The Rock. Bruno Sammartino. Andre the Giant. Antonio Inoki. Stone Cold Steve Austin. Hulk Hogan. Hiroshi Tanahashi. The Undertaker. John Cena. Giant Baba. These are some of the most popular names in history from across the wrestling world that brought in millions of television viewers for their respective companies….except….there’s a big omission from that list. And the sad thing is, there’s a big chance you’ve never even heard of them.
In the 1980s, Nagayo Chigusa and Lioness Asuka were genuine pop culture icons in Japan. They were crossover stars well before The Rock and John Cena, they were household names before Hulk Hogan. They set records for Japanese television, and even recorded some pop records in the process! No wrestlers were as hot as the duo known as The Crush Gals.
Both debuting in 1980 for All Japan Women’s Wrestling at the ages of fifteen and sixteen respectively, Nagayo and Asuka showed a lot of promise from an early age. After a few years of competing as singles wrestlers, Nagayo and Asuka decided to come together and form The Crush Gals. By 1985, they were two of the biggest stars in all of Japan. Acclaimed wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer believes that The Crush Gals “took the popularity of women’s wrestling to a mainstream level that it never achieved before and has never achieved since.”
All Japan Women’s Wrestling was the first all-female wrestling promotion to hit the mainstream. Their talent was not sexualised, competitors were able to display their in-ring skills, they did not shy away from physicality, whilst simultaneously appealing to younger fans. Within this environment, Nagayo and Asuka excelled. Being pitted against much larger and much more devious duos such as Bull Nakano and Dump Matsumoto, Crush Gals were the young, innocent underdogs that were impossible not to route for. By always fighting against the odds, and due to their really young ages at the time, teenage girls began watching All Japan in their millions.
It was their biggest feud with the aforementioned Nakano and Matsumoto that cemented them as two of the biggest stars of the 1980s in Japan. During this period, All Japan’s Fuji Television show, regularly main-evented by The Crush Gals, was drawing in ratings of 12.0 and higher on a regular basis, meaning at least 12% of Japanese televisions were tuned in to see these teen idols. Compare that to Monday Night Raw in America, where the highest-rated segment they’ve ever had (that’s not even the rating for an entire show) was a 9.5.
All Japan’s live attendance and television figures were so consistently impressive that they managed to catch the attention of the Wall Street Journal, a publication that at the time never had covered pro wrestling, not even in America. Yet in 1985, a journalist representing the publication traveled across the world to witness what was making this promotion such a cultural phenomenon. Whilst it’s clear the Wall Street Journal did not think much of the pro wrestling itself, they note how these stadiums were filled from floor to ceiling with frantic and often sobbing teenage girls, and were clearly impressed by the business the likes of Nagayo and Asuka had produced.
During their brutal rivalry with Matsumoto and Nakano, the feud became so heated and personal that members on each side were willing to lose a part of themselves just to see their opponent embarrassed. For the first time in history, in August 1985, All Japan held the first-ever female hair vs. hair match between Nagayo and Matsumoto.
Taking place at Osaka’s Ōsakajō Hall, bringing in 15,000 live fans and drawing the equivalent of an unprecedented $250,000, Matsumoto and Nagayo brutalised each other in front of millions of viewers around the country. By stabbing her in the forehead with a fork, causing a bad, bloody cut, Matsumoto drained Nagayo of strength, causing The Crush Gal to lose the match. In front of thousands of openly sobbing young girls, Chigusa was forced to have her head completely shaved.
It was revolutionary spectacles such as this which have lead many to herald Nagayo Chigusa as arguably the greatest female wrestler of all time. Although Asuka is fantastic in her own right, Nagayo is considered a pioneering genius of the sport. Pro wrestling at the time typically revolved around conflict between clearly defined lines of good and evil with rather simplistic stories, yet Nagayo transformed all of that with a wide range of impressive moves, the introduction of weapons and blood, and boundary-pushing story line ideas. Not only did she have an elite level of talent inside the ring, she had a mind years ahead of her time for the business outside of it too.
Through this new world of in-ring theatre that the Crush Gals had crafted, and the millions of young viewers they had brought with it, the number of teenage girls with aspirations of stepping between the ropes inevitably increased. Each year, All Japan held auditions to find potential new talents, where they would take on around ten new recruits a year. In their peak year of 1985, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, All Japan received 3,000 applications.
