The UK might have spent September doing the political version of loudly shitting itself while screaming and pointing in the opposite direction to distract us, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t some great wrestling. This month I go deeper on Stardom than I have in a long time, find a new favourite bear and still have time to talk about a load of other stuff. So, if you’re looking for something to distract you from the UK’s incompetence (or any other country’s), here’s some good graps to watch by candlelight as you try to save money.
I’d love to watch a match like this get put together. To see Hikari Noa, who travelled halfway across the world to be there, sit down with Alex Windsor and decide what to do despite not speaking the same language and having never wrestled before. The art of constructing a match and how much is improvised or planned is already something I find fascinating, but these situations take it to the next level. How do they even start to figure it all out?
That setup does lend itself to a certain kind of performance. You’ve got one shot at this, so there’s no point building to the future because there is a chance there won’t be one. Instead, wrestlers tend to lean on what they’re good at. For Hikari, that’s her scrappy underdog nature, firing off with dropkicks or a desperation suplex. While from Windsor, we saw a combination of technical prowess and power, culminating in a running powerbomb that looked positively murderous.
And I think it’s almost impossible for a match like this to be a classic. Rarely do two wrestlers step into the ring for the first time and achieve perfection, and I don’t think this was the exception to the rule. There was too much stock material, including one of those silly exchanges that ends with them both going for a dropkick. However, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t good, which is still bloody impressive. With TJPW and EVE drawing ever closer (Miyu Yamashita and Misao have been confirmed for Wrestle Queendom while Rhia O’Reilly and Nightshade are joining Windsor to head in the opposite direction for Wrestle Princess), we’re going to see plenty more of these. If this is the standard we can expect, we’re in for a good time.
With ChocoPro celebrating Obi’s birthday, they gave us a near-perfect example of the chaotic nonsense I am always happy to see in Ichigaya. We got Minoru Fujita banging a gong, Toru Owashi trying to sell t-shirts and the now customary Honda sing-along. Then, to top it all off, Honda and Obi unbottled some of their magic chemistry, flipping the switch into ‘serious’ mode for the final few minutes and laying into each other. It’s one of those treats we only get occasionally, which only serves to make it tastier whenever they are nice enough to bless us with it.
It was also a strong reminder of how good Sayaka Obihiro is. As one of Emi Sakura’s more loyal footsoldiers, Obi can sometimes be overlooked (particularly by Emi), but twelve years into her career, there aren’t many people who deliver as consistently as her. Obi is, in many ways, the manifestation of Gatoh Move, not the biggest or fastest or most celebrated wrestler, but someone overflowing with heart and invention. She’s the kind of person that will never be front and centre or perhaps even want to be, but which every company needs. Someone that can be dropped into any spot on the card, often when others can’t make it, and be relied upon to deliver. If you need proof, watch this, I can almost guarantee you’ll have a good time.
With the internet’s love of putting TJPW’s booking under a microscope, it feels like it’s only fair to point out that the way they’ve handled Yuki Arai has been near-perfect. She’s a special attraction with the potential to open them up to a new audience, and they’ve done an outstanding job of moving her up the card in a natural and exciting way. Arai is a ridiculously talented rookie and could probably have survived a traditional mega-push, but TJPW has held back on that. Instead, they’ve surrounded her with people who can help explain her success.
Initially, that was Moka Miyamoto, whose feud/friendship with Arai helped both their careers immeasurably. However, with Moka taking the longer route to the top, there was only so long that could continue, and Saki Akai was the perfect next choice to step in. Not only is Saki a good wrestler, but she’s someone with a certain amount of cache in TJPW. Whenever she turns up, it’s a big deal, and her choosing to team with Arai gives her a degree of legitimacy. Even more importantly, Akai is a perfect person to lead Arai through matches. She’s an experienced head, capable of talking the rookie through the action and ensuring she’s always where she needs to be. It meant that while Arai won the tag titles early in her career, it was made kayfabe clear that she would never have pulled it off without Akai by her side.
And this match told the next chapter in that story, as Arai and Mahiro Kiryu went head-to-head in the final act after Akai and Kamiyu cancelled each other out. That allowed Arai to get revenge for the defeat that set up this match and, more importantly, win by herself. Sure, on the surface, pinning Mahiro isn’t that big a scalp, but when paired up with Kamiyu, Kiryu is a decent beast, and with the belts on the line, it naturally became a big moment.
We don’t know how long Yuki Arai will want to wrestle. She seems to have fallen in love with it, but she won’t be lacking opportunities in life, and maybe something bigger and more exciting will come along. Koda knows that’s a possibility and has done an outstanding job of getting as much out of her as possible without destroying what was already in place. So shove that under your microscope and shut the fuck up.
