The story of Ayako Hamada is really a bigger picture of wrestling politics and outstanding performance in a forgotten era of Japanese wrestling and Lucha Libre, which in the 23 years since her debut has left her with an envious resume as one of the world’s premier workers. However she has also never quite got the respect she truly deserves. A second generation stand out that was tracked for stardom from the day she left high school.
Hamada is the daughter of Gran Hamada, the man who revolutionised Japanese wrestling with a hybrid Strong Style Lucha approach and the sister of fellow Strong Lucha proponent Xóchitl Hamada. She was almost genetically designed to the task of being a standout women’s wrestler in any style. So much so that she was clearly tapped to be a star from a very young age.
Enter into the scene one Rossy Ogawa. Rossy had learned his craft of promotion in All Japan Women during its peak years, and had developed connections within the industry during its heavy cross promotional period of the early 90s. Using his connections he built a roster around Aja Kong, the former WWWA Champion who had just left AJW herself. Kong was installed as the ace of the company and set about impressing the wrestling direction she wanted: a Joshi/Strong Style hybrid that relied heavily on submissions and shoot style wrestling.
The roster would train weekly with their counterparts in the Battlearts and Pancrase Dojos. In their own dojo, Mariko Yoshida held sway. The AJW veteran was known for her aerial Lucha onslaught, but changed tack for this part of her career and developed a revolutionary submission approach that grounded her on the mat and allowed her to develop truly innovative offence. The Air Raid Crash that’s been adopted by everyone from Eli Drake to Drew McIntyre was invented by Yoshida. It was into this fertile creative ground that Hamada joined the roster at the age of 17.
Hamada was so high on the promotion’s list that they actually showed her High School graduation on TV, which to be fair is somewhat creepy for a company that called its first show Virgin. Ogawa has never been backwards in coming forwards when it comes to the sex appeal of his wrestlers, and ARSION was sandpit for the promotional ideas he would later perfect with World Wonder Ring Stardom. Hamada, a stunningly beautiful woman with an athletic figure, fitted his bill of what a top star should look like. While she was polished in the hybrid style that would become her hallmark in the ring, she was on posters and in calendars outside of it in as little clothing as possible for most of her run.
Back in the ring her climb was somewhat meteoric. She started up a tag team with dojo sister Mika Akino, now AKINO, and they would take the Twin Stars of Arsion Tag Team Championship in 1999. Hamada had been in the hunt from the birth of those belts, losing the final match of the round robin tournament with her original partner Tiger Dream (Candy Okutsu) to determine the inaugural champions.
Akino and Hamada were a wonderful tag team. Both young and double tough, they would take hellacious beatings from their opponents and keep going with a look of grim determination. It was clear they would be the stand out stars of the fledgling company; it was just a matter of who would get there first.
Kong, for her part, was doing her best to help develop the profile of the group and its young stars. Yoshida had been the inaugural Queen of ARSION Champion. Kong then took over from her with an epic 485 day run that solidified the company’s draw and gave time for the undercard to develop.
Meanwhile, Akino and Hamada had simultaneously had a 233 day tag title run that established them in the company and saw the wonderfully evil LCO, Mima Shimoda and Etsuko Mita – arguably the best Joshi Tag Team ever – come into the company and help get them over. Attacking Kong on their debut, Shimoda and Mita were a slick tag team that had seen and done it all. They also loved violence. Hamada and Akino may have bled buckets, but by the time they were done with the LCO they could main event anywhere in the country.
The catalyst for this upward mobility came when Hamada took the Queen of ARSION title in December of 2001. She beat Kong for the belt and was pushed to the top of the company. In that time period there were very few who could touch her in ring quality. However, all was not well with the good ship ARSION. Ogawa and Kong started to have strong issues with direction and Kong quit the company in 2001.
With her mentor gone, Hamada continued on her championship run, but equally saw the writing on the wall as Lioness Asuka was brought in as head booker and she focused her time on the LCO, Gami and herself. In fact, it would be Asuka who would unseat Hamada for the title in 2001. Hamada turned heel not long after, leaving the company, with a somewhat curious booking direction. The obviously power-abusing leader of the company was portrayed as the good person, while the woman who had been there literally since the start – and who embodied the promotion’s direction – was portrayed as the bad guy.
It was a situation that could not stand and in 2002, feeling she had done all she could and been punished for it, Hamada moved onto GAEA Pro Wrestling. ARSION soldiered on for another 12 months before Rossy called it quits and the company was taken over by Yumiko Hotta and renamed AtoZ.
ARSION and Ayako Hamada were a match made in grappling heaven. It was a company where she found strong mentors that allowed her to flourish, some have argued it was the perfect wrestling experience. However, for that four year stretch there were very few people who could live with Hamada. Her skill, her selling and her determination made her the Queen of Queens – a title we will talk more about in part two of this series.