With matches of the year ticked off the list, it’s onto the all-important Rambling’s About’s wrestler of the year. It’s the most coveted award going, and, sadly, these four didn’t win it. They did come really close, though! Well, actually, that’s not true, my number one was miles ahead of everyone else, but they are all awesome and had brilliant years. If you disagree, well, em, there’s not much I can do about that, but screw you.
When I started putting this list together, I almost didn’t want to include Mei Suruga. Not because I don’t think she deserves to be here, she 100% does, but because it’s almost a bit boring. There can’t be many wrestlers I’ve written more words about than Mei-chan, and can I really say anything I haven’t said before? However, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that leaving her out wouldn’t be right. Mei has, once again, been brilliant, and she deserves all the plaudits I can give her.
And I think that brilliance has come about in a different way than it did last year. 2020, with the birth of ChocoPro, was the cementation of Mei as Gatoh Move’s, if not current Ace, then future one. Don’t get me wrong, that didn’t change in 2021. Whether it was Best Bros defending against Emi and Fujita or a big singles matches versus Mizuki, Mei has still excelled at the top of the card. Even something like her Super Asia showdown against Fujita, which I didn’t love, was an incredible physical achievement as they went a mammoth fifty-five minutes.
Where Mei’s 2021 has excelled, though, is in other promotions. With restrictions easing in Japan, Suruga has been free to go on adventures, popping up in places like YMZ, SEAdLINNNG, Oz Academy and more, and it’s there that she’s put on the matches that I think I’ll remember. Outings like the four-way battle with Mei, Mio and Miyuki that I already praised in my matches of the year, her high speed encounter with Momoe Nakanishi or her and Momoka Hanazono tormenting Sonoko Kato in a handicap contest. Few people are better at skipping into another promotion and being a wonderfully delightful pest than Mei Suruga is.
That’s the side of Mei that has always appealed to me. Don’t get me wrong, I know she’s destined for bigger and better things (her trip to AEW felt like the start of something), but she’ll always be an Apple Goblin in my heart. Few people have the twinkle of delighted glee that Mei does when she is in full swing, wrestling purely for the joy of wrestling and being more than happy to stamp on any toes that get in her way. She’s one of the few wrestlers who I believe might love this shit nearly as much as I do, and that only makes me care about her all the more.
Incredibly, she still hasn’t come close to reaching her peak. Whether it’s in ChocoPro, AEW or elsewhere (I haven’t even mentioned a particular French maid in TJPW with whom she shares some characteristics), Mei is going to be a star. The last two years have been her putting together everything she needs to begin that journey, and it’s been a goddamn pleasure to watch her do it.
I had all three Up Up Girls on my shortlist and would have happily included all of them. However, I decided to be cruel to myself and limit it to just one, and while 2021 was the year Hikari won her first title and Raku mastered magic and sorcery, Miu was the only choice I could make.
Because while Miu ended 2020 losing the tag titles, she spent the next twelve months accelerating wildly forward, seemingly getting better with every match she had. It started with her being the first challenger for Rika, stepping up to face her Daydream pal and giving her a hell of a battle. However, the real magic was in the two matches that I will happily declare as perfect, her Princess Cup semi-final with Shoko and her International Title challenge against Hikari. Both showed Miu’s growth into an unstoppable wrestling machine, someone who not only has incredible power but also sells both on offence and defence brilliantly. Moreover, she seems to have an astute sense of pacing, figuring out exactly where and when to deploy her awesome strength.
It’s not just the big singles matches that have seen her excel, either. Whether it was her glee at getting to team with Yuki Arai, her continuing work with Rika Tatsumi or her battle with Aja Kong (which saw the legend give her a hell of a lot), Miu is regularly a show highlight. It’s no secret that she wasn’t a wrestling fan, as she got into this to live out her idol nerd dreams, but this has felt like the year where she fully embraced this weird and wacky world. You can feel her striving to improve, and watching her go on that journey is a delight.
