An Incomplete Maintainer’s Guide to the Best of Pro Wrestling 2020 Q3
Every month I keep a document running in which I write about the wrestling matches I watch. Once upon a time I felt the need to jot down every match I enjoyed, and to quantify how much I enjoyed it. As time goes by I find myself more and more able to let go of matches about which I don’t have a great deal to say other than “that was good”. The flip side of this is an increasing tendency to write paragraphs upon paragraphs about a much smaller selection of matches. Often these matches seem worthy of this kind of analysis because they raise some interesting set of questions about the art of wrestling, either by fucking with the form or by absolutely nailing some specific aspect of it. Here, then, is nothing more and nothing less than a collection of the matches from 2020 Q3 which called for the most extensive writerly input on my part, and which ought to reward the attention of any curious wrestling fan.
Yuna Mizumori & Riho v Mei Suruga & Baliyan Akki
5 Jul, Choco Pro, Ichigaya Chocolate Square
With things getting more or less back to normal as far as running shows in Japan goes, I’ve found myself reflecting on whether my viewing habits will go back to normal too – I’ve got as much free time now as I ever had, and the chance to watch everything if I really put my mind to it (and eschew other hobbies), but will I? What does my wrestling diet look like after the events (and non-events) of this Spring, and how nourishing a diet is it?
There are things certain promotions can give you that just aren’t available, or aren’t as good elsewhere – I don’t need all of it (I don’t need New Japan main events), but some of it I find it hard to do without. Stardom has faction politics, which create a particular flavour of high stakes you can’t get from any other source. Tokyo Joshi Pro has the biggest-feeling Korakuen Hall shows, partly for the simple reason that you can watch them live. Ice Ribbon has a certain irrepressible energy that can be exactly the thing you need to cheer yourself up with on a gloomy day. SEAdLINNNG and WAVE are where you go to find kaleidoscopic assortments of members from different promotions, recombining in shapes and patterns you haven’t seen before. Marvelous and Sendai Girls have Mio Momono and Mika Iwata, when they’re back. These are the kinds of nutritional value I look for in my wrestling.
And then there’s Gatoh Move, or Choco Pro. If I’d been reflecting on all of this a year or so ago, when Gatoh Move were just getting into YouTube uploads, I’d have said something like: Gatoh Move means creativity. Matches filled with completely original spots designed specifically for a unique wrestling environment, pulled off with perfect conviction and technical know-how every single time. But I’m used to that now, so that what Choco Pro signifies for me more and more is this – perfect booking. It’s both a limitation and an advantage for Emi Sakura that she has more or less the same small cast to work with show in, show out, in the same small space. It’s enabled her to put together what is easily the most compelling week-to-week pro wrestling product I’ve seen since the golden days of Lucha Underground and NXT, but almost certainly better than either. I’ve already charted in these newsletters how the company built so effectively to a series of big marquee matches – Akki vs Masato Tanaka early on, Yunamon’s two Last Man Standing matches and her Iron Man match with Mei – but have also put in the work to engineer payoffs for storylines emerging more or less from the margins, like Antonio Honda’s winning streak. There’s barely been a wasted motion – if something can be used as a hook to add an extra layer on to a character or give extra meaning to a match that will make it feel different from the many other, superficially similar, matches featuring the same cast that surround it, that thing has more often than not been taken up and used with great purpose and imagination.
Anyway, the challenge on this show was making sure that Riho’s first and possibly, but hopefully not, only appearance in Choco Pro wasn’t wasted, which they of course pulled off. There was a general feeling in the air that Riho had returned to a different company, and that some reckoning had to be made with that fact in the match itself. Mei in particular did incredibly well out of this match, showcasing a kind of younger-sibling frenzy to impress that seemed to throw a big question mark over her usually comfy status as poster-child of the company – we haven’t really seen a Mei this ruffled since the Yunamon match at the end of season one, and that in itself was quite a rare thing for the Choco Pro canon. It’s wild to think that Mei’s story in Choco Pro hasn’t really happened yet, because she’s been so settled in her position as Emi’s no. 1 that it’s made more sense to use her as a supporting character in other arcs. Mei will continue to have great matches regardless, and doesn’t necessarily need a single moment where she snaps, but any big climax they want to give us further down the line might end up in retrospect as having been the most satisfying slow-burn of all.
