Joshi Spotlight: Debbie Malenko

Debbie Malenko Sakie Hasewara | Tops, Women's wrestling, Women

Debbie Malenko with her regular partner, Sakie Hasegawa.

Real Name: Debbie Drake
Billed Height & Weight: 5’6″ 143 lbs.
Career: 1990-1993, Barely-Active since 2000-something

-So one of the few bad things during AJW’s rise in the early 1990s was the very short career of the promising Debbie Malenko, who was the sole foreigner on many AJW shows of the time period. She had formed a spunky undercard tag team with Sakie Hasegawa, and was utilizing some very unique stuff for the “GO GO GO!” joshi style (being more of an American-style technical wrestler with precision offense taught by Boris Malenko, who let her use his worked surname). Hitting big-time STFs and stuff as major offense was typically not done around this point, as AJW’s style was more “you sit on them for stretching to kill time between major periods and to take a rest”, save a few exceptions. Best of all was the duo dressing like the Steiner Brothers in distinctive multicolored amateur-wrestling singlets and even doing the “Rick Steiner barking run” and Debbie crawling under Sakie for the “Steiner Pose”. Great midcard tag stuff.

How good was Debbie? Shockingly good, given her inexperience. Though she was still new and learning (we don’t talk about that “they try to do Lucha” tag match), her technical stuff was good, and she hit, I swear to God, ***1/2 with Terri Powers, who was at this point one of the most incompetent wrestlers on that stage. Seriously, Terri has weak, botch-filled matches with KYOKO INOUE (herself way above Debbie and one of the best workers in the world at that point), but Debbie knew how to construct a solid American-style match around Terri’s limitations, and so they had a very good technical contest, spent working Terri’s arm. The crowd seemed to sit on their hands for it, but AJW audiences expected speed and 900 dropkicks, ya know? It always stuns puro fans who watch it. Her other best match is likely one with Akira Hokuto, where Akira was very generous, giving her a lot of offense.

Her team with Sakie was good fun, and produced some interesting tandem offense- both women were very tall, quick, lanky, athletic women, and so their offense looked good when they teamed up- a Double Ace Crusher was a great mid-match highpoint, for example. She has a somewhat friendly relationship with Dave Meltzer, which apparently got her in trouble with the AJW office at one point (people naturally make rumors about them), but I’ve not spent too much time digging through shoots for that.

There was a good bit on one show where she did commentary, and one of the two commentators spoke top-tier English and they spoke at length about various things- it gave a lot of extra insight into AJW’s booking and “characters” I wouldn’t normally get, since I don’t speak Japanese. “You would look at Aja and think she’s not a very intelligent person, but she’s ring-smart” is one I remember. This was where I heard that Yamada was a huge Chigusa Nagayo fan, and the fans saw a lot of Chigusa in her- they looked the same, fought the same, and even talked the same, apparently.

Unfortunately, a very prominent leg injury (like, Sid-tier) ended her career before it really got started, and she was done. She has since managed to wrestle two additional matches (one in 2000 and one in 2017), and was prepared for more before the COVID lockdown. She’s currently on Twitter looking pretty awesome, pushing cars around and showing a lot of strength for a 40-50 something lady. She’d actually be a pretty kickass one-off opponent for the AEW Women’s Champion, packing some “AJW Cred” back when that was the hottest workrate promotion going. Like imagine Shida or whomever the champ is talking tough and Debbie’s like “Bitch, I fought Akira Hokuto IN HER PRIME- you think you can scare me?”.

Wrestling Observer on Twitter: "Pacific Rim: Debbie Malenko on life in All Japan Women's Wrestling… "

Debbie Malenko nowadays!

-Debbie Drake was trained in Boris Malenko’s gym alongside his sons Dean & Joe- in honor of that, she was allowed to be called “Debbie Malenko” during her run- this has a bit of weight in Japan, where Boris was a thing for a while. 1990 sees her in the “Professional Wrestling Federation”, wrestling AJ Carter in three matches I can find, plus something in England fighting someone named “Busty Keegan”. But from 1991-1993 it’s almost all AJW, though she goes on a trip to Mexico for CMLL bouts, usually wrestling other AJW women.

She joins Aja Kong’s “Jungle Jack” stable, forming a tag team with Sakie Hasegawa, who had a similar age and physique- both were tall, lanky athlete-types. They took to wearing Steiner gear and doing Steiner poses as a comedy routine, but they were pretty legit (I think even by then, it was clear Sakie was gonna be a star).

