May 6th, 1989.
The day the first Joshi boom period ended.
Throughout the ’80s, All Japan Women’s had hit highs unheard of in women’s wrestling. Consistently filling arenas with an army of screaming girls, creating one of the most unique and molten hot atmospheres in pro wrestling history. The AJW roster was made up of many all-time greats; Jaguar Yokota, Devil Masami, Dump Matsumoto, The Jumping Bomb Angels, a very young Bull Nakano, a very young Akira Hokuto, and The Crush Gals(Lioness Asuka and Chigusa Nagayo). They even managed to get a prime time TV slot during that time.
AJW always had one problem looming over them: a self-imposed forced retirement. Wrestlers were forced to retire at the age of 25, supposedly to give them a chance to start a families, in reality, the company probably wanted to keep the roster young, which makes sense, I mean how could anybody possibly care about anybody over 25? You’re pretty much washed up at that point. The policy was both incredibly sexist and an unbelievably stupid way to run a business. One by one, all of AJW’s top stars were forced out.
On May 6, 1989 it was Chigusa Nagayo’s turn to retire. The problem was Nagayo happened to be the biggest star (even to this day) Joshi had ever seen. That army of little girls that attended every show? That was actually the Chigusa Nagayo fan club, and by the end its membership was in the hundreds. Whether the company would admit it or not at the time, they knew they had a big problem.
But before I go into Wrestlemarinepiad 89 (the May 6 show), let me take you back one more time.
On February 15, 1986, Jaguar Yokota wrestled Devil Masami in her retirement match, and would transition to her role as the head trainer of the AJW dojo shortly after. With the Chigusa Nagayo vs. Dump Matsumoto feud white-hot and on prime time television, thousands of girls applied to become wrestlers, and with Jaguar Yokota’s training, the foundation of what would become the second (and better known to western fans) boom period was set. Aja Kong and Megumi Kudo (of FMW fame) would debut in 86, Manami Toyota, Toshiyo Yamada, Mima Shimoda, and Etsuko Mita in ’87, and Kyoko and Takako Inoue in ’88.
In 1989, they were still all on the undercard and years away from being in any position to carry the promotion. With Chigusa leaving, AJW had a big problem. They had Bull Nakano ready to become the ace, Akira Hokuto who was great but hadn’t yet developed her “Dangerous Queen” character, and a bunch of very talented undercard wrestlers. So to fill the gap they got experimental over the next couple years. Cage matches, wild brawls, and on this year’s Wrestlemarinepiad they brought in some embarrassingly bad wrestlers from GLOW and used two rings.
The main event featured WWWA (AJW’s world title) champion Lioness Asuka—who was about to retire herself—defending against Madusa in a horrendous match that was both boring and sloppy. It was clear that Madusa had no business being in the ring with Asuka, which I’m sure she figured out pretty quickly. Over the next year, she would work her ass off to get better in the ring, would ditch her 80s glam look and crimped hair for acid wash jeans and take on a harder persona.
While Madusa would become the most famous gaijin wrestler in Joshi, probably ever, she was far from the best. She was always pretty sloppy and a try-hard to the point that it was comical but enduring. She never really fit in the world of Joshi, and never really adapted to the style, but she carved out a nice little niche for herself, and she was clearly passionate about her work.
In 1991 a new gaijin would debut in AJW: Debbie Malenko.
Originally trained in Florida by Boris Malenko (no relation), Debbie began training at the AJW Dojo a year into her career. There was a stark contrast between her and Madusa (who was gone at this point). Madusa was awkward and a try-hard who cut goofy over the top promos, and was thrust into the main event scene upon arrival. Her run was a reaction to Chigusa’s retirement, in many ways a panic move. Debbie was athletic and fluid in her movements, she was soft-spoken but still came off as tough. Debbie was the one gaijin who didn’t look out of place in an AJW ring, she looked at home, in many cases she’d out-wrestle some pretty notable people. She wasn’t a gimmick, or a special attraction, she was a member of the roster, and one with an incredibly high ceiling.
By 1992, All Japan Women’s was on the verge of their second boom period. Their 86-88 rookie classes were elevated from good undercard wrestlers to legitimate draws. The team of Mima Shimoda and Etsuko Mita would go on an excursion to Mexico and become Las Cachorras Orientales upon returning, Akira Hokuto (who was also on that excursion) debuted her “The Dangerous Queen” character upon her return and became arguably the top star in Joshi, and one of the best in-ring workers ever. Sometimes enemies, sometime tag partners Manami Toyota and Toshiyo Yamada had their famous hair vs hair match that elevated them to main event status.
