick and the older fans shunned him saying he was just something to draw kids to wrestling. But while Tiger Mask’s matches quickly garnered acceptance by wrestling fans who may have first come to the shows to see Antonio Inoki, now Tiger Mask vs. Dynamite Kid is considered the glory days of wrestling. But very few men attended the shows, filled with shrieking and crying girls, living through every move of the match. I remember after being told on a trip to Japan that you have to go see the All Japan Women, that when Japanese fans heard I was going, it was a stigma of, “Don’t you know that’s for girls?”
The peak of this run was in the late summer of 1985, the August 25, 1985, show at the Denen Coliseum in Tokyo, headlined by Jaguar Yokota vs. Asuka for the world’s title and Devil Masami vs. Nagayo for the All-Pacific title, two of the greatest pro wrestling matches up to that point in history, drawing 13,000 fans and $250,000, an incredible figure for that period. Than three nights later, they sold out in Osaka as Matsumoto beat Nagayo in a hair vs. hair match. A year later in Osaka, when Nagayo pinned Matsumoto in a hair vs. hair match, they did another $174,000 house.
It would be impossible to overstate the popularity of The Crush Gals and Dump Matsumoto. Simply put, everyone knew who they were. They only drew from a very small niche because that what they were aimed for, but they were closer to Hannah Montana than to Trish Stratus. As far as name recognition went, being in Japan at that time, mention the name Dump Matsumoto, and everyone knew who she was. I won’t say she was more well known than Hulk Hogan, but she was more well known than Steve Austin was at any point in his career, and I’d frame her name recognition as equivalent to Ric Flair in the Carolinas today, although without the enduring type of unique fame Flair has achieved.
A few years later, that era was over, with the March 23, 1989 show at the Yokohama Arena, “The Day The Music Died,” the original retirement of Chigusa Nagayo. Nagayo made several comebacks later, and had some successful nostalgia runs, but never had the popularity of the heyday. What was interesting about that period is that it was actually the retirement of Dump Matsumoto when business started falling. In hindsight, one of the key reasons for the Crush Gals being the most popular women’s tag team ever, is that they had the best heel to beat on them, make them bleed, and cause people to scream their lungs out over.
To be continued in the next post below this one...