Picking a wrestler of the year is dumb. How can anyone sit down and compare two people who work in different companies doing a different style with any degree of accuracy? A champion that puts on great matches every week is important, but so is the comedy wrestler who opens up the card, working their arse off to earn those giggles. Of course, in the best companies, those can be the same people, but that’s a different topic. And, despite it being dumb, I’m still going to do it because it’s also fun. However, for all that 2020 has sucked, there has still been a shitload of good wrestling, so I couldn’t pick just one. So, here’s my list of ten wrestlers who could have been wrestler of the year, but for whatever reason weren’t. Except, it’s not really because there are another twenty or thirty people that could also be on this list. Let’s stick with it being ten brilliant wrestlers. That work for everyone? Good.
A lot of surprising things have happened in 2020, but TikTok star Yoshiko is one that I still struggle to get my mind around. For the scowling badass of SEAd to have made a name making sweets on social media seems somewhat absurd, and yet, she has. A name significantly bigger than the one her wrestling career was ever likely to bring her. It was an opportunity SEAd couldn’t let pass them by and it was no surprise that she dethroned Arisa Nakajima partway through the year.
Which is not to suggest it was unearned. Yoshiko has always been a fantastic tag wrestler, but in recent times she’s stepped up the singles side of things too. It’s no surprise that she’s ended up holding both belts (the tag ones with two different partners) because if you put her in a main-event, it’s probably going to rule. You only have to look at her recent match with Aja Kong, which was quite possibly the best main event you could get out of Aja Kong in 2020 without just letting her murder you (to be clear, I am very okay with Aja murdering people). SEAd is a company built on the shoulders of a very small number of people, all of whom seem to push each other to get better and better, and Yoshiko is still doing so. It takes a lot to stand out when the person standing across from you more often than not is Arisa Nakajima, quite possibly the best wrestler on the planet, but she does it, both as the snarling badass and the sweet maker.
Some people are never going to forgive Yoshiko for her past and, well, whatever, that argument has been done to death, and I’ve no interest in debating it further. However, as we look around for someone who can bring joshi to the fanbase it lost, Yoshiko is right there, ready to do so. She’s a throwback, a murderous brawler who happens to have used something incredibly modern to build a huge fanbase. 2020 was a massive year for her, but if she can pull that same group over to wrestling, then 2021 could be even bigger.
Of all the people on this list, Miyako Matsumoto has wrestled the least matches. It’s not even close either, in 2020 she got into a ring eleven times, a number that can be bested by people like Arisa Hoshiki who retired before the year was halfway done.
And yet, a wrestler of the year round-upmwouldn’t be complete without Miyacoco on it. For 2020 was, in at least some ways, her year. Right from that insane match with Chris Brookes that she put on opposite Wrestle Kingdom through the Nobody Show and to her three-way with Natsu and Yoneyama, every time she has wrestled, it’s been appointment viewing.
Because when Miyacoco does get in the ring, she’s doing stuff that no-one else is doing. There are a lot of people who twist and prod wrestling, a fair few of whom will make this list, but no-one takes it as far as she does. I recently watched Daisies, a film Miyacoco cites as one of her favourites, and it makes all the sense in the world for, much like that film, she is someone who delights in chaos. Her charging around venues, barking orders and trying to position everything to make her look perfect is messy and all over the place, but she makes it work.
For it’s also nearly impossible to dislike Miyacoco. It’s why I was quite happy to chip in when she crowdfunded to record her entrance theme and why I would do the same again for any number of projects. When you have that much willingness to fuck with the system, I want to watch what you’re going to do next. I don’t care if she wrestles one match or a thousand in 2021, I’m going to do my best to watch every single one.
In a rare example of forward-thinking, I’d written my piece about Mitsuru roughly a month ago. With her out injured, it felt safe to sit down and put pen to paper, as there was unlikely to be any significant changes before the year ended. Unfortunately, I was cursing the world as on December 18th Mitsuru would announce she’d decided to retire from pro-wrestling.
It was one of those moments that was both a blow and also entirely unsurprising. The storyline that defined Mitsuru’s year and pushed her to the MVP award in ChocoPro’s second season was built around her bizarre relationship with wrestling. On more than one occasion, she’d expressed that it wasn’t fun for her and that what kept her going was the need to figure out what exactly it was that made the likes of Mei Suruga fall wildly in love with it.
And it made for a hell of a tale. For the length of season two, Mitsuru became a focused force of uncontrolled emotion, veering wildly between sadness and fury as she tried to figure out exactly who she was. It would see her boot Emi Sakura repeatedly in the face, slap Mei Suruga so hard her own hand bled and put on ChocoPro classic after ChocoPro classic. For many, it was their finest hour, and the fans fell in behind Mitsuru, roaring her on from the YouTube chat.
