Sex Sells: Female Pro Wrestling in the U.S. and Japan - Part III

For those of you wondering, the link to Part I of this series is here, in which we discuss the genesis of women's pro wrestling in the US and Japan, as well as their wildly divergent evolutionary paths.

And here is Part II, where Vince tries to get women to help with the Rock N' Wrestling Connection, but the Fabulous Moolah pretty much sabotages every attempt to do so. There was a reason I was tempted to call the article "Moolah ruins everything."

Funny enough, it was actually Moolah dooming pro wrestling in the US with her sabotage that also broke her stranglehold over female wrestling, because there was no market to actually put the stuff to. The AWA, where Wendi Richter retreated, had closed up shop, and GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) a seasonal TV show which took inexperienced models and trained them for six weeks to compete over a 26 episode TV season, had ceased production in 1990. WCW wasn't in the market for women either, hiring Madusa as a valet for Rick Rude following a stint in AJW.

Fast forward to 1993, and Vince McMahon's WWF was in chaos for numerous well documented reasons. Between Hogan coming back to screw Bret and then spending most of his WWF title reign in New Japan Pro Wrestling calling said title a toy, and the mass exodus of his talent due to the legal steroid crackdowns, Vince, as is he want to do in times of crisis, began thinking out the box for new ideas to drive up business, and one of those included doing something that WCW wasn't at the time, creating a robust women's division.


Alundra Blayze and the WWF Women's World Title in happier times.

Madusa (real name Debra Miceli) was bought in under the name Alundra Blayze and wrestled in a six-woman tournament to win the Women's title, defeating Heidi Lee Morgan (a Moolah student) for the women's title.

Notice the length too, 3:24. It can be forgiven that Superstars was a one-hour show, but this is more in line with modern Diva's matches. In any event, Blayze won the title, but desiring more competition than the remaining Moolah students, petitioned the WWF to go international once again to bring in more opponents. Vince conceded, bringing in the tag team of AJW heel Bull Nakano and Bull Nakano's hair for Blayze to feud with.


Betcha thought I was exaggerating, didn't you?

Bull and Blayze would have several matches, trading wins in a feud that lasted several months, including a marquee match at Summerslam.

Naturally though, Blayze couldn't just feud with Bull, so following a bout on Raw, Blayze was blindsided by long-time AJW and independent scene worker Monster Ripper (Real name Ronda Singh). Monster Ripper was famous for not only whipping out sitout powerbombs and military presses, but for being one of a select few foreigners to win the AJW title following Mach Fumiake's 1975 title win.


Wait, I'm sorry. I meant Blayze was blindsided by Bertha Faye, Queen of the Trailer Park.


Yeah, just in case you thought Vince's humor hasn't been consistent throughout the decades. Singh was repackaged as a comedic fatso who was in a relationship with Harvey Whippleman, last seen managing Giant Gonzales. (Whippleman later revealed in a shoot interview with OWW that they never got along well). Even worse, Ripper got over in Japan by using a lot of power moves more associated with male wrestlers such as the Gorilla Press Slam and powerbomb, moves which WWF bookers forbade her from doing. This wasn't helped by Bull Nakano violating the WWF's drug policy by being caught with cocaine and subsequently written off TV, killing a Bull/Faye feud (an extension of a Monster Ripper/Bull Nakano feud from AJW) before it could begin.

It's worth noting that powerbomb variations were being done by no less than three wrestlers at this point, including Diesel Kevin Nash, Razor Ramon Scott Hall, and Ahmed Johnson, with Johnson in particular using the sitout variation.

By the end of 1995, with business still in the proverbial toilet for the WWF, and Vince making cuts wherever possible, the women's division was considered a failure, and even the addition of another big Japanese name in Aja Kong was unable to reverse its fortunes. The division was shuttered to save money, and the title put on hiatus.

