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The Smark Henry Hip Toast: Nina

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Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Smark Henry's recurring series, a little something we would like to call the Smark Henry Hip Toast—our happy place where we interview various personalities in pro wrestling, shoot from the hip, and raise them a toast. We will be looking at the men behind the personas and giving you all an intimate look at the wrestlers who are helping build this wonderful sport and turn it into something really special in this country.

It's been a long time since we last saw her in PWR, and in today's installment, we talk to a woman who defied all odds to make it back into the ring, albeit in an unexpected capacity: Nina!

*****

When Ralph Imabayashi declared an open challenge to compete for his PWR Championship at the next PWR Live, nobody expected the turn of events that would shake the Philippine wrestling scene.

After more than a year, Nina made her return to PWR—and officially made her main show debut in what would become a huge main event angle. She would drop multiple bombshells about her friendship with the man who successfully defended his title against a game Zayden Trudeau. She represented her boyfriend, Koto Hiro, in challenging the Kampeon ng Pilipinas for the company's top prize, causing a complicated situation between the recently-revealed couple and MTNH in the process.

And in the span of a few minutes, Nina's main show debut would cause an immediate impact in the main event scene, opening up a new dynamic never-before-seen with the dominant Imabayashi. Her debut immediately sold the first all-Japanese main event bout in PWR and Philippine wrestling history, a far cry from when she debuted during the Wrevolution X 2017 pre-show.

For all intents and purposes, things are finally going her way.

The crowd loved every bit of the banter between Nina and Ralph, with gasps in between every burn and revelation. And how did she feel when she made her surprise main show debut?

"Nerve-wracking," Nina tells me. "Man, the fans were loud, though. Haha! I knew a lot of people weren’t going to recognize me, so I honestly didn’t know what kind of reaction I would’ve had. But what I ultimately got was more than I had ever expected. It felt nice.

"Most of the roster didn’t even know what I was going to do. I got all dressed up after the intermission, and everyone was like, 'Alis ka na? Ba’t naka bihis ka na?' and I just gave ‘em a wink. They, for sure, saw me pacing around backstage trying to calm my own nerves. Not only had I never cut a promo in a PWR show, but that was going to be the first time I even step in between those ropes after more than a year. I felt like I was coming home.

"And shit, is that considered my main roster debut? That’s freaking awesome."

The last time we officially heard from Nina in regards to her local wrestling involvement, it was during her fateful tell-all after last year's Wrevolution X. At the least, she kept herself busy since then, as she would tell us herself.

"I’ve been continuing my studies—thesis work is dreadful, y’all—and I’ve had small voiceover and commercial gigs here and there. That’s pretty much it, really. My life’s not that interesting outside of wrestling. I can’t believe it’s been over a year since I’ve debuted..."

As she continued to live her life beyond the four sides of a wrestling ring, her passion for all things wrestling never changed. And despite the setback from more than a year ago, she found various ways to fuel said passion.

"You’ll see me, still, at the PWR shows in my cute lil’ hoodie helping out as much as I can as a ‘young girl,'" she says. "I decided to keep helping out at the shows—whether it’s ushering, carrying boxes, folding merch, or picking up wrestlers’ gear—because I love my PWR family and I love wrestling too much to ever walk away from it. It doesn’t really matter to me what I do as long as I can be a part of the whole spectacle somehow, even if it’s just the smallest backstage stuff."

But how about when she isn't showing her support in a local capacity?

"My habits never really changed: I continue to watch wrestling religiously and I keep learning from it all the time. If anything, being benched amplified my love for pro wrestling. I mean, I thought I loved it a whole lot before—but it’s in a whole new level now that I don’t get to do it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt this driven to do anything else in my life. It’s definitely the rebel in me."

To say that the past year was a trying time for Nina is an understatement, all things considered. But thankfully for the Rebel of PWR, she found the right support system at the right time in her life, and the answer probably won't surprise you.

"Primarily? Koto."

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"Okay, this is going to be dramatic, but... after my article came out, I was admittedly in the worst place of my life. I lost everything and pushed everyone away, because... I didn’t know what to do with myself and I didn’t know how to handle my emotions properly. I was so unaware of how self-destructive I became and how much I was actually grieving, especially after losing wrestling. My life was almost like the end scene of the latest Avengers movie where everything/everyone important to me was just fading into dust. No, you guys, I was not, at all, as strong as I probably sounded like on the article I wrote.

