A quarter-century ago, when R&B group TLC dominated the airwaves and Tiger Woods was but an amateur golfer, Manami Toyota put together one of the finest bell-to-bell years in pro wrestling history.
Toyota was 24 at the time, and already a star, already a master of her craft. The shrieking, long-haired warrior with a dropkick like a battering ram had twice held the WWWA Tag Team Championship alongside Toshiyo Yamada. She reigned as IWA world champ for All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling for three years. Along the way, Toyota put on an impressive amount of critically acclaimed bouts. In 1993, she and Yamada shined again and again. The next year, she and Aja Kong had the best bouts of their storied rivalry. No calendar year, though, was as concentrated with classics as ’95 for Toyota.
The Flying Angel began the year with a scorching hot tag bout. She built on that early momentum, dropkicking and diving her way to at least one must-watch match a month. Toyota delivered high drama in clashes with her biggest rivals: Kyoko Inoue, Aja Kong, Akira Hokuto. Her work during that stretch is a masterclass in pulling the audience in. She is so damn deft at making you wince and worry when she’s taking a beating, and then revving up the crowd as she charges uphill during her frenzied comeback. Toyota did that time and again in ‘95, in singles action and tag matches, at the highest level of her career.
The acclaim she got from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter that year speaks to that. Five of her 1995 bouts earned a five-star rating from Dave Meltzer (per CageMatch.net), the most in a single year of her career. Toyota cleaned house during award season, too. She won the Observer’s Match of the Year (vs. Kyoko Inoue), as well as the Most Outstanding Wrestler and Readers’ Favorite Wrestler awards.
To watch Toyota’s best in ’95 is to fall in love with wrestling anew. It’s stunning how good she was, how many times she could tell a story in the ring that makes your heart whir. She put her foot on the gas for sixty minutes against Kyoko Inoue. She shone in a slugfest with Akiro Hokuto. She showed us the peak of the babyface-in-peril art form again and again.
And seeing all these barnburners together is a reminder that Toyota should forever and always be in the GOAT conversation.
Manami Toyota & Sakie Hasegawa vs. Kyoko Inoue & Takako Inoue (Zenjo Victory Tag 1)
Toyota didn’t wait long to compose her first great bout. Three days into the new year, she teamed with Susie Hasegawa in a 2-out-of-3 Falls match that had the fans in Korakuen Hall absolutely abuzz.
Hasegawa took much of the punishment both early and late but when Toyota charged in, she did so burning with babyface fire. In the first fall, she sped across the mat, leaping into the air, showing no mercy, an eagle swooping to dig her talons into her prey. The intensity Toyota shows here, the lack of mercy as she grinds her boot against Takako’s head is thrilling.
The first fall is an excellent match on its own. It moves into a fast-paced second fall before peaking with a high-energy, high-drama third fall. Here we see Toyota go on a rampage, beating up both Inoues in the stands and leaping off the railing to smash her foes against a pair of tables.
This title bout is a wonderous display of flowing tag team work with plenty of near-falls that make your heart race. With it, Toyota emphatically kicked off the year.
Manami Toyota vs. Aja Kong (AJW Wrestling Queendom 1995)
Toyota’s archnemesis, not surprisingly, played a starring role in several of The Flying Angel’s best bouts of her best year. Their WWWA title match in Yokohama is stellar even if Toyota and Kong never quite topped their classic at Big Egg Classic Universe in ’94.
After some early fast-paced action, Toyota found herself caught in the lion’s maw, struggling to escape. She absorbed a hellacious beating from her bruiser opponent. The match’s pace is slow in the middle as Kong pounded on Toyota, bending her backward like she was crafting a bow from a piece of wood, rattling her body against the mat with big suplexes.
This match is a reminder that Toyota was the queen of displaying suffering. She so expertly injected pathos into her role as underdog here and elsewhere.
Her comeback came in spurts. She repeatedly ran into a wall named Kong. As she came closer and closer to finally toppling the champion, the crowd buzzed louder. The near-falls along the way were of the grab-you-by-the-heart variety.
When Toyota was finally able to send Kong crashing off the top turnbuckle with a Japanese Ocean Suplex, joy pushes through the anguish in her face, an artful image to cap off this work of violent theater.
