An Incomplete Maintainer’s Guide to the Best of Pro Wrestling 2021 Q1

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Yumi Ohka, Kaori Yoneyama & Rin Kadokura vs. Miyuki Takase, Mio Momono & Ayumi Hayashi

01.01 / WAVE / Shinkiba 1st Ring

Bigger, heavier things were to come later in the month but at time of first viewing I found it difficult to imagine there could be any match this year that I’d enjoy more, and other match I’d watch with a big broad grin on my face from start to finish. This was a match with big house show energy, in the best possible sense of that term – here were two fairly thrown-together teams, with nothing really at stake, and freedom to express themselves more or less as they saw fit. When you have those conditions, and six wrestlers who just get it and moreover have great chemistry off the back of having worked in close proximity so much, you end up with something that arguably cuts to the core of what makes pro wrestling an appealing medium of entertainment more than the vast majority of big main event title matches ever will.

Maki Itoh vs. Miyu Yamashita

04.01 / Tokyo Joshi Pro / Korakuen Hall

Back when we did our episode of the Miracle Apricot Podcast on her, Maki Itoh had just beaten Natsumi Maki in a singles match, and we speculated about how the next step in her career was to finally become what she herself once referred to as a “boring wrestler” – a competent one, capable of using winning matches using a variety of techniques, in other words. In the couple of years that have followed, Itoh has unmistakably developed to the point where she’s now one of the most reliably “good” of TJPW’s workers, but what’s surprising and wonderful about this development is that she’s never lost sight of the things that make her Maki Itoh – even though a lot of what made her Maki Itoh in the early days was that she was a bad wrestler. Itoh has pulled off something truly impressive, the ability to be two things at once – a powerful wrestler with the timing and the moves to pull off a match that’s compelling by any standards; and also a tragic, clownish figure, life’s sad joke, a perpetual martyr who’s made an art of failing spectacularly.

There was a moment in this match where the camera closed in on both wrestlers’ faces in turn, during a spell where Itoh was on top – Itoh grinning manically and Miyu licking her lips, rattled – which was suggestive of an extremely rare turn of events: here was somone actually dominating Miyu Yamashita. Miyu’s fight-back in the final act of the match had the authentic feel of someone working from underneath, until she was able to produce another image that was the mirror image of the earlier one, and an image much more in keeping with the Itoh we’ve come to know and love – Miyu gazing stoically across the ring at Itoh as she struggled, and eventually failed, to make a standing ten count following a brutal roundhouse kick to the head.

The structure of this match called back not just to their own rivalry – even before Chris Brookes pointed it out on commentary, I was already thinking about how marked a development this was to their 2019 Ittenyon title match – but to basically every big Itoh match and every big Miyu match in the history of Tokyo Joshi Pro. The way Itoh held off a lot of her more characteristic offence until later in the game, knowing that Miyu can absorb your best efforts and that you thus have to surprise her, really put me in mind of Rika Tatsumi’s strategy going into her title match with Miyu in 2018, and was about as successful (memories of that match would also be refracted in the main event of this show). Itoh’s collapse at the end struck a poetic chord with another match at this venue where Itoh collapsing was foregrounded in the finish – the tag title match she had alongside Reika Saiki against Magical Sugar Rabbits, also in 2018. I could go on, digging out little moments from this match and from the respective careers of the two wrestlers up to this point, building up an inventory of small gestures which prove that this is a match which pretty much told the whole story of the past four years of Tokyo Joshi Pro in miniature, and maybe one day I will. But for now, just watch it for yourself – it’s all there, and it’s all in your face, whether you know what you’re looking for or not.

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Yuka Sakazaki vs. Rika Tatsumi

04.01 / Tokyo Joshi Pro / Korakuen Hall

Rika Tatsumi went into her last singles title challenge fuelled by emotion, cutting her hair in the ring to show Miyu Yamashita what she was willing to sacrifice in order to reach the top of the mountain. Here she felt like an older and wiser wrestler, transformed by a record-setting run with the tag titles alongside a junior she’d helped to mentor. She came through the build to this match carrying herself like a brute, and that continued here – Rika entered Korakuen Hall with a game plan and just carried it out without a second thought, even when that meant simply spamming the same moves (Figure Four Leg Lock, Dragon Screw Leg Whip) over and over again.

This was that rare thing – a title change match where the defending champion looks immense for everything they manage to overcome, but where the challenger looks even more deserving of the win in the final reckoning – hungrier, smarter, quicker on the draw. It’s as if Rika had it in her all along, but just needed to find her way to channel all her energy into simply winning – there’s an amazing moment at the end where she extends her hand to Yuka, almost asking for forgiveness, for how ruthlessly she just went about the preceding match (and we really feel how ruthless it was, because the Mizuki match at Wrestle Princess had a very similar set-up to this one, and Mizuki didn’t manage to come away with the win). The way the fight drains out of Yuka in the end is a beautiful feat of physical storytelling and makes for a fresh, dramatic conclusion – the referee knows she has nothing left to give, even if she’s still fully conscious in the moment, and makes the call out of mercy, a call which Yuka accepts graciously.

Maybe more than anything, on a technical level, this match is just an absolute triumph of pacing, with regards to how Rika and Yuka transition from one move to another. Imagine a scale where on the one end you have the “one big move and then lying down for 10 minutes” of a Rock/John Cena match, and on the other you have the “long sequences of rapid transitions with absolutely no impact in between” of a Jay White match. The worst matches in the world combine both extremes, whereas the best matches in the world – of which this is one – find a sweet spot right in the middle, ensuring every move feels impactful and has enough time to sink in, but maintaining a high pace which gives the whole package a feeling of ferocious competition. Even given that the TJPW main event crew seem to be raising expectations year after year, the level of polish on show here – good polish, not just slickness but thoughtfulness and care and quality of execution – was pretty stunning.