What made that story work is that Mitsuru isn’t like Emi’s other pupils. She’s focused and aggressive; someone who in another world would have fit nicely into a company like SEAd. In a promotion full of goofs, Mitsuru was the one who slapped them all into line and sometimes, as much as I love those goofs, that was what ChocoPro needed. It’s not to say she couldn’t do the other stuff too. She lost a match to Honda at the start of season three because she got caught up in how adorable Gon is, but even at her most comedic, there was an intensity to her that few others have, summed up by her unusual approach to a pre-match handshake. That run she went on felt like the start of something special, although I guess it’s also a hell of a way to go out.
There is some joy to be found from this retirement, though. In the video that announced it, Mitsuru looked happy, comfortable in her decision and ready to move on (although she has also said she’ll still pop in and help out behind the scenes, taking a similar role to someone like Aoi Kizuki). Most importantly, though, in the ‘press conference’ with such luminous examples of the free press as Suruga Weekly, Minoru Fujita would ask her what the most fun part of wrestling had been. It was an innocent question from someone unaware of Mitsuru’s previous claims, but it led to the answer that everyone wanted to hear. As she stepped away, Mitsuru was finally able to say that actually, despite what she’d said before, every moment of it had been fun. I wish she wasn’t going, but I’m glad she found that feeling before she did.
I tend to undervalue Mei Suruga. As someone who has spent the majority of this year working from home, when I’ve been working at all, there aren’t many ChocoPro streams I’ve missed, so she’s a near-constant presence in my life, nattering away out of my laptop speakers. It makes it easy to take her for granted and to underplay just how fantastic she is.
Because two and a half years into her career, Mei is incredible. I think the moment that really slammed that home was when she stepped into Tokyo Joshi, wrestling against people who if she’d come through in that company would have been her peers, and blew them out the water. It’s not just that she’s a faster, crisper worker than them, but that she projects herself with so much confidence. That lass spends most of her time wrestling in a tiny room where the back row (if there are even any fans there) is closer than the front row at any other show, yet Tokyo Dome City Hall didn’t even cause her to blink.
ChocoPro was her bread and butter, though, and it’s been a revelation for Mei. With an empty Ichigaya to play with, she’s got to indulge her love for cartoon violence to the max. Whether it’s being hung up like a pinata by Chris Brookes or hiding in corners from Ryo Mizunami, Mei’s genius has been allowed to run free. Then, when things have got serious, she’s proven to be the equal of anyone there, her matches with Mitsuru and Yunamon standing up as some of ChocoPro’s best. Mei is Sakuraism in human form, an actual prodigy who is being let loose to do whatever the fuck she wants however the fuck she wants and, amazingly, we get to watch it happen on YouTube, for free!
If Mei keeps going the way she is, then one day all of wrestling will be hers to play with. I just hope she’s nice enough to let the rest of us stick around and watch her do it.
Eighteen-years-old. Now and then I have to go back and check whether I’ve actually got Suzu’s age right and haven’t just been assuming she’s a teenager when actually she’s in her mid-thirties. That’s not the case, though. As she approaches her second anniversary in wrestling, Suzu is still at an age where the most I’d achieved was managing to drink so much alcohol on my eighteenth birthday that my friends were legitimately worried they’d killed me. How do we rank that alongside winning world titles?
For 2020 was the year that Suzu made the step-up, defeating Maya Yukihi at Ice Ribbon’s biggest show and cementing herself in the future Ace spot. It would be so very easy for all of that to be too much too soon, but honestly, it’s not. You only have to watch the title change to see that. Suzu belongs in that role, as she’s proven herself time after time to be capable of putting on matches that can be the main event of any show at any time.
Plus, it’s exciting. Suzu still isn’t the finished article, and while she’s getting more polished, she retains that rookie scrappiness. It makes her incredibly easy to root for, especially when real-world situations remind you just how young she is, as became the case when she managed to misplace the title on a train. I’m not sure how you could watch Ice Ribbon and not want this slightly crazed, exciting rookie wrestler to keep achieving at the level she is. She’s only eighteen, but she’s hooked a lot of people into being fans for life, and as she’s fairly determined to wrestle an alien, it promises to be a hell of a ride.
Anyone who has been paying attention has had their eye on ASUKA for a while. Still only 22-years-old, they’ve proven in the past to be an incredible athlete with an eye for putting together innovative and exciting matches. To call it raw potential wouldn’t be giving them enough credit, they were good, but you always got the impression they could be even better.
And 2020 was the year that came to pass. The last twelve months have set ASUKA up as one of the best big-match wrestlers on the planet. Whether it was their incredible title challenge against Arisa Nakajima in SEAd or the brace of show-stealing performances they put in on Assemble tags, ASUKA has been outstanding. Every time they step into that ring, you are guaranteed excellence as they’re putting together all the pieces that were on display in years gone by.
The performance that will stick in my brain, though, is the one vs Mei Suruga in ChocoPro. That match happened the day we all learnt about Hana, a day that was horrible for everyone but will have struck particularly deep for ASUKA, who was not only Hana’s tag partner but a close friend. Despite that, she chose to wrestle, stepping into ChocoPro for the first time and putting on a performance that on the worst day drew smiles and gasps in equal measure. It’s easy to throw around words like brave when talking about wrestling, but that was one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen, and the sight of her talking straight to the camera afterwards, just a hint that she was about to break, will linger with me for a long-time. On a day where they must have been grieving and hurting in ways I can’t imagine, they helped an idiot like me forget my own sadness for a bit, and that’s something I’ll never forget.
