I love an interpromotional angle, me. NJPW vs. UWFI, AJW vs. LLPW, the much-maligned WWF vs. WCW/ECW “Invasion”. Not so much in terms of the dream matches they create – though you can hardly turn your nose up at such titanic contests as Shinya Hashimoto vs. Nobuhiko Takada, Akira Hokuto vs. Shinobu Kandori and Earl Hebner vs. Nick Patrick – but because of the politics of it all. Which main event stars will the promoters allow to lose, and how often, and will the larger company allow their adversaries to come out with their heads held high or – as is so often the case – crush them mercilessly under foot? It’s fascinating.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic many Japanese women’s promotions, never averse to sharing talent even in normal times, have come together under an umbrella organisation called Assemble, which has so far run a couple of supershows in which each company presented a single match to showcase their athletes. Both Assemble events so far have been extremely fun, though you can’t help but feel that they have been occasioned primarily by the need to try and sprinkle a little bit of stardust to propel interest in the less financially stable organisations involved: the old “a rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy. Nevertheless, I’m glad it’s a thing that happened in 2020, a year which brought so much hardship and misery to the world.
Two of the companies involved, Marvelous and Sendai Girls, were scheduled to present a joint show last April under the name GAEAISM, in honour of GAEA, the successful promotion founded in 1995 by Marvelous president (and arguably the biggest female wrestling star in the history of Japan) Chigusa Nagayo. Sendai Girls’ involvement in the venture can be explained by the fact that head honcho Meiko Satomura is an alumna of GAEA, where she wrestled as one of its top stars until the company shut its doors in 2005. GAEAISM was announced to great rejoicing with a main event pitting the aces of Marvelous and Sendai against each other, and a six-woman semi-main featuring veterans who had plied their trade in GAEA all those years ago. Unfortunately, the restrictions announced by the Japanese government in the immediate wake of the first wave of coronavirus put paid to the venture, which was rescheduled for 2021.
The silver lining to all of this is that Nagayo and Satomura seem to have taken the opportunity to reimagine GAEAISM from feelgood nostalgia trip to fierce symbolic battle for the soul of the defunct promotion, and this month they jointly presented a pair of events intended to build up matches for the GAEAISM show: one under the Sendai Girls banner on 10 January, and one presented by Marvelous two days later. I liked the latter a great deal, but I’m going to focus on the former in this article because it provided such a perfect example of why I find interpromotional angles so interesting in their exposure – intentionally or otherwise – of the real-life ideological and business dynamics underpinning their kayfabe.
The card was essentially a one-match show, consisting of a light-hearted opening tag followed by an hour-plus 7 vs. 7 gauntlet, in which teams sent out wrestlers one by one under “winner stays on” rules, with both competitors eliminated if their fight exceeded a ten-minute time limit. The match was Team Marvelous vs. Team Sendai, but more accurately can be termed as Chigusa Nagayo trainees against Meiko Satomura trainees, considering that Marvelous’ veterans KAORU and Tomoko Watanabe, products of the old AJW dojo, were not included (I’m assuming that the wonderfully named Russian import Masha Slamovich’s berth in the Marvelous squad would have been taken by company ace and Nagayo pupil Takumi Iroha if she was fit). Sendai, too, were missing their most fearsome competitor in the form of Satomura herself, who has chosen to absent herself from recent shows in preparation for a stint in the perpetually moribund WWE-backed white elephant vanity fed NXT UK, a real show that people definitely watch and which certainly doesn’t employ anyone who’s done anything untoward in their lives.
The story of the match proceeds thus: Sendai send out Mika Iwata, recently returned from a lengthy injury layoff, and Marvelous open up with Mio Momono, still affecting the persona of a scrappy underdog despite being the most garlanded wrestler in her team (two reigns as tag champion in Comical and Sexy Pro Wrestling WAVE). After a fierce battle, Momono pins Iwata with a Code Red before seeing off a string of Sendai teenagers, rookies and teenage rookies in an increasingly frantic manner, eventually falling, exhausted, to 16-year-old Yurika Oka. Oka soon falls herself, and at this point Sendai are left with two remaining competitors to Marvelous’ six. Hardcore Queen DASH Chisako pins Oka’s conqueror Maria before going to a ten-minute draw with Rin Kadokura (probably her office’s top woman in Iroha’s absence), leaving company ace and five-time Sendai Girls champion Chihiro Hashimoto to face Marvelous’ last four fighters by herself. She sees off the powerful Mikoto Shindo with a disgusting-looking high-angle German suplex, does the same to Slamovich, but finds herself rolled up by Mei Hoshizuki, and Marvelous win.
