Comic elements have featured regularly in Western pro wrestling for many decades. While presented seriously in its early decades (1890s-1930s), pro wrestling began increasingly featuring comedic angles or performers, perhaps first widely popularized by Gorgeous George, whose campy, prissy persona transgressed gender boundaries and expectations, infuriating most male and intriguing many, though certainly not all, female fans. By most accounts, Vince K. McMahon is a big fan of comedy in wrestling, and the WWF/WWE has regularly featured comedic characters, promos, and angles since the mid-1980s, from The Rock’s over-the-top promos, heavily laced with humorous verbal jabs at his rivals, to wacky heels such as The Genius (Lanny Poffo), who few, if any, fans could possibly have viewed as a serious threat to top babyfaces.

However comedic the WWF/E could be at times, McMahon’s circus does not hold a candle to Hustle, a Japanese promotion that took comedy in pro wrestling to bizarre, wonderfully absurd new heights from 2004 to 2010.

I was bogged down with a seemingly insurmountable mountain of work in grad school when Hustle debuted in 2004, and didn’t really have the opportunity to watch many shows. I was certainly aware of the promotion, and its bizarre angles and characters certainly intrigued me, but grad school has a way of superseding all else in one’s life. Finally, in 2017, I decided to rectify that, and have been watching the entire run of Hustle shows, from 2004 to 2010.

What I’ve discovered is a promotion that offered an alternative venue for many well-known Japanese wrestlers to present themselves in an entirely different, over-the-top fashion, as well as a forum for non-wrestlers such as Hard Gay and Yinling the Erotic Terrorist to become superstars both in and out of the ring.

Many of Hustle’s angles and characters challenged the conventional norms not only of pro wrestling, Japanese and otherwise, but of Japanese society more broadly. This essay will provide an overview and analysis of some of the promotion’s most famous angles and characters, in hopes of arriving at a clearer understanding of Hustle’s uniquely Japanese presentation and appeal.

Brief History

Hustle began as a side project of its parent company, Dream State Entertainment (DSE), which was much better known globally for its mixed martial arts promotion, PRIDE. PRIDE revolutionized mixed martial arts, beginning with its first show in 1997,[1] by offering a more spectacular presentation of a sport still largely in its infancy. PRIDE featured most of the world’s foremost fighters at one point or another, including numerous members of the legendary Gracie family from Brazil, Russian phenomenon Fedor Emelianenko, future UFC stars such as Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Antonio “Minotauro” Nogueira, and “The Axe Murderer” Wanderlei Silva, as well as a regular smattering of “freak show”[2] fighters, usually pro wrestlers looking for a big payday despite the high probability of losing.

Overall, PRIDE was a critical and financial success, and widely regarded by MMA fans as the best promotion in the world in its heyday. Ultimately, PRIDE was undone by scandal: persistent rumors of yakuza investment and involvement in the company led to the loss of its television deal with Fuji TV in 2007 and subsequent sale to Zuffa, the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), on May 25, 2007.

Hustle was launched by DSE in 2004 as a “sister” promotion to PRIDE, but it was drastically different in content and character, if not completely dissimilar in presentation. Former pro wrestler and (largely unsuccessful) MMA fighter Nobuhiko Takada and PRIDE referee Yuji Shimada took on the bulk of the creative duties, with the idea of presenting Western-style “entertainment” wrestling that contrasted sharply not only with their sister promotion’s (mostly) real fights, but with the typically-serious, sport-like presentation of pro wrestling in most Japanese promotions. Beginning with Hustle 1 (January 4, 2004) at Saitama Super Arena, a regular PRIDE venue, the central “storyline” in Hustle was the conflict between a babyface alliance, the Hustle Army, and the Monster Army, led by Generalissimo Takada (the aforementioned booker), clad in an outrageous costume clearly inspired by M. Bison from Street Fighter II.

Takada

Figure 1: Generalissimo Takada. Image credit: Andrew Quentin, Flickr.

The narrative structure of the shows resembled episodes of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, in the sense that they often began with Takada and his cronies, including wrestler and (largely unsuccessful) MMA fighter Yoji Anjo, in their smoky, purple-hued lair, plotting the demise of the babyfaces. As in Power Rangers, this usually involved commissioning the “monster of the week” to take down top babyfaces such as former IWGP (New Japan’s top belt) heavyweight champion Shinya Hashimoto and Naoya Ogawa. Following the conclusion of most shows’ main events, Takada would appear with his Monster Army on a balcony or entranceway to “Pomp and Circumstance,” the entrance theme for both Gorgeous George and Macho Man Randy Savage, taunting and threatening the babyfaces, setting the stage for the next show in the process.

