You cannot fake being a badass. Curl your lips and puff out your chest all you want; the wrestling audience can see through that toughness as an act rather than a state of being.
Shinobu Kandori’s badassery is no act. It is not a gimmick, a character, a persona. It is the core of her DNA.
That was her greatest asset when she wrestled for JWP in the late ‘80s, when she was LLPW’s fist-wielding flagbearer through much of the ‘90s, and when she prowled the joshi independent scene until her retirement in 2022.
Kandori has often been compared to Brock Lesnar, a surprising parallel at first considering her far less hulking frame. The Kanagawa native stands around 5’7’’ (170 cm). Her arms always boasted plenty of muscle, but her overpowering aura never came from her size and physiology.
Instead, the reason one’s brain goes from Lesnar to Kandori is they both boast a rare realness. Moments into watching a Kandori match, the audience knows she is legit. Watch her crack her knuckles across someone’s jaw or snatch her foe’s arm in her hawkish grip. There’s something especially menacing about everything she did in the ring.
And Kandori walked into wrestling with a combat sports background. She was a champion judoka who won the bronze medal at the 1984 World Championships. Kandori also later amassed a 4-1 record as an MMA fighter, a career that ran concurrently with her wrestling one.
Her judo experience carried over to the squared circle, helping give her a terrifying aura. She looked as if she could outgrapple and outmatch any woman she was in there with.
In 1987, an incident only amplified that air of intimidation. Kandori came to blows with Jackie Sato, a star in the ‘70s and ‘80s and founder of JWP. Their personal issues turned one of their matches into a shoot fight. The match devolved as it went on, Kandori beating on Sato, an assault so severe that it led to Sato’s retirement.
The incident led Kandori to LLPW where she spent the bulk of her career.
It was as a representative of that company at AJW’s interpromotional Dream Slam event in 1993 that Kandori had perhaps her magnus opus. Her battle against Akiro Hokuto remains one of the most brutal bouts in the history of the sport.
Besides being an absolute must-watch for all fans, it’s a picture-perfect display of what made Kandori great.
Just seconds into the match, Hokuto punches Kandori out and grabs the mic, berating the short-haired bruiser. Kandori’s responds by tearing at her foe’s arm, a farmer trying to rip a plant out by its roots. Hokuto is left with a dangling arm, in need of medical assistance.
Fight fire with fire indeed.
They collide in the stands and in the ring until both women’s faces are left bloodied. Hokuto is a warrior through it all and Kandori is the monster testing her mettle.
Kandori’s viciousness compels. She’s not just executing offense; she’s performing a dissection. She scraps her shin across Hokuto’s face, chokes with her legs and flings her around indignantly.
Like many a joshi match from this era, the enemies take turns dropping each other on their heads. Danger is constant. Merciless rules.
This is the precise environment where Kandori most thrived.
Consider another ruthless showdown further evidence: Shinobu Kandori vs. Bull Nakano in a chain match at an AJW/FMW/LLPW supershow in Tokyo, July 1994.
Kandori’s bulldog ways are displayed even before the bell as these two foes brawl, before they can even be attached by the length of chain that will define this bout. A whole mess of attendants have to pull these animals apart.
You can tell from Kandori’s scowling face she so badly wants to be set free and inflict all sorts of violence.
Despite the bandage she wore to battle, Kandori goes on a headbutt barrage. She nails the powerful Nakano with a succession of on-the-button punches. Kandori’s strikes are so believable, such effective thudding hammering attacks, that you have to guess she held little back.
One of the lasting images of this match is Kandori pinned against a ring post, the chain around her neck, her teeth stained red, eyes blind with blood. Oddly enough, even in this position, she does not come off as the victim but rather a predator temporarily delayed. Payback is coming, you can be assured of that.
When Kandori hits back she does so with a whirlwind of violence, whipping and choking Nakano with the chain.
The whole contest is a demonstration of both women’s ruggedness, their ungodly high tolerance for pain, and pure, uncut ass-kicking.
Kandori’s match at AJW Kawasaki Crimson Struggle in 1998 against Manami Toyota is another apt showcase of her skills. She entered as WWWA World Single Champion, carrying that big gold belt with all kinds of swagger.
There’s an intensity and urgency to the match from the opening seconds. Toyota knows full well that she has to bring everything to have any shot.
Kandori’s hazardousness nature is clear time and again. She grabs hold of Toyota before she’s even had a chance to take off her entrance robe, latched onto her with the worst of intentions. She shoves a dropkick attempt aside and barks at her. Perhaps she is insulted this opponent didn’t simply give up before the fight began.
The threat of Kandori’s submissions looms over the entire match.
Every time she gets close to putting an armbar or ankle hold on, Toyota slips away desperately. Even as brave as Toyota is, her fear reverberates. You get the feeling that if Kandori gets her move locked in, it will be akin to an alligator locking its jaws on an animal’s leg bones.
Toyota’s fear comes true as Kandori yanks her leg back and forces her to submit, an absolute rarity in the all-time great’s career. Kandori is free to pace the ring and raise her arms in victory while Toyota lay immobile, clutching her leg, awash with pain.
This is the kind of image Kandori painted for us throughout her long, underappreciated career.
It works far better when there is little need for suspending disbelief. It works on a deeper, visceral level when the audience trusts in a wrestler’s might.
Kandori did just that. She attacked the art of wrestling with the ferocity that flames attack kindling, and all of us malice enthusiasts will be forever grateful.