Wow, what a year. The world may not have got any better, as it is still a total shitshow out there, but hey, there was some brilliant wrestling, right? I started off with a long list of thirty matches and have whittled that down to ten, nine of which I have written about below (in chronological order). This is the best of the rest, but honestly, any one of them could have been my match of the year (which I’ll have an article up about tomorrow). 2021 may not have fixed the world, but wrestling continued to make me very happy, and this lot played a big part in that.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about the finish of this match. The moment where Yuka Sakazaki, who for over a year had been an unbeatable champion, lay back while locked in Rika’s Figure Four and started to cry, tears filling her eyes as she realised that no matter what she did, she couldn’t get out. Rika had worked over her legs all match, and she had nothing left. Even then, Yuka still refused to quit. She couldn’t bring herself to tap and willingly hand that belt over, forcing Referee Kiso to be the one to make the call. It meant her brilliant title reign ended in one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful wrestling moments of, I’m going to say it, all time.
If the match had been merely ok and had that finish, I suspect it would have still stuck with me. It was such an emotional moment that it could have carried a whole lot of mediocrity. However, this didn’t only contain my favourite finish of the year, but also one of my favourites performances. Rika Tatsumi was incredible here. The second the bell rang, she set about unleashing her gameplan, cutting Yuka off at every turn and viciously attacking that leg. It reminded me of prime Jose Mourinho, as she zoned in on Sakazaki’s weaknesses, unpicking them and cutting her base out from underneath her as she set up for the finish.
It meant that alongside a moment that I’ll be thinking about for years to come, Rika delivered the kind of performance that most wrestlers can only dream of. She not only won the title but proved why she deserved it at the same time. If that’s not a match of the year, what is?
Matches for titles and pride are one thing, but this was for so much more than that. With the custody of Hirota’s twins on the line, I’m not sure stakes got any higher than this in 2021. So, of course, Hirota and Mio treated it with the reverence it deserved, giving us a battle that featured everything from duelling headstands to balance balls to exceptional arse selling from Momono.
It all made this the match that I’ve watched more than any other this year. On a train and need to pass the time? Throw on Mio vs Hirota. Feeling a bit down and need cheering up? Throw on Mio vs Hirota. In a great mood and want to keep it going? Throw on Mio vs Hirota. It is the My Neighbour Totoro of wrestling matches because I can watch it anytime, anywhere, and it will give me exactly what I need from it.
And while a big part of that is because it’s very silly, it’s also vital that Mio and Hirota take that silliness very seriously. Mio punching her own arse (the way other’s would a leg) to put over the effect of Hirota’s kanchos is a perfect blend of wrestling realism and nonsense. While the spot where Hirota dropped Mio with a nasty suplex, only for Momono to bounce to her feet and collapse into a Furafuradōn, was a genius piece of wrestling. Most people wouldn’t try that hard in a match this ridiculous, but Mio and Hirota aren’t most people. They’re two of the very best, and I will always be thankful for that.
There is a feeling among certain fans that the only wrestling worth paying attention to is the serious stuff. They feel that if a wrestler isn’t going out there to simulate a real fight where they only care about winning, then it can’t be worth their time, and I think that’s a fucking weird view to hold. I can understand people not being interested in nonsense wrestling, in having no real love for two people balancing on balls, but that’s not the same thing, is it? Having no room for art created to spark joy above all else makes no sense to me.
If you haven’t guessed, that descriptor perfectly sums up this match. I had a massive grin on my face before the bell had even rung as the sight of Hoshizuki stood in the ring, waving to her MeiMei partner Suruga as she made her entrance proved hard not to fall for. That was only the beginning, too, as building the action around the goblins of Mio, Mei and Mei torturing poor ‘old lady’ Takase made for perhaps the best central thread in a match this year. I only have to think about Miyuki angrily chasing the three of them around the arena before nearly collapsing from exhaustion to start smiling.
And if you are one of those people who like your wrestling to be serious, then I’m begging you to at least watch the final few minutes of this. Because these four broke into one of those high-speed, intricate sequences that so many supposedly great wrestlers are so horrible at. The difference here was that while a part of my brain knew it had been pieced together beforehand, the larger part of it asked, who cares? Who cares when the people doing it are this damn good, every flash pin becoming an opportunity to get the three as it had me perched a lot closer to the edge of my seat than any dancing exchange of counters has in a long old time.