Suzu Suzuki, Ayumi Hayashi & Tomoka Inaba v Mikoto Shindo, CREA & Haruka Umesaki
7 Jul, WAVE, Shinjuku FACE
Suzu might be the story of the month but hers is far from the normal story of how a rookie’s first two years are supposed to play out. Throughout the weird middle third of this year, Suzu and Mei Suruga (another decidedly not-normal rookie) have shown the required levels of charisma to basically lead their respective promotions from the front. Ice Ribbon and Gatoh Move have both been hyper-productive since February and seem more likely than most to give this kind of leading role to relative newcomers; it’s easy to forget then that in most other promotions rookies are there to light up the undercard. This match was an example of something that’s been lacking from wrestling this year, in a similar way to that Saki Akai v Saori Anou match a couple of months ago was, and that thing that’s been absent is a match-type that really went a long way towards shoring up my love of joshi outside of Stardom – this match brought together six rookies from six different promotions, all absolutely chomping at the bit to make a name for themselves in the post-lockdown wrestling landscape. For fifteen minutes they went absolutely hammer and tongs at each other, barely registering a dip in energy levels by the time the time limit draw came out. Essential stuff. What’s especially interesting about this match, though, is how Suzu slots into it – she’s an odd case, a Buntai headliner for Ice Ribbon that nevertheless comes into WAVE as part of their “YOUNG WAVE” division; you’d imagine there’s some politics involved in making sure she comes across in a way that gels with Ice Ribbon’s presentation of her as a junior Ace, but for quite long sections here she appeared outmatched by both Shindo and CREA. It served as a reminder that Suzu’s rise rests as much on her charisma as it does her in-ring ability, and that even for her all her obvious technical skills she’s by no means way out in front as far as this highly talented cohort goes; still, when it came time for Suzu to take the offence to her opponents, she looked very accomplished in doing so, helped in no small part by some brilliant selling from Shindo (the sections of action between these two absolutely lit up the closing stretch of the match and should if there’s any justice in this world point to a high-stakes singles match somewhere down the line). Finally, I need to throw out a word of appreciation for Ayumi Hayashi, who seems to have spent lockdown perfecting her “annoying loudmouth” routine and has got it down almost to Mio Momono levels.
19 Jul, Choco Pro, Ichigaya Chocolate Square
In a funny sort of way, this was Choco Pro’s most experimental match to date – but first, a bit of back story. Throughout July, really clicking into gear around the time of the Riho return match reviewed above, Emi Sakura has been overseeing a kind of master-angle around which other angles have taken shape. Her follow-up move to defeating Yuna Mizumori in a bitterly hard-fought Last Man Standing Match (itself a big blow-off to an angle that had played out over several weeks) was to signal boost the injuries she suffered in that match, donning dungarees and joining forces with fellow weakling Lulu Pencil to create the “Pencil Army”. This move serves two distinct purposes.
Firstly, it pushes Lulu into becoming more of a force to be reckoned with, at least in terms of her ability to endure punishment, as the rookie is now forced to do a lot of the grunt work in tag matches for her practically-infirm partner (that angle also played out elsewhere on this show, as Lulu almost pulled off a time limit draw in a singles match with Akki). Second, it becomes something which first Riho implicitly, then Mitsuru explicitly, can sell as a point of shame, an indication of the wayward trajectory of Gatoh Move as a wrestling organisation, which Mitsuru then links in a fit of pique to the baleful rise of the Surugaist tendency in locker room and dojo – development is stalling due to Mei’s relentlessly cheery attitude to the rookies, the traditionally harsh contours of a Sakuraist education are softening in line with the sunny disposition of the boss’ latest favourite.
After blowing up and challenging Mei to a singles match over the issue, Mitsuru was invited on one of the daily Choco Pro chat streams to unpick her feelings a little more – and ended up speaking with Sakura for over an hour about her attitudes to coaching, to motivation and aspiration, to her visions for growth both as it relates to herself and as it relates to the company. This wasn’t just engrossing as a conversation outside of kayfabe, it also did a wonderful job of adding layers of shade and nuance to Mitsuru’s in-kayfabe challenge to Mei – more than anything, it spoke to Mitsuru’s frustration and insecurity at wanting to adhere the kind of hard-line approach that joshi puroresu seems to inevitably call for, only to find everyone else around her moving in a different direction – it’s ok for rookies to make mistakes and be bad (Lulu always haunts the margins of this conversation even if she’s not mentioned by name), the ultimate goal for Gatoh Move is to become no. 3 in the world (after WWE and AEW), and not no. 1, which – to follow Mitsuru’s line of thinking – has to be the unrealistic objective you shoot for if you want to actually get anywhere near the top 10. Mei’s response, although not as detailed, adds extra dimensions to her own role in all of this, as well as a somewhat tragic sense that maybe these two are just so different in outlook as to be essentially irreconcilable – Mei argues that she’s no less committed to the fight than Mitsuru, but just can’t help smiling whatever the weather; it’s a reflex, or a coping mechanism designed to help her reach the exact same heights Mitsuru is striving for in her own way.
