I keep going forward even if I know that it will be a dangerous way to become a champion: World Wonder Ring Stardom, Nagoya Congress Center Events Hall, 05/03/16

Please note: the three matches discussed here are all available to view on Stardom World for the low low price of 750 Yen per month. There may be other ways of watching them but I’m not about to help you find them. Support joshi!

Somewhere on the Wikipedia page for NXT, down below the current roster, is a list of performers who have signed contracts but are yet to debut on the WWE Network. Some of them have already been given names and are in the process of testing out gimmicks on the house show circuit. Others are there in “shoot name” only. There’s something strange about this glimpse of undecorated reality, like the bare stage set that David Byrne walks out onto at the beginning of Stop Making Sense (1984). For me there’s one name that conjures that image more vividly than all the others: Kaori Housako.

In an early scene from Kim Longinotto and Jano Williams’ film GAEA Girls (2000), a documentary focusing on the training school behind Chigusa Nagayo’s eponymous joshi promotion, dojo trainee Saika Takeuchi offers a remark to justify the suffering she’ll go on to endure at the hands of her trainers over the following 80 minutes: ‘When you see wrestlers in the ring…they are so alive, they shine. I want to be like that.’ It’s the kind of sentiment you might expect from any junior pro wrestler, and yet there’s something about Takeuchi’s vocabulary (at least as it appears in translation) that seems especially acute.

“Shine”. Great wrestlers are bioluminescent creatures; they don’t just inhabit what Roland Barthes called the ‘drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light’, they add their own light to the mix. They do this through a combination of the way they move, the way they emote, the way they talk and the way they dress. The emotional climax of GAEA Girls comes when Takeuchi finally passes her in-ring test and is upgraded from trainee to pro. The first thing that company president Yuka Sugiyama brings up after confirming the date of Takeuchi’s professional debut is her ring attire. “Now you wanted a blue costume?…We thought it would look a bit flat so we’re giving you this.” Nagayo hands over a bright green singlet and a tearful Takeuchi receives a round of applause from her fellow wrestlers.

Takeuchi never progressed in the craft to the extent that she was able to trade in this singlet for something closer to the dazzle of her idols. But her observation on the optics of professional wrestling is useful in characterising that feeling of seeing a wrestler reduced to their real name after a period of irradiant intensity. “Kairi Hojo” is a name I associate with everything shiny and bright: social media pictures of Kairi in her giddy, over-the-top pirate-themed entrance gear became a kind of light-box therapy for me during the bleak summer of Brexit last year. “Kaori Housako”, meanwhile, has the flat quality of the two industrial-strength light bulbs that illuminate the stage onto which Byrne first emerges, boombox in tow.

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To date, no female competitors who have made the transition from independent wrestling to WWE’s developmental brand have kept their original ring name, although it remains to be seen whether the upcoming women’s tournament will mark a change of direction in this respect. Across the board, edges have been sanded: El Generico became Sami Zayn, Kana ditched the zombie face paint, Chris Hero was told to put a shirt on. Hojo’s days as the “Pirate Princess” might be numbered, and her persona will need to be gradually adapted to the radically new context in which she is soon to find herself. We’ll wait and see.

There’s plenty to chew on in the meantime, however. Hojo’s final months in the promotion that developed her as a wrestler could have been awkward and muted, especially given the controversy that hangs over her exit, but Hojo has instead been operating at a singular intensity, in the process managing to transfer some of her shine to Stardom’s most promising rookie. The rivalry between Hojo and Jungle Kyona – far from a prediction I made at the back end of last year – has been the most compelling feature of Stardom’s booking this year so far, and a match featuring the two which took place in Nagoya on 5 March was, for my money, the in-ring highlight across all of joshi in 2017. The brightest moments of Hojo’s final few months in Japan, aside from some good-to-great Red Belt and White Belt matches with HZK, Io Shirai and (especially) Konami, have come when acting as a foil for Kyona’s rise through the ranks, so if we want to talk about Kairi’s brilliant late run in Stardom we ought also to be talking about Kyona.