Mika Iwata, Manami, Kaneko Natsuho, Kanon, Yurika Ohka, DASH Chisako & Chihiro Hashimoto vs. Mio Momono, Maria, Rin Kadokura, Mikoto Shindo, Masha Slamovich, Mei Hoshizuki & Hibiki

10.01 / Sendai Girls / Shinjuku FACE

It’s anyone’s guess how long something like this has been in the pipeline, but it’s a very early blessing for 2021 that these two companies are now – after all the injuries, the postponement of last year’s GAEAism show, etc – in a position to deliver something like this feud, which was never going to not be a masterpiece.

In wrestling match terms this 7-on-7 gauntlet match was practically an epic novel, containing a whole bunch of compelling smaller battles. Some things that stood out – Mio Momono starting 2021 stronger than just about anyone, in a way that reminds you of how much time she’s lost at such a crucial turning point of her career; for the half hour or so she was in the ring here, during which time she single-handedly ran through four members of the Sendai Girls team, it really felt as though she was staking her claim to be considered in the 2021 WOTY conversation from the get-go. The clash between Rin and DASH, arguably the standalone highlight of the whole piece, with DASH attempting to big-time her less experienced, seemingly meeker opponent, but instead finding a perfect foil in Rin’s understated, patient, technically solid in-ring work. The chaotic energy that Mei brings to the final, decisive match-up, looking at any given moment just as likely to lose in an instant as she is to gain a foothold. The way Mio addresses Hashimoto in the aftermath, looking like a true leader who has every right to believe her troops are the best in the world right now – much like the main event of the first Assemble show, this was match which made the Marvelous roster out to be something very special, and potentially defining of a new, gilded epoch.

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Mio Momono, Rin Kadokura & Mei Hoshizuki vs. DASH Chisako, Chihiro Hashimoto & Mika Iwata

12.01 / Marvelous / Shinkiba 1st Ring

The first cross-promotional effort from Marvelous and Sendai got 2021 off to a very strong start but here things hit another level entirely. Everyone came into this second show carrying with them all the tensions and frustrations and momentum they picked up in the first. Hibiki was absolutely on one after finding that her services were required in neither the previous main event not this one. Ohka came in with a newfound confidence after halting Mio’s reign of terror two days prior, and picked up another win for her team on the undercard here. Iwata had everything to prove after falling at the first hurdle to another wrestler, roughly her age, who’d only recently returned from injury. Rin and DASH had unfinished business after their tie in the gauntlet match went to a time limit draw. Chihiro needed to make amends for slipping on the banana skin that was a Mei Hoshizuki flash pin. Mio was on top of the world.

The inter-promotional rivalry is the main animating principle of both these shows, but that rivalry is shown time and again to be made up of myirad smaller individual stories and battles. We saw that play out in this match – the intensity stayed at a high level throughout, but each fresh combination of bodies brought with it a subtle modulation of stakes; out of every match-up here, Iwata and Hoshizuki’s might have been the most delightful, given how they’ve been kept apart by injury for most of their respective careers. Never a dull moment, in other words, but this wasn’t just an anthology of high spots either. There was a consistent thread of psychology running from bell to bell, and the way the momentum swung in Sendai’s favour late on when Hashimoto got more involved would have felt like a satisfying way to bring the match to a resolution. The final twist in the tail – Mio subjecting Hashimoto to her second flash pin defeat in three days, having just endured the worst of what Hashimoto had to throw at her – put it over the edge into sublime territory. My match of the year at time of writing.

Oni ni Kanabo (Yoshiko & Sareee) vs. Arisa Nakajima & Nanae Takahashi

22.01 / SEAdLINNNG / Shinkiba 1st Ring

Sareee’s WWE Countdown work has left me cold at points, often coming across like an attempt to showcase her excellent in-ring work without a lot of the emotional ballast that made her 2019 run so remarkable. There wasn’t the same sense of dizyying upwards trajectory to any of her title matches in SEAdLINNNG in 2020 as there was with her work in Sendai Girls the previous year, because we knew ultimately where her trajectory would eventually land her – a hard reset on the Largo Loop. But this match was poignant in its presentation of what could have been: not just the team of Oni ni Kanabo, which in different circumstances could have had all the longevity and appeal of truly great recent joshi tag teams like Best Friends and Avid Rival, but also the idea of Sareee as one of the core members on the SEAdLINNNG roster, which is something we were given in 2017 only to have it quickly taken away again for reasons we still can’t be totally sure about. This match was typical SEAdLINNNG main event fare in many ways – a 25-minute match full of energy and very good displays of pro wrestling technique – but what made it special and different is the way it gave us one last chance to gaze on and celebrate a vision of joshi in the 2020s that never quite came to pass.

