Years from now, a one-time great, a former world champion, will admit in his autobiography – proudly! – that he always refused to compete on shows featuring female wrestlers because he didn’t consider any of them to be wrestlers, merely sideshow acts geared only towards titillation. Long before his book is released, female wrestlers will prove they belong in the sport a thousand times over.
The hardcore wrestling buffs, the men who fancy themselves in the know and have no problem making this the prevailing facet of their personalities, wouldn’t be seen dead at one of these joshi shows. Women’s wrestling isn’t wrestling at all, they insist, but a variety show with wrestling’s trappings. The weekly TV broadcast opens with a song-and-dance number and closes with a song-and-dance number, and they usually find time to sneak in another one somewhere in the middle. The matches are simply by the by; not the filling – that would imply they’re the most substantial part – but a garnish. If you were to remove them entirely, nothing but the merest hint of a different flavour would be lost. These silly girls who pretend to be top fighters are nothing but pop stars, and not even good ones.
But while this argument may have carried at least a kernel of truth at one point in time, the women of today are, right under these unwitting men’s noses, producing athletic displays at the very leading edge of the form: innovating moves that will form the building blocks of many a match for decades to come, mixing in a wide variety of martial arts techniques executed with pinpoint precision, and doing it all at a pace that the top male wrestlers, overburdened by their own extravagant musculature, could never hope to match. And so the crowds that pour into the arenas in their thousands don’t care that ninety per cent of them are women, ninety-five per cent, even more, let the men miss out on a good thing if they’re so pig-headed they won’t get with the times. In fact, it’s better this way. Where else can you go to scream your lungs inside out without having to worry about seeming good and demure, to meet up with the girls you’ve sat beside at so many shows that you’ve become close friends by nothing more than frequent exposure, osmosis, and talk free from inhibition, cordially bickering over who might be the next champion, nervously wondering if those wild women in leather will come your way tonight with their strong arms and swinging batons, gently or bitterly poking fun at strict parents or useless fiancés or useless colleagues or useless politicians or whoever else deserves it, and whispering did you know that women’s wrestling existed in this country before the men started having a go, they try to keep it quiet but it’s true. The men can keep men’s wrestling. This is special. This is theirs.
It’s a tough life for the performers, tough beyond belief, with gruelling concert programmes somehow squeezed into the top faces’ schedules between the longest and most relentless tours of any wrestling company in the country, and ten-thousand-calorie-per-day diets for the heels, to produce the hefty volume of muscle and bulk that provides the ideal contrast with the slim, wholesome heroines. And it’s one that spits them out at the end of it all; the mandatory retirement age stands at just twenty-six, which is primarily a symptom of the entertainment industry’s fetishisation of youth, but also because working this intense style of wrestling for over three hundred days a year will turn even the halest and healthiest young woman into a physical wreck frighteningly fast. But the fans don’t see any of that. Their only concern is the fighter they’re there to cheer.
The noise that erupts as the master of ceremonies announces her name is unlike anything that can be heard at any other kind of wrestling: because it’s strikingly high-pitched, yes, but also because its wavelengths so obviously crackle with a deep love that can only flower when fans see before them a warrior in whom they can perceive something of themselves. She stands in the corner of the ring in plain black haori and plain grey hakama, plain white hachimaki tied around her dome, face expressionless, but not blank, it’s more that she’s putting up walls around her to steel herself against what’s to come. She’s slightly built too, her hair cut short and styled into functional black curtains. There is nothing glamorous nor eye-catching about her. And that’s precisely the point. While received wisdom dictates that people won’t support wrestlers who aren’t larger than life in manner and appearance, this woman is inspiring in her ordinariness. She could be anybody in the crowd, or so you’d think from looking at her. But everybody who has seen her take flight knows that this seemingly ordinary woman can do some very out of the ordinary things. Which makes them believe that they can too, if given the chance.
