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Friday, Nov. 26, 2010

Women's wrestling seeks to regain its mojo

Kyodo News

It was a hit back in the 1980s and 1990s, but women's professional wrestling has fallen on hard times.

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Grappling for success: Emi Sakura is interviewed at Ice Ribbon's gym in Saitama Prefecture. KYODO PHOTO

However, a new generation of wrestlers has emerged that includes housewives and office workers. The Internet has also rekindled interest to the extent that it is now possible for people anywhere to watch matches online.

NEO Women's Professional Wrestling, once a key driving force behind the industry's success, is going to fold at the end of the year.

"We don't have any financial problems, but after veteran wrestlers retired, few new women took up wrestling," said NEO Women's president, Tetsuya Koda.

Women's wrestling began losing fans when stars like Akira Hokuto and Bull Nakano left the ring, leading to a sharp but unexplained decline in aspiring future wrestlers.

While small gyms abound, few have more than 10 wrestlers and most matches are held in small venues.

But one organization, Ice Ribbon, is expanding.

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Body slam: Pro wrestler Makoto (left) performs in a match at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo. KYODO PHOTO

The Saitama Prefecture-based entity is in the midst of a meteoric rise that has put it in the ranks of the nation's top wrestling gyms just four years after it was founded in 2006.

It now boasts more than 20 professional female wrestlers and is still counting. It holds more than 100 bouts a year in its ring in Saitama and organized three contests this year at Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, which can accommodate up to 2,000 people.

Ice Ribbon also offers wrestling classes to amateurs, some of whom go on to become professionals.

Among them are housewives, office workers, high school students and TV celebrities.

"It's quite rare for female professional wrestlers to compete and have other occupations at the same time," Ice Ribbon President Hajime Sato said.

The organization's leading wrestler, Emi Sakura, 34, said, "You can't become a pro unless you've acquired great skills, so the success stories of wrestlers who have made it in the ring can be promoted commercially."

For Makoto, a 21-year-old wrestler with Ice Ribbon, success didn't come easy. In her early days, she looked so amateurish in the ring that she was once called "a listless fighter."

Still, there were people in the crowd who rooted for her.

"That gave me strength," she said.

She also believes aesthetics is a crucial aspect of being a female wrestler.

Besides continuing to hone her athletic skills, she has endeavored to bring out the best in her physical appearance and has since become an established star.

Rie Hayakawa, a women's wrestling enthusiast who works for a company in Ibaraki Prefecture, said that "as a woman, I admire the way other women grow stronger and more beautiful."

Ice Ribbon has done well because it gives athletes a lot of leeway, leaving them to decide when and how many hours they should practice and whether to enter a match.

"Professional female wrestlers have traditionally been subjected to strict regimentation, but today's young women wouldn't like that," said Koda of NEO Women's Professional Wrestling.

"This kind of disincentive can be overcome by organizations with a new kind of ethos, such as Ice Ribbon."

Ice Ribbon star Sakura wants to see more women take up professional wrestling.

"It's not easy to become a pro, but I hope women who see wrestling matches will get motivated and try to fulfill their dream as wrestlers."

Meanwhile, attempts are being made to promote women's wrestling to the wider public.

When the industry was at the height of its popularity, television stations would broadcast matches live, but now such programs are rare.

Concerned that the world of women's wrestling might be consigned to oblivion, Sayaka Obihiro, 24, a professional wrestler who formerly belonged to Ice Ribbon, launched an entity called 19 O'Clock Girls Prowrestling to stream live coverage of wrestling for Web viewers around the world. The group enlisted help from Ice Ribbon and began its online service earlier this year.

The title match in August attracted nearly 800 viewers in Japan.

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