Ahead of AJW’s landmark reunion show this weekend, here’s why it was the greatest wrestling promotion of all time.
We’ve had some dark times as women’s wrestling fans. Even as WWE has slowly – very, very slowly – moved towards treating women as actual athletes who might want to do some proper wrestling, the ‘revolution’ it keeps selling us has had its share of false starts.
At the first NXT Takeover, Paige and Emma had a fantastic 20-minute match which laid a lot of the groundwork for the women’s wrestling matches we are starting to see more of today. Soon after, Emma and her dancing gimmick were a sad supporting act to the comedy jobber Santino Marella.
I thought it couldn’t get any worse, because WWE hadn’t yet tried to get heat on a title feud by writing in Charlotte’s dead brother. I could feel the potential being wasted, and it felt as though women in the world’s biggest wrestling company were doomed to be nothing but a sideshow. So to cheer me up, my boyfriend went deep into the depths of online wrestling forums to crowdsource some good women’s wrestling (he’s a keeper). The internet delivered, and I discovered AJW.
Not only did All Japan Women’s Pro-Wresting (AJW) prove that it wasn’t always like this – that women had been recognised and treated as proper wrestlers – but that in some places, it had never been like this. An all-female promotion had filled arenas for years, for decades, even, on the back of talented women receiving the time and the freedom to show what they could do.
And what they could do was like nothing I’d seen before, because for about 25 of its 37 years in business AJW had some of the best in-ring performances on the planet.
This is comparatively raw for both women, but that’s because they clearly hate each other. It feels like a blood feud. It’s a fight that gets more and more violent, escalating through grappling and throwing each other around until the next thing you know, there’s a kendo stick and a chair. The moves are crisp and they look like they hurt.
If all you’ve seen is US wrestling, this probably looks decades ahead of its time. If Nia Jax and Sasha Banks did this on Raw next week it would be lauded as a landmark. Actually, AJW was this good for years, with Chigusa Nagayo, Lioness Asuka and the Jumping Bomb Angels having classic matches almost every week. As the 80s came to an end, women like Jaguar Yokota also started to train a generation of girls who were inspired by her and her peers. While WWE was in its nadir in the early and mid-1990s, AJW was arguably on its hottest in-ring streak of all.
There is no end of matches I could choose from this period, when the art form had evolved to the point where performers were developing more theatrical, larger-than-life, often slightly intimidating characters. So here’s another.
You’ll hear a lot of wrestling fans say that mid-90s All Japan Pro-Wrestling was the high point in this industry. The mythical ‘Four Pillars’ of Misawa, Kobashi, Taue and Kawada put on classic matches in the main event for years. But the rest of the card was basically a bunch of guys who weren’t as good as them.
What AJW had over All Japan was strength and depth. Hokuto and Toyota took on Kong and Nakano, but there was also Kyoko Inoue, Dynamite Kansai, Toshiyo Yamada, Takako Inoue, Yumiko Hotta, Mariko Yoshida, Mima Shimoda and plenty more who could rise to the top of the card. Shinobu Kandori had a run in 1998. All of these women had fantastic matches that rivalled anything Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart were pulling out in the States. At the risk of being controversial, I’d put any Akira Hokuto match against anything Misawa ever did.
Both of those companies eventually faded, and AJW finally collapsed in 2005. But the influence of AJW on wrestling today cannot be overstated.
It’s a massive part of the tradition of women’s wrestling, laying much of the groundwork for all-female promotions in Japan and around the world. Virtually every female indie wrestler cites at least one AJW icon among her inspirations. But its significance transcends gender – Mike Quackenbush and Daniel Bryan are just a couple of the men who praise Manami Toyota, for example.
Most of the finishing moves that you love were invented by women in AJW. Kudome Valentine? Megumi Kudo. Air Raid Crash? Mariko Yoshido. Burning Hammer? Kyoko Inoue (you’ll hear this one debated, but the differences between her move and Kobashi’s are negligible). Jackhammer Slam? Jaguar Yokota. Death Valley Bomb? Etsuko Mita. Northern Lights Bomb? Akira Hokuto, of course. Tiger Driver ’91? Jaguar Yokota again.
However, the company’s significance is most obvious in the WWE, where today’s wrestling talents look not to their predecessors for inspiration, but to AJW talent.
It isn’t Sunny or Sable that Sasha Banks describes as her hero – it’s Akira Hokuto. In that Takeover match against Emma, Paige debuted the PTO: a brutal submission finisher borrowed from Bull Nakano. Becky Lynch and Natalya, doing so much work with younger talent on Smackdown Live, both worked alongside former AJW talent in Japan. Sara Del Rey, the first female trainer in WWE history, wrestled in Japan and counts Aja Kong among her heroes.
AJW restored my faith in wrestling, and gave me hope for women’s wrestling in particular, when it was lowest. So yes, maybe I’m biased. But for my money, it’s the greatest promotion of all time, and there’s a Dangerous Queen Bomb for anyone wanting to argue.