According to some, 2020 has been a lousy year for wrestling, an opinion fuelled by New Japan not doing what people want them to do and an aversion to the dreaded clap crowds. Unfortunately, no-one told my match of the year list, which was quite frankly unwieldy. So yes, this is part one of the best of the rest because when I started writing it very quickly got out of hand. Excessive? Perhaps, but despite its many faults, wrestling is still the best, so a bit of excess isn’t too bad.
Even your most mundane, run of the mill match, relies on a degree of chaos. Unpredictability is often what generates excitement, and genres like deathmatch have built a hefty part of their appeal on the back of it. And yet, while the most chaotic match I saw this year did include deathmatch elements, it also snuck in a foot race and some sumo. Miyako Matsumoto vs Chris Brookes was chaos in its purest form.
For even in your gnarliest deathmatch, there is a feeling that someone is in control. Things can go wrong, and wrestlers can get seriously hurt, but that’s something different. When things are going to plan, you always have the reassuring sense that someone is steering this ship. In this match, Miyacoco is at the wheel, and when Miyacoco is in charge, chaos is the direction you’re headed. From the second Chris Brookes interrupts her singing the Gake no Fuchi anthem by booting her in the head, we start to wildly spiral off in directions that no-one saw coming.
And that chaos comes from the fact that everything is going wrong for poor Miyacoco. She’s set up this crazy situation because she plans on killing Chris Brookes. However, she’s surrounded by people who won’t play along. Whether it’s Brookes being annoyingly tall and strong or Kuishinbo Kamen coming to her aid only to wander around the ring, hand out some sweets and head straight to the back, no-one does what she wants them to do. In the past, I’ve compared her to a spoilt child whose parents allowed her to win every single game growing up. The problem is that she’s now organised a birthday party with all her school friends and they aren’t as generous. As defeat after defeat crashes down on her, Miyacoco’s world begins to crumble.
On a personal note, I suspect that Miyacoco vs Brookes accelerated my change in taste. I was in Tokyo when it happened, but I was one of those normies that chose Wrestle Kingdom and, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s one of my only regrets when it comes to that trip. At the time, it was never an option, I’d chosen to go over New Year because of Wrestle Kingdom, so I wasn’t going to miss it, but now there would be no competition. While I was already a fan of nonsense, out-there wrestling, watching this opened my mind up to just how far it could go.
After the match, Miyacoco, with an impressive amount of skewers sticking out of her head and black paint staining her face, would finally get to sing her anthem, breaking down in tears as she did so. It was the perfect ending to an incredible display and the start of a year that would see her pull off all kinds of unique matches. This is the moment that was responsible for me following that journey, and that alone is enough to put it on this list.
2020 is the year I fell out of love with New Japan. Not because they had the utter gall to give EVIL the title or do something that wasn’t 100% straight-wrestling, but because I stopped caring as much. In fact, I have a slight suspicion that this match is where blame should be laid. For so long, I was hooked by the desperate need to see Naito win the big one and having sat in the Tokyo Dome, watching him do so with tears in my eyes, it felt like the end of the book, and I wasn’t ready to start a new one.
Whatever the reason, it made the idea of coming back to this moment a bit worrisome. As mentioned above, my taste has shifted quite dramatically in the last twelve months, so there was a chance that watching it again was going to dent the lovely memories that it holds. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case. Yes, there are all the faults that we know litter New Japan main events. The first however many minutes could probably be cut out, and there is a lot of work to Naito’s knee and Okada’s neck that becomes irrelevant, but none of that is enough to ruin it.
Because, and I can’t stress this enough, Naito is really fucking good. Watching it again with the result embedded in my head, he still manages to pull me along, dragging me back to that desperate ache I felt at the time. He’s a master of playing with your emotions, something captured by him going for the Stardust Press, the move that famously screwed his chances of winning two years prior. The way he defiantly thumps his chest as he sets up for it, giving you a second to realise what he’s doing and grip the edge of your seat, hoping against hope that he hasn’t fucked it again, is wrestling perfection.
What I also realised was that my taste changing doesn’t matter. At the time, this felt like the most important thing in the world and going back to it does nothing to alter that. My memories of this moment have nothing to do with what happened in the match, with there actually being a lot of it that I couldn’t recall. It was all about being in that place, at that time, wrapped up in the feeling of thousands of people willing Naito to victory. I don’t know if I’ll ever fall back in love with New Japan again, but the fact they gave me that will mean they always have a place in my heart. Watching Naito achieve his destiny will be with me forever.
It’s hard to pinpoint what makes a great wrestling match. The wrestling part of it is presumably crucial, but the more I watch of this stuff, the less that I’m convinced it’s even close to being the most important thing. Yes, watching people do the incredible will always be exciting, but is it half as enthralling as watching a young lass who loves trains give everything she has to get her first win?
