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5 Yrs Ago: Zavisa ranks the top Japanese promotions (part two)

Feb 9, 2003 - 1:26:00 PM
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The following is a reprint of Chris Zavisa's Torch Newsletter column from five years ago this week.

-Jason Powell, Torch assistant editor

* * *

Torch Newsletter Archive
By Chris Zavisa, Torch Columnist
Japan's next five promotions of '97
Originally published: Pro Wrestling Torch Weekly newsletter #477
Cover dated: January 31, 1998


This is the second part of Chris Zavisa's two-part 1997 Japan Wrestling Year-In-Review. In this feature, he runs down the second half of the top ten promotions in Japan in 1997. He also rates the top female wrestlers in Japan in 1997.

THE SECOND TIER PROMOTIONS
#6 - Kingdom: Once upon a time, the UWFI was the premier strong-style promotion in Japan. Greed and mismanagement caused them to sell their soul first to New Japan and then to anyone who could come up with the price. By late last year, star Nobuhiko Takada was even "wrestling" legendary garbage king Abdullah the Butcher. The once proud UWFI was in a pathetic heap.

In May of 1997 the pieces of what used to be the UWFI were carefully reassembled and christened as Kingdom. Most of the names and faces were the same as was the strong style. Crowds have stayed between 2,000 and 4,000 and the promotion seemed content to keep it there for the time-being.

Late in the year Kingdom got a huge boost in publicity when Takada signed to work in the Tokyo Dome PRIDE 1 show against Brazilian fighter Rickson Gracie. Takada and Kingdom bathed in the glow of a spotlight that put their name on the map. Unfortunately on Oct. 11, the match and Takada failed to live up to expectations as Gracie won an easy first round victory. Redemption for Kingdom came on Dec. 21 at Yokohama Arena when Kazushi Sakuraba defeated Marcus Conan Silviera to win the UWF Hvt. "Tournament." Although fellow Kingdom wrestler Yoji Anjoh lost to Tank Abbott on the same card, Anjoh showed he could absorb a hellacious beating taking Abbott to the full 15 minute time limit.

Outlook for 1998: If Kingdom is smart, they will continue at the same pace they pursued for much of last year. They achieved success in mid-sized arenas and should stay there for the time being. They are on a huge roll with the success of Sakuraba in the UFC and should ride that on their early 1998 cards. It will be interesting to see if Takada can accept Sakuraba as the group's cornerstone instead of himself. If Takada can make that transition, at least for a few months, it will help Kingdom continue on solid footing ready to up the stakes in the second half of the year.

#7 - All Japan Women: Before the hate mail comes in, please be reminded that these rankings are based on the entire 12 months period, not where a group finishes on the last day of the year. Where they were in January and April is just as important as where they ended up in December. AJW had 12 of the 17 largest crowds to see women's pro wrestling in 1997. Included in those dozen were the three largest. Unfortunately, by year's end, nobody wanted to discuss the 5,000 who saw the Mar. 23 show or the 4,750 on May 11 or the 6,000 at their August 20 Budokan show.

This will always be remembered as the year that AJW nearly went out of business due to outside mismanagement and poor investments made by the Matsunaga Brothers. Starting with Toshiyo Yamada in mid-year, one wrestler after another left when they were not being paid. By late fall, only eleven wrestlers remained and the Matsunaga's were going to court to seek protection from total bankruptcy. They kept the crown jewel - Manami Toyota - and enough other veterans and rookies to put together the barest of cards. With help from other groups, they managed to stay afloat defying many predictions. They finally hit on a promising youngster in 17 year old Momoe Nakanishi. She has more talent than any new prospect this decade.

Outlook for 1998: This will be a year of change for women's puroresu. With two new groups starting up - Arison under Aja Kong, and Neo-Ladies under Kyoko Inoue, it makes seven that are in competition with each other. That is probably three or four too many for profitability. It is anyone's guess who will be the first to fall by the wayside. AJW will celebrate its 30th year in business and wants to do it with big shows similiar to the DreamSlams of 1993. If they can pull that off, they are definitely back to stay. But the biggest word in English and possible Japanese as well is "If."

