Joshi Spotlight: Harley Saito

Ewzzy — Harley Saito & Bull Nakano with Nunchucks

Harley Saito in one of her most memorable spots- going all “A FELLOW ‘CHUCKER, EH?” on Bull Nakano.

JOSHI SPOTLIGHT- HARLEY SAITO:
Real Name: Sayori Saito (aka Halley Saito, Harley Saito, Karula)
Billed Height & Weight: 5’5″ 148 lbs. (though she seems MUCH shorter than that- dwarfed by the 5’8″ Suzuka Minami)
Career: 1986-2012

-And now for a bio on one of the unsung workers of the ’90s Boom of Joshi- the late Harley Saito!

Harley is somewhat notable for the fact that her wrestling style was INCREDIBLY similar to that of Sean “1-2-3 Kid” Waltman, sharing his rapid-fire kicks (including the “multiple kicks then a jumping spinkick” in the corner) and many other moves. Like, it was seriously a Dynamite Kid/Chris Benoit-like “wait a second” kind of similarity, here. I have no idea if Waltman ever saw Harley’s stuff, but it’s uncanny. Her style is a modification of what I’ve heard called the “UWF Style”- the martial arts-themed theatrical kicks and submissions, but done way more rapid-fire, as the diminutive Saito didn’t have the hitting power of say, Dynamite Kansai or Yumiko Hotta. This leads to a lot of high-workrate matches as she could fly around like the acrobats of joshi, too.

What makes Saito interesting is that she was the #3 star of Ladies Legend Pro Wrestling– an offshoot of JWP after a nasty split- and thus was often trotted out to put over the stars of other companies on bigger interpromotional shows, but would often have one of the better performances on a show. So while she never got a really big push going during the peak era of joshi (the mid 1990s), nor showed much personality beyond “spunky underdog”, here was this person having ****-ish bouts in a very quiet, unsung kind of way. Like a lot of very good wrestlers of the time period (Suzuka Minami, Takako Inoue), she suffers from being merely “very good” in an era where Aja Kong, Manami Toyota & Akira Hokuto were so clearly the best ever, they made everyone else look like also-rans by comparison.

Saito’s push didn’t really get going until after the boom was over, and so she again missed out on big-time fame.

Harley Saito passes away at 48 years old

Harley had a… curious sense of how color patterns should work.

CAREER TRAJECTORY:
-Sayori Saito debuted in 1986, being trained by former AJW star Nancy Kumi for the “JWP Dojo”– her early name was “Halley”- based off of Halley’s Comet (which passed by Earth during its 75-year loop in 1986). She debuted jobbing to Miss A (the future Kansai), and quickly swapped to a name inspired by Harley-Davidson motorcycles, so she became “Harley Saito”. In 1992, she went to the U.S. and wrestled for LPWA (Ladies Professional Wrestling Association), becoming their first and only Japanese Champion, defeating Denise Storm in the finals of a tournament- the promotion folded later that year. She was the final UWA International Women’s Champion, holding JWP’s top belt from Feb. 1991 (beating Miss A) until the promotion folded sometime in 1992.

She was part of the big split between JWP and LLPW in 1992-93, joining the exodus to LLPW along with the other “wrestlers” (as opposed to JWP’s “entertainers”)- despite her flashy gear and high-impact style, I guess she fit in better with that crew on a personal level. However, in spite of her being a big star in the first JWP, in a huge number of interpromotional shows of the 1992-1995 era, she wrestled mostly in the midcard. However, the matches were usually excellent- she fought Akira Hokuto’s stable of Las Cachorras Orientales in early ’93 in one of the first AJW/LLPW matches, had a very memorable tag bout with Eagle Sawai against Aja Kong & Bull Nakano at the first Dream Slam (featuring an amazing bit where she’s all “A fellow CHUCKER, eh?” and disarms Bull Nakano and does her OWN nunchucks spot!), and had a very impressive match with Suzuka Minami at the second Dream Slam, losing to her Flying Senton.

That summer, she was LLPW’s participant in the AJW Grand Prix, performing very well (though they stuck in some draws to avoid having anyone prominent doing too many jobs). There’s an AMAZING ****1/2 30-minute draw with Takako Inoue, and a **** match with Hokuto where she comes out on the losing end. These 1993 matches are notable for all being very good… and for Harley almost always losing . Of LLPW’s stars, only Eagle & Shinobu Kandori were really protected. Case in point: in the Block Semi-Finals, she ends up losing to Yumiko Hotta.

At Wrestling Queendom 1993, she beats Chikako Shiratori in a 2-minute squash- a rare aside for a big Joshi card. At St. Battle Final to cap off the year’s angles, her LLPW team loses to Hotta & Double Inoue. In 1994, she manages to beat Double Inoue with Noriyo Tateno as her partner. She also wrestles a TON for Genichiro Tenryu’s WAR promotion, usually winning tag matches against midcarders as a token Joshi bout in his very unique company.

