Those of you familiar with the fight scene in Japan, particularly Pride FC and the kickboxing platform K-1, will likely remember the names of competitors of color like Bob Sapp and Bobby Ologun. Last year, there was even an excellent documentary called “Doglegs” about a pro wrestling league where fighters with disabilities battle the able-bodied in order to smash stereotypes.
One thing these platforms have in common is that they are male-dominated. But female fighters have also taken to the rings here in Japan. These leagues — World Wonder Ring Stardom, Universal Women’s Pro Wrestling Reina and World Woman Pro-Wrestling Diana — are not household names, but the sport’s popularity is on the rise thanks to the talent, athleticism and diversity of its members. This month, Black Eye has had the good fortune to share a conversation with one of pro wrestling’s up-and-coming stars, Roni Nicole.
If you made your way over to Korakuen Hall in Tokyo Dome City or the Lazona Kawasaki Plazasol earlier this year for a WWW Diana event, you might have caught a glimpse of this young woman in all her garish glory. If not, think of the last person you’d expect to see in a Japanese wrestling match, then super-size that and paint it black. I myself have not had the pleasure of seeing her in the ring yet, but I have watched several of her matches on YouTube, and she does not disappoint. Perhaps the Diana events are bit scaled down from the kind of pageantry and pyrotechnics an American like myself, weened on what is now the WWE, has come to expect, but most of the other elements are there: plenty of spine-snapping piledrivers, gut-smashing banzai drops and whiplashing lariats to go around.
Even Roni was a little banged up when we spoke but, according to her, that’s par for the course in the wrestling game.
“It’s not a matter of if you’ll get hurt, it’s when,” says Roni, better known to her growing fan base here in Japan by her ring moniker, Big Bang Nicole. “You try to make sure you abide by your training, and hope that your opponents do the same. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t, but luckily I haven’t had any major injuries.”
The 29-year-old Houston native reminded me of a number of professional wrestlers I’d seen interviewed in one respect — that is, that when they’re out of character and being themselves, they tend to be quite the opposite of what you might expect. I was hard-pressed to match the eloquence and gentility of her voice and character with her ring persona — one of calculated insanity paired with ferocious ring-craft. Though I’m of the mind that the outcome of most wrestling matches are decided long beforehand — not so much fixed as choreographed — I still couldn’t help but feel pity for anyone foolish enough to climb into the ring with the Big Bang.
I was always curious what would lead anyone into a career with a shorter shelf life than milk left on a counter, one where pain and parody are daily companions, and fame and fortune only finds a relative few. But, over the course of our conversation, Roni’s passion relieved me of that curiosity. Through the pain she was currently enduring — that initially taxed almost every utterance but was gradually suppressed by her joy in sharing her story — she expressed primarily high praise for the sport and for all of those souls who’ve devoted themselves to its perseverance and prosperity.
She shared with me that wrestling had been an ambition of hers since childhood, one that has survived a number of other career-worthy undertakings, including modeling and acting. In fact, these junctions on her path turned out to be skills that would prove useful once she realized her ultimate ambition. Like Beyonce, she kept more than hot sauce in her bag.
“Film, theater, television — I was involved with anything that was entertainment-based,” Roni explains. “I did a lot of independent films, commercials, stage work, catwalks and pageants, dance, cheerleading, modeling, karate, basketball — you name it. All of these things culminated to help with my professional wrestling career, because there’s a little bit of everything under the umbrella of wrestling.
“I’ve been attracted to wrestling since I was a child, both watching it and participating in it. I had older friends and family who were wrestlers. I used to watch them compete in scholastic wrestling at different competitions and tournaments, so I’ve always thought that wrestling and the grappling arts was neat, unique and something I was capable of doing. Unfortunately my school did not allow females to wrestle, so I was not able to scholastically pursue wrestling at that time.
“Moreover, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV because my mother wanted me to focus on my studies,” she says. “But, one night when I was sneaking to watch TV, I caught the inaugural “Monday Night Raw” (the first live televised WWE event). It was something I’d seen before but never seen before, you know? It was a whole other level of pageantry and magnificence, and I was instantly taken in by that. The characters depicted were a little passe for today, but back in the day they were awesome. Fighters like Yokozuna, like Shawn Michaels and Max Moon, Paul Bearer and Undertaker were a little over-the-top but they exuded charisma and confidence, or inspired fear and dread. As a child, with that imprinted on my mind, it became a driving force to keep me striving to achieve this dream.”
Four years later, pursuit of that dream would lead her to Japan and under the auspices of Kyoko Inoue, founder of the WWW Diana — and, coincidentally, Roni’s favorite wrestler.
“I remember watching matches on TV with Kyoko Inoue, Manami Toyota and Aja Kong. So, to then go work for Inoue, I was just blown away!” Roni says. “All of these women have had such illustrious careers. And now here I am, part of that legacy, part of the Diana family! It’s just incredible.”