With all this hanging overhead, narrative satisfaction demanded that this match be a kind of showcase for how adept both Mitsuru and Mei can be at hard-line joshi, the stuff Mitsuru was talking up in her chat, the kind of stuff you might see from an Arisa Nakajima or a Takumi Iroha. Mei had to prove to Mitsuru that she could hang in the kind of fight we might expect from a WAVE or SEAdLINNNG main event, and Mitsuru had to back up her big talk in arguing in favour of more old-school philosophies. This match might not have actually had more Old School Joshi Intensity to it than the other Choco Pro big matches that are currently crowding my MOTY list, but it felt like it did, because the notion of Old School Joshi Intensity was always there in the foreground, setting the terms for how the match would play out and establishing the stakes for the outcome. Not that Choco Pro matches ever really feel listless or formulaic or choreographed, but this match in particular felt like a deeply authentic competitive exchange – no time wasted when the moment was yours to seize and win, no motion wasted when a chop or a slap or a stomp to the back would suffice. Hence my remark about how experimental this match was – there is so much about Gatoh Move and Ichigaya Chocolate Square that is so alien from the world of AJW and GAEA, but here Mei and Mitsuru managed to pull off their own version of that sub-genre of wrestling, reaching beyond what we might typically expect of them to a heritage that’s not theirs but that’s theirs to use.
13 Jul, SEAdLINNNG, Korakuen Hall
The video package for this match featured a segment from Arisa’s promo following the hair vs hair match in which she defeated Nanae, and these lines in particular – “”SEAdLINNNG is Nanae Takahashi, it’s Yoshiko, it’s Arisa Nakajima / Aren’t we ‘the strongest’!? / If we don’t do it, who will!? / If we’re not ‘Joshi Puroresu’, who is!?” Their inclusion was no accident, and in many ways this felt like an attempt to live up to those lines, to bring them to life. SEAdLINNNG might be benefitting right now from a viral promotional boost derived from Yoshiko’s successes on social media, but ultimately their product is destined to live or die based on the skills their roster show in the ring – that’s the message, and this match felt like a focused attempt to show what they as a roster are made of. In this sense it was a real success – the match roared through its 26 minutes with tremendous pace and contained some sequences of action – like Yoshiko’s combination of flipping sentons – that made you feel as though you were watching some of the best wrestlers on the planet. One little wrinkle I loved – Arisa acting like a dick through her spell of dominance in the opening 10 minutes, and the way Yoshiko made her absolutely eat shit for it in her first comeback, and the way that any showboating from Arisa thereafter had a subtly different hue to it, felt more earned. Great stuff.
23 Jul, Tokyo Joshi Pro, Korakuen Hall
I went into this with almost zero specific anticipation about Aino’s challenge (or Yuka’s status as champion for that matter) and therefore nothing to lose, and came out much higher on both than when I went in. This might be surprising to some – Aino made at least one pretty glaring botch here, in failing to properly base for Yuka on an aerial move from the apron to the floor, but if you’ve read my reviews up to this point you’ll know that I don’t tend to rate matches on how many botches they contain. Actually, there was a sense of probably-not-entirely-scripted sense of struggle to the way Aino went about her business in ring here, and it lent the match a different kind of feel to the one that normally runs throughout big Yuka Sakazaki matches, which can sometimes feel a bit frictionless and paint-by-numbers.
Here, Aino and Sakazaki fought over every reversal; for every power move that was executed there were a number of attempts that didn’t come off because the wrestlers were too tired or otherwise unable to summon the requisite strength; Yuka’s daring aerial manoeuvres felt properly high-risk, rather than just something that we’ve come to expect from her, not just in the aforementioned sequence with the botched dive to the outside but also in the spot where Yuka sold her knee following her fall to the apron after releasing Aino from that rope-hanging neck submission she does, and the finishing sequence where Yuka seemed to take an age testing her balance on the top rope before busting out a never-before-seen 450 swandive splash. As much as it’s about bodies wrestling is also about ideas, and you can do a lot by simply introducing the idea into a match that power moves take effort and might not always come off, or the idea that a high-flying moveset still carries massive risks even for somebody that’s risen to the top of the mountain off the back of that style, which are two ideas that seem to get overlooked more often than you’d expect.