And now the heel faction is here, brandishing kendō sticks and nunchaku and whatever weapons they’ve been able to get their hands on, their faces daubed with irregular smears of makeup in various neon hues. One particularly tall footsoldier – a girl of only seventeen – sports a purple-tinged blonde quiff with one side starkly shaved down to the skull. Another is clad in a studded leather waistcoat, a huge pair of sunglasses and a jet-black policewoman’s hat, an ensemble that seems incongruous at first glance but in fact brilliantly taps into the twin fears of anarchy and fascism, the punk-meets-cop aesthetic promising all the battery and bloodshed that so often ensues when actual punks meet actual cops. Their leader weighs every bit of a hundred kilograms and has decked herself out in a leather boiler suit with her atrocious alliance’s name on the back, the characters printed in a shade of gold that brings to mind not the warm beauty of fallen autumn leaves but the gaudy glint of a dragon’s purloined loot. She removes a black mask that would resemble an executioner’s hood were it not for the jagged white shapes around the eye- and mouth-holes, and the red ankh that adorns each cheek (she’s been known to come to the ring with a swastika etched on her forehead, but we’re thankfully safe from that tonight). Her hair is cropped and dyed the colour of the sun’s surface. To put it bluntly, she means business.
As well she might, because there’s a lot on the line tonight. By prior agreement, the loser will have their head shaved. Neither woman keeps their tresses long, so there won’t be much to shear, but that’s not the point; the point is the abjection, the humiliation. Not the fear of experiencing it, but the tantalising prospect of inflicting it. The fear can be left to the audience.
The match itself is nasty, brutish and short. The traditional holds are still there, but leavened with other techniques, as bread can be leavened with arsenic. The black-clad terror beats the crowd’s everywoman from pillar to post, literally, ramming her head into every hard surface she can find. When she isn’t using her clubbing fists or her massive weight advantage to inflict domination, she’s bringing weapons into the fray, ceremoniously handed to her by her seconds like merchants’ wares offered to an ancient queen. She chokes her foe with a chain, cracks her on the top of the head with a metal bin, jabs her in the forehead with scissors, jabs the referee as well when he gets too close. And the everywoman bleeds: not the scanty wound that so alarmed the fans of decades ago that a few of them gave up the ghost, but a full-blown gusher, running past her nose and lips, dribbling into her mouth and staining her teeth and gums as if she’s been chewing paan. It’s such a ghastly orgy of destruction that even the notorious vampire whose teeth tore open the nation’s first wrestling icon would have told the woman in black to tone it down, not that she’d have listened.
Our heroine gets her shots in on occasion, swatting away with whip-fast karate kicks, flipping to her feet out of wristlocks, retaliating with a bin hit of her own, all of it greeted with fervid screams formed of delight mixed with anxiety that the comeback will end as soon as it has begun. Even something as simple as a trip produces a blast of treblish noise so loud that it sounds as though the wrestlers and spectators have been transported into the inner mechanism of a giant hairdryer. But the contest proves one-sided in the end, and before too long the crowd are forced to watch, eyes beginning to moisten, as their idol collapses under the weight of the punishment she has absorbed. They chant her name, three syllables, over and over, as her seconds rush the ring to try and save her, but the punk-cops hold the women back, the referee’s count reaches ten, and that’s all she wrote.
The heels grab the defeated, bloodied wreck by the hair as if to taunt her with the presence of what she’s about to lose, tugging it sharply, pulling some dark strands out by the roots so that she might feel her follicles prickle even after there’s nothing left to plug them. As the leather-clad demon takes the scissors, the same pair that made her opponent bleed, a few sticky red drops still drying on the blades, and begins to hack the hair away in rough clumps, the fans scream and cry until it burns. Every single woman in the arena would take this brave soul’s place if they could, would happily sacrifice every hair on their head, every hair they’ll ever grow, would watch it all float to the slippery, sweat-streaked canvas with a smile on their face, tears drying on their cheeks because their hero doesn’t have to suffer anymore. But they can only look on through the flash floods in their eyes as her seconds cover her head with a tracksuit top and whisk her to the backstage area, away from any that might look upon her shaved head and see the ordinary made extraordinary made ordinary again.
“Why are you so upset? It’s just wrestling,” asks one spectator’s boyfriend when she gets home, and finds himself a single man approximately three minutes later. Sometimes it is just wrestling: when no hair or title or pride is at stake and the wrestlers just go through the motions, and the crowd, after nothing more than a good Friday evening out, respond in kind. But not tonight. Not tonight. Not for the women who believe they can fly.
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