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Jungle Kyona debuted on 15 November, 2015, in a match against Momo Watanabe – for more on that rivalry, click here. Maybe it has to do with the fact that she debuted at the ripe old age of 25, but Kyona’s Cagematch profile bears the marks of a performer in whom Stardom had a great deal of belief from the get-go. Her second match, fittingly, saw her team up with Hiroyo Matsumoto and Kairi Hojo. Two matches later she’d won the 2015 Stardom rookies tournament, and her next five matches feature two tag title shots and a singles bout with company ace Io Shirai.

Kyona’s first minor classic took place in her home town of Nagoya on 5 June 2016, against Sendai Girls rookie Chihiro Hashimoto. Hashimoto debuted less than a month before Kyona, but by this point was only four months away from defeating Sendai Girls’ Final Boss Meiko Satomura for the top championship in the company (she’s since lost it to joshi Final Final Boss Aja Kong). Even without the benefit of hindsight, Hashimoto’s  elite-level talent is forefront in the story of this match. From the beginning, Hashimoto dominates Kyona, outwrestling her, outmuscling her and outpacing her. Kyona spends ten solid minutes working from underneath, getting little comeback spots here and there but failing to build any solid momentum.

The ten minute mark is when we get maybe the first great example of a spot which Kyona will carry forward into future main event matches – after just getting to the ropes to escape an armbar from Hashimoto, a wearied Kyona attempts to fight back from her knees, laying in forearm strikes and absolutely refusing to capitulate to Hashimoto’s in-ring superiority. This is loud, emotive stuff with the power to project out to a much larger crowd than the one assembled here, but Kyona’s hometown fanbase is raucous enough. And Kyona’s sheer force of will allows her to get back into the match: she gets to her feet and hits a big, beefy lariat followed by a flurry of strikes to her opponent’s chest and a spinning Alabama slam, but loses her footing when she takes to the top rope to attempt a splash, giving Hashimoto time to recover just enough to get her feet up when Kyona lands. Shortly thereafter, Hashimoto hits her waterwheel drop finisher twice in a row, and gets the three count.

There is such a thing in wrestling as “losing strong”, but this isn’t quite that. Hashimoto is better than Kyona, more technically and strategically savvy, with crisper and more precise execution. But this match is Kyona’s first big career milestone for a reason. Here’s Roland Barthes again:

The gesture of the vanquished wrestler signifying to the world a defeat which, far from disguising, he emphasizes and holds like a pause in music, corresponds to the mask of antiquity meant to signify the tragic mode of the spectacle. In wrestling, as on the stage in antiquity, one is not ashamed of one’s suffering, one knows how to cry, one has a liking for tears.

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Kyona uses this spot to show us what a great loser she is, filling up the duration of her defeat with more drama and intensity than just about any other current wrestler I can think of off the top of my head. This particular defeat isn’t one which erupts suddenly out of an even-footed back-and-forth contest, but a performance of doomed passion which crystallises the vanquished wrestler’s gimmick over the course of fourteen minutes. Kyona is a physically powerful athlete, all spirit and emotion, but who lacks the ability to seize little moments here and there and convert them into dominance.

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That ability, aside from everything else, is one of Kairi Hojo’s main gifts. Kairi almost always plays the underdog in her matches, but her strikes are damaging enough and her follow-through intelligent enough that she is able to turn those matches in her favour more often than not, and has the trophy cabinet to prove it. Go and watch her match against Io from last year’s 5 Star Grand Prix if you want a vivid example of Kairi’s in-ring ruthlessness and ability to bounce back from all manner of punishment.

Kairi’s Wonder of Stardom Championship defence against Kyona on 23 February, 2017 should therefore be hers to lose. But Kyona has been building nous and confidence in the meantime, running Kay Lee Ray close in a match for the ICW Women’s Championship in late January, and pinning Kairi in a trios match two weeks later, so this match provides a compelling gauge for how far Kyona has advanced in the half-year since her defeat to Hashimoto.