28 Jul, Choco Pro, Ichigaya Chocolate Square
I remember a friend who works as a pro wrestling referee sharing with me the idea that too many spectacular high spots early on a match card are bad news, especially when it comes to the impact they might have on new fans in the audience – essentially, what you’re doing to these fans is telling them that tope suicidas and whatnot are a normal, workaday part of the wrestling vocabulary, and not something that wrestlers reserve for moments of highest pressure because of their inherent risk (for more on this general theme see my review of Sakazaki v Aino, above). At the start of a match, wrestlers get to decide what kind of laws of physics they are going to apply in the present. While this can have pitfalls when it comes to mapping out a show as a whole, it can also be a liberating thing which unleashes real creativity, which is what we saw in this match.
Emi Sakura’s alter-ego “Emi Pencil” in itself is one example of how mutable wrestling can be. Wrestling can take everything that has happened up to a given point and then move forwards with it in a way that defies all logical expectations. Nobody at the end of Choco Pro season 1 would have expected Emi to close out season 2 as the Tweedledum to Lulu Pencil’s Tweedledee, but now here they are, the two weakest wrestlers on the roster, juking it out in the main event of the season 2 grand finale having tagged together for several weeks. A rule gets established early on here that despite the fact they’re fighting against each other today, they’re still addicted to saying their catchphrase together – not just at the beginning of the match, but before, during, and after every high spot. In one brilliant moment, Lulu is angling to hit her diving splash off the windowsill, the one where she lands on her feet first, then rebounds, taking all the height out of her fall, but finds that Emi isn’t lying where she wants her to be lying – she’s never hit the splash from this angle before. So she jumps off the windowsill at an angle, and then turns her body 45 degrees on the rebound to land torso-down across Emi’s prone body. It’s nothing – no more or less damage is inflicted than the small amount that would have been inflicted in normal circumstances, this is no great physical feat we’ve witnessed – but if you’ve calibrated your brain to the laws of physics these two are working with in this match, it feels like one of those moments late down the stretch in an IWGP Heavyweight Championship match where, idk, someone works out some as yet-unseen way to reverse the Rainmaker into their own super-finisher.
This is how I felt watching the match, at least – something else that feels crucial to point out here is just how deeply encrusted with lore this match is, how many of its big moments rely not just on an open mind and an enjoyment of comedy wrestling but on a deep working knowledge of Lulu Pencil matches gone by. There’s one moment that looks like a BIG potential payoff where Lulu nearly gets Emi to tap out to a move that started with her own attempted backslide, just like Lulu once did against Antonio Honda. And then the big payoff that does arrive – Lulu finally hitting the La Magistral (only to have it immediately reversed into a Magistral from Emi which wins her the match) – naturally relies on having watched Lulu try and fail to execute the move for weeks. All of which is to say that this is one of those matches that pays out a great deal but also requires a massive buy-in – Naito v Okada, Gargano v Ciampa, and Pencil v Pencil.
Miyako Matsumoto & Chris Brookes v Rina Yamashita & Drew Parker
1 Aug, Gake no Fuchi Joshi Pro, Shinjuku FACE
A few days before watching this show I listened to the This Is Awesome Podcast’s episode on Risa Sera’s fourth and final birthday Produce deathmatch gauntlet, and I can’t help but take up some of the ideas opened up there as a rubric for getting to grips with this match. Mainly, the idea of splitting the process of engaging with that match into a “meta” level on the one hand, and an “actually dealing with the match at hand” on the other. The podcast team were generally pretty enthusiastic about the former – how could you not be in love with the idea of Sera’s absurd love of putting herself through horrific challenges every year on her birthday – but split over the latter, with some seeing the ragged edges of some of the spots and sequences as detracting from the overall appeal of the match as a whole.
Hearing this, it struck me that the reason these ragged edges never became a real problem for me is that I was so completely sold on that meta level – I cared about Risa and I cared about her getting to do this, to the point where any seams in the spectacle became part of the drama themselves. It was like going to see a friend’s band perform – there may be something lacking from the spectacle on a certain, suspension-of-disbelief-y kind of level but there’s an equal and opposite attachment on a more intimate and grounded level. I say it was like that because Risa Sera and her deathmatch idols clearly aren’t my friends. But there was a similar kind of investment there, an investment that’s more about the joy of seeing people being given the opportunity to realise their ideas than it is about the thrill of seeing something executed to perfection.
