Zenjo Strongest: Aja Kong vs. Kaoru Ito
One of the major AJW stories of 1997 was Kaoru Ito’s singles push, which attempted no less than transforming a veteran who never had a run with any of the three major titles (red, white, or tag) into a singles main eventer over the course of less than 5 months! Had the promotion possessed any foresight they would have had Ito defeat Reggie Bennett in the final of the vacant All Pacific Title Tournament on W.W.W.A. CHAMPIONS NIGHT in SAPPORO 6/22/96, giving her some focus and credibility that would at least have given her a slight chance to make the transition so quickly, but staleness breeds desperate measures.
Kong, whose star was unfortunately beginning to fade as Kyoko Inoue ending a two year period dominated by Manami Toyota on 12/8/96 shifted Aja to third in the pecking order, was undoubtedly pissed that she wasn’t pinning Ito as always. She responded with one of those “fuck you, bookerman” performances that proved her to still be at the top of her game and deserving of the number 1 spot. Aja made Ito earn her push bit by bit, which is the best way because gaining in stages doesn’t make everything seem to be a gift, and thus the fans don’t feel the promotion is simply forcing a wrestler upon them.
The first half of the match showed Aja to be a master of knowing how to take the match up and down, when and how to transition to her opponent’s fast offense, and when and how to transition back to her own power and brutality. Kong began by thwarting everything Ito threw at her, making it appear as though she’s simply going to steamroll her. Ito came back with a touch of hot offense, but Aja cut her off before she could establish herself. Kong gave Ito her biggest beating early on, blasting her with a chair and leaving her laying outside the gym after running her into a garbage can so she could carry a portion of the guard rail back and be ready to greet Ito with it if she even bothered to come back for more.
Ito took all Kong’s brawling brutality. Strolling back to the ring defiantly though hesitantly, she proceeding to deliver her first serious segment off offense, getting the crowd behind her by giving Aja a taste of her own chaotic medicine only to get suckered when Aja snuck her can into play. Ito would get good responses coming to life with her bursts of energetic offense - she had great fire before she put on too much weight and got sluggish - but Aja didn’t seem the least bit vulnerable until a knee injury they subtly worked in proved increasingly bothersome.
Ito quickly established the bad knee could play into her offense by shifting the destination of her diving footstomp from the stomach to the knee. 20 minutes in, Aja was falling prey to Ito’s kneecap dropkick to kneebar game, and having trouble getting off the deck. Even though Ito has no legitimate submissions, the fans were beginning to buy into Ito’s chances, as she continued to bring it and Aja was writhing in pain, surviving knee submissions only after a lengthy struggle. At the 29-minute-mark, Ito had her best (only legitimate) chance to end it with her diving footstomp, only to have Aja avoid and land the uraken killshot. This was surely the finish, but Aja’s momentum brought her so far forward Ito had recovered enough by the time she made her way over to pin. The bout ended with a last hope spot for Ito, countering Aja’s nadare shiki no suisha otoshi with a sunset flip only to have time expire at the 1 count.
Ito had been ready for the top level as a worker, the question was charisma, but with a proper layout from Aja rather than the usual spot oriented sprints, Ito showed she could get the fans behind her and into the match. Though her singles push failed, it wasn’t for lack of quality matches, as the last second win over Manami Toyota on 3/23/97 this match set up and the two title matches against Kyoko on 5/11/97 & & 6/17/97 were also among the singles highlights of 1997 AJW, not to mention her 8/9/97 JGP bout against Toyota was arguably the women’s singles match of the year. ****