Ramblings About’s Matches of the Month for March 2021

How rude. Credit: Stardom

Wow, March was a packed month for wrestling. We got Stardom in Budokan, Assemble Volume 3, ChocoPro 100 and more, which has made for a varied and all over the place list. Not that I’m complaining. The more great wrestling that is going on, the better, and I had plenty to get my teeth into.

The Stardom Rumble, All Star Dream Cinderella (3/3/21), Stardom

Everyone is here! Credit: Stardom

On what was a near-universally acclaimed show, the one match I’ve seen consistent criticism of was the Stardom Rumble. It’s been called messy, badly-paced and accused of being more interested in entrances than actual wrestling. That’s before we even touch on the Kikutaro comedy section that saw him grope the greatest wrestler of all time, Chigusa Nagayo. They’re all criticisms that I have heard, understood, and, in some cases, even agreed with. Yet, I fucking adored this match.

Because while it was all those things, it was also a love letter. A love letter not only to Stardom but to joshi as a whole. On their biggest ever show, it made sense for Stardom to draw from their history. To pull people back for one-off appearances and let them show they can still do it, but they didn’t need to go beyond that. They didn’t have to let Emi Sakura make her grand entrance, flanked by her students, or have Kyoko Inoue play the tank that everyone wants to take out. Stardom gets a lot of criticism, a fair bit of it deserved, but this was wonderful. They gave a whole load of people a chance to wrestle in one of Japan’s most iconic venues, and that kind of stuff is important.

On top of that, it looked like they were all having the best time. I’ve spoken before about how much I adore watching wrestlers enjoy themselves, and this was that. Whether it was the Marvelous lot grinning from ear to ear or Saya Iida getting the chance to face-off with Chigusa, it was the kind of match that left me with a warm fuzzy glow. If you give me that, I won’t give a flying fuck where the camera is pointed.

Mayu Iwatani vs Yoshiko, All Star Dream Cinderella (3/3/21), Stardom

The dreaded, violent Yoshiko having a cuddle with her pal. Credit: Stardom

I could have put any of the big matches from Stardom trip to Budokan on this list, as each one brought something different to the table. Whether it was Momo and Nanae going to war, Saya stepping up or Tam finally winning the big one, it was a special event. However, the match that has stayed with me and which still raises a smile every time I think about it was this one, as after far too long, Yoshiko and Mayu climbed into the same ring once more.

And it was reliably brilliant. Yoshiko and Mayu are two of the best and happen to wrestle conflicting styles that click together perfectly. Mayu the erratic genius, Yoshiko the hardened brawler, it’s a pairing made in heaven, and it paid off. As the only two original Stardom rookies to still be wrestling full-time, they went all out to show who they are and took the house down in doing so.

However, that’s only part of why I loved it. What made it the kind of special that will stick with me forever was the feeling of closure that came with it. Everyone knows the story, and I’m not going to repeat it now, but it was a windy road that they took to get to this point. Yoshiko and Mayu, the two weirdos who came into wrestling and became friends, had been apart for years and watching them get to come together on such a huge stage and do what they do best was special. As wonderful as the action was, even better was the moment afterwards when Iwatani tackled Yoshiko to the ground, hugging her old pal close as they celebrated their success.

There will always be those waiting to throw their toys out the pram about this match, who refuse to watch it or are determined to hold a grudge no matter who has expressed forgiveness. They’re not the important ones, though. The important ones were those two women, in that ring, holding onto each other tightly. It clearly meant the world to them both, and that made it special.

Marika Kobashi vs Miu Watanabe, TJPW PPV Show 3 (7/3/21), TJPW

Stay in the game! Credit: TJPW

While Tokyo Joshi’s PPV events aren’t good for my wallet, I love the opportunity it presents the company. After the success of the shows that they ran back at the start of lockdown, it was almost a shame to see them ditch the fun tournament-style format they were working with. These give them a chance to bring that back, to work matches that are almost outwith the canon of their normal events and do things a little bit differently. With five-minute time limits and two-count falls, the wrestlers were in a position to mess around and experiment, which is always going to go down well with me. Plus, we got Raku claiming she would beat Yuki Aino by seducing her, and if that isn’t delightful, what is?

However, the match I’ve picked out is Marika Kobashi vs Miu Watanabe, which I think used the format to perfection. On a typical show, Marika wouldn’t stand a chance against Miu. Here, though, she spotted an opportunity. For the initial five-minutes, she simply needed to survive, keep kicking out of Miu’s power offence and stay in the game. Then, when that time was up, the match changed to one-count falls, giving Marika the perfect opening to strike and steal away with a victory.

