The golden age of women’s pro-wrestling took place a very long time ago. It happened far away in Japan at a time when women’s (joshi) wrestlers were not just presented like real competitors but had widespread popularity.
Seriously, ask anyone outside the wrestling bubble if they’ve heard of Charlotte Flair or Becky Lynch. You might get the odd person that knows but you’re more likely to find people who have no idea who you’re talking about. Meanwhile, from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, the joshis of All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling (AJW) were said to have almost Steve Austin-levels of popularity and appeal. And today we look back at another classic from that era to see if it holds up.
Let’s look back at the singles match between Bull Nakano and Akira Hokuto from January 4th, 1991.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
(Editor’s note: The video quality of the match isn’t great, so we just used a featured image of Bull Nakano herself rather than an image that included Hokuto as well. Sometimes with these older matches it’s difficult to find great images for the matches.)
This was a straightforward women’s world title match between champion Nakano and challenger Hokuto. Now, Nakano was already known for being what can best be described as ‘a beast’. Literally: she was big by women’s standards at the time, called herself ‘Bull’ and looked like she used industrial strength glue to keep her hair up in that weird shape. Her opponent was Akira Hokuto, who was only 24 at the time (which was technically considered old and approaching retirement age by then-AJW standards). This match took place before Hokuto would really come into her own and become one of the very best women’s pro-wrestlers of all time.
This is for Nakano’s WWWA World Single Championship. Hokuto offers a handshake but Nakano slaps her hand away. Hokuto responds with a bridging German suplex the instant the bell rings but Nakano easily powers out. Hokuto follows with a piledriver and goes for a dive. She connects…with Nakano’s knees. Nakano sends Hokuto into the ropes and then press slams her. Hokuto ducks a clothesline and lands a sunset flip for a one-count. Nakano flips over into her own pin for one and then drags her to the floor. She smashes Hokuto’s face into anything made of metal that she can find. Then she smashes Hokuto’s head with the mallet they use to ring the bell.
Hokuto crawls into the ring as many girls in the crowd scream ‘Akira’ in high-pitched voices. But Nakano pounces on her and lands a clothesline. One, two, Hokuto bridges out and then lands a rebound counter clothesline of her own for a two-count. Hokuto lands some wild slaps but those just anger Nakano. Nakano proceeds to kick and smack the ever-loving piss out of Hokuto and then chokes her through the ropes. She drops a knee on Hokuto’s face and starts choking her and then busts her open by biting her forehead. Hokuto fires up and swings wildly at Nakano. She goes for a roll-up but Nakano counters into an armbar/headscissor. Nakano tries trapping Hokuto’s arm and switching to a sleeper hold but Hokuto literally kicks out and locks in a high-angle Boston crab. Hokuto maintains the pressure however she can by switching to a single leg crab and then to an STF/Romero Special combo hold and then tries a camel clutch. But Nakano escapes by biting Hokuto’s hand. Wait, no, that only stops Hokuto momentarily. Hokuto sits back into a back-arcing camel clutch. Nakano bridges over to pin. One, two, Hokuto kicks out.
Hokuto switches to a bodyscissor but Nakano powers into a pin but only gets a one-count. Nakano applies a Boston crab of her own. Nakano sends Hokuto into the ropes and lands a bicycle kick for a two-count as Hokuto gets a ropebreak. Nakano follows with a sharpshooter and then goes for a clothesline. But Hokuto counters with a Fujiwara armbar. It takes a multitude of kicks to the head from Nakano for Hokuto to break the hold. Hokuto Irish whips Nakano and lands two dropkicks for a two-count. Another piledriver from Hokuto. Nakano kicks out and gets a ropebreak to escape a sleeper hold. Hokuto repositions herself so that she’s between the ropes and Nakano and reapplies that same hold. Nakano kicks out of that hold and lands a nasty high-angle bridging back suplex for another two-count. That’s followed by a second one. Hokuto narrowly kicks out again. Nakano kicks her out of the ring, climbs onto the ropes, and lands a diving splash that takes out both Hokuto and a ringside attendant. Hokuto staggers back into the ring, only to eat a diving guillotine leg drop from Nakano. One, two, Hokuto kicks out.
