Sukeban Brings Japanese Women’s Wrestling to America

At around 10:30 p.m. last Wednesday, in a downtown skate park under Interstate 95 in Miami, four wrestlers entered a ring: Bingo, Midnight Player, Rina Yamashita and Stray Cat.

More than a thousand people, including men in baseball hats and Miami Dolphins jerseys and one woman holding a small dog, lined metal barricades around the platform. They hollered as wrestlers took their places. The smell of marijuana, and car exhaust from the highway above, filled the air.

Stray Cat, wearing black latex and a feline-inspired mask, faced off first against Bingo, a Harlequin-like character dressed in a white suit covered with black diamonds.

“Stray Cat! Stray Cat! Stray Cat!” the audience chanted.

Bingo lunged forward, thrusting her arm out and thumb down. Stray Cat raised her leg into the air and kicked Bingo in the chest, causing the wrestler to double over. Stray Cat grabbed her opponent’s arm, spun it around her back and threw her in a headlock.

This was Sukeban, a new women’s wrestling league featuring Japanese performers — the first of its kind in the United States.

It is one of many leagues dedicated to Japanese women’s wrestling, where athletes often perform theatrical, hard-hitting punches and clever defenses while telling a story with their moves and costumes. Sukeban places a particular emphasis on fashion, and well-known designers, including Olympia Le-Tan, a founder of the league and its creative director, helped to produce the costumes and props with the hope of appealing to an audience unfamiliar with the sport.

On hand for the event was Bull Nakano, the commissioner of the league and a retired professional wrestler who performed in Japan.

“I wrestled for so many years,” she said, through a translator, “and I feel honored to now be a part of this transformation of Japanese female professional wrestling into more of an artistic and entertaining form.”

Before the event, which was touted as the first Sukeban World Championship and held during Miami Art Week, attendees browsed a Tokyo-style market. They sipped on Orion beer, snacked on popcorn and surrounded the ring in anticipation of the night’s six wrestling matches.

Eighteen wrestlers who compete professionally in Japan participated in the match. They were grouped into four gangs, the Vandals, Cherry Bomb Girls, Dangerous Liaisons and the Harajuku Stars. The athletes, each of whom has a specific persona, battled one another using their costumes, gestures and facial expressions to tell a story about good versus evil, organizers explained.

In Japanese, the term sukeban refers to a “delinquent girl” or “leader of a girl gang” and the name of the league is a nod to the female gangs of the 1960s and 1970s that helped to bring feminism to the fore in Japan.

Ms. Le-Tan said the league’s mission was to bring a sport that had been popular in Japan for years, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, to the United States.

“These young girls would come to watch and be inspired by them, and they would hang posters of them in their room,” Ms. Le-Tan said, adding, “That is what we want to bring to today’s generation.”

Organizers are now planning to hold matches across the United States. The league’s first event, held in New York City in September, was sold out, and another match is scheduled to take place in Los Angeles in March.

Notable artists have created memorable looks for the matches. Ms. Le-Tan, who has her own housewares and accessories line and has worked with Marc Jacobs, designed the costumes. Stephen Jones, the British milliner whose clients have included Lady Gaga and Diana, Princess of Wales, made the headpieces. Marc Newson, an Australian industrial designer who is represented by Gagosian, created the championship belt.

Isamaya Ffrench, a makeup artist who has worked with labels including Thom Browne and Off-White, created looks for each character. She focused on highlighting the personalities of each of the wrestlers. “It was all very much an organic response to the clothes,” she said.

Between matches, the wrestler Crush Yuu said she was so excited to participate in Sukeban that she quit her last team to join the league.

She said she saw Sukeban as an opportunity for a collaboration between Japanese and American culture, and a chance to expose U.S. audiences to professional female wrestling. She was particularly encouraged by the warm response from the crowd in Miami.

“The U.S. crowd gave me more confidence than I usually have going out there,” she said, through a translator, adding: “And it contributes to my growing love of America.”

As midnight approached and the sound of cheering fans bounced off the interstate above, Ichigo Sayaka and Commander Nakajima entered the ring for the championship match.

While Sayaka spoke to the referee, Nakajima slid behind her, grabbed her opponent by the back of the knee, and hurled her to the ground. The official leaned down on the mat, banged the floor three times, and declared Nakajima the victor.

Bull Nakano, the commissioner, climbed under the ropes to present the fighter with the championship belt.

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for joining us this evening,” an announcer bellowed. “This is Sukeban!”

Katie Van Syckle reported from Miami, and Alyson Krueger reported from New York.