Sumie Sakai is a Badass. Don't get me wrong, she is one of the nicest, most helpful people, and one of the best interviews in the industry. She looks after people for Ring of Honor and New Japan. You know EVIL? Current IWGP Heavyweight and Intercontinental Champion, that EVIL? Sumie looked after him on his excursion tour of Ring of Honor. She's coached, booked, and chaperoned the best of the best. However, she is an international standard Judo player in her own right, best mates with renowned Badass Josh Barnett, who booked her for his own Bloodsport shows with GCW.
She's won championships with broken legs, been the cornerstone of the Women's Division in Ring of Honor, and is a former Women of Honor Champion. She talked to SteelChair Magazine about MMA, Ring of Honor, and that pesky Dubliner, Session Moth Martina.
In 2002, you had the first-ever women's match in ROH. Did you realise how important that was at the time, or has it become more significant over time?
“Hmmmm… in 2002… Women's pro wrestling in the United States was different than Japanese Women's Wrestling… My main goal has always been to have the best match possible with every opponent and do my best for the fans and wrestling companies that I worked for. It was an honour to be in ROH's first women's match against Simply Luscious.”
Besides the inclusion of a women's division, what's the biggest change from ROH in 2002 to now in 2020?
“In 2002, ROH was a much smaller, more regional company, and now it is an international promotion, being seen all over the world across many channels. I am thrilled to be part of this evolution, including the formation and growth of our women's division.”
You became the first-ever Women of Honor Champion in 2018 and had a long run with the title, is there a title match that you enjoyed the most during your run as champion?
“I didn't realize that. I loved wrestling Hazuki and Tenille.”
You mentioned in an old interview with one of our writers that Jinsei Shinzaki, formerly Hakushi, almost warned you against going to America to pursue professional wrestling. Did he ever reach out to you when you became the first-ever Women of Honor Champion or when you established yourself in America?
“I haven't talked to him since I was wrestling in Michinoku Puroresu. I am proud of how much I learned from him and so many of the other wrestlers there.”
You've always spoken about wanting to help other wrestlers and ROH, and you helped set up a great relationship between ROH and Stardom. Would you say that's one of your proudest career moments because it really benefits everybody involved?
“It absolutely is. It was a huge thrill sharing the ring at Madison Square Garden with the Stardom girls. I appreciate the chance that Ring of Honor have given me to help develop our women wrestlers. It has had a positive effect on their mentality and their in-ring skills and has helped encourage many women as well as men to make Ring of Honor their wrestling home.”
You and Session Moth Martina seemed to be setting up something before ROH closed due to the coronavirus, as she defeated you in her ROH debut. What was wrestling her like, and what do you expect when the two of you wrestle again?
“I was excited to wrestle someone who had wrestled in Japan. I didn't know her well. Next time we wrestle, I promise you that it will be a different story!”
You also have an MMA background, and you trained Judo for many years. What's it like applying those skills for Josh Barnett's Bloodsport shows because that's strictly shoot/MMA style wrestling matches? And what's it liking working with Josh?
“I respect Josh a lot as an MMA fighter! I met him in 2004 in Japan at a Women's MMA event. I wanted to be like him when I was fighting MMA! Then I saw him again when I was fighting MMA in 2009. And, he was my top friend on at MySpace! Lol. Josh gave me a chance to wrestle at BloodSport, and it was soooooooooo FUN. I wouldn't have done it for anyone else.
Even though I was known for my judo background, I didn't necessarily want to mix the two, since my goal was to become the best pro wrestler that I could be. My trainer suggested that I incorporate some judo skills, which I did, but still, let the pro wrestling be the focus.”
What do you expect from the Women in Ring of Honor moving forward?
“I want to encourage the great, young talent in our women's division to share their unique experiences and talent, so we can all grow and get better.”
At 48 years old, you're still wrestling at a very high level, and we don't often see women continue on into their late forties. Do you feel a difference wrestling at 48 years of age and how much longer do you think you'd like to continue wrestling?
“I would like to give a big shout out, and an even bigger THANK YOU to my parents for passing their great genetics on to me! I'm still humble. I'm still learning. I still wanna get better, and I always want to have a good match with all of my opponents.
I have been friends with Dave “Fit” Finlay for many years and got to know his daughter well. When she was a kid, she dreamed of becoming a pro wrestler like her father. I told her that I would love to wrestle her one day, and after that “dream match,” I would retire. Well, wouldn't you know it, she decided to take a different career path and here I am, still loving what I'm doing.
About two years ago, it became known in the business that I was considering retirement. I wrestled a match with Tenille in Las Vegas. I didn't know it at the time, but Jushin Liger, who I have always admired and have had the utmost respect for as a wrestler and a person, watched my match. He took me aside afterward and said that I should reconsider retiring because I can still help so many people and that I can still “go.” I will quit when I DECIDE to quit!”
What would you say is your fondest memory of your time in wrestling?
“My fondest memory was wrestling Hana in February 2018, in Las Vegas. I had known her since she was little, and it meant so much to me to wrestle her in her first match in the United States. Another was wrestling Aliya' in her final match, held at Shinjuku FACE in Tokyo, Japan, on April 7, 2017.”
In that same interview with our writer James, you mentioned that you got into wrestling because you wanted to be Kyoko Inoue. Looking back at your career, do you think you accomplished that original dream of being like Kyoko?
“When I was 21, a friend forced me to go to a pro wrestling match. I had no interest in it at all. Then, when I saw Kyoko wrestle, my whole idea about pro wrestling changed, and I wanted to be just like her. I hope that at some point in my career, I've had the same impact on people, turning non-fans into someone who wanted to be a wrestler, like me.”
Images are courtesy of: RING OF HONOR/Ian Storck, RING OF HONOR/Mary-Kate Anthony, RING OF HONOR/Zia Hiltey.
Special thanks to James Truepenny.