I’ve had a similar reaction to Gake no Fuchi Pro’s rollout in 2019 and 2020 – I’ve gone in to each of these four shows so far knowing that the thing is going to be messy and weird and show its seams, that I’m not going to be able to switch off and believe like I might with a Miyu Yamashita match or a Momo Watanabe match or a Sareee match, but that ultimately I’m going to come away respecting Miyako’s boldness as an auteur, bringing her visual arts background to wrestling and making the shows she wants to make. With this match in particular, there was an added layer to this meta canopy – I saw both Parker and Brookes mature as Galaxy Brain Wrestlers before my very eyes at Manchester’s Frog & Bucket, and it’s sweet to see them becoming part of the conversation in Japan, the global cultural epicentre of Galaxy Brain Wrestling.
But the other thing that podcast episode did, besides flagging up for me how comfortable I am engaging with certain brands of wrestling primarily on this meta level, was that it gave me a kind of access to what fans who aren’t buried quite so deep in my particular wrestling rabbit hole see, on a relatively immediate level, when they watch something like Risa Sera’s Last Deathmatch. When your engagement with that kind of content is more on the level of a would-be fellow-traveller, it can be easy to forget just how wild and gripping this stuff can be. It felt unsurprising to me that the guest they brought on that week’s episode, a friend of the panel who knew little of current-day wrestling, got more of a kick out of the match than some of the hosts did – I’ve seen first-hand the effect that something like Megumi Kudo and Combat Toyoda’s classic no rope exploding barbed wire match from 1996 can have on friends whose only contact with wrestling is me sitting down with them and showing them stuff.
So, with all this in my head going into this match, I decided to try and take a moment at various points to switch off that would-be fellow-traveller part of my brain, and approach the thing through the lens of somebody who hadn’t publicly fantasised before the 2019 relaunch about acquiring old GakePro DVDs by the only means through which they were then available – a gacha machine in a bar in Saitama. To be honest, doing this didn’t take much mental effort – taken in full this was a leaner and more visceral match than anything GakePro have done so far, featuring heinous ultraviolence (it probably wasn’t the worst thing that happened in the match by any means, but Brookes took a table bump here that looked truly hideous), a nice dynamic between all the performers (especially unlikely bedfellows Rina and Drew), some unique nonsense spots (Miyako being launched across the ring in a toboggan made from a plastic storage chest), and in the end, the heroine dying for our sins, bamboo skewers in her head, Splash Mountain’d onto a big pile of steel chairs. Maybe this match is what you get when Miyako squeezes her very unconventional understanding of pro wrestling into something approaching the structure of a “normal” match – but rest assured, this was still very abnormal.
9 Aug, Ice Ribbon, Yokohama Bunka Gymnasium
At a certain point fairly late into this match I realised that I’d never actually seen Risa Sera in a competitive deathmatch scenario – as I’ve alluded to in my Gake no Fuchi review above, the big emotional selling point of the two deathmatch gauntlets I’ve seen Risa put herself through always revolved around the question of whether she’d be able to last the hour; the accrued tally of wins and losses over the course of this hour was more or less irrelevant. Across all of the few, memorable occasions where Risa has been able to bring her deathmatch garb to a standard Ice Ribbon show, there’s never been anything on the line besides pride, and she’s never faced anyone with the deathmatch calibre of Rina Yamashita – the Shida match from Ribbonmania 2018 probably had the highest stakes of any of these previous encounters, but Shida’s style and background only allowed them to push things so far. Here, though, Sera and Yamashita went very, very, very far. The first lighttube spot cut Rina open badly and things took a visceral and demonic turn from there – I’ll remember the visual of Rina dripping blood all over the bulk cardboard box of lighttubes for a long time. But what really pulled this along, weirdly, was the fact that it was for a title – this wasn’t about who could pull out the nastiest spots, instead the nasty spots were landmarks along the way in a white-knuckle journey towards finding out who could hold out the longest in this kind of fight. There’s a different kind of intensity to over-the-top lighttube spots that aren’t simply performed for their own sake, and all in all this was a very different, more immediate kind of viewing experience compared to many of the deathmatch performances Risa has pulled out to date.
9 Aug, Ice Ribbon, Yokohama Bunka Gymnasium
I wrote when these two met in June about how the prospect of Suzu toppling Maya at the second attempt – and the fact that I’d be able to watch the match unspoiled almost immediately after it had happened – ended up being something I lost sleep over. This third attempt was the same only more so. This was one of the most uncomfortable experiences I’ve had as a wrestling fan, in the good sense of the term – squeaky bum time, as you’d say if this were football. In fact the closer this excellent Buntai show got to its denouement the less I could focus on anything else – the Sera/Yamashita match reviewed above was undeniable, but the tag title match that preceded this fell into a pit of distraction and forgetting dug out by my absolutely overwhelming need to see Suzu triumph.