I’d seen some (OK, maybe more than some) women’s wrestling matches in the States back in the day, and to say it was anything more than a T&A fest with big hair, scant and/or outlandish outfits and unimaginative gimmicks would be overstating it. But, at Roni’s prompting, I watched some video of Inoue and Toyota having it out back in 1992, and I could see what had impressed her. The match was nothing short of off the chain!
“I’m very grateful that WWW Diana is such a great company. They are literally one of the only joshi (women’s) companies in Japan with all veteran members who are extremely old school, which is how I was trained back in the States. Japanese old school and American old school are not the same, but at the end of the day, it’s an older style and I connected with it more. I guess I’m old school too.
“The training is extremely difficult, comparable to how Spartans were trained back in ancient times, I imagine,” she says, laughing. “It took me about three months to get used to how intense it was. Fortunately they adjusted it a bit due to my size. By the time you get used to one hell, they hit you with another one. But the training gets you to a level where you can perform consistently and effectively at a high caliber all the time, because we trained six days a week and wrestled two to three times a week.”
And the benefits went beyond improved conditioning. Before being invited to come wrestle in Japan, she had actually lost some of her zeal for the sport, due to all the foolishness, dishonesty and lack of forthrightness she had had to endure back in the American wrestling world.
“So, actually coming here and getting to experience wrestling without ego, without unnecessary politics and drama — to be able to just focus on the craft, and to really hone my skills and absorb as much knowledge as possible, and to sit under the learning trees of people I’ve admired my entire life — I really can’t express the gratitude I felt. It totally refueled my passion and changed my mind-set, and helped me adjust to the differences to the training I’d received in the States, so that it didn’t seem so dire as it had before I left.”
Roni was also impressed by how wrestling is viewed in Japan.
“It’s definitely a rite of passage to wrestle in Japan. Many American wrestlers went to Japan because Japan is the mecca of wrestling. So you come here and hone your craft and endure the crucible here so that when you return to the States, that upsurge of variety is there for you.”
Adjusting to the difference in the nature of the audiences was something that took some getting used to as well. Wrestling tends to bring out the rowdies — people prone to getting a little out of hand.
“The crowds here are different than in the States. If you play the WWE game, the audience would generally be rowdy, cheering, throwing things and getting crazy. However in Japan, the crowd is normally really quiet. There’s a level of conservatism here. That is, unless they see something that is really impactful.
“I think it’s because in the States, where the behind-the-scenes of the wrestling business has been so exposed, ‘kayfabe’ (the suspension of disbelief in the wrestling world) is dead. But here in Japan, kayfabe is still very much alive. So for the Japanese fans it’s still real, and for myself it’s very real.
“So, for me, just being able to interact with fans who usually clap and show their appreciation, when you get a big reaction from them, that makes you feel wonderful. Especially as an outsider, a foreigner, coming into the Japanese wrestling world, which you can see is taken very seriously, it is a great feeling when the fans have a positive reaction.”
As is the case with everyone, we view life in Japan through the lenses we brought here with us. And as a black woman clocking in at 160 cm and 93 kg among typically attention-averse Japanese folk, she isn’t immune to life here as a conspicuous foreigner outside of the ring.
“However, I feel very embraced here,” Roni says. “And that was very surprising. I’ve met a few groups on Facebook, other African-American women living here and having vastly different experiences. But I also realize that I’m a professional wrestler in Japan, and everybody looks at wrestling differently. If you say you’re a wrestler in the States, people are like, ‘Oh, do you know John Cena?’ Say no and they disregard you. Where as in Japan, if you say ‘I’m a joshi,’ you get ‘Sugoi! (Amazing!)’ People here have a completely different view of me because of what I do here.”
And what she does is amazing. Her signature moves and finishes are jaw-dropping! There’s the Black Death (a front-flipping piledriver), the Death Dealer (a lariat) and her finisher to end all finishers, the Big Bang (a second-rope banzai drop). The latter would even give the legendary Rikishi a run for his money.
Her future here is still in question, though, but she remains optimistic about her prospects.
“I’m currently contracted to wrestle eight months a year here but I’d like to stay and work in Japan on a more permanent basis for starters,” Roni says. “And eventually I’d like to be naturalized!”
I don’t know about y’all, but I’ll be making my way out to see the lovely Big Bang Nicole when she makes her return to the ring in early 2017. In the meantime, have a joyful holiday season and a healthy and prosperous new year!
Facebook page: Roni Nicole / Big Bang Nicole. Instagram: @Glitterliciousfierce. Twitter: @Glitterlicious. Black Eye appears in print on the third Monday Community Page of every month. Baye McNeil is the author of two books on life in Japan. See www.bayemcneil.com. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org.