Rebel x Enemy (Maya Yukihi & Maika Ozaki) vs. Joint Army (Tae Honma & Rina Shingaki)

23.01 / Ice Ribbon / Korakuen Hall

I think the highest compliment I can pay to this is to say that it had big Brazil v Belgium in 2018 energy. Once it really got going, this match felt like two crack units, both with every reason to back themselves to the hilt but still with points to prove about their consistency and ability to function as a team, throwing all their best home-spun attacking philosophy at the opposition, but spending equal reserves of energy on staying alert in defence and ready for the counter. Both members of Joint Army felt like they were raising their game for the occasion of a Korakuen semi-main, but especially Shingaki, whose role in Ice Ribbon is only really a prominent one over in P’s Party. But ultimately I was maybe most impressed by Yukihi here. This was a good sort of match for her, one where she got to showcase her versatility: she really helped to bring the matwork sections to life, both in terms of the way she held her own and in the way she sold the effects of the Joint Army members’ holds, before demonstrating in no uncertain terms why *her* trademark offence (mixed up here with some slick new tag team offence) kept her on top for so long. Probably the best match for this belt that I’ve seen in a couple of years.

Satsuki Totoro vs. Honori Hana

27.01 / P’s Party / Warabi Wrestle Butokan

I could just as easily write about the other P’s League match on this show, the A Block clash between Itsuki Aoki and Nao Ishikawa, but one thing that the ongoing Marvelous-Sendai Girls rivalry has taught me (see below for much more on this) is that I slightly prefer matches which build on stakes, over matches which establish those stakes in the first place. The stakes in both these matches were simple: the format of this round-robin tournament, contested between P’s Party regulars of varying afiliations and designed to crown a no.1 contender for Tsukushi’s IW19 title, dictates that matches have a 10-minute time limit. As the first match hammered home, that’s very short – Aoki was in the ascendancy when the time limit draw was called, but she wasn’t exactly close to putting her opponent away; there was a growing sense of urgency as the match progressed, but one always already tinged with a feeling that the stronger of the two wrestlers really hadn’t done enough early on to make her dominance count.

Aoki and Ishikawa set up this tension, and the way Totoro and Hana played up to it in the main event suggested that it’s going to be one of the main narrative threads running througout this tournament. Unlike the previous match, both Totoro and Hana fought ugly to try and win the thing early here – Totoro locking Hana outside the arena in an attempt to win via count-out, Hana spamming eight shoulder tackles in a row in a bid to wind Totoro enough to be able to hold her down for three seconds. The longer it went the more desperate it became, Hana eventually fluking a jacknknife cover reversal and winning with two and a half minutes left on the clock. This was one of those matches which proves that compelling in-ring storytelling really isn’t rocket science: if you can find a hook to explain in lucid detail what both wrestlers are setting out to achieve, and how they’re setting out to achieve it, the rest comes easy.

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Madeline vs Banny Oikawa

03.02 / P’s Party / Warabi Wrestle Butokan

Tournaments are good for any number of things, but one thing I particularly enjoy about them is the way they necessitate gameplans. Mio Momono trying to win every match by countout in the 2018 Catch the WAVE; Natsuko Tora trying to shithouse her way to victory in the 2019 5 Star GP – both approaches made for a very memorable series of matches. As discussed in last month’s newsletter, the tight ten-minute time limit of these P’s League matches makes it especially important to have your wits about you, and to have a clear vision of how you’re going to win, as Itsuki Aoki did elsewhere on this show, putting all her body weight into every cover in a bid to escape another draw.

This is good for everyone, but maybe especially for a wrestler like Madeline, who came to wrestling via a relatively unconventional route and brings with her a pretty unusual skillset, but who, as a rookie, is still clearly trying to develop a well-rounded style that encompasses other influences besides MMA. Here though, circumstances demanded that she play to her main strengths, and she got to lean fully into that MMA influence, with Banny keeping up very creditably. The whole match was worked around a series of keenly-fought ground submissions, with Madeline largely controlling things on the mat and Banny occasionally turning the momentum in her favour with a well-timed kick. This crystal-clear match structure really allowed Madeline’s personality to shine through, never more so than when she managed to incorporate Tsukushi’s signature “merrily trampling on your back” spot into an otherwise pretty legit looking grappling sequence. Like Aoki, Madeline came out of this first block match with only a draw, so I fully expect this sharpness and urgency and imagination to increase over the coming weeks.

Citrus no Kaze (Arisa Nakajima & Nanae Takahashi) vs. Momo Watanabe & Saya Iida

10.02 / SEAdLINNNG / Shinkiba 1st Ring

The two SEAdLINNNG vs Stardom matches coming up at the Budokan next month carry so much historic weight, and Nanae vs Momo in particular is a match I’ve fantasised about for years, but I’d be very impressed if either of those big matches manage to upstage this more low-key preparatory one, because everything this match had to say – which was evidently quite a lot – it said with a clarity and vividness that might be more difficult to achieve on a stacked card like All-Star Dream Cinderella. There was a real King’s Road flavour here, with each wrestler occupying a clearly defined position on the power matrix – Nakajima is experienced and in great form, Momo is her junior but still not lacking in years or skill, Nanae is the boss but only just back from injury, Iida is the rookie-ish underdog, ultimately the weakest link, but with a lot of heart and points to prove.

These clearly-mapped out power dynamics dictated the flow of the match from bell to bell, and the whole thing never allowed to dissipate into homogeneity, or wrestling to fill time – when Iida was in the ring it was visibly a much more uphill battle for the Stardom team than when Momo was in; Stardom were able to create more openings when Nanae was in the ring compared to when Nakajima was cheerily brutalising them (the blithe entrance dance helped, but Nakajima was scarier than usual here in her smiling contempt for her opponents – the difference between her dgaf attitude and Nanae’s more respectful, matriarchal one was subtle but palpable). I’ve probably said this a hundred times in a hundred different ways, but wrestling for me is always at its most compelling when it’s able to convince you that the things happening before your eyes represent strategic efforts towards a clearly defined goal, beyond simply entertaining a crowd, and when it’s able to show you how and why some of these efforts work and some don’t. This match never failed on that score, and it should really considered essential viewing with or without the shadow cast by the Budokan, which I can only hope isn’t the last time these two rosters clash.

