ChocoPro: Wrestling for an Online Age

(This article, written by Norihiro Hashimoto, originally appeared in Japanese at Yahoo News via Sports Graphic Number under the headline “Minoru Suzuki fought at the debut event! Introducing ChocoPro: Wrestling made for online broadcast”)

Chocolate Pro Wrestling—ChocoPro for short—is a new promotion, founded on March 28, 2020 by Emi Sakura, head of Gatoh Move. The promotions also share a venue: Tokyo’s Ichigaya Chocolate Square. Where ChocoPro differs from Gatoh Move is that all of its events are exclusively broadcast on YouTube. In fact, ChocoPro has never had a single audience member in attendance.

During ChocoPro events, Ichigaya Chocolate Square is completely empty, save for the wrestlers and a few staffers. But Sakura refuses to think of these as “no-audience” shows: “There’s definitely an audience,” she says. “They’re just on the other side of the camera.”

“Other promotions may offer live broadcasts of their events, but for ChocoPro, the broadcast is the event. It’s kind of like the difference between a play and a film,” says Sakura.

Certainly, a video recording of a play and a film are completely different things. Nobody ever refers to movies as “no-audience plays,” after all. ChocoPro is the same way. These aren’t conventional matches that happen to be observed by cameras; they’re held specifically for the camera in a way that feels fresh and electrifying. Occasionally, the camera operator even gets drawn directly into the action for POV shots rarely seen in professional wrestling.

To make one thing clear, ChocoPro isn’t intended to be a no-audience, internet-only adaptation of Gatoh Move. It’s a new format specially tailored for internet broadcast—hence the separate name, which Sakura hopes will inspire feelings of excitement over the birth of something new.


In Search of Sparkle

If anyone in professional wrestling knows new, it’s Emi Sakura. She’s spent most of her career in pursuit of novelty.

She’s made waves by hiring and training elementary schoolers—including [the now 22-year-old] Riho, who joined the hot American promotion AEW in 2019. When she was in charge of Ice Ribbon, Sakura took the cast of a movie about pro wrestling under her wing and raised them as actual wrestlers. She also established Seven PM Women’s Wrestling, which broadcast on the streaming service USTREAM, in 2010; this could fairly be called the precursor to ChocoPro.

After leaving Ice Ribbon, Sakura went to Thailand and founded Gatoh Move, where she fostered many up-and-coming Thai wrestlers. In recent years, she’s established Daredemo Joshi Puroresu (“Any Woman Can Be a Wrestler”; DareJo for short), a series of seminars for women of all stripes who want to learn pro wrestling skills. Official wrestling debuts are certainly on the table for DareJo participants, but its primary goal is to encourage fitness and exercise. Sakura doesn’t call DareJo’s events “wrestling shows,” but rather “recitals,” where participants can show off their hard-earned skills.

Constantly producing new ideas, Sakura says she’s “just trying to find a way to survive in the world of wrestling.” She knows she can’t afford to get hung up on formality in pursuit of the new.

“I want to leave behind a legacy that shines. There are always women who want to excel in their field, whether it’s song or dance, or other sports, or anything else. Women who want to sparkle. Of course that’s true for wrestling, too. When I debuted at age seventeen, I wanted to sparkle as a wrestler. That girl is still inside me today.”


On the Avant-Garde of Women’s Wrestling

Sakura wants to get more eyes on pro wrestling, and she wants more women to get involved. Her mission to open the doors wide. Thanks to her efforts, women’s wrestling is no longer the exclusive domain of the “superhuman”; she’s seen women in their thirties with conventional resumes make wrestling debuts, as well as minor celebrities looking for a new challenge. She’s on the avant-garde, making the wrestling industry a more diverse place.

When asked about Sakura, DDT President Sanshiro Takagi laughs. “You mean that war criminal who made joshi wrestling what it is today?” Naturally, by “what it is today,” he means “as interesting as it is today.”

There is no ring at Ichigaya Chocolate Square; matches there take place right on the mat. No ring means no ropes or corners from which to dive, but industrious wrestlers make use of the territory. They slam opponents into the wall that lines one side of the mat, and dive from a conveniently placed counter window. Chocolate Square itself has inspired its own set of unique fighting tactics.