The in-ring action was great, don’t get me wrong: as you’d expect from rosters stuffed with women as athletic and talented as Marvelous and Sendai Girls. And the story of the Sendai team getting off to a terrible start, recovering but failing to turn it around was told very well. But what really made the whole presentation so compelling was how perfectly this story meshed with what you will probably believe if you watch both companies: namely, that Marvelous has done a better job of developing talent in recent years than Sendai Girls, has created an overall stronger homegrown roster, and is in better shape in terms of planning for the future.
Make no mistake about it, Meiko Satomura is an in-ring legend and has been one of the best in the world for over two decades. And I almost always enjoy her company’s shows for the match quality. But Sendai Girls is not a particularly well-booked promotion. I’m not even talking about the fact that it doesn’t really do “angles” in the same way that Stardom and TJPW do – these are by no means a prerequisite for a company’s storytelling to be satisfying – but more that the sense of progression which is central to our enjoyment of the artform is absent in key areas. Since Chihiro Hashimoto pinned Satomura for the Sendai Girls World Championship in October 2016 she has enjoyed five reigns with the belt, almost each time quickly winning it back from the person she dropped it to. Furthermore, every person who has beaten her for the title in that time – Aja Kong, Hiroyo Matsumoto, Ayako Hamada and Sareee – has been an outsider. DASH Chisako has never won the belt. Cassandra Miyagi (who later jumped to Stardom and is now with Actwres girl’Z) never won the belt. Mika Iwata has not even been given a shot at it. The prioritisation of invaders and freelancers over homegrown talent in the title scene instils a real sense that there is a glass ceiling for Sendai trainees not called Hashimoto, as do other booking decisions (that Satomura and Chisako have only gone one-on-one four times in fifteen years – most recently in Singapore Pro Wrestling – is truly baffling).
Now, I’m sure this apparent ceiling doesn’t discourage young women from wanting to train at the Sendai dojo; after all, Satomura is rightly regarded as an excellent trainer and has produced many great workers in her time. And I don’t possess any insight into the dynamics that govern the company’s training system, the number of people it can support at any one time and the number of graduates who make it through their pro test; and nor would I claim to, because that sort of baseless speculation is for the Bruce Mitchells of this world. But what I do know is that in recent years the promotion has not produced top-class rookies with the frequency of Marvelous, Stardom or even a tiny office like Gatoh Move. Were it not for the debuts of Natsuho Kaneko and Kanon (the latter of whom made her bow so recently I had literally not heard of her before watching the gauntlet match) within the last twelve months, Sendai wouldn’t have been able to field a seven-woman team even if Satomura had chosen to involve herself. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the company’s overreliance and privileging of outsiders over its own talent is of a piece with the relative paucity of its homegrown roster.
Yet I come not to bury Sendai Girls Pro Wrestling but to praise it. The overall inferiority, in terms of experience and ability, of their roster when set against what Marvelous were able to present on that 10 January show became a boon rather than a problem, because Marvelous’ convincing victory in the gauntlet was booked perfectly to reflect this. The expectations that the viewer had of how the match would proceed were created and met in their totality in a way that sports entertainment – when the “sports” part of the package looms large, as it invariably does in the two companies under discussion – can achieve just as well as real sports. We all love to see a rank outsider go deep in a tournament and make you believe they might pull off the unthinkable: third-tier Chesterfield’s run to the FA Cup semis in 1997, Kenya reaching the last four in the 2003 Cricket World Cup, a 59-year-old Tom Watson coming within a putt of winning the 2009 Open. But there is also something inherently very satisfying about a championship that runs exactly to form, where the greatest competitors in the world all play to their immense potential and the final sees the top two seeds facing off in a titanic battle; think Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal’s three consecutive Wimbledon finals from 2006 to 2008, each more absorbing than the last as Nadal came up well short, got closer, and finally toppled the master. The top aces in wrestling – figures such as Miyu Yamashita in TJPW and Hiroshi Tanahashi at his peak in NJPW – tap into this human need to see true greatness fully realised, their boundless charisma and peerless athleticism making the audience greet every successful title defence with a happy feeling of “yes, they are the best, and it’s right that the kayfabe reflects this”.