Mei Suruga is the only other wrestler I can think of that I’ve watched rise from a completely new rookie to the edge of superstardom. Both Mei and Suzu grabbed me right from the get-go because of their obvious charisma and talent and the way they owned their initial rookie weirdness; for both of them, that shine has given way to something more studied and refined (and arguably more middle-of-the-road, at least in the case of Suzu), but at no point has the thread that first tied me to them and made me want to watch all of their matches loosened or frayed. I can think of other examples of wrestling matches I anticipated as much as this (Bayley v Sasha Banks, Miyu Yamashita v Rika Tatsumi), but I’d struggle to think of one where I was so desperate for one particular wrestler to beat the other, and so uncertain about what the outcome would be. In fact, the experience of watching this was closer to watching Preston play in the 2015 League One playoff final than it was to watching most wrestling matches.
But unlike Preston that day, the winner of this had to be Suzu, right? What other rookie would be allowed to win their first ever match over a senior, with a German Suplex Hold no less? What other rookie would be given the spot Suzu was given in Tequila Saya’s retirement match on the big closing Korakuen Hall show of her first year in the business, what other rookie would be offered a ten belt salute for their old gimmick when they decided it was time to freshen things up? What other rookie would then be treated to an entire weeks-long build for the reveal of a new reversal to the Japanese Ocean Cyclone Suplex, a move inherited by the highest wrestler on the Ice Ribbon totem pole, from arguably the highest wrestler on the all-time joshi puroresu totem pole? And then pin that mentor with it? This was Suzu’s third challenge of Maya’s title and the build to each one felt subtly different in its messaging. If Ice Ribbon weren’t so smart in their presentation, and Suzu weren’t so magnetic and good at what she does, this might feel like real Roman Reigns, push-forced-down-fans’-throats stuff. But she is.
And she is, more and more with every rung up the ladder she climbs. The June match felt like a well-rendered tactical battle and this match had to be even more thoughtful and precise if we were to buy Suzu finally ending the reign of a champion who hasn’t been defeated for this belt since December 2018, the day of Suzu’s debut. It was. Once again, Suzu surprised by having escapes and reversals for much of what Maya threw at her, including some that we hadn’t seen before; when backed into a corner she rallied with a kind of berserk intensity; one big turning point came when Suzu kicked out of the Tiger Driver, which she’d failed to do in June; another one came when Maya, momentarily underestimating Suzu’s strength and resolve, took the gamble of attempting a Snowton Bomb on a stirring opponent, and landed flat on her back with a sickening crack. The match had the kind of everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-style escalation you’d want from a big main event like this, but it also had clarity and economy and maybe one transitional element that looked a bit clunky, tops. Maya has been proving her ability to do everything that Ice Ribbon want from a main eventer for roughly two years now; this match fully justified their gambit in elevating Suzu to that spot before she’s so much as turned 18. This was my Match Of The Year up until the point in late September where Suzu herself surpassed it, though that’s maybe based as much on my feeling of vindication and satisfaction at having backed the right rookie as it is about anything that distinguishes this match itself. You be the judge.
12-14 Aug, Ice Ribbon, Ueno Park Mizudori
I wrote this time last year about the joy of those Ice Ribbon Ueno Park matches that go so far, almost beyond the point of no return, into modes of performance bearing little to no resemblance to wrestling (singing, water fights, food fights, running races and the like) and then at the eleventh hour loop back round to suddenly being a competitive match with time limits and pinfalls again. This year’s Ueno shows – or what we saw of them on the Nico Nico broadcast, which left out a lot of potential highlights (the costume change matches were only glimpsed in passing, the match where MADELINE won her spot as a regular member of the P’s Party roster is surely worth hunting down) – were another smash hit success on this count, and were bookended by maybe the fullest realisation of that whole mad match-making philosophy yet, this three-day long combined curtain-raiser/coda main event, Sera’s first successful defence of the FantastICE Championship under “combined wrestling & baseball rules”. Again, we weren’t privy to all of this on the broadcast, but what we did see included: a hilariously listless exchange of wrestling holds to open the match before the two had decided on a suitable stipulation, then a sequence of events in which the match became a game of baseball played between two entirely unrelated men (featuring Maya Yukihi and Hiragi Kurumi as a pair of wildly-gesticulating coaches), then an exit stage left, then periodic returns over the next few shows to play more baseball, then a concluding act in which Sera won with an incongruously brutal Sera-rhythm Buster off the stage and into the children’s paddling pool positioned in the moat beneath. At the Buntai, the protean nature of the FantastICE belt meant we got to see Sera competing in a hard-fought title decider contested under deathmatch rules; here, the belt gave shape and purpose to a gimmick that Sera and Akane have toyed around with at previous Ueno Park shows, allowing them to go further with it and turning it into effectively the headline act of the whole wild weekend. It will be a tough act for Sera to follow.