Ai Houzan has almost been on an unofficial trial series over the last few months, having singles matches against Tomoko Watanabe, Takumi Iroha and Mio Momono. As you’d expect, each has had a slightly different vibe, but none of them prepared her for this, as she went up against the master of nonsense Miyako Matsumoto.
Miyacoco is an oddity, a weirdo and someone you can’t predict. Matches against Takumi and Mio aren’t easy, but Ai would have gone in knowing that she was going to get beat up. She’ll have been kicked in the head before, and she will be again, but it’s much rarer to find yourself in the kind of situations you end up in when you’re wrestling Miyako. She approaches matches in a completely different way, as determined to force you into her pose as she is to pin you.
And while this didn’t go full nonsense, it danced around the edges, and I loved watching Ai deal with that. I have no doubt that she will become an accomplished nonsense wrestler in her own right because she’s come through in Marvelous, and that’s part of the game. However, being sent out to wrestle Miyacoco is a bit like being chucked in at the deep end, and thankfully she didn’t sink. Now, I’m excited to see what she does when she learns how to swim.
If you’re a fan of two meaty men chopping the shit out of each other, you’ll have a lovely time with this one. There was a time when I probably watched at least a couple of these matches a week, and to be honest, I began to tire of the formula. Someone like Ishii is excellent at what they do, but it’s repetitive, and as much as I love Eddie Kingston, he wasn’t going to be the guy to draw something different out of him.
And yet, I had a great time with this, precisely because I no longer watch a couple of these a week. It had been a while since I last watched big Ishii slamming into an opponent, and I’d forgotten how thrilling it could be. There’s nothing complex about it, but it’s visceral and real as the blood rises to the surface under their skin. They gave us a big dumb display of machismo, and it’s hard not to get caught up in that, as it fills a gap I didn’t even realise I needed filling.
Two monsters get in a fight with an otter and a demon. There was only one way this could end, wasn’t there?
When people talk about predictability sometimes being a good thing, they mean matches like this. Everyone knew the punchline to this joke, but did that make it less funny? Of course not. I could have watched MagiRabbi play with their food for at least another ten minutes as they stuck the boot in and made it clear that nothing these two monsters could do was close to being as scary as them. Shocks and surprises can be great, but sometimes you want what you signed up for, and I came to this show wanting to watch MagiRabbi murder an otter, a promise they delivered.
I have a confession to make. Recently, when dipping into Stardom, I’ve largely ignored Saya Kamitani. For whatever reason, she’d become one of the wrestlers (and she’s far from alone) who I associate with my waning interest in the company. When you combine that with the thought of watching matches that, in my mind, would be trying to ape the sort of stuff Kota Ibushi and Will Ospreay do together, it all made me feel a bit tired. Then, as the hype around her year grew, my contrary nature only made me less likely to tune in. I’m not going to pretend any of it is fair to her, but it is what it is.
Thankfully, one person whose matches I will always watch is Suzu Suzuki, so I put that grudge to one side, gave this a go, and came away surprised. I’m not sure I’m about to jump on the Tall Saya being the best wrestler in the world train, but what I did realise is that’s she incredibly fun. In the past, I’ve spoken about how the best ‘movez’ wrestlers are those who are wildly inventive or wildly chaotic, and Saya is a touch of both. There’s always a sense in her matches that they could fall apart at any second, a feeling aided by her tendency to mess up moves and her willingness to do stuff others won’t. Christ, she had Suzu German her off the apron to the floor, a spot that most people only tease.
Look, I have never pretended to be an objective reviewer, I will forgive the wrestlers I like for stuff that I would kick others for, but this did remind me that I should probably not craft my opinions on people based on what Twitter says, good or bad. I can’t imagine a world where Tall Saya is my favourite wrestler, but it would be a shame to deprive myself of her willingness to do daft things because of idiots on the internet.
Having spent the previous match raving about Saya Kamitani, it only feels fair to give Suzu Suzuki her flowers in this one. Suzu has come into this year’s 5STAR and decided the energy she will be giving off is cocky-wee-prick, and I love it. Here she was wrestling Mayu Iwatani, one of the best of this generation, and Suzuki could not have given less of a fuck. She was still going to go out there, rough her up and treat her like she was an opening match rookie, worthy of some light humouring before being dispatched with ease.
And, of course, Mayu is great at being beaten up. While Stardom’s focus seems to have moved away from her, as her days of being the centre of attention are perhaps fading (although there is no reason she couldn’t go on for a long time yet), she’s still one of the best wrestlers in that company. 2022 Mayu appears comfortable in her wrestling skin and was happy to flop around for this upstart young prodigy who never went through the awkward and unsure of herself stage that characterised young Iwatani’s career. She gave the bulk of the action to Suzu, letting her dominate before sneaking out with the victory because she’s that little bit wiser this deep into her career.