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Rika Tatsumi vs. Miu Watanabe

11.02 / Tokyo Joshi Pro / Korakuen Hall

The 2018 Tokyo Joshi Pro Ittenyon show marks something of a threshold for the company. It was the beginning of Miyu Yamashita’s record-breaking second reign with the top title, a period of nearly 16 months which coincided with a massive rise in interest in the promotion. It was the first Korakuen Hall show of the first full year of TJPW on DDT universe, the year they moved from two annual Korakuen shows to three. It was also the show which saw the debut of the Up Up Girls. Nineteen roster members have debuted since the curtain raised on that show, and out of the more than twenty Princess of Princess title matches that have taken place since that date, only two of them have featured wrestlers from this intake, both of them having held the Princess Tag Team titles previously – first Yuki Aino last summer, and now Miu Watanabe, the first Up Up Girl to receive a shot at the top prize.

All of this is to say that the Princess of Princess title has been booked extremely successfully as an elite-level championship during this period of growth for the promotion, and Miu becoming the first one of her cohort to be given the chance to lay siege to the fortress feels like a big step forward for TJPW’s constantly evolving identity. Arguably even more than Aino did, Miu owned this spot, raising her game enough to make this feel like an outstanding bout, but not so much as to give it the feel of an unprecedented levelling-up – this is just where she is as a competitor now, post record-breaking tag title run.

In fact, the story of accomplishment vs naivety that Miu told throughout this match was a very smart one, with the outcome of the match turning on that big top rope Canadian Backbreaker she hit down the stretch. It was an undoubtedly impressive move, and one she fought with all her power to execute, but it ended up being her undoing, due to the work Rika had done earlier on her legs – Miu’s face after she’s just pulled off the move is a real picture of mixed emotions; she looks delighted with herself and determined to finish the match one split-second, profoundly concerned for the state of her knees the next. A minute or so later, Rika has finished her off with a Twist of Fate and a diving hip attack – strategy and consistency trumps high spots, just as it did in the match last month where Rika won the belt. It feels like 2021 will mark another turning point for TJPW with the move to monthly Korakuens, and Rika, with the enlightened understanding of in-ring storytelling she keeps bringing to the table, feels like as good a champion and main eventer as any to lead this fresh charge.

Mio Momono & Mei Hoshizuki vs. Chihiro Hashimoto

12.02 / Marvelous / Korakuen Hall

Like the two Marvelous vs Sendai matches that preceded it, this was another one where all the drama came from the stipulation. This was the third different set-up in as many matches, a handicap match with Hashimoto coming up against the two opponents that had previously pinned her in a 7-on-7 gauntlet elimination tag and a trios match respectively; but the same urgency, the same sense of crystalline clarity around goal and stakes and challenge held true here as in those previous encounters.

I’ve heard people say that this went beyond anything the handicap stipulation is usually capable of, and I think there’s some truth to that, but it feels just as true to say that everything that worked well here was lifted directly from the most basic handicap match playbook. It’s just that while in, say, WWE, handicap matches usually serve as a kind of one-liner, a functional means to deliver some particular desired storyline outcome – Zack Gowan pinning Big Show, to pull an example from thin air – here Mio and Mei and Chihiro were committed to exploring everything that this match type can do in terms of creating in-ring drama.

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Sometimes the Marvelous goblins swarmed the Sendai Girls Champion; sometimes they switched in and out like an old-school tag team; sometimes Hashimoto simply powered up and beasted them, as in the finish. Mio played both the underdog facing towering odds and the bully heel at different points in the match, depending on which way the wind was blowing. Everything you can wring out of the notion of having two smaller wrestlers face off in a grudge match against one much larger wrestler was wrung out, and with this sense of dynamic equilibrium – the match swinging now this way now that, now working as a story about the power of strength in numbers, now as a story about the power of…well, power – kept the thing feeling as unpredictable and real sports-y as the two previous matches in this series had done.

The palpable sense of emotion here helped put this over too – you could really seen what this meant to Hashimoto as she came back from the brink to power her way to victory, and you could see what the loss meant to self-selected Marvelous boss Mio, who barely moved a muscle throughout the whole post-match aftermatch. Even without the added wrinke of Hibiki’s rebellion, which promises to add extra layers as we approach the big GAEAISM showdown, this storyline does not miss.

Maki Itoh, Chris Brookes & Super Delfin vs. MAO, Mirai Maiumi & Keigo Nakamura

14.02 / DDT / Kultz Kawasaki

I know very little about the history of Michinoku Pro, but I do know that it casts a long shadow across all wrestling in Japan that’s on the more whimsical side of the spectrum, and I know that Chris Brookes is a big nerd for it. I also know from a ShuPro column that was re-circulated in the build-up to this match that during last year’s lockdown, Itoh, finding herself with ‘way too much time on her hands’, had fallen down a rabbit hole of old Michinoku Pro footage, sent tumbling by a bunch of GIFs Brookes had posted on Twitter, and had fallen in love with Gran Naniwa, the late crab-based comedy wrestler whom Itoh cites as the first wrestler, active or retired, that made her look outside her professional understanding of pro wrestling and “embrace the heart of a fan”. Here, she and Brookes got to team with Naniwa’s old associate Super Delphin, in an occasion which – to judge from the enthusiasm with which Itoh threw herself into paying homage to a bunch of old Gran Naniwa mannerisms – clearly meant as much to her as it did to the much longer-term Michinoku Pro head Brookes.

