The match of the year lists continue with part two of my best of the rest. Honestly, any one of these (or the ten from part one) could be my top pick, and in a different year, they probably would be. As it is, though, they’ll have to be happy with the somewhat crowded runner-up spot.
Yes, this is two matches, and no, I won’t choose between them.
For like the brilliant series between Natsumi Maki and Miyu Yamashita (which was just a smidge off making this list), I think Mayu and Takumi’s interactions are better taken as a pair. In fact, I’d go as far as saying this double whammy is everything I want from match to match storytelling. It’s got nothing to do with continually holding onto a wrist or doing the same spot again, but slightly different. No, this is about building on what came before.
You can sum up the first match in a single strike from the opening minutes. After an even exchange, Mayu runs at Takumi only to be caught with a spinning kick to the stomach. It’s the kind of blow that generally causes an opponent to bend over, opening themselves up to a second move. Not here, though. Mayu takes it like she’s been shot, coming off her feet and crashing to the mat gasping for breath. In one second, Iroha, who was only there because Sareee had to pull out, has made it clear who the dominant party is.
The action that follows is brilliant, and if you put a gun to my head, I probably would name it the superior of the two (although it taking place in a pre-COVID Korakuen probably helps). Its main goal, though, is to establish that Takumi has Mayu’s number. Obviously, it ain’t no squash, Iwatani has her flurries, but the resounding image is of Iroha wandering into Stardom, seemingly on a whim, and putting the champion to the sword. At one point, she even lifts a limp Mayu by the waist, parading her around the ring before hitting a German. Mayu got blitzed, caught off-guard by a stronger opponent and made to pay.
Eight months and a COVID crisis later, we got round number two and, to begin with, things weren’t much different. Iroha is still a hell of a foe and she takes control, going after Iwatani’s leg. However, the difference this time is that Mayu isn’t caught off-guard. While the first match felt one-sided, she never lets this one get away from her, grabbing onto every opening she can and forcing herself into them. She’s learnt what Iroha can do and is refusing to repeat her mistakes, tapping into the cold, vicious Mayu that will kill a fucker.
In fact, it’s Iroha that makes the mistakes. A big part of this feud was Chigusa Nagayo choosing to teach the Running Three to Iwatani, annoying her star pupil. Having used it to win the first match, Takumi is desperate to repeat the feat, despite the fact that Mayu continually reverses every attempt to go for it. Eventually, she pays for that determination as Iwatani bundles her up and gets the three even if there is a rather large suggestion that Takumi’s foot is on the rope. Oh well, guess we’ll just have to do it again.
If there is a criticism, it’s that the second match fell victim to Stardom’s erratic booking in the latter half of this year, as they’ve seemed determined to get through every storyline they had planned in half the time. That meant it went past almost unremarked upon, not quite getting the attention it deserved. However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a brilliant pair of matches, that gave me everything I wanted and yet left me wanting more.
Back at the start of March, Stardom put on what was (as far as I remember), the first show I watched from an empty arena. In an eerily quiet Korakuen Hall, Saki Kashima and Mayu Iwatani played out a main-event that got somewhat middling reviews, but which I loved.
That love came from the fact this felt like the perfect ending to Saki and Mayu’s feud. It all began with Saki betraying Mayu in January, a move that caused Iwatani to clam up. This wasn’t the first time someone had turned on her, so she seemed determined to shrug it off, hiding her emotions away and dismissing Kashima, refusing to acknowledge her existence. For the traitor, that wasn’t enough; she wanted a match. She wanted a match so bad that she was willing to have it be a non-title affair in an empty Korakuen Hall.
It meant this was all about Saki trying to get Mayu’s attention. To have her accept Kashima betrayal wasn’t just a blip on her radar, but something that hurt. From the bell, she and Oedo Tai swarm Iwatani, proving much more effective in their lumberjack role than the rather naive STARS, and doing everything they can to cause Mayu pain. It culminates in her being sent backwards down two flights of cold, hard Korakuen stairs, rolling and rolling until she crashes into a chair at the bottom. It’s a spot that only infamous neck hater Mayu would agree to take, but it does the job.
For in the final act of this match, it becomes clear that Mayu cares. In fact, she cares enough to turn into a cold-blooded killer. Iwatani goes dead behind the eyes as she takes Saki apart, destroying her with kicks. Of course, it leads to Kashima’s defeat, she’s not (and never has been) on Mayu’s level, but it also proves her point. Mayu did care. When Saki betrayed her, it wasn’t just a moment that she could shrug off. It hurt, and in some ways, that was all she needed to hear.
Let’s go back to the very beginning, ChocoPro number one where, in a move that surprised even Akki, Emi Sakura had roped Minoru Suzuki into appearing in Ichigaya Chocolate Square. It’s worth going back to this match purely to see how far they’ve come since. Not only do we watch most of it from a secondary camera at the side of the ring after YouTube pulled the first stream, but everything feels that little more slapped together.