17 Aug, Choco Pro, Ichigaya Chocolate Square
Emi Sakura was supposed to face Kaori Yoneyama, one of her most important contemporaries and career rivals, in her 25th anniversary match, but COVID got in the way. So instead she faced one of her longest-serving soldiers, who herself celebrated her own 10th anniversary in this same venue just a few months prior. Whether intentional or not, the story this told didn’t follow the basic template you’d expect for such a ceremonial significant match. Obi took the fight to her mentor and racked up three extremely close near-falls, after which she just crumpled, seemingly accepting the impossibility of defeating the boss on such an occasion. Having anticipated more of a fight, Emi takes umbrage at this and repeatedly gives Obi the chance to get back to her feet and continue the fight, the look of disappointment growing on her face with each fresh collapse. It’s weird and raw and intense, and arguably more interesting than the match Emi might have had with Yoneyama; there’s a lot of stuff packed into these gestures about the ins and outs of a relationship between a teacher and a student who herself has gone on to become something of a veteran. The best bit about this match, though, is the way that Emi decided to end it – having got out of Obi all that she was likely to be able to get, and with the time limit fast approaching, she pulled out the cheekiest, sneakiest of roll-ups to bring the thing to a close; no blaze of glory here, just a final twist in the tail which seemed to capture all the idiosyncracy Emi Sakura has brought to pro wrestling in her 25 years .
28 Aug, Yokohama Bunka Gymnasium
A few days after watching this, I went to an exhibition of kimonos at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and learned about the tradition of “changing colours”, whereby Japanese brides would begin the ceremony in white, before changing into red once the wedding contract was completed. The white represented the blank slate which the bride presented to her new family as she prepared to leave her previous home life for theirs; the coloured gown signified in some way that she had been re-inscribed by that new family.
It’s not often I’ll be at an exhibition like this and think “I just saw that exact iconography play out in a wrestling match”, but life is full of surprises. Saori Anou started this OZ Academy Openweight title challenge, the main event of OZ’s final big Buntai show, in blinding white, and within a few minutes was covered in her own red blood, victim of a merciless chair-and-chain assisted 4-on-1 beatdown by the Seiki-gun stable of which she was, and still is, a junior member. That “still is” is crucial, because although Anou came into this match looking like a crusading angel, and spent the second half of it fighting off Ozaki and her stablemates with every last fibre of strength in her body, in the end this wasn’t a match about breaking up, it was a match about strengthening bonds, just in a very evil, violent sort of way. “Junior member of dominant heel faction fights to the bitter end to prove her worth to her unit” might not seem like a fitting theme for a big main event like this, at least not compared to something more conventional (Anou decisively turns babyface and slays the dragon), but A) this is OZ Academy, the evil promotion, and B) as I touched on in the review above, great wrestlers are capable of taking “minor” plot points and blowing them up into something major.
This was a great match, probably my second favourite of the year after Suzu v Tsukushi (see below), a completely unforgettable spectacle which visually drew on horror cinema as much as anything, and a main event which ranks alongside Shiozaki v Fujita from earlier this year in terms of its unyielding commitment to a potentially alienating structure (in this case, the fact that it took a beaten and bloodied Anou close to fifteen minutes to get her first bit of real offence in). This was also a star-making turn for Anou, and one people might mark down as a turning point in her career for years to come, despite the fact she spent most of the match getting trounced, and ended it pleading filial piety to the villains that had just spent the last half hour trying to choke her out with chains.
2 Sep, Choco Pro, Shinjuku FACE
The story behind this one was that Lulu wanted to main event the first Choco Pro show to take place in a ring, and so put her iconic pink cap on the line as a stipulation to really give the match some gravitas She got her wish and from bell to bell set about trying to prove herself worthy of the slot, in a way which definitely showed some degree of her having raised her game over the six months or thereabouts since she last set foot in a ring, but also felt distinctly Lulu throughout. More than anything, this match vindicated the underlying notion behind Daredemo Joshi Pro Wrestling, which is that you don’t have to change who you are in order to be able to put on a compelling show in the ring or on the mats; the match hit all the beats you’d really want from a big drawn out David v Goliath main event, including unexpected reversals and nail-biting false finishes, but it did so while staying true to Lulu’s essential appeal, which is her frailty and fish-out-of-water absurdity. It’s really more a provocative statement than a neutral observation to say that I might go as far as to consider this a “five star match”, but there it is.