In the 1995 “Bridge of Dreams” mega-interpromotional show, she & Kandori wrestled a faux-MMA match in a curious bit- a worked shoot that saw Harley give up in 1:11 due to ground & pound. It was an interesting change from the high-speed matches AJW & JWP provided for that show. That November, she went by the name “Karula” and won her first LLPW Singles Title, defeating Eagle! She held it for nearly a year (349 days) before dropping it the next October. In April 1999, she won the LLPW Six-Woman Tag Titles along with Tateno & Keiko Aono, beating Eagle, Shark Tsuchiya & Lioness Asuka. Her team would lose them to Rumi Kazama, Carol Midori & Eagle after 254 days. In the meantime, she’d won the LLPW Singles Title again, beating Kandori in August! She lost it to Eagle on Aug. 2000 after a 363-day reign. Two year-long runs with the title in the late ’90s- not bad, though after the “Boom Period”, sadly, so she’s often ignored.

She spent most of the 2000s wrestling for LLPW, but also moved around for spot-shows in other companies, as Joshi was heavily splintering at the time. With blonde hair and a more punk-y look, she was still active but had largely stopped being pushed so hard. And then, tragedy struck- in 2010, she was diagnosed with uterine fibroids, and spent two years recovering. She retired in Dec. 2012, going into food management, but sadly died of esophageal cancer in 2016. This makes her & Plum Mariko (who died of a concussion in the ’90s) the only two stars of the ’90s Boom Period to have died young- she was only 48 years old. When Takako Inoue paid tribute to Plum at her grave a year ago, she sweetly asked “Are you having fun with Harley?”.

MOVESET:
* Martial Arts Front Kicks (1-3-3 Kid Style), Kicks in the Corner, Snap Suplex to Jumping Kneedrop, Enzuigiri, Legdrop, Spinkick, Running Roundhouse Kick, Enzuigiri, Backdrop Suplex, Superplex, German Suplex, Flying Headbutt, Tiger Suplex

THE MATCHES:
* Typical of LLPW, it’s hard to find any of their big matches outside of Interpromotional Shows, so I’m sadly missing Harley’s biggest career stuff. So here’s some way-early JWP stuff instead.

HALLEY SAITO vs. SHINOBU KANDORI
(Original JWP, 19.07.1990)
* This is from fairly early in both women’s careers, with the original JWP. Kandori’s in a hideous orange & green outfit, while “Halley” is no prize either in a red, white & blue patchwork singlet.

Kandori, already set in her ways as of 1990, slaps Harley at the “handshake” portion, but takes some running knees. Kandori outgrapples her from a takedown and you can tell she’s not as “legit” yet because her armbar isn’t treated like a guaranteed killer. Harley actually kicks the crap out of her once she gets up, making her bail! Kandori’s back in with slaps and they fight over a suplex, but she sneaks in a leghold. Harley desperate fights out twice, and is still limping when she throws some rapid-fire kicks, putting the judoka on the mat. Kandori soon fights back with a lariat and more holds, and acts extra-shitty with slaps and punches- Harley reverses and gets her OWN slaps for revenge! Kandori reverses a running roundhouse kick to a backdrop suplex for two, then stops another. Another backdrop gets two and both tangle on the mat for a while, looking pretty realistic in that both just keep fighting for whatever they can get a hold of. Finally, both women tumble outside and Kandori chucks Harley around, then they keep reversing stuff in the ring, Harley getting out of another armbar and peppering her with kicks for like twenty damn seconds, then hits a pescado out of the ring!

Neat move as Harley slingshots back into the ring by kicking Kandori in the back of the head, sending HER over, too! Kandori snags her on another roundhouse kick attempt and they both try flash-pins, then Kandori gets a big choke. Harley barely makes the ropes and looks dead, but ducks a lariat and wipes her out with huge kicks. BIG Enzuigiri and a German gets two- Harley tries a piledriver, but gest backdropped out… and slides into a sunset flip for two, Kandori reverses for two, and Harley ends up getting a jacknife hold for the three (15:26)! Except… not? Harley thinks she’s won, but the ref waves it off for whatever reason, and they restart things! Kandori pounces and beats the shit out of her, but Harley reverses to FINALLY hit that Roundhouse Kick, getting two. Tiger Suplex- two! Kandori’s up first and gets a lariat & suplex for two, and a powerslam gets the same. Harley reverses a backdrop but gets Flair Tossed off the top, and KANDORI goes up, but takes a Superplex for two! Desperate small package gets two, and is reversed for the same. Kandori gets a heel-hook, but Harley gets the ropes. She tries a whip, but Kandori just bludgeons her and hits a Release Tiger Driver, winning at (18:54). Miss A charges the ring after that, pissed at Kandori (she was cheerleading Harley all along).