Funnily enough, I imagine if you asked Miu what her highlight of the year was, it would probably be the moment a member of SKE48 declared her their favourite (there was a second where I thought they’d broken her). She may now be as much a wrestler as she is an idol, but she’s still that nerd at heart, which ultimately only makes me love her all the more.
What more is there to be said about Miyu Yamashita? It’s got to the point where when I think of an Ace, I think of her. She is an unstoppable, ice-cold killing machine who barely ever falters in her spot at the top of TJPW. 2021 has only seen her level up, and while I know there are people out there who think that she has been too dominant over the last twelve months, I laugh in their faces. Miyu has been outstanding and is the only choice for that position.
What I love about Miyu, though, is that while yes, in many ways, she falls into that classic trope of the stoic Japanese Ace, she’s also the exact opposite. Yamashita is a goof, someone who spent part of this year desperately trying to convince Itoh that she loves her and always feels like she has the ability to fuck up an undercard match against Haruna Neko or Pom Harajuku. It’s why she’s famously bad in tournaments, and it’s part of what makes her such a relatable champion. She’s not perfect.
She’s also mastered balancing that goofiness alongside her ability to be a stone-cold killer. You might worry that Pom’s going to catch her out, but when the Princess of Princess Title is on the line, you have no such doubts. Whether it’s Rika, Yuka, Maki or Sakisama, she will go out there and kick your fucking head off. Her main events this year (especially if you include the tag matches alongside Itoh as 121000000) have been outstanding, and there isn’t a single one of them (even if I think TJPW kind of wasted the Sakisama match) that I didn’t love.
On top of all that, she’s only 26. TWENTY-SIX. Arguably, this might not be peak Miyu. She might somehow get better, which is an almost frightening thought. As a general rule, my favourites aren’t those who win all the time because where is the fun in that, but I make an exception for Yamashita. She’s too good not to, and if she spends the entirety of 2022 holding onto that belt, well, who the fuck would I be to argue with that?
Every year when it comes time to put bollocks like this together, I end up doing the same old shit. I start by thinking of all the complex ways to construct this list. Perhaps I should go through all my matches of the month and count up where I mention wrestlers, picking the five that appear the most? Or maybe I need to go back to star ratings and work out an average (okay, I never actually considered that). Then, after days of thinking about it, I end up going with the simplest option available. What was the shit that made me happy? And in 2021, Sakura Hirota made me happy.
If we’re being honest, Hirota makes me happy every year. I have a habit now of getting drunk and watching the GAEA Team Eccentric playlist whenever I’m feeling down because it is guaranteed to cheer me up, but at the age of 43, I think Hirota had an all-timer in 2022. She spent the last twelve months veering wildly between her usual nonsense (her multi-show match with Hibiscus Mii and Yuki Miyazaki or her battle for the custody of her children with Mio Momono) and serious, brilliant wrestling (the Catch The Wave block decider or multiple of her WAVE Title defences).
And what makes Hirota a genius is that she could do that on the same show or even in the same match, and it would work. Because 25 years into her career, Hirota has built a level of respect and admiration that ensures no one will ever question her. She can go out and grapple rookies, twisting them up and putting them through their paces, or she can rely purely on kanchos, and people will buy either one as being perfectly legit. In 2021, Hirota was equally at home being WAVE’s champion as she was reverting to a rookie in the GAEAISM legends tag.
The thing that will always sum up Hirota for me, though, is how Chigusa Nagayo commentates on her matches in Marvelous. Having trained Hirota and worked alongside her for years, there can’t be many people who have seen more of her than Chig has and yet every time she goes into those old spots, Nagayo starts roaring with laughter. She’s seen them all a million times, and they never fail to land. I feel the exact same way, and if Hirota purely rested on those laurels, she’d still be one of my favourite wrestlers. But she doesn’t. She keeps going out there and working her arse off to be brilliant. And that’s what makes her one of my wrestlers of the year.