Following that, sensing an opportunity to make the WWF look bad, Eric Bischoff bought in Madusa, who appeared on WCW Monday Nitro, ran down the WWF in her first promo with the company, and infamously threw the Women's title belt in the garbage. Today, Miceli claims to regret the decision to do so, but went through with it following Bischoff strongarming her.


Oh God. If Eric does that with my women's title, he'll do that with any of my titles! Bret! I've gotta screw him before he goes to Bischoff!

Meanwhile in Japan, well, remember that whole "retire at 25" rule I kept mentioning?



Yeah, a lot of women weren't happy about that.

Back in 1986, Jackie Sato (of Beauty Pair fame), teamed with Nancy Kumi and Boxer Rumi Kazama to form JWP, Japan Women's Pro-Wrestling, an organization that had no set retirement age. Naturally, a lot of wrestlers forced out of AJW by the retirement stipulation joined up, providing an instant talent pool for competitors. However, differences in philosophy led JWP in 1992 to split into two separate organizations, JWP Project and Ladies-Legend Pro Wrestling.

In 1989, FMW (Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling) was founded, and also included a joshi division, with Megumi Kudo as its top star. Initially pushed for her looks (after having washed out of AJW), Kudo developed significantly and became a major joshi star, competing in absolutely brutal matches for FMW.

Did I mention that FMW was also the same organization that Cactus Jack and Terry Funk were in the infamous "King of the Deathmatch" tournament? I should have.

Competition wasn't just limited to JWP's offshoots and FMW either. In 1994, GAEA Japan was founded by former Crush Gals member Chigusa Nagayo, who wasn't taking her forced retirement sitting down. Founding GAEA and training many of its initial students, Nagayo established agreements with both FMW and WCW for inter-promotional shows.

AJW wasn't about to take this lying down however.

The 90's saw a rise in a new batch of talent gracing the ring of AJW, many of which I could write entire articles about. I'm going to apologize straight up if I don't include your favorite talent, since there are so many to mention. The most notable included Akira Hokuto, Aja Kong (who had a cup of coffee in the WWF as mentioned above) and the legendary Manami Toyota, responsible for no less than fourteen five-star matches from the Wrestling Observer, seven as a singles star and seven as part of a tag team.


Manami Toyota, considered one of the greatest pro wrestlers of all time in terms of match quality. She actually still wrestles today, and has made several appearances for Chikara.

By the end of the decade, there were no less than seven, yes, SEVEN Joshi promotions in Japan. However, in the next few years, nearly all of them would fold.

But why? you may ask.

Well, the reasons were several-fold. Despite the quality and quantity of work, the Crush Gals phenomenon, akin to Hulkamania in the US, was long over. This is notable for a key reason. While the Beauty Pair and Crush Gals inspired legions of women to follow their footsteps in the world of puro, the 90's wrestlers, despite their incredible talent, excellent matches, and international appeal, weren't bringing nearly the domestic ratings and attention that their predecessors had. This resulted in less eyeballs on the product, and with less eyeballs, less people that wanted to be joshi wrestlers. The ensuing crop of wrestlers simply was not as numerous or producing as many excellent talents as Toyota and her ilk. And the market, once funneled through a singular entity in AJW, simply didn't have enough talent to go around to seven promotions and keep them all viable.

Secondly, the decline of the Japanese economy. The owners of AJW, the Matsunaga brothers, were heavily invested in Japanese real estate, and when that market went belly up, so did the ability to keep AJW running smoothly. The fate of FMW president Sohichi Arai was even more tragic, in following the company's ultimately failed attempts to rebrand from hardcore garbage wrestling to a sports-entertainment oriented product ala the WWE, was forced to shut it doors. Arai, rumored to owe $1 million USD to yakuza connected groups, hung himself on May 16, 2002 so his family could collect the life insurance and settle his debts.

Finally, as the decade drew to a close, pro wrestling itself, in both the male and female side, was losing favor in the public eye, driven by the kakutogi (combat sports) boom of K-1 and PRIDE FC. The public consciousness replaced pro wrestlers with MMA fighters and kickboxers as the true tough men (and women) of the world. And with that, pro wrestling gates and TV audiences dwindled. AJW lost its television deal in 2002, and the company eventually folded in 2005.

