Maki Itoh v Asuza Takigawa (Idol Lumberjack Death Match)
Tokyo Joshi Pro Brand New Wrestling ~ The Beginning Of A New Era ~
Korakuen Hall, Tokyo
26 August 2017
In a nutshell: Maki is a former idol who joined Tokyo Joshi Pro at the back end of 2016 after being fired from her group, LinQ. Asuza Takigawa, formerly of the “legendary” underground idol unit Aime, is unhappy at this intruder stepping on her patch, and the two have been locked in an extended feud over who can lay claim to the title of top idol in the company. After two matches end in double count-outs, DDT’s head honcho Sanshiro Takagi books a blow-off for the big upcoming Korakuen Hall show with a unique stipulation: the ring will be surrounded with lumberjacks recruited from other idol groups, and Takagi himself will be special guest referee!
On the day, DDT’s NωA and Cheer♥1 – the group that counts reigning TOKYO Princess of Princess Champion Reika Saika among its members – are at ringside, armed with oversized novelty hammers. Itoh enters to a LinQ track but then demands that the producers allow her to sing her own entrance theme, since her former group have banned her from using their intellectual property. Takigawa ambushes Itoh while she makes her entrance and a wild brawl ensues. Every time either wrestler is forced outside the ring they are assaulted with giant toy hammers. Itoh gees herself up for a big top-rope dive to the outside but eventually settles for one off the apron. The craziest thing about the match is that after nearly ten minutes of absolute nonsense Itoh wins with, of all things, a submission – an Elevated Crab Hold, to be precise.
Why it defines 2017: When the DDT Universe streaming service launched in January it marked a big breakthrough for the company that many see as being well on its way to becoming no. 2 in Japan. DDT is now one of the few in the world to be able to live-stream its own events internationally, and this level of user-friendliness means a great deal in a crowded marketplace like puro.
What’s most remarkable about this service though is that DDT haven’t drawn the line at their flagship product, but have also taken the effort to make a whole bunch of their weird little sub-promotions available for live viewing. Tokyo Joshi Pro’s big Korakuen show in August wasn’t the first of their shows to be shown live on DDT Universe, but it was the one that drew the most attention, not least in part because of the big Miyu Yamashita v Meiko Satomura match I’ve written about previously. While that match provided a hook to demonstrate that TJP is capable of serious wrestling, the Idol Lumberjack Death Match carried the flag for the other face of the DDT brand, the one that has gained the group most of its notoriety overseas: this was the kind of stupid, overblown, glorious, slapstick parody wrestling you’d want to entrust to Takagi and his sub-commanders, and we were blessed in 2017 to have such easy access to it.
Pigeon Murder Squad (Chris Brookes & Pete Dunne) w/ “Kid Lykos” v Kip Sabian & Chief Deputy Dunne
Lucha Forever Lucha Live #6: Ghost Runs, Chiller Fonts and Ghastly Puns
Frog & Bucket, Manchester
31 October 2017
In a nutshell: It’s unclear whether or not this was the plan all along, but Lucha Forever’s “Tuesday Night Graps” shows at Manchester’s Frog & Bucket have quickly become a weird experimental playground for some of BritWres’ most in-demand performers. Owing to an injury to his #CCK partner Kid Lykos, Chris Brookes teamed for the first time with Pete Dunne in August, where Dunne wore Lykos’ mask for most of the match. In October the two teamed up again – this time wearing facial patterns modelled after Mike Tyson and Tupac, for some reason (see above) – and destroyed a toy pigeon which a fan had been bringing to shows as a mascot for several months, thus earning their tag team the name “Pigeon Murder Squad”. I think that was the same show that Dunne hit a fan over the head with a frying pan.
Now it’s October, and it’s Hallowe’en, so Brookes and Dunne enter to the Wyatt Family theme, carrying spooky lanterns and wearing pigeon masks. With Kid Lykos undergoing surgery, Brookes has found a suitable replacement in the form of an inflatable skeleton. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember too much of the match that follows, and Lucha Forever’s VOD service might not be long for this world, but a couple of things are etched in my mind for the rest of time: inflatable Lykos doing a massive Yoshihiko-style dive off the Frog & Bucket’s mezzanine balcony, and Chief Deputy Dunne cutting off the wolf’s head with a pair of scissors.
Why it defines 2017: Lucha Forever, and especially their “Tuesday Night Graps” series, was a shining star that burned very brightly but all too briefly in 2017. This match was a perfect demonstration of what made those shows such a unique and exciting proposition: here was the WWE United Kingdom Champion, wrestling in front of a packed crowd in a tiny comedy club on a school night, playing off a storyline involving pigeon murder and doing spots with an inflatable toy.
For one reason or another, these shows allowed the performers more room to invent, improvise and innovate than some of the bigger names in BritWres; a lot of Progress cards felt quite stale by comparison. The focus on improvisation became particularly acute in November, when IPW stepped in at the last minute to help produce a Tuesday Night Graps show at which Inflatable Lykos put in another show-stealing performance. But it was also present in more subtle ways, like the ongoing jokes that Dunne and Brookes would exchange over a mysterious, never-before-seen move known as a “Spike Pedigree”, which seemed to be something that Dunne made up on the spot. Lucha Forever might be gone for good, but the highlights it provided in 2017 reinforced how significant it will be to preserve this kind of platform for experimentation and play as the BritWres juggernaut rolls on into 2018.
Chihiro Hashimoto & Hiroyo Matsumoto v Meiko Satomura & Io Shirai
Sendai Girls Big Show in Osaka
Osaka EDION Arena
2 December 2017
In a nutshell: It’s four of the very best wrestlers on the planet right now sharing a ring – just go and watch it.
