Joshi Spotlight: AJW Grand Prix (Part One)


-AJW, much like All Japan & New Japan, has a yearly thing where their top stars wrestle in a Round Robin-style deal. In this case, as with most years (others have been one-block round-robins or a standard tournament), it’s two “Blocks” of wrestlers doing so, with the winner of each block wrestling in the final match. Most of the matches weren’t televised or taped from what I can see. But these shows are a BIG DEAL in AJW, as we’ll see- every time I’ve seen a Grand Prix VHS release, it’s been absolutely stuffed with ****+ dream matches and people working their hardest- this is no “House Show Mode” release.

“TL;DR- Why Should I Watch This?”: Spoiler Alert- this ends with four matches in a row at **** or above, and one all-time classic. Also, Debbie Malenko talks with one of the commentators in English, giving us insight into early ’90s Puro we’d NEVER get otherwise.

GOKUMON-TO (Bat Yoshinaga & Tomoko Watanabe) vs. SAEMI NUMATA & AKEMI TORISU:
* It’s up & comers versus rookies, meaning the latter team is going to get crushed. Numata is the future comedy Numacchi, while Torisu is a dumpy-looking girl with heelish eye makeup- both washed out very quickly by the standards of their contemporaries on all these shows. Numata’s in a blue & red checkerboard singlet, while Torisu’s in yellow & black. Gokumon-To here consists of the two juniors in Bull Nakano’s stable, with Tomoko being the weakest of the Class of ’89 rookise, while Bat had legit martial arts skills but was very limited in the ring. They’re both in white pants, with black tops that say “ellesse” in grey print, and Tomoko is VERY skinny compared to what she’d look like even by the end of the year.

It’s kept basic as hell, with Bat in particular being kinda uncoordinated, and everyone else keeping it simple. Torisu bites Tomoko’s limbs during stretching, but Tomoko hits her Slingshot move on Numata soon as she comes in, and Bat kicks Numata around and uses THE CLAW. After way too long a heat sequence on Numata, she gets fired up and does Fast Rookie Offense to come back, then Torisu spams out weak shoulderblocks until Bat kills her with Spinkick Spam (one of which wowed the fans) and they clubber her (all four hands! It’s a full-bore clubbering! I haven’t seen that in Joshi yet!). This is going on WAY too long- offense on TORISU, now, and Tomoko hits both rookies with her Slingshot and Bat nails a Missile Dropkick on Torisu for two. Stereo Elbowdrops miss and a Flying Splash gets two on Numata. Doomsday Device Thesz Press gets broken up so fast I think it was a fuck-up, so Tomoko improvises a Jackhammer to finish at (13:20).

Rating: *1/4 (UGH- if it was 5:00 it’d be ** easy, but they had only enough offense for that, then dragged it out repeatedly to give the people experience. Just way too much running attack/stretch/kicking nonsense)

* LOL Minami looks like she’s a thousand feet tall- absolutely towering over Tamada (a REALLY rookie-level girl at this point) and Moreno (again, an import from Mexico to help give us some Lucha-style). Minami’s in a black leotard, Tamada’s in red (and has really short hair at this point), and Moreno’s in black. Hotta is actually Minami’s regular partner, but they’re split up here- she’s got Ito (another Class of ’89 grad) and Kamiya, who appears on these early shows sometimes- she’s an old vet from Aja Kong’s class, and retired & came back as “Cooga” much later. Kamiya’s in green & black, Ito’s in white & yellow, and Hotta’s in white & blue.

Ito tries to start shit with Minami, who’s like “the FUCK do you think I am?” and schools her. Kamiya beats on Baby Rie with knees and Moreno does some flips to show off. Minami & Hotta get in there to a big crowd pop, Minami taking two Overthrow Powerbombs before firing back and tagging out to Moreno, who tries some flips again, but gets killed with a lariat. Yeah, I wouldn’t be trying the super-fake stuff with Hotta. Moreno gets a rana, but then everyone does very basic stuff for a few minutes (Hotta pulling Tamada up from a flying back elbow smash) until Minami does tilt-a-whirl & double-arm backbreakers to Ito. Kamiya blasts Moreno with a Flying Knee Smash, Minami does some stuff and has to tag out, and then Moreno does a Complicated Springboard Armdrag to Kamiya & Ito. Minami misses the Flying Senton and takes Ito’s Flying Double-Foot Stomp. Spinning Heel Kick gets two for Hotta, then a front-superplex and a FLYING Heel Kick gets the same count. Minami looks screwed, but reverses a Superplex and then she holds down Hotta off a Powerbomb… for the three (13:05)!!