It was all very, very sweet. The match as a whole took on the shape of a long-form homage, and even without prior knowledge of most of the spots that were being referenced, the sense of earnest and eager respect and love of the original material really shone through, and gave coherence to a match-up that might otherwise have felt very arbitrarily thrown together. Mirai Maiumi impressed with her opportunity on the big stage and looks set for a huge year or two, MAO and Nakamura did some cool stuff, but really – for me at least – this match resonated for the reasons sketched out in the previous paragraph: the story of Maki Itoh’s development as a wrestler continues to grow richer and more textured with each year she spends in the business, and this was really a first chance to see her as something we’ve never imagined her as before – Maki Itoh, pro wrestling nerd.

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Aja Kong vs. Rin Kadokura

15.02 / AEW / Warabi Wrestle Butokan

The first Japan-based round of this AEW Women’s Championship number one contender tournament made for an essential 4-match show, with match-ups that felt fresh and purposeful – the bookers didn’t just pair up the workers who already knew each other best, and each pairing created a subtly different style of match, which in turn created a really nice sense of balace up and down the card. This is by no means a guarantee when joshi wrestling crosses over into the US context – the memory of Eva Maria going 50/50 with Asuka at an NXT Wrestlemania weekend show still haunts me – but this treatment seemed more sensitive to local context than most, possibly because Hikaru Shida had a big hand in the process, possibly because this was first and foremost an exercise in getting joshi fans to watch AEW, who knows.

It’s really impossible to pick one favourite from the four matches, and each one made my eyes light up in some way or another. Yuka Sakazaki vs Mei Suruga was a match which got very close to capturing the essence of the kind of wrestling that I most like to watch, and I really hope that essence was conveyed to the wider fanbase, like when Akira Hokuto got crazy over working for WCW in Nashville. Emi Sakura vs Veny (ASUKA) was probably objectively the best match of the bunch, just an all-out contest which left nothing unsaid, in which Veny got to look like an odds-on international star, drawing Manami Toyota comparisons from Sakura, and Emi got to look like a beast for defeating her. Maki Itoh vs Ryo Mizunami was yet more proof of Itoh’s progress into a wrestler that can now hold her own in basically any scenario. But it was probably the last match of the four that interested me the most, and for possibly counter-intuitive reasons: this felt like the match-up with the least at stake, because Aja was basically the one guarantee in the line-up to make it to the last four, because Rin seemed like the most surprising or the most arbitrarily-selected entrant on the Japanese side of the bracket, and because Rin feels – for all her palpable skill and charm – like the least likely of the eight to eventually get signed to an AEW contract.

So why was this match the one I’ve chosen to talk about? It’s because, in spite of all these odds stacked against her making a sigificant impact in the tournament, Rin took the opportunity of working in front of an international audience to give an absolutely mammoth performance of underdog spirit, kicking out of some of Aja’s biggest moves and pushing her veteran opponent into something resembling top gear in the process. It’s not every day you get to have a singles match with Aja Kong, let alone take part in an exciting experiment like this, and Rin played her role – which was to lose in a way that shows deep reserves of heart and fight precisely in order to establish what a force Aja is to overcome – to perfection. Even if Rin ends up forgotten with all the clamour for Itoh and Veny to get signed to AEW contracts, won’t forget the performance she put in here.

Suzu Suzuki vs. Yuko Miyamoto

20.02 / Ice Ribbon / Korakuen Hall

Given that this is the thing that is most likely going to define Suzu’s 2021, the opening encounter to this seven-match series of hardcore matches left surprisingly little on the table. This is exciting because it hints at the kind of the growth that we might get to see in Suzu over the course of this program, not just in terms of her toughness but also in terms of her creativity. I feel like matches with back-stories like this (the opening video package used a picture of starry-eyed young deathmatch fan Suzu meeting with Miyamoto at a Big Japan show) usually exist as a one-and-done thing for some big show (see: Hyper Misao vs Jun Kasai), but there’s an embarassment of riches ahead of us here, to the point that I feel like by match seven we could end up seeing something totally new – some novel wrinkle of character or psychology that adds to the tapestry of intergender and hardcore wrestling, rather than just reflecting it.

The psychology here wasn’t perfect, but it was very good for a type of match-up which is inherently difficult to book. The story shifted quite subtly from Miyamoto simply trying to get the job done early (he mentioned at the press conference that he was appearing here for a paycheque, nothing more), to Suzu causing him problems and eventually levelling the playing field with several big kicks to the dick. The glee on Suzu’s face as she realised what “no rules” really means in practice, that it can actually work as a leveller and not just as a guarantee of ultraviolent punishment, was probably the highlight of the match.

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To conclude by way of a side-bar: inevitably, my experience of watching this was interrupted by nit-picky intrusive thoughts over issues of flow, psychology, and so on. I find that this mindset is most at play when I’m either very invested or not invested at all in the wrestlers at hand (I’m either nit-picking because I’m not seeing what other people see in a given performer, or because I’m desperate for other people to see what see in a given performer). Pretty soon thought I was struck by how unneccessary this all was, because this was just rad, wasn’t it? I know that plenty of fans will have issues with intergender wrestling and deathmatches and teenagers wrestling, and a match that presents the intersection of all three isn’t neccessarily bound for mass popular appeal. But set aside those prejudices for what they are and I dare you, as a fan of spectacular choreographed violence, to have anything other than a blast watching this.