#8 - GAEA: The group founded by Chigusa Nagayo took a big chance by offering a contract to AJW veteran Akira Hokuto. The hope was they would create two big-name box office stars who could carry the cards until the younger women matured into those positions. A funny thing happened along the way. Hokuto made very little impact in GAEA and by year's end had separated from the group after only one year. Her workrate in GAEA was decent but not spectacular and Nagayo figured that two older stars with a mediocre workrate was one too many.

For the past two years the hardcore followers of Japanese women's wrestling have had their eyes on the GAEA younger women. It was felt that they Nagayo had the best crop of new talent seen in some time. But 1997 was the year that it all came together for them and the GAEA youngsters stormed onto the rankings as some of the best in the nation. On this year's "Top 25 Workers," they occupy position no. 10 with Meiko Satomura (11/17/79), no. 11 with Sonoko Kato (6/11/76), no. 15 with Sugar Sato (11/29/78) and #17 with Chikayo Nagashima (1/24/76). If this were a Billboard record chart, all would have a bullet indicating that all prospects indicate they will only rise much higher in the future. All four are in a position where they can crack the top ten next year and for years to come.

Nagayo also signed AJW veteran Toshiyo Yamada, a longtime admirer of Nagayo and the Crush Girl history. Yamada performed well and had the advantage of not having the immense pressure placed on her that Hokuto did. One of the original GAEA cast, Kauro, continued to have decent matches with crowd-pleasing highspots thrown in.

Their biggest show of the year, and the only one which significantly deviated from the usual 1,500 to 2,100 crowd, came on Sept. 20 in Kawasaki when they drew a legitimate sellout of 4,300 for the first meeting ever of Nagayo and Aja Kong. Sugar Sato also won the prestigious WCW women's cruiserweight title from Yoshiko Tamura.

Outlook in 1998: GAEA seems to be in the best position of all the women's groups going into the new year. Their base of young talent is superior to anyone else and they are only going to keep getting better. Nagayo seems to possess a level-headed front office mind and is staying away from risky ventures that could pose unnecessary risks to the young promotion. With so many women's groups. it is nearly impossible to get a solid reading on their financial balance sheet. However, if that side of the ledger stays in the black, they are more than satisfactory as far as product goes.

#9 - Michinoku Pro: The northeast-based cruiserweight group had a year that could only be described as having more ups and downs than most roller coasters. Even at year's end it is difficult to accurately gauge just where the group is and what their financial and talent position truly is. Their founder and cornerstone, the Great Sasuke, was plagued by injuries for a good part of the year and while that is nothing new, for the first time it did take a noticeable toll on his ability in the ring. Longtime compatriot Super Delphin, left the group by mid-year only to return with a rebuilt body and questionable attitude. One of the most promising of Michinoku's youngsters, Shiryu, left the promotion altogether and is now competing in Mexico. Taka Michinoku was brought in to the WWF to help get Sasuke over, but in the end it was Sasuke who was sent packing back to Japan while Taka was given a WWF contract through 1998.

Finances were again a continual problem as the group nearly went out of business in early Winter only to be saved from unexpected strong arena revenue outside of its normal territory operations. Their Oct. 10 Sumo Hall show only drew 6,000 and probably failed to make any money. Wrestlers were said to be getting only a hundred dollars a night and barely covering expenses on the road.

The one bright spot was the year-long series of matches with Michinoku's version of the NWO-Kaientai DX. Sasuke carefully divided ten of his best into two warring camps and outside of the New Japan junior division, they produced the best continuous series of matches seen all year. Dick Togo, Men's Teoh, Shoichi Funaki, and Hanzo Nakajima showed that you can be a flashy heel and great worker at the same time. The lesson seemed lost on both New Japan and WCW.