Well shit- I did NOT expect Hotta, always in the upper-tiers, to be taking the fall here, especially after so little damage was done. It came off as more of a fluke than anything. And wow, check Minami wrestling for her entire team here- she was in the ring almost the whole match. The action was good, but it was so quick-paced and with fairly little being done to any wrestler that it came off as more of an exhibition.

Rating: **1/2 (perfectly fine midcard match)

Debbie Malenko, who features VERY heavily in 1992 AJW shows, and provides English commentary for much of this set.

* WEIRD- it’s the future LCO, each working with a polite, smiling foreigner- Debbie had been around for a while at this point, but Terri was brand-new- her pro bodybuilder physique (WAY bigger than her WWF physique as “Tori”) must have been a HUGE eye-opener for Japanese audiences, who were used to big chicks (Monster Ripper/Rhonda Singh) or tall, athletic types (Madusa). Mita’s tremendous height now looks “normal” because Terri’s the same height she is, too. And yeah, Mita’s back to her regular name, dropping “MITA” already, thank goodness. Her hair’s also dyed that weird blonde/red that Japanese hair tends to look when bleached the first time. Terri’s in a black leotard with cut-outs, and Mita’s in a similar outfit but blue (and her leg is taped up heavily). Shimoda’s got pink & black on her leotard, while Debbie’s in her usual “TV Static” Rick Steiner gear. Oddly, the gaijin get the best reaction here.

The gaijin start, with Terri looking dangerously incompetent out there- especially since Debbie’s trying a lot of fancy technical shit like a flying headscissors. Terri comes back with power stuff, moving stiffly all the while, and Mita finally adopts her “final form” by screaming madly while scrapping hard and biting away. Five minutes of torture leads to Shimoda finally coming in with her falling clotheslines. Terri draws a BIG reaction by skinning the cat and headscissoring Debbie out, and then Mita starts throwing chairs at her opponents! Big delayed suplex from Mita to Shimoda gets a weak reaction, which is weird. Debbie Ace Crushers Mita, and then Terri uses a frickin’ FRANKENSTEINER, which is bonkers. Who knew she could do THAT? Debbie interferes with a big flying elbow smash, but Mita hits a couple of Electric Chair Drops until a flying lariat from her partner nails her. Mita then hits TERRI by mistake, and takes an Ace Crusher, but they fuck up Debbie’s Super Belly-To-Belly (Mita was leaning too far back when Debbie stood on the top rope, and wasn’t ready with her other foot yet)- Mita’s hung up on the ropes, so they slickly act like her leg is hurt, and Debbie slaps on the STF for the submission win (14:53). Very weird how they’d have their muscular foreigner and newly-altered LCO Mita job so early to lower-tier acts, but Mita’s got a leg injury that Debbie confesses hurt their chances.

More interesting than great, with everyone a tad inexperienced to be overly-good out there. Terri had a few good moves, but was too stiff in her other movements (sort of like a Bull Buchanan- only good at a couple things), and I noticed they had her work almost exclusively with Debbie. Mita between this show and the last one is like night and day, though- she’s now more confident, swaggering, and vicious. THIS is the “LCO” Mita. That said, the match kind of meandered without as much of a point and then just kind of had an ending out of nowhere without a big “finishing series”, so it’s merely okay.

Rating: **1/2 (okay enough, and even the botched ending doesn’t hurt it so bad, since they sold it to lead to the new finish)

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Yoshida in her “veteran years” as a swoll grappler. She’s a shockingly-good Junior-style wrestler in 1992.

* Yoshida & Hasegawa are on similar tiers, both being rookies who have shown the most promise in the ring, with Sakie being younger, and they’ve had a big rivalry so far. This is thus likely a showcase for both, and one of the biggest singles matches of their lives. Both are in their usual ’92 gear- Yoshida in pastel blue with shoulder pads, and Sakie in her white singlet with black. The crowd is DECISIVELY pro-Yoshida, who has a much flashier style, and they don’t let up all match.