Why it defines 2017: Taking place shortly before the announcement of the Tokyo Sports Puroresu Awards, this match read like a Who’s Who of top contenders for the Joshi Puroresu Grand Prize category, with the possible exception of Mayu Iwatani, who occupied Matsumoto’s slot in a very similar tag match that took place at Shirai’s 10th anniversary show back in March.
Commentators outside Japan by and large seemed to take exception to Shirai’s eventual capture of this Prize – her third in consecutive years. And not without good reason: both Matsumoto and Hashimoto had exceptional, career-defining years. Matsumoto held four championships concurrently and main-evented what was the biggest-drawing joshi show of the year by some distance, OZ Academy’s Undersea Unexplored Expedition. Hashimoto was part of a year-long storyline in which she established herself once and for all as the new Ace of Sendai Girls, defeating Aja Kong, Matsumoto and her mentor Satomura along the way.
For Shirai, meanwhile, 2017 was supposed to be at the very least the year where she passed the mantle of Ace onto Iwatani, and at most the year where she left joshi altogether. Both plans faltered: Iwatani seemed to be battling both physical and psychological issues at the beginning of the year, and then suffered a serious injury only a few months after eventually capturing the World of Stardom Championship in June, forcing her to surrender the title to Toni Storm. With Storm’s schedule in Japan subject to gaps and absences and Iwatani out for the forseeable future, Stardom were forced to put Shirai back into the singles title picture, booking her to capture the Wonder of Stardom Championship from a retiring Yoko Bito in the Autumn. WWE meanwhile, with whom Shirai had a try-out ahead of the Mae Young Classic tournament, eventually balked at her history of neck injuries, preventing Shirai from following Kairi Hojo to the States. Shirai was left stranded as the joshi wrestler with the greatest international profile, unable to move beyond the scene that had nurtured her. At least she has that Tokyo Sports award and two title belts (and a year’s worth of great matches, actually) as consolation.
The divergent arcs that each of these three wrestlers have undergone in 2017 have provided some of the biggest joshi news stories of the year, and this match begs so many questions for 2018: will Shirai remain a top star, and if so how? Will Hashimoto be able to grow further into her role of Ace? Will Matsumoto be able to retain her momentum despite having lost all her belts? Will Stardom and Sendai Girls go back to building programs together like they did back in the glory days of 2015, as suggested by Satomura’s challenge to Toni Storm on Christmas Eve? Will we get the long-awaited singles match between Shirai and Hashimoto, and will it live up to the hype? It’s not every day a tag match with no real build stands as such a crossroads. But that’s precisely what this bout provides.
Mayu Iwatani v Kagetsu
Stardom 5Grand Prix day 9
Korakuen Hall, Tokyo
18 September 2017
In a nutshell: Kagetsu has been on a roll since returning to Stardom after a brief hiatus in the Spring, and her Oedo Tai squad has just been buoyed by the addition of Tam Nakano. Iwatani, meanwhile, is a double champion, having captured the Wonder of Stardom title from Kairi Hojo in May and the World of Stardom title from her nemesis Io Shirai a month later. Oedo Tai have been hounding Iwatani for months, and a match between these two that took place at Korakuen Hall in August saw Kagetsu hanging Iwatani over a stairwell in a possibly ill-advised tribute to The Big Boss Man. Iwatani still has a chance of making the 5Grand Prix final here, and Kagetsu is perennially committed to ruining Iwatani’s day, so there’s all to play for.
The match begins – begins – with Kagetsu and her Oedo Tai minions pushing the stage set on top of Iwatani, trapping her neck awkwardly. Somehow Iwatani recovers from this early setback and in the space of less than fifteen minutes the two have one of Stardom’s undisputed matches of the year – an exhilarating back-and-forth battle filled with high spots and vicious strike exchanges. Kagetsu eventually gets the win via – what else? – nefarious means.
Why it defines 2017: See above. Stardom’s plans didn’t exactly pan out this year, with injuries piling on top of the woes we all anticipated this time last year, when both Shirai and Hojo signing for WWE seemed a done deal. But at those times of the year when things were going more or less right, they went very right indeed. The renewed focus Kagetsu received after her return was a wise bit of booking, and Oedo Tai steadily developed over the course of the year (after the retirement of unit leader Kyoko Kimura in January) into becoming more or less the face of the company by year’s end.
With Iwatani finally on top, Kagetsu provided the perfect antagonist for the early stages of the champion’s reign – a bundle of malevolent extrovert energy to counterbalance Iwatani’s more introverted, but still emotionally resonant, persona. With a few exceptions there was very little in joshi to touch this rivalry in 2017, and with Kagetsu now signed to Stardom full-time and Iwatani slowly making her return to in-ring action, 2018 is hopefully the year when they pick up where they left off.
Anthony Joshua v Wladimir Klitschko (WBA (Super), IBF and IBO heavyweight titles)
29 April 2017
In a nutshell: Klitschko, the wily veteran, recorded a video of himself describing exactly when and how he would defeat Joshua, transferred the video clip to a USB stick and sewed it into his entrance gown. Joshua was unmoved by his mind games, kept his focus, made a dazzling entrance all dressed in white (the colour of champions), outlasted everything his elder had to throw at him, and won decisively via technical knockout in the 11th round, in front of a rabid home crowd.
Why it defines 2017: Pro Wrestling seemed to come up a lot in connection with the other big boxing match of the year, Floyd Mayweather v Conor McGregor. But for my money this fight featured some the most accomplished, understated classic pro wrestling storytelling to take place outside of pro wrestling all year, with subtle heel-face dynamics straight out of a Tokyo Dome main event. Every wrestling company would kill for a babyface Ace like Anthony Joshua, and I want to see him fight Tetsuya Naito.