Hustle 1’s main event saw Bill Goldberg defeat Ogawa, a former judo silver medalist who had wrestled for New Japan and fought for PRIDE (though I and many others doubt their legitimacy) and had, until Hustle, largely been presented as a serious “shooter.” In Hustle, Ogawa and former New Japan nemesis Hashimoto were akin to wacky, mismatched buddy cops, with extensive backstage skits, serving as co-leaders of Hustle’s babyfaces until Hashimoto’s sudden death from a brain aneurysm in 2004. Subsequent early Hustle shows would see foreign “monsters” such as MMA fighters Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman, nWo founding members Scott Hall and Kevin Nash, and various other high-profile foreigners[3] pitted against Ogawa, Hashimoto, and their allies. Entering 2005, Hustle began relying less on high-profile foreign talent in favor of Japan-based performers.

Yinling and Hard Gay

In 2005, two of the most unusual and unlikely main event stars took Hustle by storm. First, Generalissimo Takada introduced a whip-toting disciplinarian woman, Yinling-sama (in Japanese, “-sama” is an honorific suffix usually used when addressing an elder or superior) who bullied and terrorized his other lackeys and threatened the babyfaces. Yinling (Taiwan-born, Japan-based model Yan Yinling) was not a pro wrestler, but rather a self-styled “erotic terrorist” who had featured in photoshoots that drew heavily from communist military and propaganda imagery, featuring her toting guns and wearing skimpy versions of military uniforms. She had also dabbled in pop music, forming the JOYTOY duo with her photographer.

Yinling’s persona and performances were heavily sexualized and steeped in BDSM imagery, and her presence had absolutely nothing to do with her (non-existent) in-ring abilities. While she occasionally “wrestled,” usually in tag matches that would see her whip an opponent repeatedly before squatting on his or her chest for the pinfall, her most notable work was in lengthy promos that typically ended in her leading a “monster” countdown that ended in her squatting on a rotating platform, with unsubtle camera zooms on her crotch. This was a heel response to the babyfaces ending their promos by doing the “hustle” along with most of the audience. Much like the sexualized presentation of women in Western pro wrestling in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Yinling’s presence depended primarily on her status as a sexual object, at least on the surface.

Yinling

Figure 2: Yinling. Credit: Hustle Official Website.

I would, however, argue that Yinling was much more than a sexual object for male gratification. While that was certainly part of the presentation, she was also presented as assertive and intimidating, with both her fellow heels and babyfaces reacting fearfully to her whip-swinging and angry, aggressive promos. In Takada’s Monster Army, she was clearly second-in-command, ordering underlings around with an air of confidence and superiority. Perhaps owing to Hustle’s complete departure from the sporting conventions of puroresu, most main event feuds and storylines from 2005 to 2008 featured her prominently, despite her lack of in-ring ability, and she consistently elicited some of the strongest fan reactions throughout her run. Traditionally, women in puroresu were presented as serious competitors in separate joshi promotions such as All Japan Women and ARSION, and never used as eye candy, as was so often the case in the United States.

Furthermore, mixed-gender tag matches were practically nonexistent in Japan, further adding to the novelty of featuring Yinling against mostly-male opponents in tag and (on rare occasions) singles contests. Her angles were both among the most bizarre and memorable in the history of Hustle. For example, she once laid an egg that eventually hatched into the babyface “Newling,” her “daughter,” who was (of course) Yinling in a slightly different-style costume (complete with horns). After Newling was “killed” by a laser shot by The Esperanza (Takada as a supernaturally-gifted, zombie-like monster), Yinling returned. In a 2007 tag match against the legendary Great Muta, the latter sprayed his notorious green mist into her crotch, causing her to lay yet another egg, which would later hatch as her and Muta’s “son,” American-born retired sumo Chad “Akebono” Rowan (wrestling as “Monster Bono”), and the three were featured as a family unit until her “son” accidentally splashed and “killed” her in a match on May 24, 2008, marking the end of her short but memorable pro-wrestling career.

For much of Yinling’s run in Hustle, one of her primary babyface rivals was Razor Ramon Hard Gay, often referred to in Hustle as “HG.”[4] I’ve spent nearly my entire life watching pro wrestling from around the world, and Hard Gay is probably the most unusual and unlikely babyface I’ve ever seen. Like Yinling, Hard Gay was not a seasoned pro wrestler; he was a comedian named Masaki Sumitani, who had gained a great deal of media attention and success through his most famous character, whose name was of course partly inspired by Scott Hall’s WWF character Razor Ramon. Sumitani was a wrestling fan who had dabbled in independent wrestling, but had become a media sensation as Hard Gay, who would, in the vein of Sasha Baron Cohen’s Borat or Bruno characters, ambush unsuspecting people with his outlandish appearance and behavior.