It’s the “Joshi Sprint” to start, then some limbwork as they feel each other out. Cartwheel Elbow and Butterfly Suplex get the first two-count of the match for Yoshida, but they keep grabbing at each other’s legs in some nice “filler”- they’re not just lying around. Sakie cranks her with a Savate Kick and Butterfly Suplex of her own, and works the arm for a few minutes, as they’re clearly working for a long bout tonight. Butterfly Suplex gets two, and Yoshida misses a dive and eats two Savate Kicks. Another dive attempt, but this time Yoshida’s wise to Sakie’s dodging and fakes a leap, then nails her- nice bit. Sakie eats a Run-Up Missile Dropkick and a Perfect Plex for two, frustrating Sakie. Nice bunch of reversals, as Sakie rolls under, Yoshida cartwheels aside, and then Sakie just boots her in the back of the head when she tries another Cartwheel Elbow. Three Savate Kicks, and a huge one off the 2nd rope RIGHT to the face gets two! Backdrop suplex onto to the back of the head gets a big two-count as well. Twisting Belly-To-Belly gets two and the crowd’s been begging for a Yoshida comeback for a while.

Sakie so she goes back to the arm, after another Butterfly Suplex doesn’t work, and Sakie just boots her outside after a botch and hits a plancha, wowing the crowd anyhow! Sakie’s finally tired enough that Yoshida can reverse on her and Toyota-style Dropkick Spam does well, then Yoshida locks on stretching and NOW it’s clear they’re wrestling for thirty. Sakie’s in agony from a Figure-Four, but reverses a monkey flip to a Superplex for the closest two-count yet. Second-Rope Savate Kick! Another one! Perfect Plex gets two, and she’s outta ideas and goes for a regular elbowdrop. Yoshida reverses a whip to the Run-Up Cross-Body… but Sakie ROLLS THROUGH for another close call! All she can do is more Savate Kicks, but the second one misses, and then Yoshida’s second DROPKICK misses, and Sakie hits mat on a Flying Cross-Body and Yoshida hits knees on her Flying Splash! Dangerous Backdrop Driver gets 2.9 for poor Sakie, who’s just defeated now. Their signature strikes are so weak they can’t even knock each other down, and stereo dropkicks result in a double-KO spot. Some weak pins and Sakie’s German all get 2, but she’s so beat that Yoshida easily hits one of her own for two. One minute left, and she hits her Run-Up Flying Splash… for two! Sakie manages a weak rollup, and Yoshida misses a flying move and Sakie covers… just as time expires (30:00).

A VERY nice rookie match- miraculously so given the combined experience here- 7 years combined, and they went out there and filled THIRTY MINUTES without ever looking like they were totally doing Restmissions or wasting time, and it was good the entire way through! Of course you have to work a bit light for these time limit draws, but they did it well, waiting until after a dive, or mostly doing the submissions early on. Their frustration over their hard work not earning them falls was great- very rookie-ish. The story was well-told- both were very closely-matched, but neither had the power to actually finish, so instead they had to hope for the best on fighting spirit alone. Sakie really “sold” the exhaustion well, looking like a sloppy mess by the end of it, while Yoshida apparently has that Toyota/Cena thing where she’s never tired- it worked in the match’s favor, as Sakie’s just whipping out whatever she can with this flaily kind of “UGHHH!” desperation. And that last few minutes was the good kind of “Sloppy Sprint”, as they were too bagged to do substantial moves, and Sakie had dominated for so long that Yoshida’s comeback couldn’t put her down.

Rating: ****1/4 (I’m a sucker for this kind of match- truly great example of Rookie Offense with a few signature moves being spread across 30 minutes and not having it blow)

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Kimura wrestles her last match in ages on this show.

* Another Grand Prix match, this one featuring Jungle Jack wrestling each other- somehow, I don’t think this match will be much like the last one. This is actually Bison’s final match before her temporary retirement, which came a few months after this. Aja’s in black & white gear, while Bison’s in neon yellow & black, with little bull-heads all over her one-legged singlet. Debbie Malenko is doing commentary, and one of the commentators can sort of communicate with her. This actually gets a bit distracting, given how I normally watch puro, lol.

