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Cafe Puro (9/21/15): Yuzuki Aikawa, From Gravure Idol to Joshi Icon





Ladies and gentlemen, a picture is worth a thousand words. To that point:


This is Yuzuki Aikawa (or Yuzupon to other fans), a popular model and gravure idol with a ton of credits under her belt. She was featured in various magazines, DVD's, and programs, as well as having voiced a character in the first game in the Yakuza series and being part of an idol group at one point (among other projects). It seemed as though she had a bright future ahead of her since debuting in 2003. As a matter of fact, her star was so bright, she became recognized as the future of the gravure idol industry with much ahead of her.


Here's a funny thing about the Japanese idol industry: if there is one thing that was for certain, it is that being an idol is only temporary. Idols are the equivalent of maidens in an industry that demands beauty in the highest standard. So in a way, Aikawa may have been dubbed the future of the idol gravure industry, she had to look into the future when the day comes. Let's face it: age becomes a factor in entertainment, moreso in Japan.

So if I told you that she would be regarded today as one of the top joshi puroresu legends in the modern era, would you have believed me? 


Well, believe it or not, she became the most iconic joshi puroresu star in the last number of years, having brought a new kind of popularity to the world of joshi. Quite interesting, considering how the most common criticism in the last number of years (for the most part) has been the correlation between looks and getting a push. And by all means, she isn't the first woman to cross over from being a model to becoming a wrestler.

But the meteoric rise of Yuzuki Aikawa is not just reliant on her tremendous looks. For how admittedly beautiful Aikawa is, she also showed tremendous workrate and charisma as a joshi star, resulting to a star that appears every once in a blue moon. Think Trish Stratus and Charlotte Flair, two women who started as blank slates but eventually became superior stars in their own right.

But before she became the joshi icon that she is today, she had to start somewhere. And that somewhere is a promotion that she would be associated with for her entire career.

As Aikawa made the jump from the idol world to the world of puroresu, she was receiving her initial training from retired joshi star, Fuka Kakimoto, and Tokyo GURENTAI's Nosawa Rongai. During this period, a new promotion was being established by promoter, Rossy Ogawa, the aforementioned Fuka Kakimoto, and joshi star, Nanae Takahashi. The end result was the birth of a new joshi promotion, named World Wonder Ring Stardom (or Stardom for short), on 2010. 

The objective of Stardom was simple: to appeal not just to puroresu fans, but to cross over to the public conscience. And to achieve this, they looked towards their centerpiece: recently retired gravure idol turned rookie pro wrestler, Yuzuki Aikawa. 

It was in the same vein as Pro Wrestling NOAH promoting Jun Akiyama as the next big star when the promotion first launched. The move seemed to be a risk, but Aikawa had two things going for her: the fact that she was already a recognized figure in entertainment, and the fact that she was well-versed in Taekwondo and ballet. Her Taekwondo influence would be evident throughout her entire career, as reflected with her finishing maneuver, the Yuzupon Kick, an axe kick that looks every bit as vicious as it feels.

October 31, 2010 would forever be known as the date of Yuzupon's puroresu debut, facing Nanae Takahashi during Aikawa's own produced show. This match became infamous for not just Aikawa's debut match, but also for how much punishment she received in the hands of the veteran. It was so much of a beatdown, it may very well be considered some sort of initiation. 


But something happened: fans were appreciative of the effort this former gravure idol displayed. For how much of a beating she received, she was also getting as much love and attention from the fans for being so gutsy to receive that kind of punishment. And you know how much fans love their underdogs.


And then Stardom began with their first show on January 2011, with Aikawa getting a number of opportunities along with her fellow rookies. It wasn't long before Yuzupon got her first wrestling win, and became as much of an active wrestler as she can be. Her efforts were well rewarded, as she became the initial holder of the Wonder of Stardom Championship, the promotion's equivalent to the Intercontinental Championship. She won the title by overcoming the heavy hitting Yoshiko in the finals of the tournament to determine the first champion. This became her first and only reign in her entire career, as well as the longest ever, lasting more than 600 days. And that is besides being one half of the inaugural tag champs, aka the Goddesses of Stadom Champions. This made Aikawa a double champion, and the first in Stardom's history.


Along the way, she also began to appear for DDT Pro Wrestling as a member of Sanshiro Takagi's AKB48-inspired faction, TKG48 (which was previously mentioned here). She made appearances for the promotion, becoming a recurring fixture for the company in the process. She has also encountered some high profile male wrestlers in the ring, including Yoshiaki Fujiwara (the man who invented the Fujiwara Armbar) and Minoru Suzuki (whom she had to use her "gravure" charms against at one point). And at one point, she even fulfilled a long-time dream by competing in All Japan Pro Wrestling, the promotion that inspired her to pursue her pro wrestling dream, and teamed up with Keiji Mutoh in the process.


