Joshi Watch: Gatoh Move Founder Emi Sakura

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Those familiar with Emi Sakura may only know her from her appearances in All Elite Wrestling. While she has won younger fans over due to her ring prowess and undeniable charisma, her career spans two and a half decades. The Freddie Mercury devotee herself has proven to be a formidable wrestler and a sound teacher, helping to mold the future of Joshi puroresu. From her earliest days in wrestling to the present day, Sakura’s journey will rock you.

Emi Sakura’s wrestling endeavors began in 1994. At the tender age of seventeen, Sakura started pursuing different promotions. Ultimately, she found herself working in the International Wrestling Association of Japan. Early on, Sakura wrestled under her real name, Emi Motokawa. In her debut match, in August of 1995, Motokawa faced Kiyoko Ichiki in a losing effort. 1996 saw Motokawa work singles matches against Ichiki and Sachiko Kadota. It’s important to note that IWA Japan lacked female talent. She also appeared for Japanese Women Pro-Wrestling Project in October, challenging for the promotion’s Junior Championship.

In 1997, Motokawa worked for more promotions, including Wrestle Association-R and, more prominently, All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling.

In August, Motokawa won gold for the first time when she defeated Luna Vachon for the AWF Women’s Championship. By September, Motokawa made more consistent appearances for AJW. Over the course of a few months, she picked up victories over the likes of Sachie Nishibori and Miyuki Fujii. In November, she teamed with Manami Toyota to compete in the Tag League The Best; they ended at 4 points.

Emi Sakura
Photo / Gatoh Move Pro Wrestling

Motokawa’s work in AJW continued into 1998. In fact, in January, she bested Momoe Nakanishi for the AJW Championship. She successfully defended it against such competitors as Fujii and Kayo Noumi before dropping it back to Nakanishi in April. In June, Motokawa competed in the Junior Grand Prix, amassing 12 points. This led her to the final three-way match, which was won by Miho Wakizawa. She went on to participate in that year’s Tag League The Best alongside Nishibori.

Following a final match for IWA Japan in January of 1999, Motokawa made her way Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling. She debuted for FMW in August, teaming with Kaori Nakayama to defeat Yuka Nakamura and Tanny Mouse in tag team action. Though handicap matches were peppered in, Motokawa often faced Nakayama in singles matches. Motokawa’s FMW endeavors continued into 2000, working a collection of singles and multi-person matches alike. In October, she teamed with Azusa Kudo and Hisakatsu Oya to unsuccessfully challenge WEW Six Man Tag Team Champions Nakayama, Gedo, and Jado.

Motokawa continued to work for FMW until August of 2001.

She underwent hernia surgery and was out of action for the rest of 2001 and most of 2002. She returned to wrestling in the latter year as a trainer, a role she would continue to fill in the future. By 2003, she was not only back to wrestling on a regular basis but wrestling under the name, Emi Sakura. She returned to AJW in March of that year, in addition to making appearances for promotions including NEO Ladies and KAIENTAI DOJO.

Photo / Twitter @emisakura_gtmv
Sakura’s work continued into 2004, working largely with NEO Ladies by the end of the year.

In early 2005, Sakura entered that year’s NEO Stage tournament. She made it to the semifinals, where she was ultimately bested by Mouse. In mid-2006, Sakura found herself competing for the DDT Ironman Heavymetalweight Championship; she would end up holding the 5 times throughout her career. Later in the year, Sakura formed Ice Ribbon, where she trained such wrestlers including inaugural AEW Women’s World Champion, Riho. In fact, Sakura’s first Ice Ribbon match occurred against Riho, the latter picking up the victory.

In addition to training, Sakura wrestled for Ice Ribbon throughout 2007, even partnering with NEO Ladies. Via storyline, it was explained that Sakura and Tetsuya Koda, NEO President, had a relationship. In fact, this relationship would be solidified in Feburary, when Sakura united with her Ice Ribbon comrades to defeat NEO’s Machineguns Army in a team battle royal. This victory allowed Sakura and Koda to marry, but in dastardly fashion, Sakura left her husband-to-be at the altar. Through this partnership, multiple other wrestlers made regular appearances for NEO In July, Sakura teamed with Yoshiko Tamura to defeat Misae Genki and Haruka Matsuo for the NEO Tag Team Championship; they would drop the titles to Kaoru Ito and Ayako Hamada later that month.

Sakura’s work as a trainer continued into 2008, recruiting such young prospects as Hikaru Shida.

