The Beauty Pair

Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda were more than pro wrestlers. They were a phenomenon.

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Once upon a time, I had a poetry teacher who taught us how to use a notebook properly. The point wasn’t to write down every single thing that came to your head -- though that’s fine, obviously, you can do whatever you want, it’s your notebook. The point is to see the world; really look closely at it, and seek out what she called “moments of arrested tension.”

These moments, these small visions, would be the ingredient that grounded our theoretical poems in the real world. My poems were nothing special. But I held onto that lesson and it turned out to be pretty good advice years later when I began to write magazine stories and needed to set a good scene. 

Over the past year or so, while spending a lot more time at home, I’ve realized that “moments of arrested tension” can be more than simply physical observations. They can come in the form of a line you read, a song you hear, a stanza in someone else’s poem. They can also come in the form of a story -- even one you don’t fully understand. 

Increasingly, I have come to believe that sharing these moments is the highest purpose of this newsletter. It’s a space for Adam and I to simply be amazed by things and then spread that amazement around. Sometimes I fall into the trap of needing to explain the things that amaze us. But this week I’m going to try to just get out of the way of the Beauty Pair. 

In the 1970s, women’s professional wrestling, known as joshi puroresu, became a huge sensation in Japan. It was not like women’s wrestling in the United States or Mexico which existed as part of larger promotions that mainly featured men. In Japan, women had a separate promotion all to themselves, All Japan Women’s Pro-Wrestling (or AJW for short). 

Somewhat liberated from the expectations and customs of men’s wrestling (though it was operated by men), AJW had its own aesthetic and its own vibe. Perhaps this was why it became so popular. Nobody defined that vibe like Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda, a pair of teenage wrestlers who teamed up in 1976 and became known as The Beauty Pair. 

I will not pretend to fully understand the appeal of The Beauty Pair, or the historical forces that made this phenomenon happen. Jackie and Maki had both been high school athletes (Jackie played basketball and Maki played volleyball). They were what you’d call classic faces -- the heroes -- and were often paired up against a villainous tag team of heels that became known as the Black Pair. 

The Beauty Pair were excellent in the ring: athletic and entertaining and dominant during their run. But they were also more than wrestlers: they were pop stars and movie stars. They also released a series of songs that became massive hits in Japan, one after the other. The catchiest one I’ve heard is called simply Beauty Pair. It is also the theme song to their movie. 

I heartily recommend watching the trailer:

If you look at footage of Beauty Pair concerts, the most striking thing is not the music in all of its ‘70s pop splendor, or the costumes, or the choreography, or the surreal fact that these two women singing and dancing are in fact professional wrestlers. The most striking thing is the crowds: full of shrieking, excited teenage girls. It’s like Jackie and Maki were, for a brief moment, The Beatles. 

The Beauty Pair did not last long as a musical act or as a wrestling tag team. But they didn’t need to. By the end of the 1970s, Jackie and Maki had achieved transcendence together. And now they could achieve it individually. They even wrestled against each other sometimes. In fact, they faced off in the final match of Maki’s career, before her retirement in 1979. Jackie retired soon afterwards.

Both women retired young because of a policy in AJW that forced its wrestlers to leave the sport behind at 26. The idea was that they would then still have time to become wives and mothers. AJW also kept tight control over the personal lives of its wrestlers and banned smoking, drinking, and public relationships with men; the idea was to keep the product innocent for the teenage girls they were marketing to.

(To get a sense of the odd way AJW promoters talked about their wrestlers in the context of gender, read this old profile of The Beauty Pair from the Honolulu Advertiser. The story will also give you a good sense of just how massively popular they were.)

Maki Ueda never looked back after her retirement. But in 1986, Jackie Sato teamed up with some other joshi stars to start a new promotion called JPW that specifically didn’t have oppressive rules, or forced retirements. She wrestled briefly for JPW before retiring again in 1988. Jackie is widely considered to be one of the most important figures in the history of wrestling. The writer Dave Meltzer, whose Wrestling Observer Newsletter is as essential as a wrestling publication can be, included her in the inaugural class of the WON Hall of Fame. In 1999, Jackie fell ill and passed away from stomach cancer. She was only 41 years old.

Last week, we covered Jaromir Jagr, an athlete defined by his longevity as much as anything. But the wonderful thing about sports is that you don’t have to do the same thing for decades like Jagr to build a legacy or move people. A fad, a hot streak, a phenomenon, even a single moment can echo into perpetuity. Jackie Sato and Maki Ueda’s partnership did not last long. But it didn’t need to to matter.

Related Reading

There are lots of bits and pieces about The Beauty Pair online. But the truth is, I don’t think you can get a full bio or a truly detailed treatment without reading Japanese (which I do not). Which is all to say that the best place to find primary sources on them is via the posts of a specific Reddit user named Xalazi, who posts his finds in a subreddit for joshi puroresu fans. Xalazi, you are appreciated.

My favorite is this clip of The Beauty Pair performing a concert at a waterpark. You can also watch the entire Beauty Pair movie on YouTube, at least until somebody takes it down:

Thank you for reading Sports Stories. We’ll see you next week.