As sort of a symbol of the declining Japanese pop culture interest in joshi wrestling even with increasing content, remember The Dirty Pair, the anime series I mentioned in Part I as being inspired by joshi wrestlers? In 1994, a reboot of the series was made, Dirty Pair Flash (don't ask me, I didn't make the title) with all of the pro-wrestling influence gutted in favor of a buddy-cop aesthetic, and replacing the duo's joshi outfits with admittedly more sensible clothing.


Something that wasn't sensible? Their hair colors.

Meanwhile, in the US, our old pal Vince McMahon had finally found some consistent success with the women's division, through the use of Sable, and with her, a recipe for a profitable women's division.


T&A. And lots of it.

The WWF Women's Championship was reactivated in 1998 following the massive popularity of Sable, (AKA Rena Mero at the time, now Rena Lesnar, as in Brock Lesnar's wife). It was officially awarded in a feud between Sable and Jacqueline Moore, which in turn allowed Sable, who had been mostly working as a valet, to get directly involved in the programming. While Sable herself would be an on-and-off member of the roster, her success opened the floodgates for more female wrestlers to compete in the WWE.

And compete they did. Sorta.

The Diva's division, as it had been re-christened, was less about wrestling and workrate as it had been in Japan, and more about finding excuses to put the women on the roster in as provocative a situation as possible. Talents like Lita and Trish Stratus, who would later develop into excellent wrestlers by conventional standards, were all forced to play to this 'sex sells' attitude.. Even The Fabulous Moolah got back in on the action, who along with the equally aged Mae Young, served as comedy relief amid the sexually charged Diva's division.


Mae Young, at the time 77 years old, going through a table courtesy of a Bubba Bomb. Both D-Von and Bubba, in an interview with SLAM Wrestling, noted that she wanted to take the bump as hard the wrestlers a third her age, and outright yelled at the Boys when they tried to soften the blow.

And just so you don't think the title meant too much, or that Moolah's brief reign at the age of 76 made her the most undeserving champion, note that the title during this period was once held by Harvey Whippleman in disguise as Hervina, having won it in a "Lumberjill Snow Bunny match."

Quite a step removed from Manami Toyota's five star classics, or the Akira Hokuto vs. Shinobu Kandori grudge match of 1993.

However, it was here that female pro wrestling finally paid off for Vince McMahon. Not through foreign talent or a female equivalent to Hulk Hogan, but through women viewed as sex objects, as objects of desire, and as raw titillation.


Sable gracing the cover of Playboy in one of her more tasteful covers. The issue's runaway success led to a partnership between Playboy and the WWF/E that was only dissolved when the product went PG.

Women's wrestling for Vince McMahon, was finally profitable.

And while that's assuredly not covering all the details, such as the legions of genre-defying matches that occurred in Japan, or the development of Lita and Trish Stratus into genuine talents, or the infamous Diva's Search, we now see why Vince would go back to the well of women being nothing but eye candy. Because eye candy is what sold Playboys. It's what, in tandem with the rest of the raunchy Attitude Era product, reversed the WWE's fortunes in their war against WCW. It's what drew money.

Unfortunately for Vince, such a product is not only incompatible with the PG, family friendly product they try to present, it's also, judging by crowd reactions to said product, well past its expiration date.

Today, women's wrestling, while nowhere near as big as it was in Japan during the 80's and early 90's, continues to endure with several healthy and profitable promotions such as WAVE and Stardom, producing stars like KANA (coming soon to NXT as Asuka) and Act Yasukawa. Meanwhile, the Diva's division in the US, via the influx of talent in NXT, has begun putting on critically lauded matches that fans hope can be replicated on the main roster to the casual fan.

But the women have a very tall mountain to climb.

And it started from the first impression American fans had of female wrestlers, dating back well before NXT was even a twinkle in Triple H's eye.

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