20 Sep, Ice Ribbon, Korakuen Hall
I like matches that make me stop and think about moments in the life of a wrestler that I hadn’t really considered before. It’s always impressive when wrestlers and promoters manage to pull off some major plot point like a big title change in a way that leaves everyone satisfied; what’s arguably more impressive is taking a relatively minor stopping-off point on an arc and just cramming it with depth and intensity to the point it threatens to overshadow the actual climax.
The first title defence of a long-awaited championship reign is usually a minor stopping-off point. The work has been done; the pay-off has been dealt out; the next big turning point is sometime off in the future, once the new champion is settled in their role. First defences are often a bit of a procession – with very few exceptions, victory for the incumbent is a formality, and the spectacle mainly revolves around the novelty of seeing the new top star enter with the belt. There might be the odd flutter of tension that some off-the-wall booking decision could take place, but generally first defences are a thing of low tension for the champion, a way of getting the wheels rolling on their spell at the top.
Of course, there is a more weighty story you can tell with this sort of match – the champion, especially if this is their first title reign, needs to prove that their victory was no fluke. They need to show that the momentum that carried them to the title won’t dry up now that they’ve reached the goal they may have had in sight for months or even years. And then there’s the choice of challenger – the job of jobbing to a newly crowned champion is often given to a reliable hand, someone credible enough to pose a threat who doesn’t necessarily stand to lose all that much once the inevitable happens. But these criteria still leave a lot unspecified – the challenger doesn’t have to just be a projecting surface for the champion, as long as they’re able to mobilise their personality and personal history in ways which chime with the function of the match (ie, to make the new champion look like a *real* champion).
Suzu Suzuki’s first ICE x Infinity Championship defence all but overshadowed the massively hyped match in which she took the belt, and I have absolutely zero hesitation in calling it my Match Of The Year at time of writing. At least 50% of this is down to what Tsukushi brought to the contest. She’s been in Suzu’s shoes before – a rising star who became a champion while still in her teens. She’s never regained the top prize since she first held it over 7 years ago, and is still recovering from losing the tag titles to her former partner on the night of Suzu’s greatest triumph. She’s been instrumental in training Suzu up to the point she is now, and is clearly determined not to be left in the dust by the new generation she’s helped to mould. She’s a wily veteran, fighting from below to restore her proper place in the pecking order, at the age of 23.
There’s two aspects to Tsukushi’s performance here that really stand out, one more subtle than the other. The first is some intangible thing she does with her face and body throughout the first half which communicates the sentiment “oh shit, I was hoping it *was* a fluke, I was really hoping it wouldn’t be as hard as this”. The second is the absolutely tangible ferocity of her strikes – elbows, forearm smashes and one brutal closed-fist punch – which seem to break new levels of volume and aggression ever for someone notorious among fans for precisely that. It’s a pretty simple straight line from Suzu withstanding these attacks to the finish, where she gets to hold her head high and proclaim herself as a truly battle-tested champion.
Suzu isn’t just passive in this match though; this isn’t one of those “…and then the champion retained”-type matches you sometimes get with early defences. Her 50% consists of such things as – bouncing up out of a Tornado Killswitch on wobbly pins and straight into a Spear which sends Tsukushi flying, as dynamic an example of selling-no-selling as I’ve seen in a while; nailing her own distinct rhythm in the strike exchanges down the finishing stretch which, although Tsukushi unmistakably hits harder, still puts Suzu across as a formidable and effective opponent; and adding a third German Suplex to the sequence of two she used to finish off Yukihi at the Buntai, a small and simple shift which has a big impact, since it very neatly communicates that not only has Suzu retained her title, she’s done so in the face of an even stiffer challenge than the one she faced to win it in the first place.
Considering the other highlights of this Korakuen Hall show, and all the other irons Ice Ribbon have lined up in the fire right now, nobody would have complained if *this* match had waited until much later in Suzu’s reign. In dropping it now, they’ve breathed life into a match format that can feel very tokenistic at times, and set what could be a defining title reign for their decade to come off on the very best possible foot. A complete and total success, the sort of match that makes me forget all the crap that comes with following wrestling sometimes, that makes the sky shine brighter and bluer the next day.