For coming into 2020, it became apparent that Raku was being left behind by her Up Up Girl companions. Miu was already a tag champion while Noa had her first title shot on the January 4th show. Raku, meanwhile, hadn’t even picked up a pinfall. It was something she was becoming painfully aware of, and after another losing effort against Maki Itoh, she turned to the hard-headed former idol for help.
It was a storyline that built to this moment, to a match where Raku suddenly came alive. Right from the start, there is something different about her. She steps forward, ignoring Maki and Pom as she insists that she’ll be the one starting things off. Then, in the home stretch, she’s fantastic – a brilliant back and forth between her and Miu bringing the crowd to life. When I watched it at the time, I was on my feet, shouting along with them as everything fell into place for her. When she finally won, sitting back from pinning Miu with tears streaming down her face, I was right there with her, sobbing with joy at her having pulled it off.
And yet, the vast majority of this match is not the template for what people call great wrestling. It certainly wouldn’t be racking up stars on the Meltzer scale or be grabbing the attention of some of the more prominent wrestling websites. Most of it is your fluffy, enjoyable Tokyo Joshi action, including the Good Night Express, which even serious Raku knows is a pivotal part of every match. However, ten years from now, I bet I’ll remember this much better than Good Tomohiro Ishii Match Number 55. It’s memorable because it’s the simple story of someone fighting to prove they belong. Raku might not be the best wrestler in the world or be destined to hold a million titles, but in that moment, she had done everything she’d set out to do. That’s a hell of a thing to watch, and even going back to it ten months later, the tears still come.
Kagetsu vs Meiko Satomura, Kagetsu Retirement Show (24/2/20), Freelance
Like a lot of people who got into joshi in the last few years, Kagetsu was a pivotal part of my early fandom. When I tuned into Stardom for the first time, her roguish charm was a natural favourite, and she backed her charisma up in the ring. It meant her retirement was a blow, but one somewhat softened by the sense that she was going out on her own terms. Not only did she get the works in Stardom, but she spent her last couple of months jaunting around various promotions before facing off with her trainer, Meiko Satomura, one last time.
And what I love about this match is the sense of ‘fuck it’ that Kagetsu exudes. Towards the end, as she no-sells and kicks out of move after move, it could be seen as being a bit silly, but that sense stops it from being the case. Why wouldn’t she pull herself up once more? This is her last dance, so she is going to give everything she has to it. Kagetsu goes down on fire, and it’s a glorious sight.
It also sums up why I love retirement matches, even as they make me weep like a baby. For one final night, Kagetsu got a chance to show the world what she could do, and she could still do a hell of a lot. This wasn’t Manabu Nakanishi, struggling to walk to the ring, but dragging one last performance out of his broken body. Kagetsu went toe to toe with the face of modern joshi, looking like she hadn’t lost a step and proving that if she’d wanted to keep going, she could have.
Instead, she fell to Meiko one last time, retiring without ever beating her trainer. It’s a slightly melancholic end to a hell of a career, but it’s Meiko, and you have to be doing more than retiring to be granted a win against her. Plus, Kagetsu didn’t need it. Her legacy is sealed in stone, locked away in the matches she had and the wrestlers she played a part in training. That her final bow was brilliant wasn’t at all surprising, everything she did was.
I really wish I could talk about this match as just that, a match. Unfortunately, that’s an impossible thing to do. May 23rd was a fucking horrendous day as the news of Hana Kimura’s death rocked anyone who has any connection to wrestling. I spent most of it in bed, attempting to get my head around something that I’m still not entirely sure I’ve come to terms with. The idea of sitting down to watch a show was the furthest thing from my mind.
And if I felt like that, then I can’t imagine what ASUKA was feeling. A tag-team partner and close friend of Hana’s, absolutely no-one would have held it against them if they’d pulled out of this match. However, as Emi would later reveal, the exact opposite would come to pass. When she called ASUKA to see if they were okay, she didn’t even need to ask the question. ASUKA wanted this to go ahead.
What followed turned out to be near-perfect. For twenty minutes, ASUKA and Mei managed to lock out the world and click into the healing power of wrestling. They put together something funny, violent and inventive which was able to include the hilarious sight of Mei trying to match ASUKA’s sexy dancing next to fantastic mat work and fun-loving Mei trying to commit murder with a kendo stick. These two are wrestling prodigies, and it was an absolute joy to watch them come together, taking two vastly different styles and melding them beautifully.
