We here at Deadspin have spilled a lot of digital ink on the genesis of All Elite Wrestling, especially considering that the startup wrestling promotion has yet to produce any actual wrestling to date. That will change on Saturday, when the company airs its debut show, Double or Nothing, from Las Vegas. There’s a reason why wrestling fans been so excited for AEW, and the wrestling is only part of it. The arrival of the promotion marks a new era in American professional wrestling, one in which WWE will finally have to coexist with a second-tier promotion backed by real money, reportedly invested owners, and some of the biggest names outside of WWE.
How that all works out after Double or Nothing is not something I will pretend to know at this point, but I would like to put you up on a fascinating curiosity of a match somewhere on that event’s mid-card. That would be the six-woman tag match featuring Aja Kong, Yuka Sakazaki, and Emi Sakura facing off against Hikaru Shida, Riho, Ryo Mizunami, all of whom will be fighting in the style of women’s wrestling that peaked in Japan almost thirty years ago. It should be fun on its own merits, but it’s significant because it will introduce—or re-introduce, depending on your wrestling literacy—joshi puroresu wrestling to a more mainstream American audience.
First, some definitions. Puroresu wrestling is Japan’s premier wrestling style, characterized by “strong style” striking—essentially, wrestlers pull their punches less in Japan than they do in, say, WWE, which lends the whole endeavor a more realistic fight feel—and storylines that tend to be less ridiculously theatrical than American pro wrestling. By extension of that, joshi puroresu (joshi for short) is the women’s version of that style, as Japanese promotions do not (usually) feature both men’s and women’s matches.
Joshi is most closely associated with All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling, a promotion that ran from 1968 all the way until 2005. That promotion’s golden era stretched across the late 1980s and early ’90s, when such luminaries as Bull Nakano, Lioness Asuka (after whom current WWE wrestler Asuka is named), and the GOAT of joshi, Manami Toyota, were all at or near their respective peaks. Aja Kong, who will be on the Double or Nothing card, was there, too. She is a legend of joshi, and the true headliner of Saturday’s six-woman tag. Here’s a 1995 match between Kong and Toyota that is hailed as one of the best (and most brutal) women’s matches of all time:
(Kong was also in WWF for a very brief stint later that year, as the company was building her up to be a challenger for Alundra Blayze’s women’s title, but that went up in flames after Blayze jumped ship to WCW and, in an instantly infamous moment, threw the WWF title in the damn trash on WCW’s flagship show, Nitro.)
Kong’s inclusion in this six-woman match is not a coincidence; as reported by Dave Meltzer, the match was pitched by AEW top dog Kenny Omega as a showcase for this particular brand of women’s wrestling, which is often more brutal and intense than the stuff seen even in joshi-friendly American indie promotions like Shimmer and Shine. “One of the AEW battle plans is that use Japanese women like WCW used the Mexican wrestlers and cruiserweights, as a style unique to them,” Meltzer wrote in his newsletter. “Kong, who is 48, is a Hall of Famer and one of the biggest stars of the early 90s All Japan Women hot period.”
The prospect of AEW using joshi as a sort of analogue for cruiserweight bouts bodes well for how both this match and subsequent storylines will shape up in the new promotion. WCW gave the cruiserweights of the late 1990s the freedom to steal the show every single night, and they often did; some of the best light heavyweights ever came through the promotion during those years, including Eddie Guerrero, Rey Mysterio Jr., Dean Malenko, and Chris Jericho. Relative to the scene, none of those, bar maybe Jericho (who is also in AEW), have the sort of iconic status and name recognition that Kong does in joshi.
Let’s make one thing clear from the get-go: this match will likely not be amazing. The bigger-name competitors in it are past their prime—Kong is 48, Sakura is 42—and the others, while surely talented, are relative unknowns in the states. A six-woman tag match will likely not be the venue for either those young wrestlers or the match’s two legends to springboard into wrestling fame among fans that do not know them. That’s okay! If Meltzer’s report is to believed—and knowing how obsessed with and reverential to Japanese culture Omega is—I would venture that Meltzer is on the money about how AEW plans to use the Japanese women. This could well be the start of a new style of women’s wrestling in the United States.
Though she won’t be at Double or Nothing (as she retired in 2017), Toyota is the best gateway wrestler for understanding and appreciating joshi. Her AJW match with Kyoko Inoue in 1992 is another contender for the title of “best women’s match ever,” featuring moves that at the time were revolutionary. Beyond that, the pacing and structure of the match were both expertly-crafted, giving audience members just enough time to breathe before the next powerful strike, or brutal-looking submission.
There were things in this match that weren’t done as frequently as they are now, and they were being done crisply 37 years ago: The Toyota dropkick that sends Inoue crashing to the outside around 18:05 in the video below, or the giant swing employed by Inoue about 24 minutes in. The final move of the match was a perfect climax to this nearly 30-minute epic: what would eventually be known as the Japanese Ocean suplex, an elevated German that dropped poor Inoue right on her neck and head. It’s the style of move that best represents joshi: wholly unique and viscerally painful.
Most independent men’s wrestling in America takes its cues from three places: WWE, Ring of Honor, and New Japan Pro Wrestling. WWE’s is a methodical style, focusing on big moves and melodrama. Ring of Honor has traditionally been the Wrestling Fan’s Wrestling Promotion, in large part because they’ve historically put match quality above everything else, occasionally to an unhelpful degree; ROH is infamous for amping up finisher kickouts to heighten drama well beyond reason. NJPW is the current gold standard; their matches balance believable structures and outlandish feats of athleticism, with pacing that can’t be matched by any other promotion.
Women’s wrestling in the United States has generally hewed to the WWE and ROH styles, and has put a priority on eliciting “holy shit” chants and Internet chatter over coherent and realistic presentation. Joshi takes its cues from the same style guide as NJPW, though, and given how that men’s style has gotten over in recent years, it’s about time that a big promotion tried out pure joshi wrestling on its shows.
WWE’s women’s division has been improving over the last half-decade, albeit slowly and with plentiful false starts. Ring of Honor’s Women of Honor division has been something of a disaster of late; during ROH’s big Madison Square Garden show over WrestleMania weekend, the promotion’s joshi-style champion Mayu Iwatani lost her belt to the very green, very American Kelly Klein in a match deemed one of, if not the, worst on the card. Both divisions are way better than anything that’s come before in the wrestling mainstream, but the cracks reliably show.
The joshi tag match is getting pushed hard before Double or Nothing, and the most important wrestler in the company is its biggest advocate, all of which suggests that AEW is committed to making all this work. The promotion will have everything required, starting with a weekly show on TNT, to make these women and this style easily accessible for anyone whose interest is piqued at Double or Nothing. It’s a big swing, because joshi really is something new for American audiences, but at the same time there are few styles on earth with longer or better track records. A style of wrestling that has been massively influential for decades might just finally be getting a home on American cable television feels. It’s been a long time coming, but it feels right.