Matches That Defined 2017: Best Friends v Ora Ora

Arisa Nakajima & Tsukasa Fujimoto v Maruko Nagasaki & Mio Momono

1st Round Tournament Match For the Vacant International Ribbon Tag Team Championship

Ice Ribbon Yokohama Ribbon 2017 ‘Autumn’

23rd September 2017

The match:

The International Ribbon Tag Team Championship is vacant for reasons we’ll get into below, so we’re having a little tournament to crown a new top team. Veterans Arisa Nakajima and Tsukasa Fujimoto have been drawn in the first round against young upstarts Mio Momono (from Chigusa Nagayo’s Marvellous dojo) and Maruko Nagasaki (Fujimoto’s own trainee here in Ice Ribbon). The two are making one of their first tag team appearances under the Ora Ora moniker; “ora ora” is apparently what you say in Japanese when you’re beating someone up, meaning that these two fluorescent-jumpsuited rookies are effectively, and incongruously, named Take That.

This one begins fast: the overconfident rookies slap away attempted handshakes and then ambush Best Friends, whipping them into opposite corners of the ring and hitting dropkick after dropkick after dropkick. Nagasaki & Momono are in control and start hotdogging to the crowd, showing off a fancy hand gesture they’ve come up with. Best Friends seize this opening to even the score and thus begins a protracted beatdown on Momono, including a nasty-looking Liontamer-type submission from Fujimoto and some finger-work that greatly upsets commentator Hara Ai.

Ora Ora get a brief comeback through the ingenious tactic of clapping loudly in their opponent’s faces and capitalising on the confusion with a quick roll-up; a little while later the rookies break into one of the “high-speed” sequences that they’ve picked up a knack for over in SEAdLINNNG, bamboozling Fujimoto by running hither and thither before one of them eventually floors her with a dropkick (for the record, this match is approximately 75% dropkick).

The action is pretty consistently frantic, occasionally crystallising into cool little vignettes. Best Friends apply stereo Manji-Gatame holds to Momono and Nagasaki, riffing on the fact that the rookies use Manji symbols as part of the visual identity of their team (the Manji symbol looks almost exactly like a swastika and I don’t know how exactly to address that right now so let’s move on). There’s a delightful sequence which begins with Nakajima picking up Momono in a wheelbarrow position and lifting her for a German suplex, only for Momono to wriggle free, duck a clothesline and slap Nakajima right in the back of the head. This irritates Nakajima, who attempts another clothesline, only for the same thing to happen again. On a roll, Momono avoids Nakajima’s fury for a third time, stamping on her feet and landing one last big head-slap. But pride comes before a fall: when Momono fires up and hits the ropes Nakajima reverses her momentum into a beautiful Cutie Special, following it up with a bunch of slaps of her own.

The moves get bigger and the near-falls more believable around the ten minute mark. Nakajima hits a couple of top rope double foot-stomps just to mess with us. Fujimoto keeps on trying to set up for a Japanese Ocean Cyclone Suplex. Nagasaki gets a couple of very close two counts off a special diving single-leg roll-up technique that I don’t know the name of and that she may well have invented. With seconds left on the clock, Nagasaki misses a corkscrew senton and Fujimoto hits her Venus Shoot enziguiri before hoisting her trainee up for the Japanese Ocean Cyclone Suplex, only to run out of time before she can get the three count.

The match is ruled as a draw, with both teams eliminated from the tag title tournament. Momono and Nakajima continue fighting after the bell and have to be separated by about five members of the Ice Ribbon locker room; the plucky little upstart later goes on to challenge both Fujimoto and Nakajima to a triple threat match for Fujimoto’s Triangle Championship, while Nagasaki is rewarded for her efforts with a title shot against company ace Risa Sera.

How it defined 2017:

While not a massive landmark in and of itself, this match represents a coming-together of a bunch of cool and not-so-cool things that were happening on the further shores of women’s wrestling (at least from a Western perspective) throughout the year. Best Friends put on sterling tag match after sterling tag match in Ice Ribbon, SEAdLINNNG and WAVE, pausing briefly for an absolute barnburner of a grudge match against one another at Ice Ribbon’s March Korakuen Hall show. Their three-part series against Avid Rival (Misaki Ohata & Ryo Mizunami), with one match taking place in each of the promotions listed above, particularly stands out as one of the high spots of all of joshi in 2017.