Most importantly, though, in a year where wrestling has taken some big old licks, this reminded me why I love it. In the past, I’ve described it as my safety blanket, the thing I can curl up in when everything else is too much, and that’s what this was. For a little while, the shit disappeared, not just for me, but for loads of people. The live chat is still there, so you can sit and read a group in mourning come together and get caught up in something brilliant.
In the aftermath, ChocoPro let ASUKA speak to the camera about their friend, and even if it is in Japanese far past the limit of my understanding, it breaks me every time I watch it. The moment that sticks with me, though, comes just after that. Where ASUKA, having said their piece, leans forward, teetering on the line between laughing and crying only for the frame to be invaded by everyone else, wrapping them up in a beautiful, chaotic ball of humanity. On a dark day, ChocoPro stood by their friend and brought a chink of light to the world. That’s something I’ll never forget.
Will anyone ever be as cool as Rina Yamashita making her entrance on the back of Manami Toyota’s motorbike? The only acceptable alternate answer to that question is Rina Yamashita delivering a lariat from the back of Manami Toyota’s motorbike.
It’s incredibly easy to dismiss deathmatch. For all the brilliant wrestlers that take part in bloody, violent brawls, there are a fair few who, well, aren’t quite as good. That’s often led to it being ridiculed, pushed to one side and ignored by a chunk of the wrestling fanbase. However, much like extreme cinema or music, there will always be those drawn to its ways, people like Rina Yamashita and Risa Sera, whose love of this style is there for all to see.
And while it’s strange to invoke love in a match that ends with Rina a bloody mess from a light tube, I honestly think it was a big part of what made this work. Rina and Risa channelled everything they had into it, killing each other in the name of putting on the best performance they could. You can debate the intelligence of that all you want, but you can’t deny its position as a passion project. It was two people being handed the chance to do the thing they love on one of the biggest stages available to them and grasping that chance as hard as they could.
On the rewatch I did before writing this, I noticed something I didn’t the first time around. In the aftermath, having pinned Rina after flying off the top of a huge ladder, Risa grabs her opponent’s hand, holding it tight before rolling over and sharing a moment. It’s a tiny little gesture, easily missed, but one which gives off the impression that they were in this together. Bloody brawls might not be where most people place their heart and soul, but for Rina and Risa it is, and it made for a hell of a match.
This wasn’t supposed to happen. For her 25th anniversary, Emi Sakura had hand-picked Kaori Yoneyama to be her opponent. Unfortunately, as it has done so often this year, COVID had other plans. A Stardom wrestler testing positive just days before the event made it too dangerous for Yone to take part, and Emi was left scrabbling for a replacement.
When that happened, she turned to one of her oldest allies. Emi has a lot of loyal students, but few who have stood by her side as long as Sayaka Obihiro. From Ice Ribbon to Gatoh Move, she’s attached herself to Sakura, and when the call came, she stepped up, despite the fact she’d been out for three months with an injury. It was a switch that completely changed the tone of this match. Emi and Yone are equals, peers who have fought as partners and opponents for nearly their entire careers. Obi is still very much Emi’s pupil. In their eighteen previous one on one matches, she’d managed one win and one draw. Honestly, she never stood a chance.
So why has a one-sided match that wasn’t supposed to happen made this list? Well, while Obi might have fallen short of Emi, that doesn’t mean she had nothing to give. In fact, the exact opposite was true. I don’t think I have ever seen a wrestler put as much into a single performance as Obi did for this one. By the end of it, she was exhausted, barely able to stand and throwing open the Chocolate Square windows in an attempt to gulp down the cool air as she stumbled drunkenly around the mat. Yet, she kept trying. She put her heart and soul into it, pulling herself up, again and again, doing everything she could to keep fighting. It was pure, stubborn, bloody-mindedness, and it’s incredible to watch.
And it almost turns this match into a love letter. Obi’s no fool. She knows this wasn’t what Emi wanted, yet she does everything in her power to give her what she deserves. As her body screams at her to stay down, her heart refuses. It’s heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time, the sweat dripping down her face as you almost want her to stop, but are caught up in the moment, screaming her on.
Not that the Oni cares. When the end comes, she doesn’t even use La Magistral, halting halfway through to shift Obi onto her shoulders and pin her with ease, even delivering a swift slap on the arse as the three is counted. Obi gave her everything to Sakura, and she couldn’t give less of a shit. Never change, Emi, never change.
What’s better than a musical number in a wrestling match? Three musical numbers, of course. From the opening lock-up being timed to the beat of ‘Satisfaction’ to Lulu and Honda’s beautiful duet, which brought with it the arrival of Gon the Fox, the third meeting between Pencil and Honda somehow managed to be even more out there and surreal than what had come before.