That’s not why it’s on the list, though, and it’s not even here for what would come next. It’s here because this is a glorious example of what makes Minoru Suzuki so great. There is a common misconception that there are two Suzukis, the comedic and the violent. However, that is, and always has been utter bollocks. They’re the same person, and in the supposedly serious matches that Suzuki has, he is as much a comedy wrestler as he is when he’s facing Mecha Mummy.
Because when Suzuki is at his best, he’s a pantomime villain, and this is him at his best. The second he walks into Chocolate Square he’s snarling at those at ringside, going for full hissable bad guy as he intimidates Obi while she announces him. ‘Serious’ wrestling fans would scoff at someone like MiSu coming to this venue, but he’s so clearly at home there, happy to turn everything up to eleven as he leans into his role as hard as he can.
And Akki is the perfect person to stand up to the devil. He’s the young, good-looking hero, placed up against an impossible foe, but determined to give his all. There is also the lovely touch of Suzuki being the one to step into his territory. Akki is at home in the unusual confines of Ichigaya and uses that to his advantage, pulling out tricks that Suzuki will have never come across before.
It means he’s also cheered on by those at ringside, the Gatoh Move roster adding to the atmosphere and setting up this match’s greatest moment. As Suzuki heels it up to the max, breaking the rules at every turn, Akki’s friends decide they’ve seen enough. It’s Lulu Pencil who gets involved first, throwing elbows for all she’s worth, but it kicks off a chain reaction. Suddenly, all of them are working together to take down the monster, and it is glorious. ChocoPro has pulled off a lot of punch the air moments since then, but the first is still up as one of their best.
Of course, what comes next does tinge my feelings towards this match. I love ChocoPro, and this was the moment that proved it could work. Emi Sakura convinced Minoru Suzuki to step into her world, and he gave her a match that she built a company on. You can’t ask for much more than that, can you?
ASUKA vs Arisa Nakajima, Delivered To You! (13/6/20), SEAdLINNNG
Arisa Nakajima has a strong claim to being the best wrestler in the world. From her in-ring work to the badass aura that she exudes, Arisa has it all, and the only reason she’s often excluded from said lists is ignorance of her existence. She’s everything you’d expect the champion of a company like SEAd to be and there are countless matches she’s been involved in that could have made this list.
The reason this is the one to make the cut, though, is that it’s a rare example of Arisa being put on the defensive. ASUKA is one of the few wrestlers in joshi who can go out and bully Nakajima. They’re bigger, faster and stronger than her, not even flinching in the opening minutes when Arisa slaps them across the face. It forces the champ to change the game-plan, attacking ASUKA’s leg and trying to negate some of that incredible power.
What follows is a masterclass in big match wrestling. ASUKA is untouchable, matching Arisa every step of the way and doing some fantastic selling. As much as this was the year where she shed any remnants of inexperience, there is still a tinge of that rookie enthusiasm to her offence. She goes big at every chance she gets, and while it works some of the time, Arisa is also there to punish her when she goes too big too soon.
For ultimately, what gets Arisa through this match is her experience. She’s outgunned at every turn, but she’s never out-thought. From the leg work that begins to turn the tide, to the complex pinning combination that gets the win, she escapes this match because she’s the best wrestler in the world, and when you’re that good, it takes more than pure physicality to put you away.
If Minoru Suzuki provided the match that ChocoPro was built off the back of, then Emi Sakura vs Yunamon was the moment that proved just how exceptional it could be. Yunamon’s story that ran through the entirety of season one and into season two was the first time that ChocoPro managed to blend their shows and the daily live streams they do together to tell a deeply personal tale. This was Yunamon’s battle for her boss’s respect and to show the world who she is as a wrestler.
And even if you hadn’t watched a second of that long, twisting build, it’s clear from the entrances who these people are. Yunamon sings herself to the ring, all bubbly passion and in direct contrast to Sakura’s ice-cold glare. Then, when the bell rings, Yuna is pure fire, bursting out of the blocks to take control and go after Emi’s always vulnerable back. It’s not just a wrestler going on the offensive, though, but someone trying to prove themselves. Yunamon needs Emi to acknowledge who she is and is giving her all to get it.
As brilliant as Yunamon is, though, this match ultimately reminded me that Emi Sakura is still untouchable on her day. The pacing of this thing is incredible, as Yunamon’s all-action attack almost burns her out, leaving Sakura to slip in with her veteran ways, turning things in her favour. If it was a football match, the statistics would have suggested an easy Yunamon win, but the reality would be a 1-0 tactical masterclass by the veteran. It might be Yunamon who makes all the noise, but it’s Emi who hits at the most important moments.