Manami Toyota & Blizzard Yuki vs. Aja Kong & Kyoko Inoue (Bridge of Dreams Dome Spring Full Bloom)
A frenetic energy pulsated through much of this tag team match. The opening moments were chaotic fun with haymakers aplenty.
Blizzard took a lot of the pounding, but Toyota was her usual hard-charging babyface in several key moments. She howled as she went on the attack. She hung in there with Inoue and Kong walloped her. She shined each time the spotlight hovered over her.
This bout saw Toyota show off flying skills in a big way, too. She springboarded all over the place, gracefully soaring at her two enemies. Her moonsault to the outside is a flat out beauty.
In the hard-hitting final act, the two teams traded savage suplexes and Toyota desperately tried to stave off defeat before finally falling to the powerhouses.
Manami Toyota vs. Kyoko Inoue (AJW G*Top 2nd)
Toyota vs. Inoue is a masterpiece. It’s a brutal and beautiful match flush with highlights. You will be hard pressed to find an hour-long clash that packs this much adrenaline into every minute.
Before the echo of the ring bell could even fade, Toyota charged across the ring and nailed Inoue with a dropkick to the collarbone. That opening note set the tone for a stirring symphony of physicality.
Inoue hit Toyota with lariats across the chest. She flung her about. She sent Toyota crashing outside the ring. Her relentless offense and Toyota’s gutsy responses combined to create exquisite drama. And they kept up a pace you simply don’t see in matches of this length.
In the end, Toyota, wobbly and weary, couldn’t finish off Inoue. The bell rang to mark the conclusion of the match with no winner.
Toyota vs. Inoue was 1995’s Match of the Year, the Marvin Hagler vs. Tommy Hearns of pro wrestling, and a work of art worthy of the Louvre.
Manami Toyota vs. Aja Kong (AJW Zenjo Movement)
Toyota and Kong, two archrivals who gel so perfectly together, clashed for the WWWA Championship in Sapporo. The intense faceoff before the bell alone is high drama.
The bout began at a breakneck pace. Toyota the champ and Kong the dangerous challenger charged up and down the ring, diving at each other, howling, hungry, unrelenting.
Kong took over and began to straight up whoop The Flying Angel. That gave Toyota the chance to work where she is best—as the babyface in peril. Watching her power through the punishment, banshee-screaming and head-slapping through a frantic comeback is pure joy.
Toyota took plenty of big aerial risks and showed her usual guts in an emotional bout. But this time out, she wasn’t able to overcome Kong’s power or spinning back fist. The loss helped power Toyota’s tale in the months ahead, though. After falling off the mountaintop, she was forced to start climbing her way back up, fans roped in and rooting for her along the way.
Manami Toyota vs. Mima Shimoda (Korakuen Hall show)
The streamers hadn’t even been cleared from the ring before Toyota and Shimoda dug their claws into each other. The intensity burned so hot between them from the opening moment on, one didn’t need to know a lick of their personal history. Just grab some popcorn and watch two enemies go at it.
Not even a minute in, Toyota and Shimoda were trying to throw each other through tables. They brawled outside the ring before bringing that wild energy between the ropes.
Both women seemed unhinged, yanking on each other’s hair, Toyota pulling Shimoda by the nose, Shimoda grinning manically as she went on the attack. The fight went to the outside several times. This trips to the concrete floor saw Toyota display a reckless abandon that delights. Her risk-taking helped amp up the feeling of urgency and importance.
Near-falls incited the crowd as the combatants’ desperation increased. When the bell rang to indicate the battle had come to a draw, the crowd chanted both women’s names.
Manami Toyota & Sakie Hasegawa vs. Kyoko Inoue & Takako Inoue (WWWA Champions Night)
When Toyota and Hasegawa set Korakuen Hall ablaze in January against Double Inoue, a betting man wouldn’t have put money on the two teams topping their effort in August. They sure as hell did, though, in this 2-out-of-3 Falls match.
Fluid teamwork from Toyota and Hasegawa kicked things off. And the dynamic energy that marked the opening moments carried through much of the bout. The furious pace makes the match feel far shorter than its 28-minute runtime.