For it’s become clear that Lulu and Honda place no bounds on where they want their matches to go. Betrayal via song? Fine. A Dusty Elbow so long that Lulu ends up standing on the sink? Great. Can a fox hand-puppet put on the winning submission? Of course. These two have such incredible brains for nonsense, and when you put them together, it magnifies their talents.
What makes it special, though, is that there is a clear through line to their matches. The first time around, Lulu didn’t really pose a challenge to Honda. In fact, he didn’t even have to technically do anything to win, Lulu’s own backslide providing the submission. Now, though, on her year anniversary, the Pencil is stronger. Honda has to dig deeper and deeper into his bag of tricks, pulling up more and more out-there ideas to put her away. He needed Gon to get the win because Lulu was getting closer to beating him.
Outside of kayfabe, ChocoPro has become the perfect place for these two to enact their ideas. The ability to hide things like Gon from the camera opens up opportunities that would never work in front of an audience. Honda may have had a dodgy year outside the ring, but his role in shaping ChocoPro is vital as he played a pivotal part in crafting the way they use Chocolate Square, both as a cameraman and an in-ring performer.
And it gave us this, a match that I have now watched countless times and which never fails to cheer me up. It is glorious, unashamed, nonsense, and I love every second of it.
The inaugural title defence of a first-time champion is fascinating. In theory, you’ve done the hard work, climbed to the top and earned the reward. However, the reality says that you’re just getting started. For someone like Suzu Suzuki, her entire career had built to the moment where she beat Maya Yukihi. So, how the hell do you keep that momentum going?
Well, it’s a lot easier if you have Tsukushi across from you. Ice Ribbon’s goblin child stepped up to be Suzu’s first challenger, and it was an inspired choice. Tsukushi is in the perfect spot where she could both lose to Suzu and suffer no long-term damage, but also win and be a legitimate person to take the belt from Ice Ribbon’s young, inexperienced champion. Your head told you that Suzu was probably not going to drop the title straight away, but there was a niggle there that suggested she could.
On top of that, Skoosh is really fucking good. Suzu is a tad bigger and stronger than her, but Tsukushi is a fucking devil. Some of the strikes she threw in this match sounded like they would have knocked out someone twice her size, so fuck knows what they were doing to Suzuki. There’s a moment late on where Suzu pulls Skoosh to her feet by her hair, and it flips some switch in the challenger’s head because she unleashes. Those blows needed no leg slaps to make them audible as the thud reverberated around the room.
It also allowed Suzu to answer some questions. She’d proven she could do it once, but this was her chance to show that she could keep doing it. Tsukushi gave her everything she had, and Suzu dug deep, coming up big and hitting a trio of Germans (one more than she used to win the belt) to get the win. That first title defence has caused many a reign to waver before it truly got going, but if you want an example of how to do it right, Suzu and Skoosh have laid down the perfect template.
Big match wrestling is often the thing I struggle to connect with the most. As someone who favours the weirder side of this world, main-event matches built around little more than a desire to win a gaudy belt often fall flat for me, the emotion lost in the pomp and circumstance. Thankfully, that’s a problem Tokyo Joshi very rarely have.
For if there is one thing that TJPW always bring to their big matches, it’s emotion. 90% of the build-up to this was Yuka and Mizuki bursting into tears, trying to separate the parts of them that love each other with the bits that were going to have to fight. It wasn’t just them either, before the bell rang, Miyu, who had joined the commentary team, was audibly fighting back the sobs. Even as they’ve grown, Tokyo Joshi has retained a family feel and that’s never more evident than moments like this where they all pull in the same direction, desperate for their friends to succeed.
And, of course, the match itself was fantastic. Yuka and Mizuki are natural dance partners, instincts honed by the hours they’ve spent in that ring together. Weirdly the part that seemed to sum that up best was early on when Yuka’s costume came apart, nearly causing a pretty disastrous wardrobe malfunction. It happened at a point where the two were grappling, yet they barely break stride, masterfully keeping it going until they can get in a position where Yuka can put herself back together. It’s impossible to know when Mizuki became aware of what happened, but there are one or two moments where her hand rises up, looking like she’s attempting to fight out of a hold but conveniently holding Yuka’s costume in place at the same time. Intentional or not, it’s two people on the same wavelength, able to divert disaster without throwing the match off the tracks.
My favourite moment comes towards the end, though, when Yuka reaches out a hand to help Mizuki to her feet. For a second you wonder if we’re going to get some lovey-dovey embrace, a tension shattering ‘moment’ that was unneeded, but then the two of them start throwing elbows for all its worth, holding each other up as they do so. It’s two best friends giving everything they have without ever stopping being friends. The ability to capture that at the very top of their cards is what makes Tokyo Joshi special, and Yuka vs Mizuki might be the best example of it yet.