Individually, Nakajima had an OK year, with strong singles showings against Nanae Takahashi, Hiroyo Matsumoto and La Rosa Negra. Fujimoto, meanwhile, finished 2017 at the very centre of the joshi radar after she was hand-picked to be Manami Toyota’s final opponent on her retirement show in November. After wrestling over fifty opponents from puroresu’s past and present, Toyota’s final in-ring gesture was to appoint Fujimoto as her successor and gift her the Japanese Ocean Cyclone Suplex. No one else – not Asuka, not Mayu Iwatani, not Roman Reigns, not Kazuchika Okada – can say they received this honour in 2017.

Momono and Nagasaki, meanwhile, have over the course of the year emerged as two of most polished and charismatic talents from their current crop of rookies, even as Stardom signees like Hana Kimura and Tam Nakano have tended to claim more of the limelight. The two have frequently featured and faced off in matches for SEAdLINNNG’s stupidly enjoyable High-Speed division, where pin attempts only count if you’ve run the ropes a couple of times first. In Ice Ribbon, Nagasaki has often been the glue holding together multi-person matches drawing on the company’s very young roster; while Momono, who normally wears a classic rookie singlet as a marker of her inexperience, has recently been perfecting her “precocious little brat getting in way over her head” gimmick in Sendai Girls and elsewhere.

One way or another, all four of the competitors in this match have been somewhere near the top of my own personal must-watch pile throughout the year and have made me repeatedly thankful for the existence of the Real Hero Archive, a service which is only just over a year old but which has already transformed the way that non-Japanese viewers consume puroresu.

Which brings us on to the bad news, the whole reason this match was taking place in the first place, those vacated tag belts. In late July, Dave Meltzer broke the news that 19 year-old Ice Ribbon veteran Tsukushi had been arrested for an attempted stabbing on Kagetsu. He shouldn’t have – Japanese law maintains that names be kept anonymous in criminal cases involving minors – but his sources were correct, as confirmed by an official announcement made after Tsukushi’s 20th birthday. Tsukushi was eventually brought back into the Ice Ribbon fold (they had very little choice in taking responsibility for her rehabilitation, given Tsukushi has worked for the company since the age of 12) but was demoted to a non-wrestler role, with limited public appearances. The tag belts she held with Hiragi Kurumi were vacated, hence this match.

It would be remiss to talk about the year in joshi without mentioning this incident – not least since it represented one of the rare occasions that Meltzer’s reporting on joshi strayed beyond Stardom, but also because it served as a reminder of the psychological pressures that must lurk in the halls of puroresu around every corner, and how little we as fans know of them. Just as you can’t tell the story of Stardom without mentioning Yoshiko shooting on Act Yasukawa, this event will forever represent a weird glitch in Ice Ribbon’s exceptionally cheerful demeanour, giving us yet another insight into the darker side of this business. And while it might not be remembered for quite as long, Best Friends v Ora Ora is intimately bound up with this incident, serving as one of the company’s best shots at bouncing back and keeping that light-hearted reputation alive.

My thoughts:

I think it worked. Given the loss of one of their key players in such odd and upsetting circumstances, Ice Ribbon have had a great last quarter in 2017, with this match providing one of the stand-out highlights. In more general terms, your enjoyment of this match will depend on – or provide a handy barometer of – your tolerance for the style of wrestling that’s currently prevalent across a lot of the joshi landscape, consisting for the most part of very small women, sometimes with relatively limited (if hard-hitting and crisp) offence, going very fast. While frantic action is given the priority over ring psychology here, all four women still manage to stuff their performances with bags of character, and 2017 – the year of #CCK and LIJ, British Strong Style and Oedo Tai – has shown that character is key when the general standard of wrestling is so high. With companies like Ice Ribbon and SEAdLINNNG now easier than ever to follow, I hope that more and more of the puro-viewing public will cotton on to what each of these four women have to offer in 2018.

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