She & Sakie won the Japanese Tag Team Titles (the lowest-tier belts) in Jan. 1992 from Mariko Yoshida & Takako Inoue (who were on a similar tier to them on the hierarchy), holding them for 111 days until losing them back. When the Interpromotional Era hits, her & Sakie (who was one of the most intense AJW defenders) had a wonderfully scrappy, ugly match at AJW Dream Rush against FMW’s Erika Tsuchiya & Crusher Maedomari- I went ***1/2 because it was just so venomous, but most people hate the match because of said ugliness. In early Jan. 1993, she fought Akira Hokuto for the All Pacific Title, losing in what was possibly her best solo match (though I’ve only seen the clipped version)- Akira gave up a lot to her. She won her only singles gold in Feb. 1993, defeating Kaoru Ito for the AJW Title (their “Best Rookie” title belt).

She & Sakie were set to wrestle at Dream Slam (March 1993), facing JWP’s Plum Mariko & Hikari Fukuoka in the opening match (a great honor), but tragedy struck when they faced the WWWA Tag Team Champions, Manami Toyota & Toshiyo Yamada. They had wrestled a solid 8-10 minutes when Debbie hit the floor and got a bit tangled in the TV cables. She kicked the cables away, and perhaps this is why she was in the wrong position to catch Manami, doing one of her standard planchas to the outside- Debbie caught Manami, but put her weight back wrong and her leg snapped viciously at the ankle- a Sid-tier “the leg bends at a right angle” thing where you see it’s HORRIBLY wrong. Her leg moves back into the normal position, and a clueless Manami just throws some kicks like normal to a downed opponent until Debbie waves her off and desperately calls one of the ring girls to get Terri Powers (probably because she speaks English)- Terri comes out and carries Debbie off, Sakie wrestles a makeshift one-sided match that quickly falls apart a bit (understandably so), and just like that, Debbie’s promising career is over.

She wrestled one or two matches in the time between then and now- a 2000 shot in ARSION, plus wrestling in Mariko Yoshida’s Retirement Show gauntlet. She was set for another couple of matches until COVID hit as well- those will possibly happen in the future- she’s pretty swole and doesn’t look her age.

We’ll never really know what would become of her- she was already good at 22-23 years old, but would AJW have adopted her technical style well? They typically used submissions as a “stretching” match-filler segment, not the finish (among the few exceptions: Kyoko Inoue used an STF-style chinlock finish, and Shinobu Kandori in LLPW was a judo specialist whose entire offense was submissions treated like MDKs). It’s hard to say- the Interpromotional Era would likely have stalled her out like it did so many others, and I can see various wrestlers being unwilling to verbally submit, but who knows? In the West, women’s wrestling didn’t become a respected “thing” for quite some time, so I doubt she’d have gotten much recognition there.

Northern Lights Suplex, Ace Crusher (cutter), Double Ace Crusher (with Sakie), Fujiwara Armbar, Flying Back Elbow, Neckbreaker (Rude Awakening-style), Northern Lights Suplex, Northern Lights Superplex, STF (stepover toehold facelock)


About 11 minutes in, here.

(AJW Dream Rush, 26.11.1992)
* This is one of two Interpromotional Matches tonight, this one featuring an FMW team. Sakie is the Class of ’89 Rookie with the most potential, while Debbie was trained by Bore-Us Malenko and has been getting a semi-decent push around this era- they’re dressed hilariously like the Steiner Brothers once again (Sakie in blue & yellow; Debbie in purple & pink). Team FMW cut the most awkward interview ever, looking like they’d rather be anywhere else on Earth. They’ve both got facepaint on, and are a fairly mid-tier team at this point- they were in minor matches at the Dream Slams, and don’t show up on many other interpromotional shows. The future Shark Tsuchiya is in black & green, and Maedomari is in black & red- both have facepaint. So it’s like Joshi Steiners versus Joshi LOD.

Man, I was looking forward to this, and I forgot that the FMW team isn’t very good- they’re brawlers, but kind of have awkward timing and don’t move very smoothly. Like how Tsuchiya goes into a judo-flip before Debbie can properly set her up for it, and then does Ken Masters’ back throw on Sakie without planting her foot in the stomach properly, so Sakie just kind of dumps over her. Or how Maedomari ducks a double-clothesline attempt… and just kind of stands there for a second before tromping over and kicking Sakie awkwardly while Debbie does nothing for a second. Debbie wipes the floor with them in submissions (Erika’s injured shoulder helps, as does Yoshika’s bum leg), but Team FMW keep breaking up holds with interference, drawing boos from the hometown crowd. Some double-teaming and they start hammering Sakie with some good stuff (a “lariat” suddenly becomes a Chokeslam, impressing the crowd with the psyche-out, then she’s hit by a Flying Shoulderblock, Hart Attack-style). Eventually the AJW girls just get pissed off enough that it turns into a fight, in and out of the ring, and then Sakie slaps on a Backlund-esque Crossface Chickenwing, refusing to break it even when Maedomari’s in the ropes! Holy SHIT! And then she just nastily beats her down, waiting for her to get up before hitting a Solebutt, then a running kick, for the pin (15:45). Maedomari cuts a promo afterwards, Sakie kind of being unsure, but finally hollers a victory cry and the two shake on it.