The slap the begeezus out of each other to start, Aja hitting a body attack and elbows & biting, but Bison hits a screaming Bison Chop. Aja starts no-selling and hits a big headbutt that draws blood, then works on the brutal cut while the Japanese commentator points out, in English, that “they show respect- they work, like, real stiff. That’s the way they are, I guess”. Aja bludgeons Bison to death with chairs on the outside, but Bison comes right back with some shots of her own, as this gets REALLY violent. Aja uses one of those big metal things (poster-boards?) to really rub it in, then waits Bison out before hitting a Piledriver, but can’t follow up. Debbie puts over Aja very well (“you might look at her and be thinking she’s powerful but not too bright a person, but she’s ring-smart”) while Aja plants some kicks right to the mush- ah, this is why she wore white pants today.

Bison finally fires back with Bison Chops, then dumps Aja and wipes her out with chairs, too, then a ton more Chops (some hitting REALLY hard- enough to be audible on this shitty tape transfer), a bridging suplex and a German all get two, but Aja landed on Bison’s head with that suplex, so she just takes over again- Debbie points out how dangerous suplexes are with a heavy person for that reason. They reverse each other’s running attacks before Bison SWATS Aja out of a second jumping shoulderblock, then scores a Flying Headbutt for two. Flying Chop is reversed to a BRUTAL kick to the chest, then a pair of armbars and a Mountain Bomb nearly do Bison in, but she Chops Aja off the top- a followup is countered and she’s finally hit with the Uraken backfist. That sets up the finish, as Aja crushes her with a Chokeslam and then ends it with a final Cross-Armbreaker (16:50). Aja draws boos for being way late in breaking the hold, like the spirit of competition overwhelmed her and she tried to break her friend- they make up after the fact, Aja hugging Bison and screaming encouragement.

This was an absolute, violent WAR, and it was awesome. Bison always had the most limited offense in Joshi, but here it was paid off as the match was a complete brawl, with the vast majority of the offense being “hit the opponent with the stiffest shot you possibly can”. Yet despite that, there was actual PSYCHOLOGY- Aja kept working the cut, then the arm, and they countered each other with the “know each other’s moves” stuff- this was the smartest bloodbath ever. Bison’s predictable offense ended up killing her, as crafty Aja countered the Flying Bison Chop and threw on an armbar, then cranked on a second one, softening her up to allow a final submission win- very rare to have a brawl this violent and end it with a SUBMISSION, but that’s Aja for you- she’s gonna be champ by the end of the year, so defeating her best friend and tag team partner using a move she’s never won with before… THAT’S how you build a credible contender. If they didn’t already, now fans know she’s a smart, lethal, versatile threat, not just a heartless brawler.

Rating: **** (ends up a very bizarre thing- a violent brawl based around stiffness and repetition… but with PSYCHOLOGY- Aja worked the head & arm. The only flaw was that Bison never looked like she had a chance of winning)

* OMG, it’s Double Inoue! The unrelated Inoues are on way different levels at this point, with Kyoko being one of the best workers in the world, and in that “the one who loses to the Main Eventers” role, while Takako’s lower level (Debbie flat-out calls her a “handicap”, cracking up Mullet Commentator). Nakano and Hokuto, of course, are Main Eventers, and are going to wreck house. Hokuto’s new “Oriental Bitches” persona comes close to matching Bull and her old mentor, Dump Matsumoto, and signifies her new mega-push. And of course, Hokuto was the real-life president of the Bull Nakano Fan Club, making this even more awesome. Akira’s in blue ninja gear, while Bull has a Megadeth t-shirt and her usual blue hair at this point. Takako’s in a blue, red & gold bodysuit, and Kyoko’s in a pink & yellow tassled bodysuit.

