Somehow, we’ve made it through another year, and while I think it’s safe to say all is not well in the world, the wrestling has at least been very good. 2022 was a year of change in the world of joshi, a lot of which was quite anxiety-inducing for someone who takes comfort from this nonsense, but I think we’ve come out the other end of it all with the scene in strong and (more importantly) interesting health. There have also been a lot of incredible matches, and this is my list of the ones that aren’t quite my match of the year but which, on a different day, may well be so. Enjoy!
Quick note: I sorta cheated this year and snuck an extra match in by writing about it elsewhere. The brilliant and lovely Flupke (FlupkeDiFlupke on Twitter) invited me to write about the wonderful Ice Ribbon gauntlet of gauntlets as part of his newsletter. You can find my thoughts (alongside his much better ones) on that here. Then, once you’ve read that, you should also read the rest of his end-of-year stuff, which is equally great.
You could approach talking about this match from various angles. It was Suzu Suzuki’s first appearance post-Ice Ribbon and a chance for the world to get a glimpse of Prominence. However, I want to put all that to one side and focus on the most important one: Suzu booting Chris Brookes in the balls.
Because when I think of satisfying moments in 2022, very few of them trump it and a lot of that is down to how brilliant Brookes is at being a bastard. Not the cool kind of bastard either, the utterly despicable type. Here he was, battling someone half his size, and Chris didn’t only take great joy out of taunting her but brought along his pal Drew Parker to give him a helping hand. It was two grown men beating up a then-teenage girl, and it’s hard to do that and get cheered.
However, that bastardry was perfect for this match. Coming out of Ice Ribbon, there was a degree of Suzu going back to square one with her deathmatch journey, having to prove herself over again to a new audience, and Brookes was the perfect opponent to kick off that journey. Not because he’s some incredible deathmatch icon, but because in the ring with him, she couldn’t help but be a scrappy underdog babyface, trying everything to chop him down to size. Christ, she just had to stand next to him, Brookes towering over her and pretending he couldn’t see her because she was so far below his eye line. Who doesn’t want to watch her boot that cunt in the balls?
And while she would lose, a Praying Mantis Bomb into a coffin full of white powder doing the job, Suzu got that clean boot away, giving everyone a moment to cheer. You could probably see it as a metaphor for her heading out into the world, ready to take on any promotion, big or small, and prove that she can make it no matter what style of wrestling she chooses to promote, but that’s not the point of it all. The point is that the prick deserved it.
The debate about whether the old guard is holding down younger wrestlers is depressingly regular, with it popping up at least a couple of times a year to bore us all silly. It’s one that I have little to no time for, as those who argue that every wrestler over the age of thirty-five should shuffle off their wrestling coil always seem somewhat clueless as to how the scene works (hint, a lot of those fans are paying to see their heroes). However, even if you take the economics out of it, why would you want that to happen? If it did, we wouldn’t get matches like this, which would be a travesty.
This was a perfect pairing of ageing legends and fresh-faced rookies. The second the bell rang, Oka and Ai became a blur of energy, flying into a hundred dropkicks as they desperately tried to take Ito and Watanabe off their feet. Anyone who has regularly read my reviews will know that I adore Mystic Young Fox, but this was them at their best, the abundance of heart and rookie fire making up for their limited movesets. The veterans, meanwhile, were two hulking mountains refusing to budge as wave after wave of attacks crashed into them. They looked and felt unbeatable even as wee Ai tried to take Ito out by headbutting her square in the chest.
And then, to add the cherry to that beautiful cake, Ai and Oka won. A bickering session between Ito and Watanabe created an opening, and Houzan snuck into it, bundling Watanabe over for the three and picking up a huge upset that had Chigusa Nagayo roaring with laughter on commentary. Meanwhile, sitting thousands of miles away, I leapt out of my seat in a combination of shock and joy, caught up in the pure glee that comes with seeing two rookies pull off a result that no one saw coming. It’s one of those incredible moments that can only work if it barely ever happens, and that’s why people like Ito and Watanabe shouldn’t only not retire but should keep those defeats to a minimum. If Black Phoenix Butterfly lost every second week, this would still have been a fantastic match, but I can’t guarantee I’d be writing about it now. The feeling that made me jump out of my chair kept it in my head all year, and it still makes me smile today.
Magical Sugar Rabbits (Yuka Sakazai & Mizuki) vs Daydream (Miu Watanabe & Rika Tatsumi) vs Hyper Misao & Nodoka Tenma vs Raku & Marika Kobashi vs Hikari Noa & Yuki Arai, Midwinter Pool Wrestling (28/2/22), TJPW
It would be easy to start listing all the incredible moments from this match. You could talk about Raku trying to drown everyone else as they slept, Tenma hanging in the hot tub with some oranges or Rika ‘saving’ Namba from being kidnapped by Misao before pushing her down a waterslide. See? I was trying to explicitly not do that and still ended up doing so. Even now, I’m fighting the temptation to throw a few more onto the list. Every time I go back to it, I spot a little moment that I didn’t before, and it’s made it one of this year’s great comfort watches.