"The moment it sunk into me that I was going to be alone in all of this, and the moment I’ve realized that I needed to get back up my feet all by myself, was when Koto waltzed in my life and turned everything upside down. There hasn’t been a single second where he hasn’t stayed by my side, especially through the occasional sob sessions I’d have when I suddenly miss wrestling.

"He always chose to see the light in me. And with that, he’s been nothing but supportive, constantly reassuring me that everything is going to be okay and that I’ll get my ass in a ring again someday. The wrestler in him also teaches me everything he can possibly teach me about wrestling without necessarily taking a bump, and he tries his best to get me to work out even though I ultimately choose to eat a donut instead. He’s the best and I don’t know if I’d be in this good of a spot in my life right now without him. I’ve been tremendously happy and content—definitely the polar opposite from where I was last year."

And the support for Nina definitely did not stop with Koto, not by a long shot.

"I must mention Ralph Imabayashi—yes, he really is my best friend in real life. (Take that, Red.) [He stayed] with me no matter how down I was. He’s continued to provide me wrestling videos, GIFs, and just so much wrestling knowledge every single day, making sure I never stop learning. He, along with Koto, encourage me and lift me up everyday, and I can’t thank these two enough for always wanting the best for me.

"And of course, the very little things the PWR guys—and even some of my MWF friends—say about me returning mean the whole world to me and I don’t think they even know it. Every little 'balik ka na, dali,' 'bigyan ka nalang namin ng maskara, okay lang yan,' '‘di namin sasabihin na ikaw,' and all those other silly jokes have lifted my spirits up and actually gave me a tighter grip on my dreams. These people, along with the fans, have never made me feel less than [myself], and they always made sure I still feel a part of this family even though I can’t perform. I am eternally grateful.

"I guess, while I’m here, I’ll also give a shout-out to my Smark Henry family, as well the loyal fans, who’ve also been here for me throughout the year. They’ve helped me become a better person, too, and have always been very supportive of me and my wrestling. Thank you."

But when did this relationship with Koto Hiro start?



"I owe every bit of our relationship to wrestling and PWR," Nina tells me. "Without it, I wouldn’t even have known he exists.

"There’s obviously two sides to the story. But as for me, I was basically just chilling in my own corner and I was noticing him ever-so-slowly coming onto me on my social media pages. Of course I knew what he looked like by then, because I had already forced Ralph to take pictures with him backstage without his mask on at PWR Live: Resbak specifically so he could send them to me. I was curious, and I couldn’t be there because I was grounded.

"And I mean, I don’t want to brag or anything—or maybe I do—but for those who have no idea what he looks like under the mask, I feel so bad for you. He was carefully crafted by God, honestly. So I always thought—as well as all the others with a functioning pair of eyes, really—that he’s very gwapo. So when he used to randomly reply to my tweets, or like my selfies on Instagram, ya girl had to capitalize.

"Just (half) kidding. Like I mentioned earlier, I was in a very dark place at that time—almost too dark to give a shit. But upon getting to know him, I learned that he is, in fact, completely different from the character he plays in the wrestling world. Like, really different. If anything, real-life Koto Hiro is closer to Nina than [the Koto Hiro character]. Hahaha! We are the same people, like two peas in a pod, with everything in common and the same views in life.

"Although long distance can be tricky, we were impatient and we just didn’t want to lie to ourselves by holding off our feelings for a year and wait to be together, just because we couldn’t hang out in person. So we make it work. And Koto makes it very easy for me—ladies, he’s the kindest, most caring, most loving, most respectful, most loyal, most patient man despite my diva ass. Haha! Kidding. Seriously though, I couldn’t ask for better, and he makes me feel like he’s always close, even if he’s 8,000 miles away. I’m truly the luckiest."

Speaking of Ralph and Koto, it turns out these two main eventers have always wanted to get into the ring with one another. And while we can expect their main event encounter to be something special, circumstances allowed this match to be infused with more drama than usual, making for a unique encounter in the main event. And with Nina involved, it was the recipe for the perfect storm.