Outlook for 1998: Any promotion that can be doomed or saved by one good month is not on solid financial footing. Michinoku may have been profitable over the last few weeks of the year but that struggle will be a continuous and everyday one. On top of that, the group is taking time off while Sasuke recovers from knee surgery and as the long winter grips northeastern Japan. ECW will benefit from the hiatus with several appearances by the Michinoku crew. Sasuke is attempting to again forge ties with Keichi Yamada and New Japan and if money problems reoccur, that could be where his future lies.

#10 - JWP: In 1996, JWP closed the gap between AJW and itself after running far behind in its shadow for so many years. They seemed poised to make even further gains in 1997 but were unable to do so. The group was hit by retirements, illnesses, and even deaths, denying them several of their better workers. JWP has long been dominated by older veterans Devil Masami, Dynamite Kansai, Mayumi Ozaki, and Cutie Suzuki. They are good for box office and stability and are readily identifiable with the fans. Over the last few years they built up some talented younger workers who were expected to inherit their mantle. But two of their best, Hiroumi Yagi and Candy Okutsu both retired during the year.

On Aug. 16, the event which every wrestler hopes will never happen did happen. Veteran mid-card performer Plum Mariko died after a powerbomb from Mayumi Ozaki. It turned out that it was a long accumulation of head injuries which killed Mariko and not one stiff bump. The death of one of their charter wrestlers, left a void in the heart and soul of the promotion.

In 1996, they elevated Hikari Fukuoka as their champion and this should have been the year of solid box-office as former champion Dynamite Kansai attempted to reclaim her crowd in a long and profitable feud. But Kansai was repeatedly stricken with her own health problems and Fukuoka seemed to flounder as champ without Kansai to anchor her. Even 20 year veteran Devil Masami was sounding off about possibly retiring.

Outlook for 1998: If JWP president Masatoshi Yamamoto can keep JWP intact for one more year, he deserves nomination for businessman of the year. The group seems poised for even more problems as several groups have their eye on Fukuoka and talented youngster Tomoko Kuzumi. If Yamamoto cannot keep both of them, JWP will drop down to the level of J.D. and risk extinction. One of the best women's heels in the business, Mayami Ozaki, has already announced that she is leaving full-time work with the group and will opt for working a part-time independent schedule and a possible marriage.

ZAVISA'S TOP TEN STORIES OF '97
(1) After 29 years in business, the All Japan Women's promotion nearly collapses and loses most of its talent and support staff.

(2) JWP Wrestler Plum Mariko dies on Aug. 16 after accumulated head injuries suffered from her work in the ring over a decade.

(3) A large number of pro wrestlers venture into legitimate shoot fighting and several distinguish themselves.

(4) New Japan does five dome shows continuing their history of money-making events.

(5) Giant Baba reaches out to smaller promotions and borrows mid-card talent adding greatly to his ability to present interesting shows.

(6) Mitsuharu Misawa sets the standard for what a champion should be and establishes himself as the Ric Flair of the 1990's decade.

(7) New Japan pushes Kensuke Sasaki to the moon with nearly every possible title and honor.

(8) Pay-per-view comes to Japan with the PRIDE ONE show.

(9) The small Michinoku promotion presents some of the better men's bouts of the year, but nearly dies with continual financial and talent problems.

(10) Veteran New Japan booker Riki Choshu announces his retirement as a wrestler.