This was done through Sakura’s work on “Three Count,” a pro-wrestling-related film that released the following year. Other real-life wrestlers, including Tamura and Kyoko Inoue, were cast as well. In April of 2009, Sakura teamed with trainee Makoto in a losing effort against Nanae Takahashi and Minori Makiba for the vacant International Ribbon Tag Team Championship. The following month, Sakura bested Takahashi for the NWA Women’s Pacific and NEO Championships, both of which she would drop to Tamura two days later. In July, Sakura ended up teaming with Takahashi for NEO’s Mid Summer Tag Tournament 8. Together, they won the tournament. In the months that followed, Sakura staked claim to the JWP Tag Team Championship, Daily Sports Tag Team Championship, and International Ribbon Tag Team Championship.

Emi Sakura
Photo / All Elite Wrestling

Sakura’s singles success in 2009 couldn’t have been ignored, either. In October, she won the ICEx60 Championship from Makoto, successfully defending it against wrestlers including Mai Ichii and Riho in the days that followed. 2009 also proved successful from a publication standpoint; the Tokyo Sports magazine awarded her the Joshi Puroresu Grand Prize for that year. This placed her in the same class of names as Hamada, Lioness Asuka, and later Io Shirai, just to name a few.

In May of 2010, Sakura added another title to her resume when she bested protege Riho for the ICEx60 Championship.

She defended it successfully against Tsukushi and Tsukasa Fujimoto in June before dropping it to Hikari Minami in July. In September, Sakura unsuccessfully challenged JWP Openweight Champion Kaori Yoneyama in a hair versus title match. Afterward, Sakura’s head was shaved. It was also in 2010 that Ice Ribbon began feuding with Sendai Girls Pro Wrestling, founded by Meiko Satomura. In September, Sakura once again won the International Ribbon Tag Team Championship, this time alongside Takahashi. This reign would come to an end in December.

In early 2011, Sakura began to team with another pupil of hers, Ray.

Together, they captured the International Ribbon Tag Team Championship from Fujimoto and Shida. They held the championship until June, when they lost to Mochi Miyagi and Hamuko Hoshi, The Lovely Butchers. Sakura won the title back from The Lovely Butchers in August, this time alongside Makoto. They would soon vacate the title, as Makoto left Ice Ribbon the same month. Later in the month, Sakura and other Ice Ribbon talents participated in events held by Southside Wrestling Entertainment and Pro-Wrestling: EVE. During this tour, Sakura worked with Jenny Sjodin for the EVE Championship. By December, however, Sakura announced her departure from Ice Ribbon. Sakura’s final Ice Ribbon appearance took place on January 7, 2012, when she lost her farewell match against Tsukushi.

Photo / All Elite Wrestling

The first half of 2012 saw Sakura work in various promotions as a freelancer. Such promotions included Pro Wrestling FREEDOMS and JWP. In the latter promotion, she teamed with Yoneyama to win the vacant JWP Tag Team and Daily Sports Tag Team Championships. Sakura also founded Bangkok Girls Pro Wrestling in Thailand. BKK Pro would go on to become known as Gatoh Move Pro Wrestling. Amidst her work for Gatoh Move, Sakura saw success in other promotions. In October, she became JWP Openweight Champion by defeating Kayoko Haruyama. The following month, she bested Nikki Storm in an open challenge for the EVE Championship.

2013 started rocky for Sakura; in February, Storm won back the EVE Championship from her.

Nonetheless, Sakura persevered, not only in Gatoh Move but abroad. She participated in EVE’s Queen of the King tournament in May. She made it to the finals, which future AEW wrestler Shanna won. The same month, Sakura debuted for World Wonder Ring Stardom, facing Takahashi in a 15-minute draw. In storyline, Sakura uncovered the old AWF World Women’s Championship. She officially won it at IWA Japan, her old stomping grounds, and brought it to Gatoh Move as well. The following November, a victory over Kyonin Shihan allowed Sakura to combine the AWF World Women’s Championship and the IWA Heavyweight and Junior Heavyweight Championships. Together, these formed the IWA Triple Crown Championship. By December, Sakura lost the IWA Triple Crown Championship to Antonio Honda.

The IWA Triple Crown Championship wouldn’t elude Sakura for long.

In a Wasabi Cream Death Match, she won it back from Honda in January of 2014. The following month, she won the DDT Man Heavy Metal Championship in a ten-person battle royal. She only held it for less than one minute before DJ Nira upset her for it. Nonetheless, she kept a firm grasp on the IWA Triple Crown Championship until August, when she lost to Konaka. Sakura won it back from Konaka in October and held it until November, when Riho defeated her mentor. Though Sakura attempted to regain the IWA Triple Crown Championship from her protege in December, she fell short in the endeavor.