"I was never really part of this feud to begin with," she explains. "With Ralph being my best friend and Koto being my boyfriend, they both always relayed to me how much they wanted a match against each other. So, Ralph went to go request that and PWR made it happen.

"Just like in the promo, I was merely the bridge between the two, just excited for both of them to have a potentially awesome match. I was ready to cheer them both on the side in my young girl uniform, and that was it.

"They’ve been talking about what they’re going to do for freaking months now and thought about some of their moves already. Koto mentioned about having me involved somehow, and Ralph did, too, at some point—but I never completely sunk my teeth into the idea just because Nina and Koto Hiro are such different characters, that I always thought it might make zero sense to work with each other. Additionally, there clearly wasn’t enough time to create a storyline between us that would work; and, of course, it’s been pretty much planted in my head that I wouldn’t be allowed to step into any ring until, well, who knows.

"It was, still, an exciting little idea, but it started to become more real until Ralph came forward to Koto and I and formally asked if I could be involved in this storyline. I then considered asking permission for all of this—and once I had it, it hit me: I was going to perform. It may not be in the way I had hoped… But in my position, I’d take any appearance and any bit of mic time I can possibly take.

"I then started to get really, really excited. The PWR booking team had a challenging directive for this storyline, though. I felt so useless in it—I felt like Koto didn’t really need me at all. So Ralph and I did our very best to make my involvement as interesting as possible."

And all things considered, if there is one thing people need to give them credit for, it's the way these guys have sold the story in today's kayfabe-breaking environment.

"Ralph adores Brock Lesnar," Nina shares. "And I get worked by Lesnar’s storylines all the time. They have this tendency to really blur the line between reality and kayfabe—and in this generation of wrestling fans, you can’t bullshit them anymore with over-the-top gimmicks. I’ve noticed that it is the stories who use or base themselves off of real events that best bring out the audience’s emotions. Confusing them makes them go nuts, so we both knew deep inside that we had to do something like that.

"Now, Ralph loves to work people, too, if you follow him enough on social media—he’s so great with that character stuff. When I asked him what the hell we were going to say in our promo, he literally said 'Bahala na. Just feel it out. No need for scripts. Your reactions would be more genuine that way.'

"So that’s when I was convinced that Ralph is freaking crazy. But, oddly enough, I completely trusted him. We had no script, and no real direction for that promo, literally other than 'okay, so this is the part where I introduce myself, then this is the part where Koto’s video comes out, and then just insult the shit out of me after, and then I’ll close it.'"

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"That was it, folks. We didn’t know what the hell we were getting into.

"Ralph was so out of it during that promo, too—he couldn’t even properly look at me in the eyes. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t remember half the things he said during that segment. A lot of the stuff in it was real, and a lot of it was not real. But what falls under those categories exactly, we’ll leave it to your imagination... All I know is that people are actually enjoying it and creating debates over it. Maybe it’s because it’s a very relatable story, or, Filipinos just really enjoy their teleseryes. The locker room genuinely thought Ralph and I would have a serious fight backstage. I think that was pretty cool."

Nina may be serving as a manager and mouthpiece at this time, but as far as her long-term goals are, well, that should be easy for anyone to guess.

"Whatever it is I do while stuck in this particular situation—whether a manager or a young girl—I will end up as an active competitor again. My dreams don’t stop here. I will never let it go.

"I’m still young, so I understand I still have lots of time. I understand that my career will move in my own unique pace. I can’t truly plan the places I’m going to go to in the future because none of us know what opportunities would be up for grabs once I’m back. All I know is, PWR is my priority because PWR is my home. PWR is where I started and so PWR is where I’ll return.

"However, I do picture myself eventually following Koto’s footsteps and will probably end up joining the SoCal scene. It’s going to kick my ass so hard like I see it kick Koto’s every week, but I just know that an environment like that is going to make me a much better performer."

Professional wrestling is truly implanted in the DNA of PWR's rebel, both in the ring and in real life, and it's only a matter of time before she finally gets to live out her dream once again in one form or another. And whatever happens in the future, no matter what...

"Wherever the wind takes me, professional wrestling will always be a part of my life."

Photos from Nina and Koto Hiro. Video from Philippine Wrestling Revolution

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