Some of the sloppiest, stumbliest joshi you’ll ever see at this high a level, but it seemed oddly fitting (the brawling FMW girls going up against smooth-wrestling athletes), and the match flow was good, and I liked the overall story of the nasty brawlers repeatedly interfering until Sakie & Debbie just lost their shit and started brawling with them, fighting just as dirty. Sakie refusing to break the Chickenwing, then coldly standing there while Maedomari slowly got up, was great storytelling and showed just how angry they were getting. Though Tsuchiya having to be held back for a solid minute was kind of weird match-planning.

Rating: ***1/2 (I was aiming at ** because of all the sloppiness until things got ugly and mean as hell; I love that shit)

* And now it’s one of the top ranked teams versus a low-ranked one, with Aja & Kyoko as Main Eventers up against rising star Sakie, and undercarder Debbie. They’re in their Steiner Sisters gear, with Sakie having blue/yellow, and Debbie pink/purple. Kyoko’s in the usual pink & yellow, while Aja’s in a black & white striped top and red pants. Of course I’d expect a blowout, but the YouTube video is 27 minutes long.

Kyoko runs circles around the kids to start, but they catch her on the ropes and dump the vets, then dive onto them! They run into the ring to do their Steiner Brothers stance, drawing cheers, so Kyoko knocks Sakie around and Aja runs in to imitate Rick beneath Kyoko’s legs. The crowd eats all this up, and it’s a good way to spend some early match time. Aja has so much charisma at this point that her BODY SLAMS get the crowd into it. Sakie takes a monster bump off Kyoko’s shoulders and suffers through tons of restholds, selling well enough to make it fun. They avalanche her in the corner a bunch and keep up the torture with holds and crazy-ass leg-trap release powerbomb from Kyoko- Sakie’s selling her is amazing, and she finally escapes so Debbie hits a snap chokeslam/uranage, flying turning elbow, Northern Lights Suplex, and a crossface chickenwing- well hell. She keeps up the punishment with a neckbreaker and neck-crank, and a double-bulldog gets two. Kyoko finally escapes and Aja’s in for the machine-gun slaps and Vader Attacks, then flattens Debbie with piledrivers and such. She slaps on a revenge crossface, but Debbie elbows Kyoko out of the corner and now Sakie’s finally back in.

Sakie lands the Rolling Savate Kick and Debbie hits a Hart Attack-style flying back elbow for two. Kyoko attempts her Slingshot Backsplash attack… but Sakie’s scouted it, taking out the leg! Another double-bulldog and now Savate Spam, and Kyoko is getting her ASS kicked out here. Some of those shots are hitting her right in the face- it looks incredible. Aja breaks up a superplex and drags Sakie onto her shoulders, so the kid VICTORY ROLLS her while Debbie hits a Northern Lights Superplex for a CLOSE two. Vicious STF while Sakie blocks Aja, but Kyoko makes the ropes and finally Backsplashes the two of them. Aja powerslams Debbie, but gets caught in an STF too before hitting both rookies with a cross-body. Sakie eats a Moutain Bomb & Dangerous Backdrop, but lands on her feet from another one, misses the Savate, and eats the URAKEN! Debbie barely saves- I thought that was the end. That just pisses off the beast, who splashes BOTH of them off the second rope, but gets launched off when they kick out at 2. Kyoko’s Run-Up Flying Back Elbow also gets the pin broken up, so the vets are like “Fuck THIS” and do Stereo Helicopter Slams for the emphatic three count (21:57).

Really, really fun match. I mean, it was the “pad the first ten minutes with holds” variety, but the comedy spots to start, and Sakie’s tremendous selling, really made the first half fun despite what can often be “laying around”. Debbie being oddly dominant over Kyoko looked great, as the rookies were made to seem like they belonged. Debbie in particular looked like a STAR, hitting all of her stuff perfectly and doing several finisher-level moves and some great submissions. The elders eventually overwhelmed them and hit a ton of stuff, but the kids snuck out a lot of saves until it was just too much- notably, Aja never looked remotely weak, but the kids nearly scored some fluke wins all the same.

Rating: **** (very fun “Main Eventers versus Plucky Kids” match)

Unfortunately highly clipped.

* Well here’s a weird “Dream Match” for me- mostly because these are two I don’t recall ever interacting before (and we’d, uh, run out of time for them to do so later). Interesting that Debbie earned a title shot, given their tiers are so different. Debbie’s in the usual blue & pink Steiner Brothers singlet, while Akira’s in a one-shouldered two-piece I’ve never seen before.