Hard Gay typically wore leather or PVC short shorts with matching vest and cap, a parody of gay fetish subculture (or at least Sumitani’s take on it; he evidently frequented gay BDSM clubs while creating the character). A typical Hard Gay sketch, featured on various Japanese variety shows, would involve him approaching random strangers and offering some sort of assistance, such as carrying grocery bags or volunteering as a waiter at a ramen noodle shop. Of course, his kindly assistance was usually accompanied by campy gestures and frequent pelvic thrusts, resulting in a broad range of uncomfortable reactions from his unwitting targets. Sumitani himself was not gay, and the Hard Gay character, which led to a great deal of mainstream attention and success, drew understandably significant criticism for its extremely stereotypical and potentially detrimental portrayal of homosexual men.

HG

Figure 3: Razor Ramon HG. Credit: Andrew Quentin, Flickr.

A 2006 article in The Japan Times noted that public reactions to Hard Gay were extremely mixed. One openly gay man noted his disappointment that HG was not actually gay, meaning he was essentially “making fun of us.” Others saw HG as a “funny” and positive figure, through his acts (silly though they were) of kindness and “masculine” portrayal. The latter may sound odd to a Western reader, but in Japan, gay men are often portrayed as feminine “drag queens.” You may also wonder how any Japanese homosexuals could view HG as a positive figure, but Japanese society has remained far less tolerant of open homosexuality, particularly among men, than many Western societies. In such a context, even a ridiculous parody like HG who, despite his wacky behavior, comes across as kind and sincere in his treatment of others, could be understood by some as a positive depiction of a homosexual man. Of course, others interviewed in the article expressed their disappointment that HG’s popularity essentially meant that mainstream Japanese society viewed gay men exclusively as objects of derision, to be laughed at rather than accepted and acknowledged.[5]

In Hustle, Hard Gay debuted largely as a foil for Yinling. Unlike Yinling, however, he developed into a very competent worker, possibly due to his previous experience as a small-time independent wrestler. Hard Gay entered the ring to Ricky Martin’s hit song “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” and quickly became the most over babyface in the company. Using moves such as the “69 Driver,” a tombstone piledriver preceded by pelvic thrusts to his opponents’ faces, HG was an overnight sensation. He was generally smaller than the other male wrestlers, allowing him to play the sympathetic babyface in most matches. Not only did he consistently receive the biggest pops of any wrestler in the company, but fans began dressing like him, with some going so far as to dress their young children in similar costumes. At Hustle 14 on March 5, 2006, Hustle made light of Hard Gay’s critics, featuring him in a tag match against the “PTA,” masked wrestlers dressed in conservative female pantsuits, while HG entered accompanied by a large group of children wearing his signature cap and shades. In 2006, presumably operating from the premise that one can never have too much of a good thing, Hustle debuted Sumitani’s friend and fellow comedian Makoto Izubuchi as the comically-awful Real Gay (RG), whose in-ring character was depicted as completely outmatched and inept.

At the first Hustlemania (November 23, 2006), HG faced Takada’s alter ego, The Esperanza, in a main event that was arguably, at least in my own viewing, the most theatrical pro-wrestling match of all time. The Esperanza no-sold everything, and used telekinetic powers to flip and throw wrestlers without touching them, and HG seemed destined to lose until Newling appeared at the entrance stage, playing an ocarina that, for some reason, rendered The Esperanza vulnerable to HG’s offense. Finally, Takada’s cronies attacked Newling and stole her ocarina, allowing The Esperanza to point his index finger at her from the ring and “kill” her with an invisible laser beam. As a mic-wearing Yoshihiro Tajiri, who had been madly in love with Newling, cradled her “dead” body and lamented her demise from the stage, The Esperanza regained his invulnerability and quickly dispatched HG. Never in his wildest dreams could Vince McMahon have presented such an operatic main event,[6] which thoroughly blurred the lines between ring and stage.

Flipping the Script

Throughout its existence, Hustle offered opportunities for wrestlers who had achieved fame in other promotions to experiment with radically different characters and presentations. I’ve already mentioned the “shooter” Takada’s transformation into the Generalissimo, countered by Naoya Ogawa’s transformation into “Captain Hustle,” occasionally wearing a wacky Elvis-style white jumpsuit. Up and down the card, one could find other instances of wrestlers exploring their previously-unseen comedic sides.

All Japan Pro Wrestling legend Toshiaki Kawada featured prominently in Hustle, first as himself, then as the heel “Monster K.” Kawada is widely regarded as one of the best Japanese workers of all time, having been a major star in the All Japan main event scene in the mid-to-late-1990s alongside Mitsuharu Misawa, Kenta Kobashi, Jun Akiyama, and Akira Taue, and competing in numerous (for what it’s worth) five-star matches, according to Dave Meltzer. Throughout his career, Kawada was portrayed as a serious, stoic figure whose stiff strikes and moves spoke for themselves. His serious persona served as an amusing foil for HG and others, who tried unsuccessfully to get him to join their increasingly elaborate group “hustle” dance. In 2006, Kawada occasionally opened Hustle shows clad in a tuxedo, singing (terribly off-key) Sinatra-esque ballads, to the delight and amusement of fans who had never seen him do anything remotely silly in his lengthy career.

