Monday, May 23, 2011

Hiroyo Matsumoto: The Franchise

Hiroyo hair-whipping Mio Shirai in OZ tag bout
Photo by Takehisa Kashima

I am not an expert on the life and career of Japanese wrestler Hiroyo Matsumoto, but I'd like to be.  Hiroyo caught my eye in April of 2010 when she made her first trip to SHIMMER in Berwyn, IL.  I do not know whether she had traveled internationally to wrestle prior to that, but she made a hugely positive impression on the savvy SHIMMER crowd and was invited back for the September tapings.  Unfortunately, due to injury, she could not attend in September of 2010.  Many were eager for Hiroyo's return to SHIMMER and I had the good fortune to attend the SHIMMER tapings in March of 2011 and see her live for the first time.  Two things impressed me immediately.  She is a large powerful woman and like Manami Toyota has tremendous core strength, speed, and agiity.   But unlike the great Toyota, Hiroyo is only 25 years old and at the peak of her physical abilities.  The second thing I noticed was her electrifying smile, her natural laughter, her exuberant joy in life and her love of wrestling.  Whether delivering a punch or taking one, Hiroyo Matsumoto obviously loves her work.  She and Misaki formed the tag team 3S at SHIMMER and dethroned the Canadian Ninjas prancing through title defenses against Roxx and Ariel, and Brittany and Saraya Knight before losing to Haze and Nakagawa.  Hiroyo led the team in putting on great hard-hitting matches each time, yet laced with "Be happy" joy and good humor.  3S wore their titles lightly and easily, the way the Brazilian national soccer team wears World Cup championship pressure -- as if it were just another day at the beach -- relaxed and happy.  Hiroyo's favorite saying is "SUGOI!" or "Great!"
Hiroyo in OZ Academy ring last weekend
Photo by Takehisa Kashima

So how did Japanese women's wrestling get so fortunate as to find the galvanizing fan-favorite Hiroyo Matsumoto in its sorority?  The story began when a vigorous, athletic 19-year-old was watching a wrestling match on TV.  It featured two of the dominant men in Japan at the time Kobashi Kenta VS Kensuke Sasaki in Tokyo Dome during July of 2005.  She said she was so impressed with the passion and commitment of the wrestlers that she was emotionally overcome and remembers crying in front of the TV.  Such a powerful experience can change the course of one's life and it did for Hiroyo.  She wanted to wrestle -- to feel the power, the violent contact -- to express herself physically, but also in her personality as a story teller.  But where should she turn?  She was in junior college at the time.  How does one begin a career in professional wrestling?
Hiroyo after first match, age 20

She turned to the training school of Mariko Yoshida of IBUKI.  Mariko saw her talent and nurtured it until she was ready to make her ring debut.  Mariko had been a great technical wrestler for AJW in the exceptional period of the early 1990's.  Later she joined Aja Kong in Arsion in 1998.  And finally she moved to IBUKI, her own promotion.  Yoshida is one of the smartest technical wrestlers and teachers in two decades and she became a great trainer.  Hiroyo had sought out the best.  The IBUKI trainer saw the great potential in young Matsumoto, nurtured her development, and guided her opening years in wrestling. 
Mariko Yoshida, IBUKI trainer, former AJW and Arsion star

Ayumi and Hiroyo relaxing after SHIMMER
Photo by David Falcon

Hiroyo debuted in 2006 and has steadily grown in reputation -- for the two reasons I observed earlier:  superlative athleticism and magnetic personality that exudes enthusiasm and positive energy.  She is distinguished in both singles and tag action and holds the great Aja Kong as her role model in wrestling.  Many facts from her six year career are available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiroyo_Matsumoto  From IBUKI to S-Ovation, NEO, OZ Academy, SHIMMER, Ice Ribbon, and now REINA, Freelancer Matsumoto destroys the opposition.  The boisterous and joyous cry of fans "MATSUMOTO! HIROYO! DESTROY!" is something of a clarion call for the young star.  She is only too happy to oblige her fans with a devastation shoulder charge or backdrop.  Her skill set includes high-flying, submissions, strikes, and solid mat-work (thanks to the great Mariko).  American Mia Yim, currently on a two-week tour of Japan with REINA, faced Hiroyo last week and said that Matsumoto twisted her into submission moves she had never before seen, much less experienced, in the ring.
Giving Mia Yim submission hell
       Photo by  Nobuya Iwatsubo        
                
Mia's respect is universal.  Every wrestler that faces Hiroyo leaves the experience with respect verging on "awe."  The Destroyer is so skilled, so powerful, that every opponent breathes a sigh of relief if she can walk away from the ring under her own power.  Last month in Atlanta, Hiroyo wrapped up her tour of the USA with a trip to Wrestlemania and the ROH show where she teamed with the other great joshi superstar, Ayumi Kurihara.  They took on two teams in as many days and won the love and vocal respect of the great ROH crowd.  Some fans called the matches the "best women's wrestling ever in an ROH ring."
With Jim Cornette and Ayumi Kurihara at ROH (Atlanta)

Recently Matsumoto has teamed with compatriot Tomoka Nakagawa to win the OZ Academy tag belts over former GAEA girls Sonoko Kato and Chikayo Nagashima.  Hiroyo fan and media supporter Otoko Dasadasa explained why Hiroyo is his favorite wrestler "When I think about Hiroyo's career in professional wrestling, I am happy; I get excited, and think it is wonderful!  For me, Hiroyo is the most favorite wrestler.  A lot of other wrestlers are the fighting for second or third in my affections, but never first.  That place is reserved for Hiroyo.  I think that Hiroyo is a wrestler loved by almost everyone."