Along the way, having fought notable names like Hikaru Shida, Io Shirai, Yoshiko, Nanae Takahashi, and Act Yasukawa, she managed to garner the attention of critics and fans alike. As a result, she became the only female in history to win the award for top joshi star for two consecutive years, 2011 and 2012, by the highly regarded Tokyo Sports in their year end awards. That's a pretty big deal considering her competition for the award, which includes Kana (now known as NXT's Asuka), Meiko Satomura, and Mio Shirai. And did I mention that she won those awards during her first two years in wrestling?


While we're on the subject, you know who won the male MVP awards on those years? Hiroshi Tanahashi and Kazuchika Okada of NJPW, respectively. And you know who won that award for two consecutive years? Okada, Genichiro Tenryu, Antonio Inoki, and Jumbo Tsuruta. Pretty good company, if you ask me.


Sadly, due to health concerns, she had no choice but to retire from the ring and had her final match on April 2013 at the Sumo Hall, the first time a joshi promotion had an event there in years. Her opponent in the main event was none other than her familiar foe, Yoshiko. It was during this time that she had to relinquish her Wonder of Stardom Championship after having held it for 2 years, filled with successful title defenses (the tag titles were also relinquished prior to that due to her partner's injury).


Aikawa may not have been able to go further in her puroresu career. But for the 2 years of living a dream, she not only became the figurehead of a promotion, in effect giving other joshi stars that much needed exposure, but also highlighted joshi puroresu in a tremendous light, especially in an era of idols and beauty queens. She managed to also give a boost to fellow joshi companies like Ice Ribbon, as well as other reputable companies like DDT. And throughout these 2 years, she demonstrated how despite her looks, she would deliver the best possible match for the people who are paying to see a great show.

Why does this matter now, in this day and age?

Because in the world of women's pro wrestling, it is simply difficult to find women who can break through and become icons. Back in the infancy of joshi puroresu, they were able to find female stars who became crossover successes in their own right, hitting the right notes to become part of societal conscience. The Crush Gals, the team of Chigusa Nagayo and Lioness Asuka, not only became arguably the greatest female tag team of all time, but they also became a phenomenon in a cultural sense, having been involved in concerts and the like. And while we're at it, their home promotion, All Japan Women's Pro Wrestling (or AJW for short) became the home for quality women's matches while keeping the popularity of joshi puroresu alive until its eventual demise in 2005.

In mainstream pro wrestling, the last woman to become a success both in-ring and out is Trish Stratus. Hers was a story of proving that despite her history as a model, she managed to work hard and end up as not just the Diva of the Decade, but also a certified Hall of Famer in her own right. No one has legitimately reached the heights of Stratus to this day.

And now in NXT, people are hailing the developmental system as the home for quality women's wrestling, an art that has been gravely underestimated in the main roster for a long time. And despite the mixed criticism to the "Divas Revolution," one thing was for sure: the main roster sure got a hell of a deal with Charlotte, Sasha Banks, and Becky Lynch becoming part of Monday Night RAW.


A little faith goes a long way. After all, who would ever have imagined that perceived models like Aikawa and Stratus would become icons in their own right? Who would have thought that a green wrestler like Charlotte would become practically the Brock Lesnar of the women's division? Who would have thought that Eva Marie, for all her criticisms (most of which have been justified) is getting a second chance, and with training from Brian Kendrick, no less? And let's go one step further: who would have thought that the biggest draw in the UFC is a woman asskicker?

For Aikawa's part, she jumped into the world of pro wrestling from her perceived comfort zone of being an idol. It was a scary idea for someone like her to embark in such a journey, but look where we are now, talking about Yuzupon with such high regard. Despite her retirement a few years back, her influence still runs rampant to this very day.

So I guess with everything that's happened, it all comes down to one lesson: don't let anyone tell you what you can or cannot do. All it takes is a little faith and a lot of hard work to make something out of nothing. Remember, Yuzuki "Yuzupon" Aikawa started from this:


And ended with this:



*****


Lance Tan Ong has been a banking guy for the past few years but a wrestling guy for most of his life. And after checking out matches of Mitsuharu Misawa and Shinya Hashimoto at an early age, he's also pretty much a puro guy as well. Currently checking out WWE (mostly NXT), NJPW, DDT, and other promotions that catch and demand attention. He currently handles NJPW news and coverage for Smark Henry.

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