Another dramatic departure from the norm came from female wrestling legends Aja Kong (Erika Shishido) and Amazing Kong (Kia Stevens, also known as Awesome Kong in TNA/Impact). Both women had been presented throughout their careers as ruthless monsters who dominated their usually-smaller opponents, but their characters in Hustle were a far cry from the unstoppable bullies they’d portrayed elsewhere. In Hustle, Aja Kong became Erica and Amazing Kong became Margaret. They wore bright, “girly” dresses (Erica in pink, Margaret in yellow), and would frequently skip to the ring and parody typical kawaii (cute) schoolgirl mannerisms, such as giggling frequently and displaying mock shock and outrage at opponents’ aggression. It should be noted, however, that most of their matches were against men, a rarity in Japanese wrestling, but a useful way to transform wrestlers who typically portrayed larger bullies into smaller, sympathetic babyface underdogs.

Figures 4 & 5: Erica and Margaret. Credit: Official Hustle Website.

Conclusion

Not only did Hustle allow wrestlers to develop radically different personas, but it also presented novel spectacles to Japanese fans unaccustomed to certain elements common in Western pro wrestling, such as short matches,[7] intergender bouts, general managers a la RAW and Smackdown, extensive backstage skits, and in-ring promos. The prominent presence of women in assertive, authoritative roles (most notably Yinling, but a kimono-clad Hiroko Suzuki[8] also served as heel General Manager in 2005-2006), despite the heavy reliance on their sex -appeal, offered a strong contrast to the near-complete absence of women in major non-joshi Japanese promotions.

Hustle was not the first (or last) Japanese wrestling promotion to present Western-style “entertainment” wrestling; Frontier Martial Arts Wrestling (FMW), formerly known best for its extreme hardcore matches featuring barb-wire and explosions, presented a series of outlandish characters and angles in the late 1990s, including an “Ass Explosion Death Match” between Hayabusa and Mr. Gannosuke and a cigarette-smoking, white underwear-clad heel faction called Team No Respect. Dramatic Dream Team (DDT, 1997-present), a successful indie promotion, has also relied heavily on comical “entertainment” elements and wrestlers throughout its existence, such as comedy wrestler Danshoku Dino (whose antics as a gay stereotype are often far more outlandish than HG’s in Hustle) and internet sensation Joey Ryan, who flips opponents with his penis.

Neither FMW nor DDT approached Hustle’s mainstream success, however, partly due to the latter’s backing from DSE. Of course, DSE and PRIDE’s demise in 2007 marked the beginning of the end for Hustle as well. There were various efforts to keep the promotion afloat, but Hustle folded in October 2010. Despite some characters and angles of questionable taste, Hustle was a bold experiment in pushing the boundaries of “sports entertainment,” crossing lines even McMahon’s WWE/F rarely approached at the height of the Attitude Era, at times blurring the distinction between wrestling and theater.[9]

Hustle certainly isn’t for all wrestling fans, but if you’re in the mood for excess wackiness, over-the-top characters, and grand theatricality in your pro wrestling, it’s definitely worth checking out. There are quite a few clips on YouTube, though unfortunately there are no official releases to be had in the United States outside of the old “tape trading” networks/sharing with other fans.

[1] They probably left out the “Razor Ramon” part due to copyright concerns.

[2] Eric Prideaux, “Hard Gay: Is this really just good fun?” The Japan Times, March 19, 2006, accessed November 27, 2017, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2006/03/19/to-be-sorted/is-this-really-just-good-fun/.

[3] An incredibly diverse range of performers that included Cactus Jack (Mick Foley), Tiger Jeet Singh, Rikishi, and Giant Silva.

[4] The first four PRIDE shows were promoted by Kakotougi Revolutionary Spirits (KRS). DSE’s first PRIDE event was PRIDE 5, on April 29, 1999.

[5] I.E., individuals who really had no business participating in a legitimate fight.

[6] Such as the aforementioned egg-laying, laser-shooting, and telekinesis.

[7] Most Hustle matches were ten minutes or less, since the emphasis was more on storylines and characters, supplemented by lengthy in-ring promos and backstage skits. This was itself a departure from the norm in puroresu, where main events often lasted and continue to last thirty minutes or more.

[8] She also served as a valet for her husband, Kenzo Suzuki, in his brief 2004-2005 WWE run.

[9] Indeed, in many of its promotional materials, Hustle was referred to as a “Fighting Opera.”

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