 

Tomoka and Hiroyo winning OZ Academy tag titles

Michael Liao is one of Hiroyo's greatest fans in the U.S.A.  His delightful cartoon renderings of many joshi stars is unique this side of Tokyo.  Check out his excellent website dedicated to Hiroyo at http://hiroyo-matsumoto.com/ Hiroyo also has her own blog profile at http://profile.ameba.jp/hiroyo-hakai-no1/  I asked Michael Liao why Hiroyo was so popular and successful in Japan.  He responded, "Her charisma!"  But he was quick to add,  "I'm sure it helped that she was pushed and given special attention by the best - Kyoko Inoue, Aja Kong, Mariko Yoshida, Devil Masami, they all treated her like the Second Coming and gave her lots of great tutelage."  Indeed these great joshi legends see Hiroyo as the 1986 Chicago Bears saw the great Walter Payton as "The Franchise" -- that is the person on which the future of the organization rests.  Many remember Payton's nickname "Sweetness", but hardcore Chicago sports fans remember that his teammates called him "The Franchise."  That is who Hiroyo Matsumoto is to the future of Japanese Women's Wrestling.  Her athleticism, charismatic personality, and passion for the sport make her the next Akira Hokuto or Ayako Hamada. 
 
Hiroyo exultant with SHIMMER tag belt                                                                                 Hiroyo on a break at SHIMMER
Photos by David Falcon

I also asked Mia Yim about her impressions of Matsumoto after facing her one-on-one for 11:40 in the REINA ring on May 15.  "What makes her so special?  Everything! She has an amazing attitude, she is super sweet and nice. Seeing her makes me feel comfortable and right at home.  She is also very determined to be the best wrestler. She has a lot of heart. I give her the utmost respect."  This determination, so hidden from the average fan who just sees her big smile and carefree spirit in the ring, is what separates Hiroyo from so many of her fellow ring workers.  As Mia Yim recognized, it is also what earns her reverential respect from others who know how demanding the business can be.  As Hiroyo is quick to note:  "I spend a lot of time on the train and I don't sleep much."  Every joshi promoter knows that when they book Hiroyo for a match she will bring incredible spirit, heart, intelligence, and hard-hitting entertainment to the ring for 10, 20, or 30 minutes a match!  No wonder she is the most in-demand worker on the joshi scene today.

         Hiroyo receives a ribbon salute in the REINA 2 ring
                        Photos by Nobuya Iwatsubo                        
                                  Hiroyo has Mia Yim on the rack
Proof of that surfaced in a Facebook post from Otoko Dasadasa as he anticipated following his favorite wrestler this weekend.  "Next weekend is a happy day. Because I will watch Professional Wrestling REINA3 on Saturday, STARDOM and WAVE on Sunday.  In REINA3 (Hiroyo Matsumoto vs Senri Kuroki), STARDOM (Hiroyo Matsumoto vs Eri Susa) and WAVE (Hiroyo Matsumoto vs Sakura Hirota)."  In typical workaholic fashion, Hiroyo has stacked her weekend with big wrestling events.  What a thrill for lucky fans and supporters like Otoko Dasadasa who will get to see some exceptional matches (and also take some great pictures of his favorite wrestler, I hope). 
            
          Misaki Ohata and Hiroyo Matsumoto are 3S                                  Hiroyo in April 2010 1st SHIMMER
                         Photo by Takehisa Kashima                                                                   Photo by Gilda Pasquil

What Japanese promoters have known for some time -- "no one packs them in like Hiroyo Matsumoto Destroy!" -- American promoters, like Dave Prazak of SHIMMER and Jim Cornette of ROH, are discovering as well.  It will be a treat to watch this dynamic worker with the infectious joy for life and the deep love and respect for wrestling continue to develop into "The Franchise" of Joshi Puroresu in the years to come.  No one wears the mantle of that legacy crusted with the weight of pressure more lightly, easily, naturally, and joyfully than Hiroyo Matsumoto!  I can't wait for this weekend either!  I just wish I could change places with my friend Otoko!

At SHIMMER afterparty with Ayako, Ayumi, and Misaki
Photo by David Falcon

At SHIMMER intermission with Miskai and Tomoka
Photo by David Falcon

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