Welcoming the Man with the Worst Personality in the World

ChocoPro turned heads with its very first event by booking the biggest of the big: Minoru Suzuki. Suzuki needs no introduction, even among wrestling fans overseas. “There was no way I’d turn it down,” says Suzuki. “I hadn’t had a match in a month, and I was getting pretty tired of not hitting people.”

Suzuki’s challenger was Baliyan Akki, a Gatoh Move regular who hails from India. He was seconded by women’s wrestlers from the Gatoh Move roster who proved all too eager to play rough with Suzuki.

For Suzuki, it wasn’t just a challenge from all of Gatoh Move; he also wanted to try his hand at mat wrestling in the… let’s say intimate space of Ichigaya Chocolate Square. “That Suzuki accepted the offer in the first place is proof enough of how amazing he is,” says Sakura.

Suzuki may have defeated Akki with a sleeper hold, but Akki was quick to challenge the veteran to a rematch. “Then you’d better get stronger,” Suzuki told him. “Toughen up first, and then I’ll take you on again. At Tokyo Dome or wherever you like.”

Suzuki also gave Gatoh Move wrestler Sayaka Obihiro advice on how to tape up her injured fingers the same way he does. All of this, not just the match itself, was broadcast live to viewers.

Sakura explains: “If it’s not on camera, it didn’t happen.” There’s no press coverage; no backstage interviews. At ChocoPro, any wrestler with anything to say must say it on camera.


Staying Small and Making it Big

Since that inaugural event, ChocoPro has become even more trim and efficient, with fewer people required to keep it running. The wrestlers themselves take turns operating the single camera, providing commentary, refereeing matches and serving as ring announcer. This division of labor and the sense of camaraderie it creates is another part of ChocoPro’s charm.

ChocoPro regular Antonio Honda mixes gags targeted at both Japanese and English-speaking viewers into his commentary, which quickly established him as a major draw for ChocoPro.

“ChocoPro is built around three core members,” says Sakura. “Mei [Suruga], Akki, and me. We’re just a few people, wrestling in a tiny space, but the world is watching on YouTube. We could make it big while staying small.”

ChocoPro has potential to grow as a business and appeal to fans all over the world, while still maintaining the intimacy and camaraderie that makes it unique. Sakura has no plans to build a massive empire; the test for ChocoPro is to stay small enough to control itself.


YouTuber Rivals

ChocoPro’s April 25 event went on air at 10 AM on Saturday in Japan—or, to put it another way, at 9 o’clock the night before in Eastern time. That means that viewers in America could tune in and watch live on Friday night.

“Looking at our viewer statistics, about half of them tune in from outside Japan. American fans often leave messages in the live Super Chat (YouTube’s integrated chat and tipping system), even though we typically broadcast early in the morning for them. We tried changing up our usual timeslot to make it easier for them to watch us live, as our way of saying thank you.”

“It’s also our way of saying, hey, we’re coming for our share of America,” Sakura adds.

By establishing ChocoPro, Sakura has tossed her hat into the bustling ring of online entertainment. We asked Sakura whether that means her closest rivals aren’t other wrestling promotions, but rather prominent YouTubers, like Hikakin and Hajime Shacho.

“Ah, probably,” she says. “But we’re still a little fish in the YouTube sea right now! First things first, we need to get more people subscribed to the Gatoh Move channel.”

This isn’t a desperate ploy to stay afloat in trying times. Rather, Sakura sees it as “a chance to carve out new work as a wrestler” among the demands of modern life. She strongly feels it’s time to shift to a new business model; one that doesn’t live or die on ticket sales and service subscription fees.

“ChocoPro is wrestling that anyone can watch, completely free of charge. If you look at it that way, it’s a lot like when you used to be able to catch wrestling on TV. I want people to take comfort in wrestling, whether they’ve got cash to spare or not. I want people to enjoy it, no matter where in the world they are. That’s what ChocoPro is all about.”

Even when Gatoh Move is finally able to welcome fans back to Chocolate Square, Sakura intends to keep ChocoPro alive. In fact, as she approaches the 25th anniversary of her pro wrestling debut this coming August, she plans to mark the occasion with a ChocoPro show.