After Hasegawa took some lumps early, Toyota came in like the proverbial house of fire, yanking hair and taking names. Toyota’s clashes with Kyoko showed off their great chemistry, elevating the match.
Toyota, fiery and resilient throughout, was an absolute star here. Credit goes to the other great performers, but it’s hard to keep one’s eye off The Flying Angel as she glided through the air or limped away from the ring heavy with disappointment.
Manami Toyota vs. Akira Hokuto (AJW Destiny)
Two elite performers with stellar chemistry together pounded on each other in a full-throttle battle for the ages. What a piece of poetry Toyota and Hokuto created on that autumn night in the Nippon Budokan arena.
A frenzied opening featured the foes fighting at ringside, a missile dropkick to the outside and Hokuto torturing Toyota with hair-pulling submissions. The Flying Angel fired back with her trademark pedal-to-the-floor offense. This was a ferocious battle, a show of guts.
The amount of punishment they doled out to each other is astounding. Outside the ring, Toyota and Hokuto brawled and tried to smash each other through a table that refused to break. The match featured some of the stiffest dropkicks you’ll ever see, too. This was a NASCAR race where both leading drivers are more than willing to crash and push a demolished car across the finish lines if need be.
Had Toyota and Inoue hadn’t shined so brightly in May, this could have won Match of the Year.
Manami Toyota vs. Yumiko Hotta (Grand Prix Final)
Seconds into the finals of the Grand Prix tournament and Toyota had the crowd buzzing with a leap to the outside, a perilous and graceful flight capped off a missile dropkick. And thus began a gripping battle for the trophy.
Toyota flailed in pain as Hotta tossed her around. Hotta sneered and showboated as she clamped on her submission holds. The Flying Angel responded with her trademark flurries, zipping around the ring, revving up the crowd.
This bout was an exhibition in the art of the comeback. As Toyota struggled to stand, limping, and fighting, you’re compelled to feel for her. Each of her rallies were thwarted just as they gained momentum. Toyota taking a pair of boots to the teeth as she was about to smash Hotta through a table is a prime example.
The final act was electric. Kick-outs, thunderous suplexes, the crowd chanting Toyota’s name, it all added up to a moving match. A Japanese Ocean Suplex served as the final note, a power chord that echoed as Toyota celebrated, overcome with emotion.
Manami Toyota vs. Dynamite Kansai (AJW Monday Night Sensation)
Toyota reclaiming the WWWA world title is a marvel to watch.
The David and Goliath story has been told countless times in wrestling. Toyota and Kansai take the familiar trope and pump it with high-voltage energy. A dominant, merciless Kansai is perfectly paired against the gutsy challenger.
The two wrestlers knock the snot out of each other in an intense bout. Toyota suffers through a barrage of stiff kicks to the chest. When she fires back, she is bursting with adrenaline, an extra level of ferocity on her dropkicks. Toyota pushing herself through pain and disappointment as she chops down a monster is absolutely beautiful.
Both wrestlers do a superb job of thinking that Toyota has little chance to win. Think Brock Lesnar vs. Daniel Bryan from Survivor Series 2018. That dynamic makes The Flying Angel’s victory all the more powerful and the match all the more memorable.
30-match gauntlet challenge (AJW Zenjo X’Mas Night)
AJW celebrated Christmas with a gauntlet in Korakuen Hall.
By Toyota’s standards, this is no tour de force, but it’s a mighty fun way to end a tremendous year. She took on the entire roster, one by one. Aja Kong, Tomoko Watanabe, Kyoko Inoue, and Yumiko Hotta all came stomping in to fight an increasingly weakened Toyota.
It’s a match comprised of squashes and in-ring sprints.
Toyota delivers some artful dropkicks. She and her foes trade some nasty strikes. The Flying Angel wipes out a succession of foes, and it’s hard to not get sucked in.
The action is fast. The setup is unique. The bout is an exciting exclamation point to punctuate Toyota’s best year.
This is the first installment of a series chronicling wrestlers’ best bell-to-bell years. Stay tuned for future editions of The Year of Years.