Chris Zavisa of Plymouth, Mich. has been a Torch columnist since March 1991. His columns focus on the Japanese wrestling scene. He has travelled to Japan to cover major wrestling events. His e-mail address is cgnz@online or cz7749@aol.

n TOP JAPANESE CROWDS OF 1997
62,500 (New Japan, Tokyo Dome, Jan. 4)
60,500 (New Japan, Tokyo Dome, Apr. 12)
53,000 (New Japan, Osaka Dome, May 3)
45,000 (FMW, Kawasaki Stadium, Sept. 23)
43,500 (New Japan, Nagoya Dome, Aug. 10)
40,000 (New Japan, Fukuoko Dome, Nov. 2)
18,000 (New Japan, Yokohama, Aug. 31)
16,300 (All Japan, Budokan Hall, Mar. 1)
16,300 (All Japan, Budokan Hall, Apr. 19)
16,300 (All Japan, Budokan Hall, June 6)
16,300 (All Japan, Budokan Hall, July 25)
16,300 (All Japan, Budokan Hall, Sept. 6)
16,300 (All Japan, Budokan Hall, Oct. 21)
16,000 (All Japan, Budokan Hall, Dec. 5)
16,000 (FMW, Yokohama, Apr. 29)
14,000 (New Japan, Budokan Hall, June 5)
12,800 (New Japan, Budokan Hall, Sept. 23)
11,800 (Rings, Budokan, Jan. 22)
11,000 (New Japan, Sumo Hall, Feb. 10)
11,000 (New Japan, Sumo Hall, Mar. 25)
11,000 (New Japan, Sumo Hall, Aug. 2)
11,000 (New Japan, Sumo Hall, Aug. 3)
10,500 (New Japan, Sumo Hall, Aug. 1)
10,000 (New Japan, Sapporo, July 6)
(1996 had two crowds over 60,000, two crowds over 20,000, 24 over 10,000)

n ZAVISA'S TOP 25 FEMALE WORKERS
(1) Manami Toyota (AJW/1 in '96)
(2) Mima Shimoda (AJW/2)
(3) Kauro Itoh (AJW/5)
(4) Hikari Fukuoka (JWP/3)
(5) Aja Kong (AJW/4)
(6) Mayami Ozaki (JWP/20)
(7) Kyoko Inoue (AJW/6)
(8) Tomoko Watanabe (AJW/7)
(9) Tomoko Kuzumi (JWP/NR)
(10) Meiko Satomura (GAEA/NR)
(11) Sonoko Kato (GAEA/NR)
(12) Mariko Yoshida (AJW/18)
(13) Momoe Nakanishi (AJWNR)
(14) Tomoko Miyagushi (JWP/NR)
(15) Sugar Sato (GAEA/NR)
(16) Etsuko Mita (AJW/10)
(17) Chikayo Nagashima (GAEA/23)
(18) Chaparita Asari (AJW/9)
(19) Akira Hokuto (GAEA/NR)
(20) Rie Tamada (AJW/22)
(21) Yumiko Hotta (AJW/11)
(22) Jaguar Yokota (JD/8)
(23) Toshiyo Yamada (GAEA/12)
(24) Takako Inoue (AJW/14)
(25) Shinobu Kandori (LLPW/NR)

Promotional Cumulatives
(25 pts. for #1, 24 pts. for #2, etc.)
#1 All Japan Women: 13 wrestlers for 188 points
(1996: 14 wrestlers, 224 points)

#2 JWP: 4 wrestlers for 71 points
(1996: 7 wrestlers, 65 points)

#3 GAEA: 6 wrestlers for 61 points
(1996: 1 wrestler, 10 points)

#4 JD: 1 wrestler for 4 points
(1996: 2 wrestlers, 23 pts.)

$5 LLPW: 1 wrestler for 1 point
(1996: 1 wrestler, 3 points)


Notes: Dropoffs from 1996: Jaguar Yokota (#8), Candy Okutsu (#13), Hiroui Yagi (#15), Kauro (#16), Dynamite Kansai (#17), Reggie Bennett (#19), Lioness Aska (#21), Fusayo Nouchi (#24), Devil Masami (#25) The highest new addition is Tomoko Kuzumi at number #9, followed by Meiko Satomura from GAEA and Sonoko Kato, also from GAWA at nos. 10 and 11 respectively.


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