Interesting match with that older JWP-style- more focused on counter-wrestling and catch-stuff where you fight for every move, as opposed to what mid-90s Joshi became, where the holds are the “resting” and mean little, and are what fits between the big moves. In this bout, we can see that Kandori hasn’t quite had her “Full Main Event Credibility” yet, because the crowd doesn’t lose it every time she hits a hold, but Harley still played a great underdog, fighting out of stuff and doing that Roundhouse until she finally landed it. I dunno what that false-pinfall was, but it made things look extra-unfair. Harley had some great momentum shifts here, and did some good escalating finishers, but ultimately got stuffed one too many times, as Kandori was too much for her.

Rating: ***3/4 (very good Big vs. Little match, with an underdog story and some interesting chain-wrestling)

DYNAMITE KANSAI & THE SCORPION vs. SHINOBU KANDORI & HALLEY SAITO:
(JWP, 08.04.1991)
* Now THIS looks interesting! “Halley” Saito teaming up with Kandori, future ace of LLPW, up against the future Ace of JWP Project- Kansai! Kansai/Kandori is one of those tragically-absent Dream Matches that never happened as the JWP/LLPW split was extremely bitter. Kansai has dropped the “Miss A” name and is already coming down to “Night Creeper”, but wearing all black with the Shredder’s shoulder pads. I don’t know who the Scorpion is, but she’s a tiny girl in pastel rainbow colors and a full mask. Kandori’s in neon green & orange, and Halley’s in blue & white.

Kansai attacks to start, hammering away on Halley, who catches both opponents with her kicks until Kansai pounds her down again. Halley does the “JB Angels” bridge-out from Scorpion and Enzuigiris her. She & Kandori eat Scorpion alive, but Kansai’s back in and acts shitty to Halley until she ends up face-kicked to her knees- spinkick gets two. KANDORI/KANSAI SLAPFIGHT! Lariat gets two for Kansai. Scorpion adds a dropkick & small package, Kansai a suplex & sharpshooter, fighting through a ton of Halley’s kicks. Lucha armdrag from Scorpion, but Kansai’s lariat is reversed to an armbar then a choke! Halley adds a kick & a German for two, Kansai booting her way free- Scorpion does lucha pins and a Tombstone- Kansai Flying Headbutt gets two! Scorpion steps onto Kansai’s back and flies out onto Kandori and Kansai takes Halley apart with chairs outside the ring. Northern Lights Suplex gets two. Bridging double-arm suplex gets two for Scorpion.

Kansai throws kicks but gets her leg caught, and now Kandori’s in and lariats her for two. They work Kansai’s leg, and Halley hits the snap suplex/kneedrop combo for two, but Kandori just lifts her into a backdrop suplex and a lariat for two. Halley gets a back elbow in the corner, but Kansai shoves her into Kandori on the tag attempt and Scorpion hits a Moonsault for two. Bridging German & Tombstone gets two, but Kandori stops Kansai climbing, and Halley hits a Superduperplex for two! Kandori gets a backdrop suplex once she’s finally in, but Kansai catches her up top with a Backdrop Superplex for two. Halley saves, but a big lariat gets two on Kandori. Scorpion tries a whip, but gets caught in a snap Tiger Driver- Kansai clobbers Kandori to stop that, but Halley spinkicks her out of the ring on a light bump and Kandori finishes Scorpion with a Judo Choke at (15:46).

Not a bad match, but didn’t quite hit a “peak”. And sadly, the Kansai/Kandori pairings didn’t amount to much or get treated as the big deal they’d be in a year or two when both peaked. Scorpion’s stuff looked very solid and lucha-esque, to the point where she had the best stuff in the whole match, but was treated as the total weak link who’d hit some big moves and then tag out, and ultimately just got caught with a random Tiger Driver and was done.

Rating: *** (standard solid tag match- didn’t overstay its welcome or feel too long at 16-ish minutes)

About 1:32, 2:02:00 and 2:30:00 in here!

LPWA JAPANESE TITLE TOURNAMENT:
(23.02.1992)

* So these are a trio of Harley’s matches in a one-night tournament for the Ladies Pro Wrestling Association’s “Japanese Title”- the promotion was treated legitimately, and mostly tried pretty hard with a huge roster (though you’ll note several women in outfits that are basically thong swimsuits), and crossed over with the original JWP. This show features several JWP women in matches against American ones, like Shinobu Kandori vs. Desiree Peterson. There’s a bunch of commentators, most notably Jim Cornette, who insists that the American fans are racist and automatically boo everyone from Japan, whereas in Japan they cheer for all good wrestling.