Nakano lands another piledriver and goes to the top rope. She misses a second guillotine leg drop and Hokuto lands a bridging Tiger suplex. One, two, thr – no, Nakano kicks out. Hokuto lands four consecutive missile dropkicks. She pins but only gets a two-count. Irish whip by Hokuto. Nakano counters a spear with a DDT. Springboard kick by Nakano. Nakano goes for another one. Hokuto dropkicks her to the floor. Diving somersault plancha from the top rope.
Hokuto goes for another top-rope move but Nakano cuts her off and slams her to the canvas. Suddenly, someone comes into the ring to help Nakano. The picture is grainy so it’s hard to tell who it is. That woman lifts Hokuto into Nakano’s arms as Nakano is perched on the second rope. SECOND ROPE DIVING TOMBSTONE PILEDRIVER! Nakano covers Hokuto but the referee refuses to count the pin due to the interference. There’s something unique. One-shoulder powerbomb. Hokuto kicks out. Nakano goes back to the top turnbuckle. Hokuto cuts her off and lands a superplex. One, two, Nakano kicks out. Northern Lights Bomb! Hokuto spikes Nakano onto her head. One, two, and Nakano kicks out. Irish whip. Nakano ducks a spinkick. High-angle bridging back suplex #3. One, two, and three! Nakano retains her title!
Winner and STILL WWWA World Single Champion after 18:31: Bull Nakano
This match is over thirty years old yet it is still way more intense than most of what’s seen today. I can see why the joshis of that era were praised so much: they were pioneers. They kept pushing boundaries of what was possible and convinced people that they were literally superhuman. I’ve seen crazier joshi wrestling matches and ones with better wrestling overall, but this was still solid, all things considered.
The story was that Nakano lived up to her reputation and was too much for Hokuto to handle. Nakano manhandled (womanhandled?) Hokuto throughout the match and maintained constant pressure on her smaller opponent. That left Hokuto with few options. All she could muster was some quick counters here and there and could only hit moves in short bursts. It was easy to see why the audience was clearly in love with Hokuto: she showed this spitfire personality and just wouldn’t lie down and die. That made Nakano desperate. She hit Hokuto with everything she had from powerbombs and piledrivers, to chokes and submission holds, to the ring bell hammer. But none of that worked. Hokuto kept going even as blood poured down her face. It reached the point that Nakano was forced to bring back a specter from the past: the second-rope Tombstone. It was that very move that broke Hokuto’s neck three years earlier. But when that first injury happened, Hokuto continued the match by holding her head in place with her hands. This time around, she took the same move and kicked out. It didn’t stop her then and it didn’t stop her here.
And in a unique twist, we got to see a clever way to handle interference. The rules in these old joshi matches have never been fully explained to me, so whenever I’ve seen weapons use I’ve just gone with it as part of the unchained madness. But here, there was blatant interference in a one-on-one title match. And yet, the referee didn’t call for the bell and end it in a cheap disqualification. Instead, to protect the integrity of the match and the title, he simply refused to count the first pin after the interference spot was completed. It made total sense; why punish Hokuto for no reason by ending the match, therefore allowing Nakano to win on a technicality? Instead, Nakano had to keep wrestling to win on her own. Obviously she did; after all, it wouldn’t’ve made any sense for Hokuto, who barely managed to string together enough offense before the diving Tombstone, to somehow manage that same feat after being spiked so badly. But Nakano won on her own at that point and did so (relatively) fairly.
Final Rating: ****1/4
The David vs. Goliath formula has existed so long in pro-wrestling because it works, simple as that. Everyone loves a good underdog story and there’s no simpler way of telling that story than a small person trying to defeat someone much bigger than them. Hokuto tried every trick in the book do be ‘David’ here but it just didn’t work. Not only was ‘Goliath’ here almost as agile as she was, but she hit harder and benefitted from some outside assistance to keep ‘David’ down for the three-count.
Even with the garbage video quality, chaotic structure, and the borderline savage willingness for both women to spike each other, this match still holds up very well over three decades later. The risks and intensity on display here have yet to really make it over to North America. It’s a shame. 1990s joshi wrestling is the ultimate niche in an already niche fandom. If more people appreciated this older stuff, then maybe it would have more influence stateside and it would bleed into modern wrestlers’ styles just like the top male wrestlers of the 1990s did to the post-Monday Night Wars independent scene.