Anou-tan Suzu-tan (Saori Anou & Suzu Suzuki) vs. Tōzai Gacha Master (Yuuki Mashiro & Rina Yamashita)

23.02 / Ice Ribbon / Yokohama Radiant Hall

There was a point in my fandom a few years ago where I found myself constantly drawn to polemic, trying to justify preferring Mio Momono matches to Kazuchika Okada matches, almost in disbelief at my own perversity. I like to think that since then I’ve found a community of like-minded individuals that I don’t have to explain myself to, or that tastes have changed and the discourse moved on, but either way I rarely feel the need to harp on about this stuff anymore, because most of the people I talk to on a regular basis take it as a given that Mio Momono matches are more enjoyable than Kazuchika Okada matches.

Then a match like this comes along, and I want to shout from the rooftops again. This is great wrestling! In spite of the fact that it’s a comedic undercard match from a B-show that didn’t even make the cut of Ice Ribbon’s own highlights video for that event, this is some of the finest wrestling I’ve seen all year!

I think if I had to nail its brilliance down to one key word, that word would be “generosity”. There is so much going on here, to the extent that it could feel like several matches awkwardly soldered together, but instead it ends up feeling like a bunch of wrestlers who profoundly get it, throwing in everything they know that makes wrestling an entertaining medium to watch. There were two moments when I laughed out loud at Yuuki Mashiro’s antics. There was also a hard as nails forearm exchange between Rina and Suzu, a series of heroic interventions from Rina to pull her partner out of sticky situations (Rina’s seemingly unquestioning acceptance of Yuuki’s distorted image of her is a prime example of why she’s such an endearing wrestler), the usual flexibility madness from Anou, and a general commitment on the part of all concerned to keep things ticking along at a fluid and frenetic High Speed pace. Great wrestling knows that a match can be all these things and more, and make no mistake about it folks, this is great wrestling!

Tsukushi Haruka vs. Thekla

23.02 / Ice Ribbon / Yokohama Radiant Hall

At another point in my fandom, the critical criteria “match that makes me feel like I’m ten years old watching WWF again” got usurped by, or at least made room at the front for, another criteria, “match that makes me feel like I’m checking out joshi for the first time”. There was a time after I’d first started watching joshi wrestling before I knew who everyone was or what the hierarchies were; it was a blessed time because it meant I could watch matches – however I was getting hold of them or being steered to them – and simply let the in-ring storytelling do its work; if a match really grabbed me it wasn’t off the back of some prior investment but because the performers in the ring were simply doing a great job of communicating their characters and the stakes of the encounter to anyone that cared to watch. Anything that can put me back in contact with that mindset is a winner in my book.

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https://twitter.com/loos893/status/1364236071056248836

I have no real way of telling, but I strongly suspect that this is a match that would work well for the kind of newbie that I was back then. Firstly, there’s the strongly delineated visual identities at play – Tsukushi all sparkly and pink, Thekla all in black with the gothic face paint; a clear babyface/heel divide which fits with the fact that Tsukushi is the home talent and Thekla the rampaging foreigner. Then there’s the action, which feels designed to be eye-catching from the off – the two work in some complex lucha-influenced exchanges early on, which feel choreographed without feeling unnatural, impressive in their intricacy in the way that a particularly good exchange in NXT or Lucha Underground (to spotlight the two promotions I was watching when I first got into joshi) might be.

There’s also the way the match builds – if I’m a new fan, there’s just enough near falls from the challenger here to make this feel like something worth paying attention to, but not so many as to test the patience of somebody who’s watching without prior investment. Finally there’s the post-match fallout, where Thekla thanks Tsukushi as a fan and gets rewarded for her efforts when Tsukushi deigns to wear one of Thekla’s home-made Tsukushi t-shirts – a simple and funny character twist told in a way that doesn’t require an extensive knowledge of either Japanese or prior storylines to raise a smile. This could so easily be somebody’s Io Shirai vs Meiko Satomura, in other words, although I worry about the impact of Ice Ribbon’s no-GIF policy on that front.

Best Bros (Mei Suruga & Baliyan Akki) vs. Egg Tarts (Chie Koishikawa & Hagane Shinno)

27.02 / Choco Pro / Ichigaya Chocolate Square

This was my favourite Choco Pro match of the year so far, and there’s probably a very good reason for that – having struggled playing catch-up since the end of season 2, it suddenly struck me this month that the key to seeing Choco Pro as a fun thing to participate in as opposed to a constantly-refreshing monster backlog is to watch the chats. The chats let you know where you are, what’s coming up, and, most importantly, why any of it actually matters. The day before this match, Akki and Mei mapped an emotional backdrop for this match every bit as complex as the one Mitsuru painted ahead of her match with Mei back last summer when I was hanging on this company’s every word – most interestingly, Mei spoke in very senior tones about Chie’s insistence on seeing her opponents for this match as a “wall”, when in fact there is no “wall” in Choco Pro, just the eleven (now ten) co-conspirators Mitsuru spoke of at her retirement, working alongside each other to get the best for each other and the company.