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From the outset, it’s clear that Kyona realises the urgency of this challenge. She immediately charges Kairi in the corner, and starts flinging her from pillar to post, before taking an early advantage with a sore-looking Alabama slam onto the ring apron. Kyona big back body drops Kairi to the floor, drapes her over the ropes and hits a running slap, ties her up in a Boston Crab submission. There are multiple cover attempts but Kairi escapes and fights back with vicious strikes, a spear and a big diving cross-body to the outside. Kairi is frustrated and vaguely heelish as she stands on Kyona’s prone body and dishes out a slap, before going to work on Kyona’s lower back. Kyona now looks just like she did in the Hashimoto match, on her knees and attempting to strike back, with Kairi stubbornly no-selling her efforts. Kairi hits another of her bigger, better strikes and a neckbreaker for the two, and now feels like she’s got it in the bag, taking to the top rope for a diving elbow drop, before Kyona manages to level the playing field with a headbutt and a powerslam from up top.

Now the two are both on their knees, exchanging strikes, and Kyona is beginning to exhibit some of that Tomohiro Ishii-like power to withstand a clobbering. Screaming, she forces Kairi into the ropes and clatters her around the ears, before locking on a sleeper hold and spinning Kairi around by the neck. Kairi is fading and Kyona is dominant now, her face a picture of demonic poise, real future Ace stuff. But Kyona is still defined by that gap between her power and durability and her lack of experience in closing out big matches. She hits two powerbombs, the second from a gutwrench deadlift, covering Kairi and grimacing in anticipation of the impact this win will have on her career. But Kairi kicks out. Three spinning backfists, a sliding forearm, a Last Voyage suplex and an Alabama slam later, Kairi is taking to the top rope for her second elbow drop attempt of the match. Using every last ounce of strength she has, Kyona crawls over to the corner and grabs Kairi by the ankle, refusing to give in but lacking the initiative to do anything more. Following Kairi up to the top rope, she gets knocked down into a tree-of-woe position, from which Kairi hits a double foot-stomp, and an elbow drop for the win.

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It’s another deeply-affecting performance of failure from Kyona. After the fall, the ever meme-worthy Hojo commends Kyona for her efforts (above), remarking, “I think we’ll have very few fights like this in our lives”, but tempting fate by issuing a challenge for future showdowns: “You haven’t beaten me yet. But please keep trying. I’m waiting.”

Then, the fireworks factory. Hiroyo Matsumoto, a veteran hoss who has yet to acquire singles gold in Stardom, enters the ring and, feeling Kyona’s pain, offers to team with her in a challenge for the Goddesses of Stardom belts held by Hojo and her partner Yoko Bito (the two are known collectively as BY Ho). The pairing makes immediate intuitive sense. Both performers stand out in Stardom for their imposing physicality. And, despite her successes in OZ Academy and elsewhere, Matsumoto has only ever really featured in the mid-card in Stardom, so both she and Kyona are looking to make the step up to the next level. Where they differ is that while the younger wrestler is singularly focused on pinning Kairi – she’s done it before, when it wasn’t for gold, but is clearly deeply affected by this most recent near-miss – the older of the two is motivated in part by a desire to see her partner taste success: “Why do you pull at my heart and I can feel your pain Kyona!?…You wanna win a belt in Nagoya? You want to win it! That’s no lie! Let’s win it together!”

BY Ho v Jungle Kyona and Hiroyo Matsumoto is the main event of a relatively marginal Stardom show in Nagoya’s Congress Center Events Hall on 5 March. On Stardom World, Kyona and Matsumoto start to cut a promo but soon leave the room shouting “Jungle Jungle! Jungle Jungle!” in unison. It’s infectious. Hojo and Bito are quiet and unenthused by comparison, Bito remarking that they “won’t lose to some makeshift team”, fatally downplaying that affinity that was clearly in evidence eleven days earlier.