It made this match feel like a tactical masterclass. Marika was in there with someone bigger and stronger, but she sat back, waited for her chance and hit her on the counter. That’s a straightforward story, one that anyone who supports a smaller sports team will be well aware of, but it’s a harder one to tell in wrestling. You don’t see people playing for a draw or trying to hold their opponent at arm’s length, Jose Mourinho style. Marika and Miu got a rare chance to do exactly that, and they nailed it.

Mio Momono, Maria & Ai Houzan vs Chihiro Hashimoto, Manami & Yurika Oka, Marvelous (10/3/21), Marvelous

A moment with Big Hash. Credit: Marvelous

On what was only Ai Houzan’s second match, she only went out and stole the show away from some of the best wrestlers around. How’s that for making an impact?

Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration. However, this was a hell of a showing for the rookie. The thing I’ve latched on to is her wilful streak, the same attitude that led to her tagging herself into this match and eventually losing. It would be the easiest thing in the world for her to fade into the background in her first main event, to get beat up, do a few dropkicks, maybe a crab and then take the fall without grabbing the eye. Plenty of rookies do precisely that, even a year or so into their careers, and I don’t blame them, but Ai seems to demand attention. She has the confidence to put herself in these situations, and considering the dojo she’s coming out of, that speaks highly for her chances of becoming an incredible wrestler.

Of course, the rest of this match ruled too. You have Mio and Hash in there, so what else would you expect? But it was the young rookie I came away thinking about, and considering Mio is one of my favourite wrestlers on the planet right now, that’s a hell of an accomplishment. To cap it off, she and Kanon would then go on and do the same thing the next night on the Sendai show, standing out on opposite sides of a tag once more (a match I’d also recommend you watch). If there was any doubt that the future of joshi is in good hands, these kids should ease your worries.

Maria vs Yurika Oka, Don’t Forget That Day (11/3/21), Sendai Girls

Maria has all the attitude. Credit: Sendai Girls

I loved how scrappy the start of this match was. Maria and Oka are both technically proficient young wrestlers, but there were moments throughout this where they forgot about that. Instead, we got two people who have spent months on opposing sides, slowly being wound up both by their interactions and those around them, getting unleashed on each other. There was no thought about what they were going to do, their only goal being to start swinging.

And as the match went on, they’d both regain control, showing off some of that wrestling ability. However, that underlying tension never went away, always ready to bubble over and turn this into a fight at the drop of a hat. It’s something Maria is great at tapping into. Everything she does screams disrespect, be it booting Oka in the head or twisting her up in submissions. As with every match in this feud, I buy that these two don’t like each other. That Maria looks down on Oka as a rookie, not worthy of her time, and that Oka is determined to do everything in her power to prove her wrong.

It also captures why I’ve loved the GAEAISM build so much. I’ve just talked at length about two of the matches, both of which put their focus on young, talented wrestlers who deserve a chance to shine. It would have been easy to make it all about the bigger names and have these rookies serve only as pin-eaters, but the reality couldn’t be further from that. Long may it continue.

Pencil Army (Lulu Pencil & Mino Pencil) vs ChieDK (Chris Brookes & Chie Koishikawa), ChocoPro 95 (12/3/21) , ChocoProLIVE!

Image
The only army I recognise. Credit: ChocoPro

Minoru Fujita has added a pink cat bag full of weapons to his Pencil Army outfit, and if you don’t think that’s the greatest thing ever, we can’t be friends.

In many ways, this was your classic ChocoPro main event. A match packed with so many delightful moments that it’s impossible to capture them all. Whether it’s Fujita pulling a cheese grater out of the aforementioned bag while Referee Emi Pencil ties her shoelace in the background or Chris Brookes leaping off a tiny stepladder to Double Stomp Lulu, it was pure ChocoPro.

What made it stand out over one of the many other brilliant ChocoPro main events is the Brookes and Fujita element. I’ve spoken before about how much I adore the fact that everyone who steps place in Chocolate Square embraces the wacky world of this promotion, but few people have done it with the conviction that Brookes and Fujita have. Chris leans into his role as the most hissable villain around, corrupting Chie and making sure to torture Lulu at every chance he gets. Then there is deathmatch maniac Fujita, dressed up in a pair of dungarees and giving his all to this ridiculous world. I love it, and those wonderful moments I spoke about are all made ten times better by that dynamic.

It also brings the best out of Chie and Lulu. They are in that ring with two veterans willing to give them everything to help them grown. Whether it’s Chie’s high energy throwing itself at the brick that is Fujita or Lulu’s battle to overcome Chris’s mountain, it pushes these ChocoPro rookies to the next level. Part of the reason they’ve improved at the rate they have is that they’re spending time wrestling these people.