Elsewhere, Akki spoke about the way Chie’s irrepressible energy levels pose problems for her opponents in precisely the same way that Mei did when she was still in her unpolished rookie phase. There was a really strong sense that this marked one of Mei’s first matches as an established senior wrestler – we know that her work as a trainer at Darejo goes back a while, but now she has the prestige and the title belt to back that up in-ring. The fact that Chie nearly pinned her here – it took a dramatic diving dropkick from Akki to break up the pin at the last split second – was a shock, but it also reinforced Mei’s words from the previous day: however far advanced in her career Mei is now, Chie has it in her to take her senior to the limit if she can only find the inner resolve. “No wall in my life”. Of course, she was helped here by Shinno, who, with his significant experience advantage, looked totally dominant at points here, holding down Best Bros single-handedly to the point that his flightier, more juvenile partner actually looked like standing a chance. And add on an extra star for the unique psychological twist of Shinno locking Chie dumping Chie out of the window and locking her out of the arena at strategic intervals, so as to ensure that she didn’t waste all her energy reserves on the sheer excitement of being in a title match for the first time in her career.

Giulia vs. Tam Nakano

03.03 / STARDOM / Nippon Budokan

Never before have I enjoyed a match so much, and yet felt so cheated at the same time. Cheated, because I’d convinced myself somewhere in the year or so of wrestling that set this main event in motion that I wasn’t going to enjoy it at all.

I think there’s an aspect of my recent attitude towards Stardom that comes from them having been my gateway into joshi; they were my first love, and then for one reason or another I fell out of love with them, and then once I’d made the decisive leap of cancelling my Stardom World subscription, stuff I read about the company would generally work to poison me against them. Note, read. It’s been a number of years now since I started exploring joshi beyond Stardom, and the more I invested in storylines going on elsewhere, the less of a priority watching Stardom became for me. But you could always still read about it – it’s the most popular joshi promotion in the West, and the designated first port of call for Western fans sailing over from fandoms where endless dissections of booking decisions and backstage scuttlebutt are the norm, so that from where I’m positioned, even if my viewing is limited to the odd cherry-picked match once every few months, the discourse is still inescapable.

And the discourse told me that I would hate this match. It told me that Giulia has regressed as a worker since leaving Ice Ribbon, that Tam never had it to begin with, that this feud represents the thin end of the wedge of a gradual makeover of Stardom in the baleful image of Gedo-era New Japan. It convinced me that Momo Watanabe’s match with Nanae Takahashi, and the Rumble featuring Emi Sakura and other assorted pals from the wider world of joshi wrestling, were the only matches worth bothering with on this card. In short, it made me believe that this main event would be something to get through, much like the Okada matches that I get through every 4th of January for the sake of spending time watching wrestling with friends.

In the end, this might have been my favourite match of the night. And that’s because it felt like the crescendo to a triumphant show which built and built and built until it really felt worthy of this grand stage. If I were to pick a single moment of the show that brought me more joy than any other moment, it would be Emi Sakura’s entrance flanked by the entire Gatoh Move crew, for obvious reasons. If I were to pick a match which I think used all its elements more effectively than any of the other matches on the card, it would probably be the World of Stardom title match between Utami Hayashishita and Saya Kamitani (this surprised me somewhat). But Tam’s vocoder theme was the sound ringing in my ears once the broadcast had finished, and the feelings that this match generated (or excavated) were the ones that left me wanting to go back and watch the whole show again, immediately.

It’s not perfect – Giulia’s decision to stop the referee from making the down count that would have certainly won her the match only really makes sense if you accept that some part of Giulia actively wanted to lose (which might not actually be a far-fetched reading of her character arc), and Tam’s power-up after this moment strains credulity unless you accept that pro wrestling is magic (which it is). But what this match did – and there’s probably no other match I’ll review all year that I’ll say this about – was take a viewer that was predisposed to hate it (me), and turn them into a believer by the time the final bell rung. Instead of seeing an overhyped traitor’s cheap, flimsy stab at a noble stipulation, I saw the coronation of a beloved babyface at the expense of a complicated villain. Some kind of stardust settled over me, and my heart grew three sizes, and I will never let Twitter discourse fix my opinions on wrestling again.

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NEO Biishiki-gun (Sakisama & Mei Saint-Michel) vs. 121000000 (Miyu Yamashita & Maki Itoh)

06.03 / Tokyo Joshi Pro / Nerima Coconeri Hall

Alongside the rebirth of Mio Momono, Itoh’s 2021 continues to provide one of the most compelling arcs going on in wrestling right now, and here it picked up a very interesting wrinkle: Itoh, who inflicted Mei’s first defeat in TJPW, who helped her ostensibly much stronger partner to get the NEO Biishiki-gun monkey off her back at Korakuen Hall in February, who tapped out Rika Tatsumi in the first round of the tag tournament for which this was the final, who has shown a remarkable kind of growth as both an opponent and partner for Miyu since Ittenyon….For once, it wasn’t Itoh that got caught in some old familiar trap and lost the match, but Miyu. All was still up for grabs here until Miyu ended up one-on-one with Sakisama, and then it could only ever go one way. Miyu even pulled off something that nobody has ever done before – cracking the riddle that is Mei’s signature tray spot – which in the end just compounded the sense of defeat inflicted on her at the final bell, the kind of defeat Itoh normally finds herself left to deal with, but whose shadow she seems to be in the process of escaping for good. There’s a lot to be excited about for this latest inevitable NEO Biishiki-gun romp towards the tag titles, but the dynamics playing out on the other side of the ring felt like they contained the seeds of the program that will go on to define the main event scene for the rest of the year, whether or not Itoh captures the Princess of Princess title at Korakuen Hall in April.

