Any true fan of Women’s wrestling will tell you that if you want to see matches that encompass every thing that is great about the genre you won’t find them on WWE shows. For something like the magnificent, feel good match that was Bayley vs Sasha Banks last week you watch NXT. If one match a week isn’t enough you have to seek out Shimmer or Shine DVDs.
In the 90’s when I was a young wrestling fan you had to look away from America completely, as Japan was the only place I knew of that was producing women’s wrestling of anything resembling quality. Fortunately like any other wrestling coming out of Japan that quality was beyond spectacular. Japanese women’s wrestling of the late 80’s and early to mid 90’s wasn’t just the best women’s wrestling in the world, it was amongst the best wrestling of any kind.
Like many fans my introduction to what would become my favourite genre and era of wrestling was through bootleg copies of Dreamslam I and II (Yes bootleg, in those days you had to pirate shows if you were a wrestling fan), two 1993 shows promoted by All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling and featuring stars from the other major promotions such as LLPW, FMW and EMLL. These two nights of cross promotional dream matches are amongst the greatest shows of all time and blew my mind for their speed, high flying and just all round intense, non stop hard hitting action in matches that drew a milky way worth of stars in match rating reports.
Through this embarrassment of riches one match was to stand out as a testament to the perfect five star wrestling match.
Shinobu Kandori vs Akira Hokuto has a subtle background story that is rooted in drama and reality and would be drawn upon heavily in the match to make it one of the most compelling contests of all time.
LLPW’s Kandori came into the match with a background in Judo having won Gold medals in the Japanese championships three years in a row and a Bronze in the World Championships. Her legit background easily enabled her the with shooter persona arming her with dangerous submission skills that could tear apart an opponents limbs.
This played perfectly with her opponent Hokuto who had suffered many career threatening injuries gaining her the nickname The Mummy for the amount of time she spent in bandages.
Remember when HHH tore his quad and everyone made such a big deal about how he finished the match and was considered so incredible a feat that U2 wrote a song about it? Well fuck that, because Akira Hokuto broke her neck, yes her neck, and finished her match. Oh but we’re not talking about getting up and simply going straight to the finish. This was the first fall in a three fall match!!!! Yes she worked two falls with a broken neck and had to hold her head in place as she did it. The genius that wrote her Wikipedia page states “This gained Hokuto a reputation for toughness!” YOU DON’T FUCKING SAY!!!!!!
All the elements of a big fight aura were evident here, with the interpromotional angle, the Shooter vs Wrestler vibe and the story of the heavily damaged body of Hokuto having to defend against a dangerous submission artist like Kandori and you have all the elements for an intriguing, heated contest. Throw in a pull apart between the two at a press conference where all the other wrestlers were respectful and you even have the personal grudge element. It became the showcase match of a loaded show and the anticipation for this was electric.
Knowing this build maybe crucial to the understanding of the story of the match and fully appreciating the drama. But even for fans coming into this show cold of any Joshi knowledge this remains a match an incredible experience.
It’s a match that immediately grips fans right from the opening moments as Akira drops Kandori with one stiff elbow that sends her sinking to the canvas as if she’s nearly knocked out. Kandori responds after a brief exchange of blows by going after Hokuto’s arm and threatening to rip it from her shoulder. Hokuto sells this like a wild woman, screaming like a banshee in pain and every inch of her body thrashing frantically as she scrambles to make the ropes. For the next few minutes Hokuto sells her shoulder outside the ring shrieking in agony and setting up the match as from this point on every time Kandori goes for a hold, be it the leg, arm or head the crowd erupts with a roar.
The match is a war, both women going after each other with an intensity that screams hatred. The kicks and blows, Kandori’s work on Hokuto’s limbs all look frighteningly authentic, in no small part due to Akira’s selling and scrambling to defend herself. As intense as this action is the match goes over the edge when the fight goes to the outside and Akira is piledriven onto the announcing table. The building is filled with a shared gasp from the audience as the camera pans over a hole in the table from the impact of Hokuto’s head. This is nothing though compared to the sight of Hokuto as she emerges, dazed and her face covered with a thick mask of blood.
Kandori will soon be cut as well and what follows is some of the most intense and emotionally draining action you will see in a worked wrestling match.
Five minutes in you get the impression you’re going to be watching something special. Fifteen minutes in and you know you’re watching a classic.
There is not a single move or action in this match which is in anyway wasted. Every single blow is stiff and seemingly inflicting damage on a knockout level. Every attempted hold is fought over and defended frantically as if the wrestler’s lives and breath depends on it.
When moves come they’re not crisp and elegant, they’re rough and fought over. You’re not watching two women working together to put on a show, you’re drawn into thinking that this is a fight that every single clawing, desperate action is made to help win.
The psychology is incredible. Every move serves a purpose, draining and damaging the opponent a little more each time and when the advantage switches back and forth there are no powered up, second wind, superwoman recoveries, instead each comeback becomes more laboured and fatigued as the match goes on.
After thirty astounding minutes the wrestlers are wearily picking themselves up from a blood stained canvas, reduced to throwing single blows until both connect at the same time and Akira is the one with just enough awareness to make the cover, Kandori kicking but without the strength to break the pin. It’s a finish which divides opinion with some calling it an anti climax for a match to finish due to a punch after so much damage has been delivered. But I think this misses the point of the story. At the end, neither wrestler can barely summon the strength to stand and it’s only through sheer determination they can muster any offensive move at all, a punch is pretty much all they can manage. In the end one wrestler won’t be able to go on, exhaustion has played it’s part in the conclusion of the match as deadly as any high impact finishing move could.
I watched this match again for this article and it seems even greater today to me as it did back then (perhaps because I don’t watch much wrestling outside of WWE). In many ways with armbars almost becoming synonymous with women’s MMA the match could probably work with today’s audiences even better.
There are matches that are built on relentlessly faster paced action, with more blindingly quick reversals and bigger more spectacularly, breathtaking moves. However for building a story of a match and drawing you into the drama Akira Hokuto vs Shinobu Kandori simply cannot be beaten.
The two would clash again at Dreamslam II just over a week later in a tagmatch where Kandori would beat Hokuto by submission. A final match was arranged for December of 1993 where Kandori would win an encounter which while not as good as the first match was still great and had an emotional climax. While Akira begins to take an absolute beating in the ring, outside her camp made up her fellow AJW wrestlers watch with tears running down their faces. The sight of Aja Kong of all people distressed and crying is a sight that conveys the emotional importance of the match.
A third match never came and the only time the two would share a ring would be as reluctant partners in a blistering match with Aja Kong and Bull Nakano (a match voted for by fans).
Kandori would carry on wrestling though dividing her time with MMA. However she’d never feature in any matches or feuds that came anyway near her issues with Hokuto. She would retire from the ring in 2004 and transition into politics where she took a seat in the Japanese government.
Akira Hokuto would wrestle for almost another ten years and in that time built up a resume of four star matches that would be the envy of any wrestler’s career. She moved from JPW to Chigusa Nagayo’s GAEA promotion and even had a few matches in WCW where she provided pretty much the only women’s wrestling of any note to appear there.
She retired from the ring in 2002 to a family life with husband and fellow legend Kensuke Sasaki. As befits any legend she was given a moving farewell ceremony and the final image of her walking from the stage for the last time with Sasaki and their young son is a wonderful image.
If you’re a fan of women’s wrestling you should watch this match.
If you’re a fan of wrestling but not women’s wrestling then you really should watch this match.
It just really is that good.