Bull & Akira take charge to start, throwing Kyoko around and then they absolutely MASSACRE Takako, lighting her up with vicious lariats & kicks, then slamming her onto her neck a few times. After several minutes of this (with some great “selling” in that she’s probably in real agony), she hits a shock Aurora Special (shoulder-seated backdrop suplex) on Hokuto and tags out, then Kyoko IMMEDIATELY springs into her Slingshot Backsplash & Run-Up Flying Back Elbow. She does stretching for a while, but Takako’s murdered soon after she comes in with a flying kneedrop. The Inoues get beaten up outside, and then Kyoko’s legs are threaded through the ropes, allowing Bull to hit a series of lariats that leave her bouncing while hanging upside-down. Monstrous, quick bump to the outside from the last one, and a Powerbomb gets two (Takako breaks it up). Hokuto hits a German with Kyoko’s arms trapped, but gets caught in a Superplex. Kyoko overthrows Akira on a Powerbomb and loses the move, but when Bull comes in, she actually manages a HELICOPTER SLAM! She runs right into a Northern Lights Suplex, but a Rocket Launcher misses. This is just a storm of reversals and interference now, as Bull lariats Kyoko out of a Powerbomb, but Takako Electric Chairs Akira off the top- Kyoko now hits her Back Elbow to the dead center of the ring!

Takako’s finally back in, but misses another flying knee and eats Akira’s German & Bull’s Powerbomb, so Kyoko trips up Bull and dumps her. The Inoues get crushed with a double-lariat from Bull, but Akira’s German on Takako is blocked by Kyoko’s German on AKIRA, and Takako desperately tries to hold her down. Kyoko hits the Niagara Driver (Over-The-Shoulder Ligerbomb) for two, but Bull interferes and they’re finally like “Fuck this shit”- Takako’s blasted off the apron, Kyoko’s tossed onto her, and Hokuto does the Tope Con Hilo to both of them… oh shit! Nothern Lights Bomb, but Takako breaks up the pin again! I thought she was done! Hokuto drills Takako with the Northern Lights Bomb while Bull flies in with the Guillotine Legdrop, FINALLY getting Kyoko down for the count (16:14).

SEE-SAW match-up, BACK AND FORTH, as Vince would describe it- once the elders stopped murdering Takako (who was in way over her head), it turned into a great bout of reversals, as Takako used what she had (ie. speed and being sneaky) to redirect things while Kyoko’s resilience and power paid off, while the vets kept their wits about them and had the best moves. So Kyoko just couldn’t be pinned due to Takako’s speedy interference, so the elders kept having to find ways to deal with her- she couldn’t take either in the ring, but she was tough enough to RUN, y’see. I bought the Northern Lights Bomb as the finish and she STILL ran in! Finally the direct approach (hold her down while Bull executes the coup de grace) was enough.

Rating: **** (One of the better mostly one-sided bouts I’ve seen)

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Probably the best tag team in the world in 1992, but also huge rivals who hit ****1/2 as their baseline.

* These two are on the kind of year few workers ever get- they’re now the reigning WWWA Tag Team Champions, and already wrestled a classic bout earlier in the year, ending in their usual draw (though 40 minutes!), but now… there’s NO time limit, so there has to be a winner! The list of ****+ matches they had this year alone defies description- they know each other so well, and contrast each other equally so- the flippy Toyota and the kicky Yamada, longtime rivals but now friends. Yamada’s dressed in her yellow & black singlet now, and Toyota’s in her standard… wait- a PINK leotard!?! She has a PINK one?? The crowd actually marks out, and I think it’s due to the shock. “Male fans will of course cheer for Toyota” says the commentator, “but wrestling fans will go to Yamada”. Of course- the two genders! Bold prediction: This match will be good.

They charge at each other to start, Toyota hitting a Rolling Cradle for nearly a full THIRTY SECONDS, but then puts on a headlock Flair/Steamboat style for a few minutes as they fight around, Yamada ultimately hitting a straight kick to the face to take advantage, and then starts kicking Toyota so, SO hard in the stomach and chest- Jesus. She works the leg while Toyota tries flying tackles and a headscissors, while the commentator says “Yamada wrestles EXACTLY like Chigusa”, noting their style, voice and moves. Snap Suplex (Debbie marks out for it) and Gory Stretch into a faceplant continue Yamada’s control, but Toyota intercepts a kick and holds on so tenaciously with holds that they fall outside and she has to practically be dragged off. Manami Roll, Dropkick Spam (one right to the face- Debbie laughs on seeing it) and a cross-armed northern lights suplex hit, but Yamada rips her head off with a spin kick to end THAT. Kick Spam brutalizes her, and we FINALLY get a rest-hold 11 minutes in, but only for thirty seconds because they’re insane- flying elbow smash, and Toyota “Fuck YOU!” bridges out.