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As Kyona enters the ring to a massive home-town flower reception, her facial expression is perfect for the occasion – it speaks of her usual dogged determination, now bolstered by the presence of Matsumoto, but still with the usual trace of self-doubt just around the edges. Hojo and Bito’s masks obscure their expressions as they make their way to the ring for the last time as tag team champions, and probably for the last time as a team (Bito is about to take time off to recover from an injury, which may well keep her out of action for the remainder of Kairi’s run in the company), but the little hug they share before the bell speaks volumes. This already feels like a crossroads.

We start again with Kyona charging Kairi in the corner. Just as Kairi manages to dodge the attack, she’s met with a speeding Matsumoto. This is the first and not the last spot in this match where Matsumoto will act as a kind of shadow for her partner, making sure her intentions are realised. Kyona gets to work clobbering Kairi and the challengers take an early advantage, hitting chops, stomps, bodyslams, knee drops and splashes to the incumbent, who can barely catch her breath.

The pace becomes frantic when Kairi fights back and tags in a fresh Bito. It spills to the outside and Kairi hits an amazing flying crossbody before helping Bito to take out Matsumoto with a Young Bucks-ish leaping assisted piledriver to the floor.  BY Ho are firing on all cylinders as an established tag team and Kyona is once again on her knees trying to strike back. Kairi, cocky after beating Kyona but short-tempered at having been run so close, starts inviting these strikes now, getting all up in Kyona’s face and eventually levelling her with an axe-handle. With Matsumoto still out of the ring, BY Ho isolate Kyona and double-team her, scoring a two-count off a series of kicks from Bito.

Matsumoto can’t be held down forever though. Eventually the Lady Destroyer gets back onto the apron for the tag and decimates Bito with a shoulder tackle before getting both Bito and Hojo up for a double fallaway slam. The crowd erupts but the momentum won’t settle one way or the other. The next ten minutes or so are too packed with action for me to try to do justice to it here, but the following spots stand out: Kairi vaulting off a prone Matsumoto’s back to nail Kyona with a flying forearm in the corner, Kyona locking Kairi into another spinning sleeper hold, BY Ho getting put in tandem torture racks and hit with tandem top-rope splashes before fighting back with double-team kicks, Kyona hitting a big slam on Kairi from the top rope. It’s nuts.

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What we’re left with is an electric crowd and Kyona on top, dialled-in and prowling the ring. Kyona sets Kairi up for a match-ending spinning sit-out powerbomb but Kairi escapes and the two trade cover attempts, Kyona getting the better of the exchange. Kyona ruffles her hair, the cogs in her brain turning faster than ever before. It’s now Kairi that’s the downed but undefeated opponent, clinging to Kyona’s leg while Kyona tries to fend her off with blows to the back. Kyona attempts a short-arm lariat but Kairi ducks and Kyona eats a big kick from Bito, before Matsumoto bursts in to clear the ring for the final showdown. Kairi and Kyona are now on a level playing field. They exchange strikes; Kyona stays on her feet after two spinning backfists, Kairi reciprocates off a big lariat. The future star and the star that’s about to leave the territory are now fucking screaming into each others faces and decide to settle this stand-off by running into the ropes and then into each other at full speed. Kyona nails an even bigger lariat and goes for one of those pin attempts that’s ultra convincing because the referee leaps across the ring to count it, but Kairi kicks out at two.

Now for one of the low-key spots of the year. Back in December, still processing Io Shirai’s betrayal of her tag team partner Mayu Iwatani, I wrote the following:

This isn’t just rejection by a friend, this is expulsion from the unit that helped Mayu be happy as a performer, and she’s being expelled precisely because of that happiness. Io only wants to work with the quiet, callous Mayu that pushed her to the limit in their title match, not goofy Thunder Rock Mayu with her crowd pandering and fangirl impressions. But that’s who Mayu is when she’s teaming with Io, because win or lose, she just loves doing flippy shit by Io’s side. Now it turns out that that love is not reciprocal, that Io can do without it. She’s the ace, nobody can touch her, and she’s going to look out for number one.