In November, the 2nd boom period unofficially began when AJW held their first co-promoted show, Dream Rush in Kawasaki. Toyota and Yamada teamed up to take on JWP’s Mayumi Ozaki and Dynamite Kansai, and Aja Kong finally defeated Bull Nakano to win the WWWA Championship after a two year chase.
As the company was getting hot, Debbie Malenko continued working her way up the card. Her and partner Sakie Hasegawa won the Tag Team Championships from Mariko Yoshida and Takako Inoue in 92.
Debbie would get her first (and only) taste of singles gold in early ’93 by winning the AJW Title (AJW’s secondary championship) from Kaoru Ito.
In March 1993, it all came crashing down.
Malenko suffered a career-ending injury when she shattered her ankle in a tag match with Yamada and Toyota. Malenko vacated her AJW Championship and retired from wrestling, just as the 2nd boom period had begun, and her contemporaries began to cement their legacies as legends. The real tragic thing is Debbie was just as talented as a lot of those women, and if it wasn’t for her injury she very realistically could have been the greatest gain in the history of Joshi. She should have been a legend herself, but that just isn’t the way it played out.
As we know, wrestling retirements almost never last.
While Debbie Malenko stayed retired, almost all of the major stars forced to retire in the ’80s ended up returning to wrestling. AJW was set back years with Chigusa Nagayo’s retirement in ’89, and she was about to deliver another big blow to her former employer.
In 1995, Nagayo and former AJW wrestler KAORU founded GAEA. GAEA was instantly a big deal since Chigusa was still a pretty major star. A good portion of the Chigusa Nagayo fan club that was run off six years earlier with her forced retirement, came back to support her new promotion. GAEA was never as big as AJW, but they did siphon fans from them. By 2005 it had been over a decade since Joshi in any promotion had created a money drawing star. The scene had been on the decline for years, and to put a punctuation mark on a sentence that was already written, both All Japan Women’s and GAEA closed their doors within days of each other, and almost killing Joshi entirely.
At this point, Chigusa is done as a top-level star for a major promotion, and starts running produce shows under the name “Marvelous”, which are much more casual and laid back than the brutally stiff style matches she was doing in AJW and GAEA. Marvelous is originally a promotion built around old-timers and Chigusa’s music (The Crush Gals were also pop stars in the ’80s).
That changes in early 2015 when Takumi Iroha leaves her home promotion Stardom after convincing Nagayo to start training again. In 2015 and 2016, Marvelous switches from produce shows to a real promotion, and starts creating their own stars.
With Marvelous a real promotion with a regular roster, they need to expand. In 2019, Chigusa heads to the US to run a tryout/seminar in New York. The main standout from the tryout is Masha Slamovich, who heads to Japan in early 2020, right in time for the pandemic.
Instead of heading back home, Masha spends the next year under the learning tree of Chigusa Nagayo, Takumi Iroha, KAORU, and former AJW/Survivor Series 95 star Tomoko Watanabe.
Back in January last year, Masha returned home and pretty quickly earned a reputation for working an incredibly violent and stiff style.
Masha has been getting booked seemingly everywhere in the US over the past year, from Beyond, Bloodsport, West Coast Pro, and even receiving an Impact contract. In August of last year, she wrestled on PPV at NWA EmPowerrr in St. Louis, in a Royal Rumble style match, a match that also featured Debbie Malenko.
Finally, that brings us to this Friday, January 14, 2022, and West Coast Pro Wrestling’s Situation Critical: Debbie Malenko vs “Russian Dynamite” Masha Slamovich.
ONE WEEK AWAY!
Masha v Malenko
Gray v Juicy
Homicide v Fatu
Richards v Blackwood
TJP vs Kenny King vs Titus vs Quest
Next Friday in South San Francisco
7pm PST Streaming on IWTV!
— West Coast Pro (@WCProOfficial) January 8, 2022
This is unquestionably the biggest match for Malenko since she retired as a full-time wrestler 28 years ago.
At 50 years old can she hang with a competitor less than half her age? Can she withstand the brutal offense and intensity that Masha brings? Can Debbie Malenko show us a glimpse of what was robbed nearly 30 years ago?