It all goes back to the point that I stole off Terry Pratchett and have been parroting for the last few years. Serious is not the opposite of funny, and matches like this show that you can have four wrestlers go out there and wrestle for the joy of wrestling while at the same time creating something that makes you care. I find the idea of anyone not wanting to embrace that kind of sad, but hey, it’s their loss, and they probably don’t deserve something this good.
When Ice Ribbon gave Suzu Suzuki the chance to live out her deathmatch dreams via a seven-match trial series, I think everyone was intrigued as to just how far she would go. Ice have shown that they have no issue with wrestlers dabbling in deathmatches, and Suzu’s love of the genre is hardly a secret, but when push came to shove, where was her line? It’s one thing to watch someone else go full bloodbath. It’s very different to do it yourself. The first two matches of her series didn’t really answer that question either, as her battles with Yuko Miyamoto and Takashi Sasaki were solid hardcore bout that saw her dip her toes in but not much else. Then, she opened this one by trying to stab Masashi Takeda with a giant pair of scissors, and all our questions were answered.
And I think that moment is important for all kinds of reasons. Firstly, it meant that Suzu was the one who took that step, rather than having someone else drag her over the boundaries. I think anyone who tells someone not to do the thing they love is an idiot, who should fuck off, but I also think the visual of Takeda coming out and stabbing the shit out of a teenage girl who had done nothing to him would have been a bit much. Instead, Suzu went looking for it, daring Takeda to raise the bar and taking the beating that she got when he did. There was no ringing of bells or trumpeting of trumpets, but it was the moment that she stopped being a wrestler who likes deathmatches and became a deathmatch wrestler.
It also turned out to be the proof that Suzu is good at this shit. Yes, she still isn’t perfect, and there is a tendency to play into the tropes of the genre that she thinks are cool, but Suzu stood her ground against one of the very best. Takeda didn’t go easy on her, dropkicking her into chairs, stapling things to her and sawing away at her forehead, but Suzuki took it all in her stride and even gave some back. Takeda probably doesn’t notice new scars these days, but she made sure he had a couple extra while also delivering the creme-de-la-creme of her deathmatch offence, a swift boot to the balls. Some tricks will never get old.
Thirdly, and this is me guessing here, but that moment feels like it could ultimately be responsible for the birth of Prominence. Suzu got the chance to live out her dreams, and you’d have to be blind not to see her face light up with joy as she walks this road. It’s a joy that played a big part in turning a fantastic match into one of my favourites of the year. Whether you like or hate deathmatch wrestling is irrelevant because Suzu Suzuki fucking loves it, and I can’t wait to see how far she goes with it in 2022.
When I went back to this match, I was shocked to discover that it took place in a deserted Korakuen. Sure, I’ve had fewer issues with the restrictions placed on crowds in Japan than most, but even I tend to remember what took place in an empty building. Somehow, Rika and Miyu had wiped that fact from my memory.
And it wasn’t by having an intricate, complex match, but by having a simple one done perfectly. It all started with Rika deciding to throw her chips onto the table, making a challenge as the champion rather than waiting for someone to come forward. Having just defeated Itoh, she was on top of the world and confident enough to call out her personal boogeyman, the Ace. Tatsumi lost to Miyu while fighting for the title almost three years to the day before this, and now she wanted to go back and right that wrong, to show that she was just as good if not better than Yamashita. It was supposed to be her chance to fix history.
Except (and this is an idea that will come up again), Miyu Yamashita never plays ball when people have big dramatic ideas revolving around her. You might feel that you’re ready to beat her, that you’ve proven to be on her level, but that’s very different from actually being so. To repeat a comparison I’ve made before, Miyu reminds me of the far too many times that I’ve followed Aberdeen into a cup final against Celtic (except without the multitude of negative connotations that anyone connected to either of Glasgow’s ugly sisters naturally has). You can have all the dreams and expectations, but ultimately, when the bell rings or the whistle blows, you’re still facing someone who is used to winning and is brilliant at it. You can be as good as you’ve ever been, but that doesn’t mean you’re better than her.
It meant this match was ultimately kind of heartbreaking. Rika gave it her all, surviving an early knockout blow to fight back, but she still fell at the end. The worst part? She didn’t fuck up or blow the big moment. She just fought someone better than her. Something that we all have to face at some point. Rika’s desire to climb that mountain drove the narrative of the action, but it was ended by the icy cold killer that is Miyu Yamashita, crushing dreams as if they’re nothing. Maybe one day Rika will reach that peak, but she’s going to have to be better than her best to do so.