Once you start conceiving wrestling in these terms, the dynamic of the Sendai vs. Marvelous contest and its effectiveness become all the clearer. Think of it like a baseball match. In baseball, coaches don’t just send their batters to the plate in descending order of ability. The first two in the order tend not to be the team’s home run kings but quick runners with high averages who don’t smack it out of the park too often but are good at getting bat to ball and making it on base. Number 3 will be your best all-rounder, extremely adept at contact hitting and slugging alike, and 4 and 5 are power hitters who sacrifice safety-first tactics for sheer brute force. The logic is that if you lead off with guys like that and they hit a homer, you’ve only scored one run, whereas if you open with players who can get on base reliably and then one of the musclemen smacks it into the bleachers, you’re going to score more. It’s considered the most efficient way to maximise your scoring chances, and most Major League teams will set their stall out like this. But what if your baseball team isn’t full of top class pros? What if you’re a Sunday league outfit perpetually struggling for numbers and regularly have to field three, four or five of your mates who barely know one end of the bat from the other? How do you line up then?
Which is to say, if wrestling gauntlet matches were real and you’re choosing the order of entry for the Sendai team, as a manager you’re hamstrung by the fact that a significant number of the women available to you are unlikely to beat even the weakest member of the Marvelous unit. To put it another way, counterpose the fighters on the Sendai team to their direct Marvelous equivalents: the powerhouses (Hashimoto and Hibiki), the confident company mainstays (Chisako and Kadokura), the stiff-kicking wildcards (Iwata and Slamovich), the annoying little shits (Manami and Momono) and the rookie trios (Oka, Kaneho and Kanon contra Hoshizuki, Shindo and Maria). Sendai’s top three are a very powerful force, but Marvelous has by far the greater strength in depth. I’m not automatically a huge fan of gauntlet matches – for every classic like the Sendai vs. Stardom battle in 2015 there’s a plodding, overlong mess to balance it out – but the stipulation worked well to reinforce the story being told in the GAEAISM angle. It suggested that not only were Sendai outmatched in ability but they got their tactics wrong too, by relying too much on a still-rusty Iwata as “leadoff hitter”, exposing their neophytes to defeat at the hands of one of Marvelous’ top fighters and leaving Chisako and Hashimoto with too much to do at the back end.
All of which is to say, all the kudos in the world to Satomura for her humility in letting the match be booked this way. One of the reasons I like the Japanese wrestling scene is that there is, for the most part, a broad correlation between a wrestler’s ability and their push. It takes a lot of guts to look at your roster in relation to another company – especially one run by your mentor – and say, “you know what, if this was real they probably would beat us pretty convincingly”, then accede to the match being laid out accordingly. How easy – and how cheap – it would have been to insist upon a draw or a controversial finish and to decree that her ace Hashimoto was not to be pinned under any circumstances. Instead, the Sendai champ found herself rolled up by the teenager Hoshizuki, who, in another delicious wrinkle, is currently the promotion’s junior champion. What’s more, Marvelous didn’t even have to use the last woman in their batting order to be victorious! How many gauntlet matches have you seen where the winning team has a wrestler left over? Not many, I bet. And the storytelling still felt genuinely collaborative in the way that other one-sided defeats in interpromotional storylines (viz. those of WCW and UWFI) did not, booked as they were by the larger company in order to vindictively obliterate the competition’s credibility.
There are few finer accomplishments a wrestling promoter can earn than to leave your audience thinking that your main event had exactly the right result, delivered in the right way. In my view, Nagayo and Satomura achieved just that, and then some. Given that so much of the discourse surrounding Stardom these days appears to surround the twin currents of “such and such isn’t being pushed enough” and “such and such is being pushed too much” (with criticisms of those women in the latter camp tending often towards the nit-picking), it was nice to be able to talk at great length about this show with my partner afterwards and feel like the kayfabe power dynamics could be appraised solely in the way they functioned in the service of the story: precisely because, in sharply reflecting the reality of where Marvelous and Sendai are at the moment, they weren’t occluded by any feeling that natural justice wasn’t being served.
The story of GAEAISM continues, with Marvelous continuing to find itself in the ascendancy. Remember that thing I said earlier about the Sendai team’s top three fighters being more than a match for Marvelous’ top three? Well, it turns out that was wrong. In the main event of the second “Road to GAEAISM” show, two days after the gauntlet, Hashimoto, Iwata and Chisako were defeated by the Marvelous team, with Hashimoto taking the pin once more (this time to Momono). And doesn’t that create more intrigue than a series of finely balanced, tit-for-tat contests? Especially when you have to assume that the pendulum will swing back in Sendai’s favour as the feud progresses, their rookies improve and their big hitters start to string together some wins. The bildungsroman element of wrestling is one of its chiefest pleasures, and through adversity the members of this talented Sendai roster – which, though it comes up short in comparison with Marvelous, is bigger than at any point since I started following the company – can show their growth as they help the company build for the future. That, too, will seem like natural justice.