Has there ever been a more perfect bond between wrestler and belt than Risa Sera and the FantastICE Title? I don’t know if Ice Ribbon’s version of the DDT Extreme Title was brought to life specifically for Sera, but I would believe it. From the incredible deathmatch against Rina Yamashita that saw her become the first champion to her Over The Top Rope match against the Gacha King, it’s been a pairing made in heaven.
Not that it should be a surprise. If anyone were perfectly placed to take advantage of a title that allows them to play with their imagination, it’s Risa. She excels at twisting matches, coming up with ideas that no-one else would think of. It’s something that shines brightly in her own produce shows, including the insanity of her hour-long gauntlet deathmatches, something she pulled off again this year. Compared to that, her multi-day baseball/wrestling match with Akane Fujita must have seemed pretty easy.
It all adds up to someone who, in my eyes, is basically a perfect wrestler. She can go out and do those brutal deathmatches as easily as she can mess around with Yuuki, getting frustrated at the annoying pest that refuses to be tossed over the top rope. It’s no secret that I value nonsense quite highly, but nonsense backed up by a willingness to do things most people would never do? That’s a hell of a combination.
Since winning the title at last year’s Ultimate Party, Tokyo Joshi have made it clear that while Miyu Yamashita might be the Ace, Yuka is right next to her. From defeating Miyu at the January 4th show to her incredible defence against Mizuki at Wrestle Princess, it’s been a hell of a year even with the COVID situation that took TJPW out of commission for a few months.
It’s not just the big matches that stand out, though. Yuka is as consistent as they come, delivering in mid-card tags as strongly as she does in main events. Then there was her title match against Yuki Aino, a fight that maybe didn’t quite go to plan, but had a real crunchy physicality to it, making it one of the year’s unsung gems. There are a couple of people on this list who have been pivotal in holding up a company during difficult times, and Yuka 100% fits that brief. Reliable might not sound like a huge compliment, but in a year like this one, it is hella important.
On top of that, Yuka makes me happy. I think the deeper you get into the wrestling bubble, the easier it is to ignore stuff like that. You become obsessed with minutiae, picking apart matches and evaluating wrestlers in a million different ways, but it doesn’t have to be that complex. From that incredible entrance theme to the frantic way she wrestles to something as simple as her voice, Sakazaki will always leave me with a smile on my face. That’s a hell of a talent to have and makes her deserving of a spot on this list all by itself.
If Emi Sakura hadn’t wrestled a single match this year, I’d have still tried to slip her onto this list. At a time when the world has come unhinged, ChocoPro has been the thing that kept me rooted. From the daily streams to the fantastic matches, it’s been a source of comfort that was birthed from the mind of Sakura. She’s found a way to take a shitty situation and create something fresh and exciting, which is so her.
That’s not the sole reason she’s here, though, because in a year where she celebrated her 25th anniversary, Emi is still incredible. She can’t go all out every week, her back makes sure of that, but when she does, she will never let you down. From her wars with Yunamon to working with Yoneyama to put over Best Bros, she’s delivered stunning performance after stunning performance. When Emi’s game face goes on, there are only a handful of wrestlers who can match her.
What’s made her year special, though, is how she’s reacted to the fact she can’t go like that every week. ChocoPro work a tight schedule, so Emi adapted, creating Emi Pencil and going all out to help Lulu get to the next level. She played a key role in my favourite story and consistently found a way to elevate those around her. To have that kind of selfless determination at this stage in her career is quite a thing, and I hope twenty-five years from now she’s still going.
2020 should have been Mayu’s year. She finally had her hands on that Red Belt and was injury-free, setting her up to have the definitive run that she has been due for many a year. Then, well, we all know what happened next.
Yet, Mayu still had a brilliant year. In a company that has at times floundered and had to deal with a tragedy that it is impossible to capture in words, Mayu was the rock. She’s been an incredible in-ring wrestler for years, but every time she went out there she was smashing it, whether it was in a tag-team with Starlight Kid or when she finally lost the belt to Utami.
The jewel in the crown, though, was the two-match series with Takumi Iroha, a rare example of Stardom working with another company. Not only were both performances individually brilliant, but they were also a stunning example of match to match psychology, Mayu learning from that first encounter to come back and get her win back in round two. It’s just a shame that Takumi’s injury means the teased tag-team between the two won’t be happening anytime soon.
On top of that, she’s Mayu, a person that even the most ardent of Stardom critics can’t fault. Her clumsy charisma is unparalleled, and if you’re looking for a face to lead a company through hard times, there aren’t many who could do it better. I hope that in the future she gets that clean title run, the definitive, incredible sequence of matches that we all know she can do, but this one shouldn’t be forgotten either. In tough times, Mayu stepped up, and that means a lot.