However, I think focusing on individual spots does this nonsense a bit of a disservice. Yes, it is full of wildly creative and funny ideas, but the magic comes from every one of these characters being a fleshed-out human who long-term fans understand. While random wrestler A shoving Namba down a waterslide after saving her might get a chuckle, it’s nowhere near as hilarious as Tatsumi doing it. It’s TJPW reaping the reward of years of giving people the time and space to be the weirdos they want to be, and that means when we get a match like this, they can go all out, shoving that insanity to the front.
On top of that, a bunch of people wrestling in a pool scratches a childhood itch that I imagine most people have. Going swimming with friends was always an opportunity to perform wrestling moves on each other, as it was one of the few places you could drop someone on their head and not face the consequences. Sure, this bunch gets the chance to do that regularly, but there was still a sense of freedom that came from doing it all in a swimming pool. I can’t imagine we’ll ever see Raku leave off the Korakuen balcony to hit a Brain Chop, but when you’re dropping down into a pool of water? Suddenly it becomes too tempting to resist. There wasn’t a wrestler here who didn’t get a glint in their eye when they realised the opportunities the swimming pool opened up.
Most of all, it makes me feel like a child discovering this shit for the first time. I giggled and gasped and yelled my way through this match, glued to every second of it. Even now, just the thought of it makes me happy, and does it get any better than that?
Deathmatch’s ability to tap into emotion is an underrated aspect of the genre. Yes, it’s over the top and violent, but in the same way that listening to a death metal singer growl up a lung can be cathartic, that heightened world can often be the most emotional. It’s something we’ve seen a few times this year, be it the brilliant war between El Desperado and Jun Kasai or Suzu Suzuki and Risa Sera’s first match under the Prominence umbrella. However, as fantastic as those were, both fell short of Sera vs Sasaki when it came time to put this list together.
Part of that comes down to where and when it took place. It was Prominence’s first show proper, and while it wasn’t the main event, it did feel a bit like Risa Sera stepping up to establish their new home. Much like Prominence, Sasaki is a guy who went his own way, starting FREEDOMS and becoming one of the strongholds of deathmatch wrestling in Japan. That doesn’t only make him an obvious inspiration, but someone that Prominence should be looking to surpass. Having him walk onto their first show and take on the person who leads this whole shebang sends a pretty clear message. If Sera wanted to step onto his turf, she had to show she could keep up.
And while Sera has previously proven herself in the deathmatch realm, this felt like her going back to square one. Before, it was under the safe umbrella of Ice Ribbon, a company where, at any moment, she could decide she didn’t fancy getting stabby for a living. Now, Prominence (and deathmatches) is Risa’s everything, and if it is to be a success, she has to step up and prove herself against the best. Sasaki beat the shit out of her here, causing blood to cobweb across her skin, but she refused to die, taking every blow and coming back for more. Then, when she did get to attack, it all came out in a glorious rush of violence, including her barbwire cane having a piece of that spiky wrap come free and turn it into an even more vicious whip.
And all of it points to how much these women care about this mad idea. There is no history to suggest that Prominence should work, but I don’t know how you could watch Risa put her body on the line in this match and not want this to be a success. It clearly means the world to her, and because of that, it means the world to me, which is why this made my list.
When I first sat down to put this list together, I didn’t expect Tsukushi vs Saran to be part of it. As a midcard match on an Ice Ribbon Dojo show that went under ten minutes, it felt too throwaway and slight to make the cut. However, when I made a long list of my potential matches of the year, I included it anyway, thinking that if nothing else, it was a chance to rewatch it for the umpteenth time.
Since I’m writing this, you can probably figure out what happened next. When I turned it on again, I realised I couldn’t leave it out. Because yes, this is lightweight and frothy and throwaway, but I spend most of the year praising matches that are all of those things, so why shouldn’t I then place one up on this pedestal? On top of that, this match’s genius comes from the sneaky emotional punch it has hidden away amongst the fun. It was Saran and Tsukushi’s last ever one-on-one encounter, and with wee Saran dressed in Tsukushi’s gear, the love between those two burst through the screen. Saran appeared to adore Skoosh, and watching them get one last chance to play was a special thing.