This match also had the perfect aftermath, Lulu accepting her defeat by returning her hat to Chris Brookes. That wasn’t the end, though, Lulu’s actions softening his heart, appealing to their shared love of wrestling and convincing Chris to join the Pencil Army. Lulu Pencil, Emi Pencil, Mino Pencil, Chris Pencil and You! I’m so happy.

Haruka Umesaki vs Hope, Diana (13/3/21), Diana

Looks uncomfortable. Credit: Diana

I’m a bit bemused as to why Diana chose to make this Haruka vs Hope (one of two matches where they had wrestlers work as the masked Hope this month) rather than Haruka vs Takase. It might have made sense if they wanted to do that match while also saving it, but since Takase revealed who she was afterwards, it all seemed a bit pointless?

Oh well, that’s not the important part. The important part is that it was a great match which told us a lot about where Haruka is at this point in her career. She was outgunned at nearly every turn by her Luminous tag partner, Takase thundering into her with lariats and using her power to keep control of the action. If you were to throw it to a judge’s decision, they wouldn’t have to think twice about who the winner was.

And yet, Takase didn’t win. Haruka might not yet be at the stage where she can beat her partner, but she is at the stage where she can survive her. She can take those lariats and keep going, fighting from underneath and slipping into any opportunity that she spots. Time-limit draws can be a hard structure to work within, but this was done to perfection, making it clear that Takase would have won with a minute more but doing nothing to take away from the mini-victory Haruka had earned. She doesn’t need to beat Miyuki yet, but coming that little bit closer lets us all know how far she’s come.

RebelXEnemy (Rina Yamashita & Ram Kaicho) & Yuuki Mashiro vs Lovely Butchers (Mochi Miyagi & Hamuko Hoshi) & Akane Fujita, Ice Ribbon #1105 (20/3/21), Ice Ribbon

All the Rinas are here. Credit: Ice Ribbon

I like to imagine that there is a corner of the Ice Ribbon Dojo dedicated to Yuuki’s arts and crafts. It’s where she can spend her time, making masks and belts for her friends in Renemy, but without getting in everyone else’s way. It’s a nice thought.

And Yuuki’s ever-growing relationship with Rina is one of my favourite things in wrestling right now. Last month, they had an incredible match against Suzu and Anou, which I highly recommend checking out, while this was a much more comedic affair that saw Rina introduce her new weirdo friend to Ram. Much like Yamashita, though, Kaicho seemed to take this weird young rookie in her stride, doing a lovely job of helping her hit her crossbody spot and even joining her in hitting a double one from the apron to the floor. The cool kids have accepted this bizarre young wrestler as one of their own, and you love to see it.

Even better is the fact that Yuuki is now starting to influence them. Partway through this match, it looked like Rina’s partners had abandoned her, only for them (and a host of other people) to return, wearing Yamashita masks (the arts and crafts thing did become relevant eventually) because how else would you celebrate your friend’s birthday? It gave us a gloriously silly ending that included, among other things, Yuuki Yamashita attempting to hit a Splash Mountain. The weirdo is taking over, and I love to see it.

Mio Momono vs Mei Hoshizuki vs Mei Suruga vs Miyuki Takase, Chikayo Nagashima 25th Anniversary Show (26/3/21)

I think Takase was regretting coming to work.

Unleash the goblins!

After so much talk of tired, out of breath old women, it was kind of glorious to watch a match in which Miyuki Takase played a tired, out of breath old woman (she’s not old) fed-up with the shite these three goblins were giving her. There was a moment where she literally ended up chasing them around the arena, the three of them taking off in fits of giggles as she snapped and attempted to dish out a beating.

It made for the kind of chaos that you can only sit back and applaud, the level of technical ability only matched by the silliness. Whether it was the joy of the two Meis, reunited after so long apart, constantly throwing up the MeiMei pose and at times holding hands while wrestling or the frantic final moments, in which these four launched into the kind of intricate sequences that only a handful of wrestlers could match, this was exquisite goblin behaviour. In Mio and the Meis, you have three of wrestling’s greatest pests, and wee hoss Takase was the perfect person to come up against them, as she sold her frustration with these goofs perfectly. On top of that, she embraced the role of being the uncool one, attempting to join in on their fun early in the match before accepting it wasn’t happening, and reverting to what she knows best instead.

I was always going to love this match. Suruga and Mio are two of my favourites, while Miyuki and other Mei aren’t far behind. And yet, somehow, it still burst through my expectations. It was a riotous blast of colourful energy from four wrestlers who can do it all. The great goblin wars have begun, and they were glorious.