As you can imagine, many joshi pro wrestlers in the years that followed credited Nagayo and Asuka for being their main inspiration for stepping into the ring. They were a different kind of idol to girls that displayed strength and independence. Without The Crush Gals, we may never have seen some of the greatest of all time, such as Manami Toyota, compete inside a wrestling ring. Plus, we would have never gotten some top quality J Pop hits!
That’s right, not only were The Crush Gals top-drawing pro wrestlers, they were pop stars too. And I don’t mean bottom of the bargain bins, no hit wonders, the duo had several top ten hits in Japan. They were genuinely one of the biggest musical acts in the country for a time, whilst simultaneously being the country’s two most popular female wrestlers. On top of that, they appeared in documentaries, cooking shoes, on magazine covers, and much more.
As close as their bond was, and as beloved as a duo they were, fans knew there was still a competitive streak between Asuka and Nagayo that on rare occasions would come to the surface. From time to time, The Crush Gals would end up having to face one another, and they would not hold back whatsoever. In fact, you would think they were bitter enemies due to how intensely physical they were with each other. Once the pinfall had been counted though, Nagayo and Asuka would go right back to being great friends once again.
The waves these two legends were making in Japan were great enough to catch the attention of the World Wrestling Federation, who brought The Crush Gals over, along with The Jumping Bomb Angels, for their short-lived women’s tag team division. Although not pushed in the same manner as the Bomb Angels were, and they did not garner even a small fraction of their popularity from Japan over in WWF, they did appear on television whilst with the company.
As time went on, as with most trends, The Crush Gals’ popularity began to decline. Before it could be completely milked dry, the decision was made to split the duo up, and pit them against each other. Asuka and Nagayo went from the best of friends, into the fiercest of foes. After forming the most popular team in all of Japan, the former Crush Gals went on to have possibly the most iconic feud in joshi wrestling history. In fact, their multi-year rivalry sparked several of the best matches of the decade, two of which gained a five-star rating from Dave Meltzer.
However, not everything was as pleasant as it may have seemed for these successful pop culture stars, as once both of these women reached the still youthful age of 26, they were forced to give it all up.
As popular as All Japan was, as much freedom these women had inside the ring, and as much as they were presented as serious athletic competitors, joshi wrestlers were still oppressed by their male employers. In All Japan Women’s Wrestling, all talents were forbade from consuming alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or having relationships – these rules weren’t suggestions, they were seriously enforced.
Plus, as popular as these women were, their salaries were regulated to just over $500 a month, regardless of how well the company was doing. Luckily for The Crush Gals, they managed to earn over $100,000 a year at their peak due to outside ventures, yet unfortunately most other wrestlers had nowhere near the amount of financial opportunities Nagayo and Asuka were given.
And then, we get to the mandatory retirement. Regardless of how insanely popular you were, how healthy your body felt, or how much talent you had, All Japan bosses believed that nobody would be interested in female pro wrestlers if they didn’t have their youthful looks, so without any exception, all performers were forced to hang up their boots once they turned 26.
So that’s what Nagayo and Asuka did. Despite how beloved they both still were and how revolutionary they had become, they were not exempt from the rules. With Nagayo especially, her incredible popularity was still glaringly obvious when the time came for her to leave the ring. At Nagayo’s retirement match, the show drew an incredible $500,000 in ticket sales, the first women’s wrestling show in history to achieve this. The audience shrouded the ring with streamers in an emotional show of respect towards their idol. WON journalist Dave Meltzer stated, “She’s the single most popular and arguably the most historically important female wrestler who ever lived. To this day, in pro wrestling or MMA, not Hulk Hogan, Steve Austin, Kerry Von Erich, Dusty Rhodes, or Chuck Liddell could match the reaction [he] saw that woman receive live in her heyday.”
Thankfully, by the 1990s, the rules of joshi wrestling had changed in Japan, allowing Asuka and Nagayo to both return to the ring. As well as actively competing until as recently as this very year, both women went on to help run promotions and train many of Japan’s best talents of the last few decades.
The Crush Gals achieved a level of popularity in Japanese pro wrestling that I believe nobody will ever come close to reaching again. The duo managed to cross over into mainstream stars whilst still being innovative geniuses in their craft that influenced a whole generation of wrestlers. Without Nagayo and Asuka, who knows what the state of joshi wrestling would have been in for the last 30 years.
When it came to being stars of pro wrestling, it’s fair to say that these two gals crushed it.
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