Which could have been a deflating way to end the long build that Yunamon had gone through, but it wasn’t. The story here was simple, Yunamon is incredible, and on most days she could beat Emi Sakura, but not on the day where Emi has her game face on. The finish sums it up, Emi pulling out the rarely seen Ice Driver, which the very name of points to its place in time, to put Yunamon away. Sakura just had too much for her. When they both dug deep and were on their last legs, those twenty-five-years of experience trumped Yunamon’s passion. In the same breath, though, Yunamon was made, and you’ll struggle to find a ChocoMint that has anything but good words to say about her. Give her a couple more years, and there is no chance in hell that Emi survives the onslaught.
Is wrestling supposed to be fun? That’s not the question you’d expect to find at the heart of a story in ChocoPro, a company that has no qualms about leaning into the silly. And yet, for Mitsuru Konno’s season two arc, it was the only question. For her, wrestling had never been fun. It was painful, challenging work, so when she watched someone like Mei Suruga, for whom wrestling is most definitely fun, she saw something she could never understand. It was a situation that saw the frustration bubble up on both sides and eventually brought us to this.
It’s a match that can almost be seen to define Sakuraism. On one side, you have Mei, a wrestler with a natural gift who has been let loose to entwine her fun-loving personality around her talent. She almost skips around the ring, a massive grin on her face as she goes about her goblin ways. Then, you have Mitsuru, intensity personified. She still has a touch of that Sakura lightness, but she has a lot more of big match Emi in her and a willingness to boot people in the face till they see her way of thinking.
What makes the match special, though, is that neither one of them gives an inch. In theory, Mitsuru winning could be seen as the answer, wrestling is serious, and fun gets you nowhere, but that would be to miss the point entirely. Mitsuru and Mei both wrestle this match as themselves. Mei is still all kawaii poses and joy while Mitsuru slaps her opponent so hard she made her own hand bleed. Importantly, though, in the aftermath its Mitsuru with the grin on her face while, if you were to dig in deep to ChocoPro, this match could easily be pinpointed as the quiet beginning of Mei’s arc, the impetus she needs to start picking up big wins.
And when you strip all of that away, it is Sakuraism defined because it is two of her very best proving themselves as such. Sadly, we now know that we’ll never see it again because of Mitsuru’s retirement, but watching this back is a painful and joyous reminder of just how good she was. Her ChocoPro run is some of the best wrestling of this year and combined with Mei’s genius it created magic, so while it’s sad that she’s gone, I’m very glad I got to experience first-hand before she left.
If I were picking my favourite moment from 2020, then it would be the spot in this match where Lulu Pencil goes for the backslide on Emi Pencil. That simple move might not mean much to someone who had never seen Lulu before, but for fans, it shouted back to the moment she tried to use it against Antonio Honda and ended up tapping out herself. Now, though, going up against Emi Pencil and her bad back, Lulu was suddenly in a position to reverse history. Sitting at home, thousands of miles from Japan, I was out of my seat, screaming support as I thought for a second that it was Emi’s turn to submit.
It’s a perfect example of what made this and the entire Pencil Army saga work. In the macho world of wrestling where strength and speed are prized above everything else, Lulu and Emi Pencil dare to be weak. They don’t only dare to be weak, but they make it their thing, using it to craft stories that no-one else could tell. With Emi Sakura’s very real back issue flaring up thanks to ChocoPro’s intense schedule, she was able to drop down and work with Lulu, playing off the idea that they were two wrestlers who can lose at any moment.
And it makes for a fascinating watch because this uses that weakness brilliantly. There is a point where Emi is trying to climb onto the window but can’t do it, her back proving to be in too much pain. So, she pulls Lulu over with her foot, turning her into a step. Through that weakness, which so many wrestlers would run a mile from, she’s crafted a moment of power, a tiny wee touch that no-one else would think of doing. Not only is she hurting Lulu, but she’s disrespecting her, literally using her to get a step up.
It’s all yet further proof that ChocoPro is working on a level that 99% of companies couldn’t even begin to comprehend. It would also prove only to be the beginning, as Emi’s stint as Emi Pencil would spiral off creating a story that we’ll get to eventually. At this point, though, the Pencils had collided and proved that being weak is not always a bad thing.
Mayumi Ozaki vs Saori Anou, Plum Hanasaku 2020 ~ OZ No Kuni Buntai Final (28/8/20), Oz Academy
A young star turning against the head of their faction is nothing new. It’s a wrestling storyline that can be seen in everything from Batista vs Evolution to EVIL joining Bullet Club. On paper, Anou vs Ozaki looked like a retread of that old tale as Saori broke away from Seki-gun and began her journey to redemption.