More kicks, but Toyota finally grabs the hair and just starts STREET-BRAWLING to get out of it, then dumps Yamada but misses a dive. Spin kick off the apron! REALLY slick pinning combination (Manami’s flipped over but holds a bridge and slides into Yamada’s pin) gets two, but Manami lands on her feet from a Backdrop Superplex and hits her weird ’92 Inverted Full Nelson Suplex for two! She goes up, but takes a great snap Belly-To-Belly off from there- Flying Enzuigiri gets two! Manami reverses to a snap Asai Moonsault in the ring for two, and then she goes up for her big Moonsault- again two! Another Missile Dropkick attempt ends up with her in a Texas Cloverleaf, which turns into some crazy-ass chest kicks, then she tries to wear Manami down some more, dodging a Flying Splash to end a comeback. Suplex city (including a release DRAGON Suplex) gets two, but Manami comes back with a pair of Bridging Germans for two. Straightjacket German, but her bridges are failing and she can’t hold Yamada down.

Running out of gas, they both tumble off the top and to the outside- and Manami does the WALK-UP TOP ROPE ASAI MOONSAULT! What IS it with this woman’s cardio? Toyota signals the end- the Japanese Ocean Suplex (double-hammerlock German), but Yamada collapses to block and boots her from a dropkick- Dangerous Backdrop gets two! Toyota reverses a whip to the Ocean Suplex, but the bridge again collapses- she tries a Moonsault, but hits knees! TWO Flying Enzuigiris… for two!! With a BRIDGE-OUT, even! Yamada stumbles up to the top, but Toyota meets her… with the ’92 Inverted Full Nelson Suplex from THERE, bridging for two! And finally… FINALLY!… Toyota aims for her finisher, the Japanese Ocean Cyclone Suplex (straightjacket bridging electric chair drop), but Yamada SLIDES OUT, hitting her own finisher, the Reverse Gory Bomb, and bridges! THREE COUNT!!! Yamada finally defeats Toyota (26:19)!!! The crowd completely explodes, while Toyota tearfully begs for a rematch, so desperate was she to win tonight.

Jesus Christ these two have insane chemistry- constant reversing of moves and knowing where stuff’s coming from. Yamada’s kicks means she can turn it around at any time, but Toyota can do the same with a flying move. All their established finishers couldn’t get it done, so it came down to the real battle of MDKs, and Yamada had to invent her own for this battle, copying Toyota’s a little bit for a bridging drop of her own. This really, really capitalized on Toyota’s competitive streak- the dichotomy of her cutting these nice, demure “hai” interviews backstage, and then bursting out like a jungle cat and tearing into her opponents- the pathological desire to win kind of overwhelming everything, even her friendship with Yamada, with victory in sight. Dragging her outside of the ring with that leglock, furiously demanding a rematch, then putting up her HAIR to seal the deal… it really makes her seem like winning is an obsession. And when she gets that rematch, she’ll find out just how much that competitive streak might cost her. This match is actually better wrestled than their more famous Hair (vs) Hair Match later, but doesn’t have quite the same level of fire. But holy shit- one of the best matches you’ll ever see.

Rating: ***** (I dare say these ladies are both pretty good)

Match Ratings:
Gokumon-To vs. Numata/Torisu: *1/4
Minami/Tamada/Moreno vs. Hotta/Kamiya/Ito: **1/2
Malenko/Shimoda vs. Power/Mita: **1/2
Mariko Yoshida vs. Sakie Hasegawa: ****1/4
Aja Kong vs. Bison Kimura: ****
Kyoko/Takako vs. Bull/Akira: ****
Manami Toyota vs. Toshiyo Yamada: *****

After some questionable stuff at the beginning of the card, they hit a goddamn **** BASELINE and just keep blazing forward, with the final match being a five-star classic, perhaps even better than the Hair vs. Hair Match. These girls just go ALL-OUT during these shows.