HARLEY SAITO vs. MIZUKI ENDO:
* Harley’s in red & white, with Endo in neon yellow & blue. Cornette actually details the karate “kickpad” boots Harley’s wearing, then unknown in the U.S. but now very common in wrestling.

Endo attacks to start, but Harley hits a spinkick and snap suplex. Endo comes back with submissions and random stomping. Harley comes back with elbows to the back of the head, some kicks, and an Enzuigiri. Big Roundhouse Kick and Endo does the “Fuck YOU!” bridge, as Cornette goes nuts over that. Snap suplex & kneedrop gets two. Catapalt & splash gets two for Endo, and she fights her way into a Boston crab- Harley finally hits the ropes, but eats bodyblocks and a shoulderbreaker for two. Endo tries to whip her to the ropes, which of course is ALWAYS a transition in Joshi, so Harley nails another Roundhouse and finishes with a Tombstone Piledriver at (7:06).

Rating: **1/4 (Decent little match, though mostly with Endo dominating and Harley pulling out cool little comebacks here and there)

HARLEY SAITO vs. EAGLE SAWAI:
* A quick video here, with Lee Marshall interviewing Harley, who gives a brief English statement (“But me… numbah one!”). as Eagle comes down with red & black, and Harley’s in pink & white. Eagle’s BBW look does not seem to endear her to the crowd (or maybe it’s the frowny face?), and she’s said to be easily antagonized.

Eagle powers Harley around the ring to start, but Harley comes back with some impressive kicks for 1992 U.S. wrestling (women OR men)- remember, this is before any of Sean Waltman’s well-known matches and she’s doing the same stuff. Eagle catches one in mid-air and hauls her to the mat, keeping on the knee. Harley gets a small package and sunset flip for comebacks, then a forward roll for two, then Eagle rolls back, then Harley again as this is pretty high-end stuff for women’s U.S. wrestling. Eagle posts her and slams her onto the floor. Cornette compares her to the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, losing limbs but still fighting, but she comes in with a sunset flip for two! Eagle grabs a headlock with a “behind the back” hairpull just to be a shit, then chokes away and revels in the boos. Huh- she actually wrestles pretty well for a foreign crowd.

Harley nails her from behind while she’s posing, misses another attack, but lands a Roundhouse Kick and slugs away, getting the crowd into it. Spinkicks gets two, and she hits two huge kicks to the chest and a kneedrop for two. Eagle grabs the knee from the mat and BITES it, then chomps the foot, too! She keeps going for it, looking at the ref like “Huh? What’s your problem?”, but eats a corner attack and a snap suplex for two. Harley lands an Enzuigiri (“popularized by Antonio Inoki!”) and several kicks, but the time limit expires at (10:00). The commissioner of LPWA hits the ring, though, and declares Harley the winner on points! Well I think that’s dubious, as Eagle controlled most of the match. But hey, the crowd sure liked it.

Wow, I was really shocked by this one. I was expecting them to get like four minutes on a dumb indie show but they actually worked their asses off and did a good face/heel U.S.-type match, but with Harley’s state-of-the-art offense- all those kicks!

Rating: **1/2 (perfectly fine match- no finish, but a solid come from behind deal with some good moves)

And 2:30:00 into that same video, we get…

HARLEY SAITO vs. “DANGEROUS” DENISE STORM:
* The finals to the LWPA Japanese Title tournament, with Saito going up against Denise Storm. I’ve never heard of her, but she’s a pretty shapely 5’10” glamor girl trained by Eddie Sharkey and lasted about 4-5 years in the business.

Storm takes Harley down and they kinda scrap a bit- I’m seeing some confusion between their styles. Storm is left just pounding away with basic stuff. She gets a snapmare, but Harley headscissors her into a cross-armbreaker, and they go back and forth on that, Storm trying for pins. Harley gets a kick off the ropes and a snap suplex for two, and a spinkick for the same. Crucifix and a ton more spinkicks and Harley’s throwing Cornette’s “She has a bum knee” thing into the dirt. Storm comes back with some brawling and stretches her out with restholds, but Harley backdrops out of a chinlock and hits the Enzuigiri and even more kicks, sending Storm out for a breather. She boots Harley once she’s back in the ring and hits a clothesline and a suplex for two, but gets cocky with a back suplex and Harley lands on her feet and catches her with the Japanese Leg Roll Clutch for the three and the Title at (8:07)!

Not a bad little match, though there were probably some communication issue so they just kept it simple. Pretty good considering they’d both wrestled twice already, as the only hint they were tiring was about two minutes of various holds from Storm, and even those were shaken up a bit. A bit short and with a simple rollup finale, though.

Rating: ** (not bad- sudden ending and pretty basic stuff otherwise)