It also made it clear that Saran’s wrestling has been shaped by Tsukushi more than anyone else. If you were half-watching, you might struggle to tell the two apart. Sure, their matching gear and similar heights play a big part in that, but it’s also about how Saran wrestles. She’s got a little bit of Tsukushi’s devil in her, and when they were chasing each other around the ring, stamping on fingers or toes and generally unleashing their inner menaces, that devil was having a lovely old time.
And that’s the final emotional kicker in this match, as the reason it was their last was that Tsukushi retired not long after, and like many, I miss her a hell of a lot. However, when I look at Saran, I remember that she left a bit of herself behind, which made saying goodbye at least a little easier.
Not too long ago, the news that AZM was wrestling Mei Suruga on a Stardom show would have made me sad. I have accepted that Mei’s career will eventually take her to one of the larger companies and that this golden period of her popping up and stealing hearts all over the scene can only last so long, but there are still so many shows left to steal. Thankfully, 2022 was the year that Stardom opened its doors, welcoming outside talent in without signing them up in the process. Suddenly, Mei vs AZM wasn’t something we could only have if Suruga went to the dark side, but a match that was happening on the same day that she and Tokiko Kirihara wrestled Masa Takanashi and Chie in Ichigaya.
And it was no surprise to watch Mei take to this stage like it was her second home. Ota City might look like it’s a long way from Chocolate Square, but the skills she picked up there proved remarkably transferable. Mei spent the last two years getting used to wrestling for no one, forcing her to project herself out to the world, and when you drop her in a massive arena, that talent shines. It’s not just the charisma that gets her through, though, as this match had the wildly inventive streak that I associate with the best of Natsuki Taiyo’s high speed division. It’s something that Stardom has sometimes lacked but which Mei and AZM clicked into effortlessly, pushing each other to reach new heights as they went back and forth, intricate sequences teetering on the line between perfection and falling apart at any second. It’s what I want from these matches, as they made me believe in their genius but never let me forget they were fighting to win.
All of this brings me to Mei’s opponent because, as brilliant as she was, AZM was right there alongside her. I have fallen off watching Stardom over the last couple of years, only tending to pop in for big shows, which has probably prevented me from appreciating how fantastic AZM has become. Yes, I think she should cut down on the Billy Bird Boy matches (which is true of a few people in Stardom), but she’s retaining what made her special, merging the new with the will that had her enter the company and declare everyone over the age of 15 an old hag that wasn’t worthy of her time. It has also meant that AZM was the wrestler in Stardom who benefited most from this influx of outside talent. She’s now allowed to go out and play with people like Mei and Momoka Hanazono, giving her the space to stretch those creative muscles and find a few kindred spirits.
There is a decent chance these two will go on to have a load more matches over their careers, and I certainly hope that’s the case, but I think there was something particularly magical about this one. It caught both of them at a special time, when their talent was only accelerating, and let them loose to show what they could do. That turned out to be a hell of a lot, and I’m grateful I got the chance to see it.
Max the Impaler vs Pom Harajuku might be the closest thing we’ve ever had to a perfect wrestling match. It’s a phrase I’ve thrown around a few times in the past, most often in the name of hyperbole, but when talking about this, I mean it. The four minutes and thirty-nine seconds that it last are flawless, as they got both Max and Pom over while also delivering some of the most entertaining wrestling you’ll see this year.
That perfection is rooted in its simplicity. History is full of stories of good-hearted underdogs taking on monsters, but even the stalest of tales can have new air breathed into them with the right performance. Max and Pom were the people to deliver that freshness. You only have to look at them standing across the ring from each other, Max an intimidating, dark monster and Pom a joyous ball of light, to see what’s going to happen here, and it’s not good news for poor Pom.
But when the match does get going, Pom’s performance is incredible. She’s terrified, fleeing for her life, but thanks to Raku and a helpful がんばって, she somehow finds it in her to keep coming back, daring to fight the monster. Max, meanwhile, is just as good, not only coming across as an unbeatable force but also selling the weirdness of being in the ring with this colourful ball of energy. It would have been easy for Max to eat Pom up, but they sell her unique offence to perfection, be it the bafflement of having Pom hammer on their chest or the shock of being caught off guard by the shin kicks. It is a squash match, but it’s a squash that helps both wrestlers shine.
And more than anything else, that might be why this match has a huge place in my heart. Because it not only brilliantly introduced Max to the TJPW universe, setting up a run that I would already put up against any foreign wrestlers in Japan, but it also helped the world understand the magic of Pom. That’s a drum I’ve been beating for a long time, so watching others come to the same realisation makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Pom, alongside the likes of Raku, is a big part of why I will watch and write about every live TJPW show because I know that they are guaranteed to delight me, and while this is her masterpiece, it’s far from alone in its brilliance.