Sakura continued to focus heavily on Gatoh Move in 2015. In July, she lost an IWA Triple Crown Championship number one contender match against Kotori. On August 13, however, Gatoh Move made its debut at Korakuen Hall. In the second-to-last match at “A Dream 29000M Tall in Korakuen Hall,” Sakura teamed with Makoto to defeat Shida and Sayaka Obihiro. Sakura ended 2015 with a six-person tag team victory. Alongside Obihiro and Kotori, Sakura bested the trio of MIZUKI, SAKI, and Riho.

Emi Sakura
Photo / Twitter @emisakura_gtmv
In March of 2016, a match took place to determine the inaugural Asian Dream Tag Team Champions.

Sakura teamed with Masa Takanashi to face MIZUKI and SAKI, the latter team emerging victorious. In April, however, Sakura returned to Ice Ribbon after more than four years. It was soon declared that she would compete at Ice Ribbon’s 10th Anniversary Show in May. In her return match, she teamed with Takahashi in a losing effort against Fujimoto and Arisa Nakajima. Other promotions Sakura appeared for in 2016 included Pro Wrestling HEAT UP and REINA.

Sakura returned to EVE in February of 2017, unsuccessfully challenging EVE Champion Rhia O’Reilly. In March, however, Sakura once again captured championship gold when she and Takanashi bested Kotori and Riho for the Asia Dream Tag Team Championship. The following May, Sakura appeared for  Sendai Girls and EVE; in the latter, she participated in the EVE Championship Tournament. In August, she bested Riho for the IWA Triple Crown Championship for the fourth time; Sakura would ultimately retire the title, becoming its last recognized holder. This was done to introduce the Super Asia Title, Gatoh Move’s official singles championship, which was decided in a tournament. Though Sakura participated in said tournament, it was Riho that ultimately won the title, holding it for 620 days before vacating it.

Alongside Takanashi, Sakura held the Asia Dream Tag Team Championship throughout most of 2018.

In August, however, they dropped the championship to SAKI and Yuna Mizumori, collectively known as Tropikawild. In October, Sakura made her way to the United Kingdom to appear for 3 Count Wrestling. At the promotion’s Revival event, Sakura beat Kanji for the vacant 3CW Women’s Championship. Sakura held the title throughout the rest of 2019.

Not unlike the IWA Triple Crown Championship, Sakura defended the 3CW Women’s Championship in Gatoh Move in 2019. In the months that followed, Sakura received arguably the most mainstream attention of her career. On May 25th, All Elite Wrestling held its inaugural event, Double or Nothing. There was a strong joshi presence at the event, and Sakura contributed to it. Sakura teamed with Yuka Sakazaki and Aja Kong in a losing effort to the team of Shida, Riho, and Ryo Mizunami. This wouldn’t be Sakura’s final appearance for AEW, either.

In between her work for Gatoh Move, Sakura appeared on AEW programming multiple times.

In addition to working with the likes of Allie and Shanna, she challenged Riho for the AEW Women’s World Title at Full Gear in November. During this clash of teacher versus student, Sakura was bested by Riho. It was also in November that Gatoh Move held its final event in Thailand, Japan becoming the promotion’s main area of operations.

Photo / Twitter @emisakura_gtmv
Though 2020 is only but weeks in, Sakura’s work as a wrestler and trainer continues.

The current crop of talent in Gatoh Move brims with potential. Chie Koishikawa, Lulu Pencil, Rin Rin, Mei Suruga – these are just a few of the names that have not only been taught by Sakura but are regulars in the familiar Ichigaya Chocolate Square venue. For further proof of Sakura’s success, look no further than in AEW. Not only is Shida one of the promotion’s most popular stars, but Riho leads the women’s division as its champion. Sakura’s track record speaks for itself, which also applies to her in-ring work. Whether she’s dressed head to toe in violet or paying homage to Freddie Mercury, Sakura will show she has no time for losers and she’s a champion.

Check out past Joshi Watches and discover more stars from Japan!

Stay tuned to the Last Word on Pro Wrestling for more on this and other stories from around the world of wrestling, as they develop. You can always count on LWOPW to be on top of the major news in the wrestling world, as well as to provide you with analysis, previews, videos, interviews, and editorials on the wrestling world.  You can watch Emi Sakura at Gatoh Move on YouTube and via the Gatoh Move Experience.