It all left me wanting to see this again on a bigger stage, with Iwatani embracing her inner killer in a quest to put Suzu in her place. I’ve no idea if we’ll get that, but if we don’t, this was still a damn good match that showed both wrestlers at their best.
Gatoh Move’s three shows since they returned in May this year have been great fun, but it’s always felt like someone was missing. After all that time out, it was a shame to see Gatoh come back without its figurehead, as Emi Sakura missed them all due to being in America. However, with the benefit of hindsight, that decision now makes perfect sense. Two and a half years after she last competed under the Gatoh Move name, there was no better way for Emi to return than against a debuting rookie on the company’s tenth anniversary.
There were two separate elements to this match. The first is easy. Emi was putting Miya through her paces, the latest in the long line of rookies who she has ushered into their careers. In that sense, I thought this was a strong showing. Miya looked a bit nervous but generally hid it well, and while she had a couple of awkward moments (there was some confusion around a bodyslam), she gave a good account of herself. I’m of the opinion that if you get through your debut without freezing in the headlights or dropping someone on their head, then you’ve done good, and Miya didn’t come close to doing either of these things.
The other part of this match was arguably more intriguing, even if we knew less about it. Because behind the camera, providing commentary and doing an awful job of hiding her excitement/nerves, was Mei Suruga. The same Mei Suruga who has taken over as the head trainer of Darejyo (Gatoh Move’s training school) and, in Miya, was watching her first pupil go up against the woman who entrusted her with that role. And while what Emi actually thinks about Mei’s work so far will most likely stay between them, you can’t help wondering what was said in the aftermath. Sakura is one of wrestling’s great trainers, someone who has had a hand in producing some extraordinary talent (including Suruga herself), and Mei is now stepping into that shadow. No pressure, eh? Judging by Miya’s performances so far, she’ll be fine, but she’ll have to usher a few more over the line before she can dare to compare herself to what came before.
Taken on its own, Yuna Mizumori vs Mei Suruga was a brilliant wrestling match. They have the kind of chemistry which can only come from having shared a ring (or mat) more times than they can count, and I loved seeing Mei do a big match outside of Ichigaya. She’s brilliant at the light, charming action she often trades in, but this was different. Suruga had an edge, viciously going after Yunamon’s arm in her mission to prove herself as the top wrestler in Gatoh Move. Mizumori, meanwhile, is an almost perfect foil for her. Where Mei is subtle and sneaky, Yunamon is loud and brash, always able to fall back on her tropical power. The contrast between them is their strength.
And yet, as brilliant as this match was, it gained something extra when Yunamon announced she’d be graduating from Gatoh Move to go freelance just a few days later. At that moment, what Mei and Yunamon were doing, suddenly made even more sense. It wasn’t the general jostling for position in the hierarchy that you will see on countless wrestling shows across Japan every week, but a crowning. Of the Gatoh Move generation, Yunamon and Mei were the only veterans left standing, the only two in position to count themselves as the Ace coming out of the pandemic, and this was Yunamon handing that crown to Mei before she stepped away. When you know that, the tears and the long hug in the aftermath suddenly hit ten times harder. Mei vs Yunamon wasn’t just a match. It was a goodbye.
That knowledge also changes the action itself. It explains why the usually effervescent Yunamon came to the ring with a serious look on her face and why Suruga fought the way she did. Yunamon knew her future, and Mei knew this was her last chance. Yes, with Mizumori leaving, she would take up that role at the head of the company regardless, but if Yunamon beat her here, she would always know it was a position gained not by skill but because she was the one who hung around. Suruga couldn’t let that happen. She had to prove that she’d earned her spot, and, as Mei often is, she was up to the task.
Miu and Suzume are, in one way or another, the future of TJPW. I don’t think they’re alone in being that, but it’s becoming increasingly clear the company has big plans for them. It’s not just their journey deep into the Princess Cup but that they keep getting opportunities to shine. The latest example of that was this match, which headlined (over a MagiRabbi vs Shoko & Arisu tag) a trip to Shinkiba and saw the two of them grab the opportunity to show what they can do.
And while getting a great match from Miu and Suzume is no longer surprising, what was exciting about this was how you could see them laying the bricks for a generational rivalry. These two are perfect foes, Suzume, the quick counter wrestler who is always looking for a way to use her opponent’s momentum against them and Miu, the wee hoss, capable of throwing you over her shoulder or spinning you around till you puke. It’s not just a good pairing, but a dream one, two people who complement each other’s skill set perfectly. And while it was already a good match, what’s exciting is the thought of where it could be in two, three or four years. I want to see how these two push each other, figuring out what works best when they get in the ring together.