The matches that precipitated Io and Mayu’s fall-out were full of missed or botched interceptions: Io, the dominant partner, would set up a spot, and Mayu’s timing would be off just a fraction, in a way that prevented her from capitalising on the opening. The timing broke down and so did the communication. As those already-legendary matches between The Revival and DIY in NXT have recently made clear, great tag team wrestling hinges on the ability of one partner to intervene on behalf of the other at just the right moment. That’s why the affinity shared by the best tag teams is comparable to the kind shared by twins or best friends: great tag teams finish each other’s sentences.

Kyona is on top, but there’s no telling how much it’s going to take to put Kairi away at this stage of her Stardom career. Kyona goes to lift Kairi into a gutwrench powerbomb, at which point Matsumoto re-enters the ring, takes Kairi into her own hands, and nails her with a powerbomb of her own. That’s it. Kyona deadlifts Kairi one last time, spins around into a sit-out powerbomb, and covers the champion for the three count and the tears.

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This finishing sequence is everything. Kairi and Kyona have just battled over the White Belt with Kyona putting in her biggest effort to date with no avail. Now they’re at it again and the stakes are just as high, and they’ve both worked each other over enough to the point that it’s anyone’s to win, except Kairi knows how to win these matches and Kyona does not. It’s Matsumoto’s perfectly-timed intervention that gives Kyona the final boost she needs, but there’s nothing cheap or villainous about this. It’s an act of friendship, a vindication of the value of multiple individuals striving together for a common goal. More than that, it’s a veteran joshi hoss claiming glory in a territory where she’s seen relatively little, and in the process giving a break to a younger woman cut from similar cloth. It’s that extra push from somebody who knows the world better than you do but who believes in you and wants to leverage that knowledge to bring you up with them, and to lift you up even higher. It’s the mirror image of Io and Mayu’s break-up, which was precisely about an Ace using her status to dispense with a partner she no longer believed in. One powerbomb is all of that.

Professional wrestling abounds in by-the-bootstraps mythologies, but the truth is you can’t make it to the top on your own. That’s the story of this match. Kyona finally acquires the prize that her efforts deserved, and she does it by placing her trust in the right partner (I don’t want to tempt fate but the moment when Hiroyo and Kyona fall out and feud will be devastating and essential viewing). But it’s also the story of this match outside of kayfabe: for me, a good part of the intensity of this match comes from knowing that Kairi’s Stardom run will soon come to an end, that her beautifully-constructed persona will soon be broken down for rebuilding in a potentially unforgiving context while Kyona is just growing into her own persona, testing the limits of her ability and acquiring credibility and nuance. These two encounters with Kairi’s late style have contributed a great deal of richness to Kyona’s palette, and if Kyona ever does manage to shine as bright as Aces of joshi past, we can look to Kaori Housako as one of the key passers of the torch.

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Tommaso Ciampa once gave an interview where he talked about his experience of performing with The Undertaker on an episode of Smackdown years before his first appearance in NXT. Ciampa credits ‘Taker with talking him through the spot they were about to perform in ‘the calmest voice’:

So he grabbed me and brought me out to the center. And when he puts my arm on him he goes “All right, here we go.” And brings me up…and down…Ant then as I’m landing, he’s here, and he goes “Great bump.” And when he scoops me, he goes “All right, nice and easy.” He puts me up, Tombstones me and goes “Thanks, daddy,” and does his pose. And it’s like…it was so calm!

The wrestling business is an evil place sometimes, but never forget that first and foremost it’s a place where people help each other to look like they’re hurting each other before thanking each other out of audience earshot, an art of cooperation par excellence. Wrestlers are strong, and their feelings for one another are strong, and what I feel now is strong.

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