2022 was the year that the Tropical Fairy spread her wings and said goodbye to Gatoh Move, heading out into a freelance scene bursting with opportunities. Before she left, though, there was one last thread to tidy up. Emi Sakura. Yunamon’s relationship with her trainer hasn’t always been great, characterised by a simmering tension. Of all her pupils, Yunamon was the one that Sakura put the most pressure on, demanding that she live up to her high expectations. At times Mizumori has struggled out from under that weight, lashing out at Emi, most memorably in the early days of ChocoPro, creating a storyline that is still one of their best. However, no matter what Mizumori has done, the ending has always been the same, with her giving her all but ultimately falling short of Emi’s might. Now, as she headed out into the big world, she wanted one more shot to take the dreaded oni down.
And for a lot of this match, it looked like history was repeating itself. I’ve often theorised that Emi is harsh on Yunamon because she’s the trainee most similar to her, not some wee goblin scampering around the ring, but an explosive power fighter who hits hard and fast. That also means Yunamon has become one of the few people in Gatoh Move capable of slugging it out with Sakura, trading blows and throwing her around the place. However, Yuna has always fallen short because no matter how strong she is, she doesn’t have Emi’s viciousness. You give Sakura a single opening, and she will ruthlessly expose it. So as this match went on, I began to anticipate the tide turning. Yunamon had fought well, but we all know how this goes.
And from Sakura’s point of view, this match did go to form. As the action built to the climax, Emi did everything I’d expect her to do, but Mizumori came into this match with a stubbornness that we hadn’t seen before. Time after time, she confounded my expectations, pushing through the pain and giving everything she had to break through and finally prove she could stand across from Sakura as an equal. On her last day in Gatoh Move, she picked up perhaps the most significant victory of her career and, by doing so, ensured she headed out into the wider scene with one hell of a scalp in her back pocket.
There is also a lovely little coda to that emotional release, which is that the result proves more than anything else that Yunamon was leaving Gatoh Move with Sakura’s blessing. Emi might be more generous in putting people over than some of her peers, but she still doesn’t lose a lot, and I don’t think I was alone in coming into this with the assumption that she would by booting Yunamon out the door. That she lost gives us all a deeper insight into how she feels about Yunamon than the bickering and snide comments ever could. I wouldn’t expect her to admit it, but one suspects that she will be keeping a close eye on her Tropical student’s progress and watching with a smile as she proves to the world just how good she is.
If someone asked me to present them with a match that sums up everything I love about wrestling, I think I’d give them this one. Things that happen in December usually struggle to get into my end-of-year lists because I haven’t had the time to reflect on them that I have others, but this was one of those rare moments of love at first sight. In fact, when I finished watching it, I instantly rewound to go through it all again, rejoicing in just how wonderful it was.
And it’s not just the match itself that plays into that. This thing starts from the entrances, Maria making hers clad in one of KAORU’s old robes, a passing of the torch done for the show where KAORU completed her retirement ceremony. However, even that emotional moment struggled to stand out against what came next. Chigusa Nagayo and Riko Kawahata gave us the entrance of the year, delivering a dance routine that had GAEA nerd Riko looking like her all Christmases had come at once (an expression that was on her face for most of this match, especially when she and Chig pulled out some Crush Gals offence). It was Chigusa who was front and centre, though, looking like the years were slipping off her as she strutted her way to the ring, leading the fans in chanting along to Rolling Sabat and relishing being back doing what she does best. The bell hadn’t even rung, and I was already giving a standing ovation.
When we did get going, I would have been happy with a quick dance through the classics, but Chig was having too much fun to let that happen. Whether she was biting Maria or hossing it out with Hotta, she looked like she was having the time of her life. However, what made it special was that while Nagayo opened the doors, Maria and Riko stepped through them. As the action continued, the focus shifted to the younger wrestlers in the ring, Kawahata cutting away at her mentor Hotta with kicks before the Magenta partners spent some time dropping each other on their heads. This was no vanity project for Nagayo and Hotta to relive the old days, but a chance for them to give some of that sparkle to the next generation.
At no point did I expect this to end the way it did, though. Even as Maria grabbed onto Chigusa’s arm, wrenching and twisting on it, I would have happily bet all the money I have on her being hoisted into the air to eat a Running Three. Chig might be generous, and she has put over Takumi in the past, but that’s her prodigy, and Maria isn’t on that level yet, right? That’s what I thought, anyway, but Chig had different plans. One of the most recognisable names in wrestling tapped out to Maria, turning this fun blast of a match into probably the biggest upset of the year and making Maria so happy she forgot Kawahata was her opponent and leapt into her arms in celebration.
What more can you ask for in wrestling? Pageantry, excitement and the joyous shock of an underdog victory. That’s what this shit is all about! It’s a moment that has already burrowed its way into my head, making itself at home in a corner, and it’s unlikely to move for a long old time.