It’s also another reason why I am on board with TJPW’s booking. Yes, I don’t doubt that Miu and Suzume could be headlining Korakuens and battling over titles already, but I want to take the journey that brings them there. I’m excited to see them craft a long, twisting feud that will come and go depending on where they are in their careers. Because when they do get to the top, I’ll be able to think back to this match and all the things that have changed, and I already know that it will feel like I’ve witnessed something special.
Now that Mio Momono has been back from injury for a bit, it feels like the direction she’s heading in next is starting to take shape. Mio has made no attempt to hide what she wants, and it’s the title around Takumi’s waist, but it’s not as simple as walking up and demanding a shot, particularly after Iroha pinned her on the show before this. There is work to be done before she’s worthy of that honour, and in matches like this, you can see that she knows it. Mio and Ayame might be forming a fun pest team, but that couldn’t hide the edge Momono brought against Magenta. In the home stretch, where she paired up with Maria, she was desperate to get that victory. However, while she was injured, Maria was in the ring, getting better, and that damn kid would not go down no matter what Mio did.
And I love stuff like that. I love the sense that a wrestler’s journey is not only about them. It would be easy for Mio to come back and steamroll her way to Iroha’s door, but other people aren’t going to sit back and let her do that. If she wants that belt, she’ll have to go through Maria, Rin, and whoever else is fancying up a shot. Wrestling sometimes forgets that stories can’t exist in bubbles. In other sports, you can have the perfect tale in place, and then someone else will come along and bang a goal into the top corner in the 90th minute, destroying the dream before it got a chance to get going.
That’s not to say Mio shouldn’t eventually get to the title. She should. Because, as detailed above (in very different circumstances), sometimes predictability is good, and Mio Momono is one of the best wrestlers in the world. However, she has to fight for it. I want to watch her get frustrated when things don’t go her way, and I want to see the moment when it all clicks and she goes on the run that brings her to the top. When you’ve got someone as talented as Momono, it would be a damn shame to waste that journey, and matches like this give me faith that Marvelous have no plans to do so.
A great tournament needs a little bit of everything. I want comedy, frantic sprints, and, every now and then, I want violence. Thankfully, Tam and Risa were here to deliver on that last count, as Sera unlocked a bit of the anger in Tam’s soul by Giant Swinging her through several rows of chairs. There was nothing particularly complex about this match, but it saw these two go hard, including Tam hitting a piledriver that (intentionally or not) looked fucking brutal. The idea of being able to watch them wrestle would have been insane even a year ago, but it happened, it ruled, and it hinted that they could create real magic together. Now, how do we get Deathmatch Tam on a Prominence show?
OSO11 is a bear. Not the type who would make be popular on Grindr (although he probably has a bit of that to him, too), but an actual bear. He came to the ring carrying a fish in his mouth, and I’m not sure he even knew he was in a wrestling match. He certainly didn’t understand the rules, wandering onto the mat while Sayuri was tagged in and forcing everyone else to work around him. Although, he was at least open to the idea of being helpful, as, at one point, Sayuri mounted up and found herself a new steed.
And unsurprisingly, having a bear involved caused a bit of chaos. Okay, a lot of chaos. Akki ended up filming the latter part of the match through the window because he’d be chased out of Chocolate Square when everyone else played dead. Luckily, I love a bit of chaos, and this was a blast. OSO11’s commitment to the bit has to be applauded, and the fact that it ended with Emi Sakura whacking everyone involved with a giant fish only made it better. It was pure nonsense, and it was nice to see Emi use a bit of her time back in Japan to indulge in such a thing.
2022 has been a good year for matches that embrace the childhood act of playing out wrestling. We’ve had TJPW mucking around in a pool, and now, for the second time, Stardom has let their wrestlers loose in a chaotic, arena-spanning falls count anywhere match that had more than a taste of childish invention to it. When you break it all down, does every wrestling fan not want to get in a bouncy castle full of balloons and throw their mates around?
You certainly got the impression that it was what everyone in this match wanted to do. Mark Kermode has argued in the past that films where those involved appear to be having a good time end up being the worst to watch, but I subscribe to the opposite theory when it comes to wrestling. I love watching them enjoy themselves, and as these four tried to run each over with bikes, popped countless balloons and pushed each other around on trolleys, you could tell they were having a blast. Mayu even found another excuse to throw herself down a flight of stairs, something we know she loves to do.
And I’m so glad that Stardom is giving their wrestlers these Showcase cards to unleash the nonsense, as the Golden Week shows were always a highlight of the year. They have a funny and inventive roster, and while that does show itself in other places, you can tell people like AZM love getting the opportunity to cut loose and be as chaotic as they want. Personally, I’d be doing them weekly rather than every few months, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.