And yet, what makes this one of the matches of the year is that Anou wasn’t breaking free. Yes, while it’s going on, she is positioned as the babyface, even dropping her cloak before the bell to reveal pristine white gear, but it’s not a turn. It doesn’t matter that Ozaki and her goons beat her bloody, leaving that white outfit stained red as wave after wave of attacks crashed down on her because when it was all said and done, Anou goes back to Ozaki. Ultimately, this match only served to prove that she’s Seki-gun through and through.
It’s a twist on the formula that is backed up by oystersearrings on Twitter (whose writing you should all check out) when he pointed out that traditionally brides would wear a white kimono at the start of the ceremony before changing to a red one later on. Whether Anou’s gear being stained by her blood was an intentional reference to that or not is irrelevant because it is the perfect reading of this match. Anou was never breaking free of Ozaki. She was marrying herself to her. Proving herself capable of standing up to her, but at the same time showing her loyalty by taking the beating and returning to her side.
My one regret is that it was impossible to watch it live. Going into it spoilt, I still enjoyed it a lot, but I can’t imagine how exciting Anou’s comebacks would have been in the moment. To live through those flurries where she battles through Ozkai-gun and gets that one on one fight must have been thrilling, leaving you on the edge of your seat as you asked whether she could actually do it. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Police get booted in the balls in-person? Sadly, that wasn’t to be, but even without that joy, this is still an incredible, unique piece of wrestling that will linger in the mind long after 2020 is gone.
I’ve lost count of the number of matches that I’ve declared the definitive ChocoPro experience. To be honest, I’m not even sure if such a thing can still exist, as Emi Sakura’s YouTube creation has branched out, proving more than capable of being everything to everyone. However, if you put a gun to my head and asked me to hand you one match that would sell ChocoPro to the world, I think it would be this one.
For Mei vs Aniki could have only happened in ChocoPro. Not only because it is the kind of nonsense most wrestling companies would shy away from, but because they’re the only company that has Ichigaya Chocolate Square at their disposal. The pure silent cinema slapstick of Akki filming Mei and Aniki’s shadows through the window or Mei hiding between the glass and a shutter couldn’t happen in any other wrestling venue.
They also took the Falls Count Anywhere stipulation to its somewhat illogical conclusion. This wasn’t just a match where you could pin someone outside the ring, but one where you could press them against a wall or even just lay a blanket down on them while they lie on their front. It’s such an obvious gag that I’m amazed I’ve never seen it before, and it instantly opened up a million new possibilities.
Ultimately, though, what makes this quintessential ChocoPro is that it was Mei Suruga embracing her Tom & Jerry loving goblinhood to the max. ChocoPro has a lot of unique wrestlers, but Mei is their jewel. While there are plenty of other brilliant goblins out there, none of them openly pull from the same pool of influences as Mei. It’s the reason Emi Sakura turned to her when Riho left, and it’s most likely why Emi will have to find a way to replace her in the future. She’s one of a kind, and if you want to see what I mean, get watching.
The phrase emotional roller-coaster gets thrown around a lot, but 2020, and this match, might have been the moment where it was captured in its purest form. Initially announced as a showdown between Dango and Misao, when it became clear Tokyo Joshi was dedicating the entire second half of a show to it, everyone came in expecting the nonsense levels to reach an all-time high. While that most definitely did happen, Hyper Misao also broke nearly everyone watching, as she started everything off by announcing her retirement and ended it by getting engaged.
And what makes this fascinating to me is the blurring of that fragile line which separates reality and fiction. Obviously, some of this was set-up beforehand, but exactly how much and who knew about it is not clear. The shrieks of shock and joy from the roster when Misao gets engaged certainly don’t hint at people who knew what was coming, while Misao’s retirement speech feels pure and from the heart. On the flip side, you have her now-husband having already posted an article to the DDT website saying that Misao wouldn’t be retiring, but would be getting married, something he’d have had to be very brave to do if he hadn’t been in on it all from the start.
In the end, though, none of that matters. It doesn’t matter if this was scripted to within an inch of its life or if Misao was making her mind up as she went along because it works either way. I, unfortunately, didn’t watch it live, and I still cried through nearly every second of it, weeping at such tiny gestures as Shoko gifting Misao a rare kaiju toy to mark her retirement. This was pure wrestling theatre, the kind of twisting, turning tale that WWE once so excelled at (they did make wrestling weddings famous), but which now they can only dream of conjuring up. There was so much going on that I haven’t even mentioned the very good match between Misao and Rika or the fact that we were treated to a Miyu Yamashita haiku during the Bachelorette inspired section that helped Misao choose her retirement opponent.
Hyper Misao is one of wrestling’s great minds, and this is up with the famous Jun Kasai match as her masterpiece. However, if there is anyone that can top it, it’s Misao. When the day comes where she actually retires, don’t be surprised if she blows this out the water.