Every match on this list inspires some sort of emotion in me. Be that joy, excitement, sadness or a combination of the three. This group decider from Catch the Wave 2021 is a wee bit different, though. Not because it doesn’t inspire emotion but because the emotion it inspires is awe. With the stipulation making this a series of singles match rather than a three-way (the winner was the person who managed to beat both opponents back-to-back), I think this might be the most immaculately put-together and performed match of the year.
It also means that I’m not entirely sure where to start with it. It ended up having four sections, which combined came to over forty minutes, and I’m pretty sure I could write an essay on each of them. I could then do a follow-up on the individual performances. Whether it’s Mio at her demonic goblin best, Hirota as the veteran holding things together or Miyuki as the ultimate workhorse, every aspect of this was perfectly judged.
And I mean every aspect. This match didn’t only rule in isolation but also in the context of the singles matches these three had that set up the need for a decider. There were numerous callbacks to their previous encounters, whether it was the opening Mio and Takase section following many of the same beats as their group showdown or Hirota countering the counter that Takase had previously used for the Furafuradōn. I often think that people overpraise callbacks, as someone simply countering something they couldn’t before doesn’t particularly blow my mind, but this all felt like blocks clicking together, paying off a storyline that I didn’t even realise had been happening until I was halfway through the conclusion.
I have a tendency to focus on the weird and the wonderful of wrestling, and while we shouldn’t act like there was none of that here (when Hirota hit the ring, the first thing she did was go for a kancho before realising she had to get serious), this was closer to a dazzling display of wrestling skill. That made it, at least for me, a nice reminder that, even after all these years, such a thing can still blow my mind, no matter how much of this stuff I’ve watched. I’ve no idea how these three could go about putting this together, and honestly, I don’t want to know. It’s enough to live through the joy of watching them do it.
Everyone thought the feud that gave us my match of the year in 2020 was over. In fact, back in March, Chris Brookes joined Pencil Army, donning a baseball cap and a pair of oversized pink dungarees as he finally embraced Lulu Pencil’s philosophy. However, being closer to Lulu would turn out to be the spark that reignited the flame. Brookes, infuriated by Pencil Army’s inability to win and that Lulu had convinced him to believe in her, snapped, leaving the group and destroying a hat. In the build to this match, he would then declare that he planned to end Lulu Pencil and, in the process, prove that she wasn’t a wrestler but a joke that had been humoured for too long.
And I didn’t think it would be possible for Lulu and Brookes to recapture the emotion of last year’s I Quit match, but they went out, took another stipulation and played it to perfection. With thirty minutes on the clock, the vast majority of this Iron Man was Brookes punishing Lulu. He quickly took the lead and never looked in danger of losing it, as he beat the crap out of everyone’s favourite pencil. Chris is a fantastic prick, and he used every facet of that to dump sympathy onto Lulu, snapping pencils in her face and torturing her for his amusement.
However, if Brookes is a fantastic prick, then Lulu is the supreme underdog. It’s easy to forget that this feud should never have worked. Lulu Pencil isn’t going to beat Chris Brookes, and the idea that she could is kinda ridiculous. However, she fights with so much heart and passion that you don’t care. You forget that she doesn’t stand a chance and all you think about is cheering on this determined skinny wee lass who purely wants to prove that she can be a pro-wrestler. All Lulu cares about is showing that she belongs, and that’s a dream that we can all understand.
It built to what is perhaps my favourite wrestling moment of all time – the moment where Lulu Pencil took a single fall off Chris Brookes. She doesn’t beat him, the final score was 3-1, but with seconds left on the clock, she bundles him up and gets the one, two and the three. It was the first time she had ever pinned someone. Lulu has made me cry before, but that was the worst of them, the tears streaming down my face as shock ran out across Ichigaya Chocolate Square.
In the aftermath, a stunned Brookes sat by Lulu, pulling her close and holding an ice pack to her head. Then, Lulu, who still seemed to be in a lot of pain, asked him the question she needed him to answer more than any other, and he confirmed that yea, somehow, somewhere, for good or for bad, she is a pro-wrestler. It doesn’t get better than that.