Mei Hoshizuki vs Mio Momono vs Mei Suruga vs Miyuki Takase

26.03 / Chikayo Nagashima Produce / Shinjuku FACE

I sincerely believe that this lot are four of the brightest talents to emerge in pro wrestling in the past half-decade, and it’s rare in wrestling that you get to see a match like this, where four talents of that magnitude get to just go out there and work their magic and entertain the crowd with all the tricks in their toolbox (weirdly, scouring my memory for comparisons, the main one that comes up is that four way at Extreme Rules 2016 or 2017 between Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Cesaro and The Miz, a match which at the time probably occupied similar psychic space to the space this match occupies for me in 2021). I could break this match, all 13-or-so minutes of it, down into at least a dozen component details and analyse each one for hours at a time, because that’s how much this kind of wrestling strikes me as one of the most important and interesting kinds of wrestling there is, but maybe that’s a project for another time – suffice it to say that this was four of my favourite wrestlers all working the shtick that drew me to them in the first place, in a combination which added up to more than the sum of its parts. If you want my image of Happy Place Wrestling, it’s this.

Best Bros (Mei Suruga & Baliyan Akki) vs. Emi Sakura & Minoru Fujita

27.03 / Choco Pro / Ichigaya Chocolate Square

A lot of my favourite matches have something of the puzzle about them. Rika Tatsumi has finished off Miyu Yamashita with the Dragon Sleeper before, but will she be able to spring the trap once again now that the element of surprise has gone, and what answers will Miyu have for it? Jetta is playing for the draw, but the final bell is still an eternity away – what reserves of strength does she have left, and what means does Kasey have of shutting her down? Tsukushi taught Suzu everything Suzu knows, but did she teach her everything Tsukushi knows?

This match too felt like one big conundrum. Best Bros are at the peak of their powers and are the self-assumed main characters of Choco Pro, defending their titles for the third time to kick off this two-part 1st anniversary/100th episode spectacular. But Emi Sakura is the boss, a 25 year veteran to whom Mei and Akki owe everything, and here she’s backed up by a triple champion stamina monster in the middle of a major career renaissance. Something’s got to give!

For nearly thirty minutes, very little did give. Every hard-grafted window of advantage was shut down almost instantly. While on occasion this meant the action bore a family resemblance to the kind of dosey-do-ing that makes current New Japan all but unwatchable to me, those sequences were the exception, and were enjoyable in context because they were grounded in a sense of real struggle, unfolding with sensitivity and attention to detail. There were moments of real nuance – at one point Best Bros failed to capitalise on an advantage because Akki landed a diving senton onto Fujita’s knees instead of his chest; if this was a “botch” it was one that the performers allowed to exist on the level of kayfabe, dictating the next several steps of in-ring escalation. When moves didn’t come off as planned (there was another moment where Mei attempted the MeiPla Model and Sakura collapsed to her knees underneath her) it felt like it spoke to the effort required to keep up with the rigors of a long match whose physical and mental demands didn’t let up for a moment.

Even with a time limit draw approaching which would have presumably saved the titles for Akki and Mei, there was still an immanent sense of peril that Sakura might just ask one question too many. Until suddenly, one final opening presented itself, Akki yelling “FAST FAST FAST!” as Mei got into position for the Dolphin Splash (Akki used his voice to sell Mei’s circumstances brilliantly throughout this match), and just as suddenly the puzzle had been solved. There was nothing obvious about the solution, because this was a match where the nature of the problem, while grounded in a pretty classic set of junior-senior character dynamics, was continually evolving with each step of in-ring action. That’s one of the hallmarks of a great wrestling match for me, and this is an easy early nod for Match of the Year.

Baliyan Akki vs. Minoru Fujita

28.03 / Choco Pro / Ichigaya Chocolate Square

A year and a hundred shows ago, Akki faced Minoru Suzuki at Choco Pro 1, and just as was the case a few shows later when he faced Masato Tanaka, nobody really expected him to win. People expected him to gain a lot from the encounters, to grow in stature and heart, but winning just didn’t seem in order (not that the Tanaka match didn’t have the virtual live crowd believing in the highly improbable at points). This match, though, looked like it was designed to provide the culmination of the arc that began last March. Since then we’ve spent a year watching Akki mature into the male gatekeeper of the promotion before our eyes, so surely this special anniversary extravaganza would be capped off by him capping off that entire process and capturing the vacant Super Asia Championship?

Wrestling is weird – on an immediate level, I felt heartbroken that Akki didn’t do the deed in this match. At a slightly less immediate level, I was glad that he didn’t, and glad that I felt heartbroken. Because this is precisely what I want wrestling to do – I want it to make me care about who wins and loses, to understand the resonances of who wins and who doesn’t win, to long for resolutions as opposed to just anticipating them.

One thing that never fails to attract my emotional investment is the precarity of football teams with “golden generations” entering major tournaments. It always tugs at my heartstrings when teams that have spent four years preparing for a World Cup, or several seasons building up a squad that can challenge for a league title, falter in their quest to turn promise into silverware. This match, which was all heart-stopping near-falls and which looked like a truly exhausting ordeal for both guys – by the time the twenty minutes came up it felt like a wonder they either of them had a shred of strength left in their muscles – built and built and built and then left me with a payoff that wasn’t really a payoff at all, that you could call an anti-payoff. But I cared. I really, truly cared about Akki fulfilling symmetry and destiny here, and I cared when he wasn’t able to get over the line, an I’ll care when he inevitably goes on to try to avenge this defeat and when he captures this belt at the second, third, whatever time of asking. Thank you, Choco Pro, for making me care.

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