Debbie actually snags a crossface chickenwing before the bell when Akira’s back is turned, because she has a death wish I guess. Akira runs at her but takes a SWEET German Suplex Hold for two, but Akira reverses a dragon sleeper by walking up the ropes and backflipping into an inverted DDT (!!) before hitting her own. Debbie knocks her to the floor and hits a dive and then her Northern Lights Superplex, as Akira is giving her a TON out here. Debbie tries a standard NL Suplex but gets DDTed. Akira misses a dropkick to a floored Debbie, but hits her roundhouse kick out there, then flies out onto her. Debbie reverses the Northern Lights Bomb to a DRAMATIC Fujiwara armbar that Akira fights for a while- she tries a lariat after that, but takes a vicious Dragon Suplex for two. Akira misses a missile kick and FLIES into the ropes when Debbie tries another arm thing, which is a great way to sell Debbie’s offense. Debbie hits her partner’s Uranage for two, but goes for Akira’s back and gets reversed to a weird Leg-Trap Backdrop Suplex, and is stunned for the three (5:58 of 13:38 shown). Hokuto actually gives Debbie props after the match, still selling that arm.

Well that was interesting- Akira gave up a TON to her junior, taking about 90% of the offense shown before hitting a one-move comeback for the win. It was almost like the “Randy Savage Template” but with her usual thrashing-about brand of selling. Debbie came off looking awesome in catching the veteran with all that stuff, but just didn’t have the durability to take Hokuto’s moves. Literally all action and a dramatic submission sell in what we got (less than half of the full match)

Rating: **3/4 (one of the better matches of that type I’ve seen)

Third match in.


(Zenjo is Dream- Ignition! 28.02.1993, Korakuen Hall)
* Interestingly, Debbie defends her low-tier Title against the other gaijin in AJW, pointing out that doing so is a really big deal in the pre-match promo (and sporting a “Davey-Boy Smith/Mullet” combination). Terri’s in another all-black singlet with cut-outs, while Debbie’s in the blue & pink Steiner gear. This match is somewhat notable as a rare singles match from Terri, who was so hopeless that KYOKO INOUE could barely break ** with her.

This is fascinating immediately because Debbie & Terri immediately go “American Style” with a goddamn HEADLOCK REVERSAL/Criss-Cross spot, which looks ancient in the futuristic world of AJW, but is like… something Terri can actually DO. Crowd is dead silent, but they’re keeping it simple- Cactus Clothesline from Terri puts them on the floor, but she lariats the post, injuring her arm, and Debbie goes to work on it. She hits Terri with chairs, the freakin’ ring bell, and a Fujiwara armbar, but Terri snags her with a snap powerslam on the FLOOR to finally wake up the crowd! She keeps selling the arm, but hits a sweet running bulldog in the ring, and a Vader Bomb gets two. Debbie reverses a suplex to another armbar, Terri misses a lariat, an Ace Crusher is reversed, and ANOTHER lariat attempt ends up with Terri armbarred.

Debbie keeps up the pressure, but gets powerslammed in the ring for two. Terri lariats the shit out of her, still selling the arm (like a champ, I must say), then calls “FRANKENSTEINER!”… but Debbie catches her with a Powerbomb! She follows it up with a Northern Lights Superplex for two! Terri fights out and misses a 2nd-rope lariat, but hits a weird slow-mo Frankensteiner out of a piledriver position for two (there was like zero momentum there). Tilt-a-whirl slam gets two and the crowd finally gets kinda into it after being dead all match. Debbie floats over (well, stumbles over) a suplex from the apron and hits a German for two. Terri powers Debbie into a Superplex from a suplex attempt, and a double-clothesline puts both down. Terri lands a great elbow, but gets backslid and then armbarred again, selling absolute agony. She finally makes the ropes, then tries another tilt-a-whirl, but Debbie snaps her into a weird arm/neck thing from there, and Terri finally quits at (17:54)! Looks like that was supposed to be a chickenwing and they just kinda rolled with it.

This match is semi-notable in Joshi communities for being Terri Power’s best ever match (I mean, unless I’m missing a **** Sable match somewhere), and it’s an interesting contrast to the match Terri had with Kyoko, who’s a better worker than Debbie. The Kyoko match was more about the AJW match structure (fast start, resting, escalating moves), using a really long runtime to make something that was outside of Terri’s limited abilities, whereas this one was actually built like an American-style bout, with simple technical stuff starting, then leading to an injury and then work on that limb. Their being no language barrier here presumably helped as well. Terri also sold the arm the entire match, which is remarkable- in most ’90s AJW stuff I’ve seen (other than Hokuto, Aja & Bison), limbwork typically gets ignored after a point. So to see FRIGGIN’ TORI of all people do it is nuts. But wow this crowd was dead, only popping for some kickouts

Rating: ***1/2 (absolutely insane to get TERRI POWER above three stars- consistent limbwork, good psychology, good reversals, and more. Terri looked good the whole way through!)