October 9th was supposed to be the moment. The moment where Maki Itoh, the fired idol who turned up in TJPW bursting with charisma but barely able to string two moves together, went from zero to hero. Having won the Princess Cup, beating old Itoh Respect Army partner Mizuki in the process, the fairytale was coming to a perfect end. She would defeat Miyu Yamashita in the main event of Tokyo Joshi’s biggest show yet, win the title and prove that dreams can come true.
That moment seemed so set in stone that even Miyu looked nervous on her way to the ring. The icy cold killer who ripped away Rika Tatsumi’s title earlier in the year now looked like she wasn’t so sure. Her eyes suggested that even she believed the wave her 121000000 partner was riding might be too large for her to overcome. That perhaps Itoh had finally put all the pieces together, and unlike their January 4th match, which Yamashita won via knockout, she’d now be able to overcome the Ace.
And that January 4th match is one of two that set the tone for this. Back then, Miyu took the fight to Itoh, who was still relying on pure bloody-mindedness and a hard head to get through. However, this time around, Itoh was the one coming forward. Early on, she attacked Miyu’s back, ramming her into the ring post on the floor and trying to dictate the action. The other important tone-setter was Itoh’s title challenge against Rika Tatsumi. That time, Itoh did nearly everything right, but at a pivotal moment, she got distracted, biting a raised missed middle finger instead of going for the win. This time, there was none of that. Itoh was focused and driven, dropping Miyu with a DDT onto the apron then instantly following up with a Tornado DDT to the floor. She was determined not to make a mistake, and she didn’t. Itoh did basically everything right.
The problem was that while everyone’s eyes were on Itoh’s journey, Yamashita was going on one of her own. Because I don’t think Miyu’s only issue coming into this match was nerves. I also think a part of her wanted Itoh to win. She has watched this person, who she now considers a friend, fight and scratch to get to where she is and didn’t want to be the one who crushed her. However, when Itoh came out and wrestled the way she did, Miyu realised she didn’t have to worry about that anymore. Itoh is now as strong and as tough as anyone, and as this match went on, Yamashita opened up, giving Maki everything she had, and as we’ve seen, the people who can deal with that are few. Itoh didn’t fuck up. Miyu is just too good.
It ended with our second iconic TJPW finish of the year, as Itoh, flat on her back, let out a scream of frustration as she realised she was done. However, even then, Maki couldn’t stop fighting. She pulled herself to her feet, screaming as she went, and met Yamashita’s final blow head-on. If you’re going to go out, that’s the way to do it, and I have no doubt that Itoh’s time will come. However, on this day, in this year, it was Miyu Yamashita who reigned supreme, and I reckon you’re fucking nuts if you have an issue with it.
Watch this match in a bubble, with no context or understanding of the wrestlers involved, and I think you could still easily fall in love with it. You would get to enjoy Tsukushi going out there and being as violent and chaotic as possible, stomping through Fujimoto on her way to taking the belt off her. It’s a truly brilliant performance, as she essentially refuses to lose, even kicking out of the Japanese Ocean Cyclone Suplex.
It becomes more than that when you put the context back in, though. Then, you have kayfabe and reality merging into a near-perfect story that paid off in the best possible way. In kayfabe, Tsukushi went up against the Ace, her tag-team partner and mentor, who had spent the year as an unbeatable champion defeating any and all-comers, including Skoosh herself. It was also the first time she’d won that belt since 2016 when she was sixteen years old, and it proved that Haruka is back at the top of the company she has given her career to. This was her coming of age, and with Ice Ribbon entering a potentially turbulent period after losing a chunk of their roster, they needed her in that position. In 2022, she and Fujimoto will be the faces of the company, and that’s as it should be.
Outside of kayfabe, it was also all of those things, but so much more. Most importantly, it was the final proof that Tsukushi has re-earned the trust of everyone around her. After the incident back in 2017 that saw her demoted to rookie status, this was Skoosh coming full circle, proving she is ready to be at the top. I don’t want to dive too deep into the whole thing, but it also showed that Ice Ribbon did the right thing. They were moral enough to stand by someone who had grown up in their care, look after her, take responsibility for her actions and make sure that what happened was a blip and not the start of something worse. When Tsukushi burst into tears at the end, one can only imagine the things that were going through her mind after everything she’s been through and how far she has come.
It all made for something special. A beautiful, perfect blend of reality and story that you’d have to be made of stone not to get choked up over.