Best Bros (Baliyan Akki & Mei Suruga) vs Pencil Army (Emi Sakura & Minoru Fujita) and Baliyan Akki vs Minoru Fujita, ChocoPro 100 Day 1 and 2 (27 & 28/3/21), ChocoProLIVE!

Exhausted. Credit: ChocoPro

I’ve made the unusual choice to talk about these together. Fingers crossed it will make sense when you read it.

It’s not often the word gruelling can be used positively, but these matches were gruelling. Both landed in the 25-30 minute bracket, and they felt like it. Not because they were boring, they were nothing of the sort, but because you felt like everyone involved had been through a fight. Towards the end of the tag, Mei was on Emi’s shoulders, ready to twist around into a pin, when Emi’s legs gave way, causing her to fall to her knees, not as a counter, but because she was exhausted. Similarly, the final minutes of the Akki and Fujita fight felt like two men running on empty, barely able to pull themselves back up to their feet but pushed on by the sight of their opponent doing so. For all the beautiful, perfect wrestling in these matches, there was an equal amount of ugly, exhausted brawling, as everyone gave their heart and soul to the action.

Where the matches differed, though, was in how the people involved reacted to that exhaustion. On the first night, Pencil Army brought with them a wealth of experience and physicality that Best Bros couldn’t hope to match. However, that experience was as individuals, not as a team. In fact, they haven’t teamed anywhere near as much as Akki and Mei. Best Bros may have only been a pairing for nine months or so, part of which Akki was injured for, but they were hardened in the fires of ChocoPro, living in each other’s pockets and working together every day. They already feel like champions with over five-years worth of understanding, and as this match got deeper, that would prove to be pivotal. For not only are Akki and Mei younger and fitter than Emi and Fujita, but they prop each other up, pushing the right buttons at the right moments to get their bro to the next level. There was a moment towards the end where Akki was literally shouting at Mei to go quicker, knowing that they needed to hit their finisher as soon as possible or the match would go on. It didn’t matter how exhausted they were or how many years Pencil Army had behind them, they had each other, and that was enough to push them through.

On night two, however, it was a very different story. There, Akki, a year removed from his battle with Minoru Suzuki, was once again going one on one with a grizzled veteran. Unlike that Suzuki match, though, there was no sense of Akki being overawed by Fujita. It would be easy to go weak at the knees in front of that scarred deathmatch body, but Akki has learnt a lot over the last twelve months, and he was able to hold his own, matching Fujita as they went to war, the sweat pouring off them as the minutes ticked by. In theory, much like the night before, that should have played into Akki’s hands. Fujita is still brilliant, but he is also beaten-up, broken and bruised. The younger, fresher Akki should have been able to take advantage of that. To complete the double that he and Mei had set-up and grab himself another shiny title to take home with him. The difference? Well, this time, Mei wasn’t there. Yes, she was stood at the side of the mat cheering him on, but she wasn’t by his side, pushing him on with that competitive sibling relationship. Fujita may have been struggling to stand as time went by, but the experience that Best Bros had managed to punch through was also bubbling up. Whenever it looked like Akki was about to get the win, Minoru would pull out another trick to stop him, even doing things as simple as rolling off the mat after a splash, making a pin impossible. By himself, Akki didn’t have enough to power through and get the win, which made Fujita dropping him on his head for the three almost inevitable.

It meant that the matches that opened and closed ChocoPro’s big weekend felt like two halves of a story, one that showed that while Akki and Mei may be incredible together, as singles wrestlers, they still have a lot to learn.

Mei Suruga vs Mizuki, ChocoPro 100 Day 2 (28/3/21), ChocoProLIVE!

Mei taking a moment to enjoy throwing someone out a window. Credit: ChocoPro

How do you fight an increasingly cocky goblin? Well, you bring a bigger goblin in to show them how it’s done.

I’m not sure if Emi actually did book this match to put Mei in her place, but after pointing out that she’d been getting a bit big for her boots recently, Sakura calling up one of the many goblins she’s trained before felt a little bit pointed. This was Mizuki’s first visit to Chocolate Square in almost two years, but she looked like she’d never been away.

And I don’t actually have too much to say about this match, apart from a wish to revel in the joy of watching two people who know how to use that room do so to perfection. Mizuki and Mei are almost the perfect examples of what Emi Sakura looks for in a wrestler, as they merge incredible technical ability with viciousness before wrapping it all up in a kawaii package. That mean streak was what truly shone here, though, as the way they built spots around those window sills can only point to a love of inflicting pain. They are devil children, but I’d be lying if I said that watching them hurt each other wasn’t fun.

Now, how do we get Mizuki into a match with Mio, MeiMei and Takase?

More Matches You Should Watch (There Is a Lot)

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