An Incomplete Maintainer’s Guide to the Best of Pro Wrestling 2021 Q2

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Sasha Banks vs. Bianca Bel Air

10.04 / WWE / Raymond James Stadium

It felt instinctively right to call this my Match of the Year at the time it took place. And honestly, I can’t say for certain, but it also feels instinctively correct to say that all the bells and whistles hanging off this match aren’t the main reason it felt so impactful on first, second and third viewing. It’s objectively good that the WWE’s issues with representation have been sorted out enough that two black women could contest the main event at Wrestlemania full stop, and it’s a further good that this didn’t feel like a tokenistic move. And it feels good. It felt good to see Sasha, my favourite wrestler in 2015, being presented as a decorated veteran and candidate for Best Ever. It also felt good to watch wrestling happening in a stadium in front of fans, even if the crowd noise was fairly obviously bulked out by artificial means. But in my heart of hearts – and this is where my enjoyment of the match different from other matches high up my MOTY list, matches that took place in promotions like TJPW and Choco Pro and Marvelous – I feel conflicted about wanting good things for WWE. I don’t necessarily want this company to flourish. But this match, as a match, it was just too damn good!

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, because a running theme of my favourite matches is that they’re clearly legible. I want to see what baggage and what skills the wrestlers are bringing to this particular match, and I want to see those things come into play as part of the back-and-forth struggle that goes on in the ring. I want to be able to say why the winner won, and the loser lost, and what could have been done differently that might have changed the ending, pointing to strategy and moments where irreparable damage was inflicted. A surprising number of wrestling matches are happy to have the answer to these questions be “x won because it got to the point of the match where the finish had to happen, and x hit their designated finisher”. And that can be fine if they’ve got other good stuff going for them. But that just makes matches like this one stand out all the more clearly.

For all I know, having barely watched her matches since she moved up to the main roster in 2016, Sasha might have simply been putting together a greatest hits package here, but it didn’t feel like it. What it felt like was a wiley veteran who knew that she was outmatched in power and size and had to stay sharp to seize advantages that it wouldn’t occur to her much more raw-edged opponent to seize. Bianca too might have simply been doing what she does in every match but I don’t think so – commentary did a good job here of putting over what a big occasion this was for her and how she needed to keep her emotions in check (the moment at the beginning where both Bianca and Sasha had to fight back tears was beautiful, because it felt like a peek behind the curtain which crucially didn’t undermine the story of the match – we know that the bragadoccious fronts these characters put up are just that, fronts that help them to get the job done; that’s part of canon), and everything she did felt calculated for the fight at hand.

The detail of the way their battle unfolded was very fine-grained. Bianca’s power saw her in control early on but Sasha’s experience started to show the longer the match went on. Both women had points where they were able (or forced) to boost their own confidence by firing up – Bianca’s rolling through off Sasha’s tope and hoisting her up into a Gorilla Press, Sasha walking over to the commentary table to demand Michael Cole say her catchphrase – but both were actually at their most effective when they were working reactively. The match was characterised by reversal sequences where it felt like both competitors were intensely alert to any openings; the very best of these was the sequence where Sasha used Bianca’s braid to pull her down into the Banks Statement, and rolled back from ropes to the middle of the ring only for Bianca to power through and reverse the momentum directly into a rope break.

The finish itself was also contested in this way – the big hair whip spot which worked so perfectly as a cue for the beginning of the end came as a clearing in a thicket of activity, and when Bianca hit her finishing move it felt like she’d succeeded specfically in keeping Sasha down for the count of three. Wrestling grounded in believable physical reactions and impact. Every big spot had as much room to breathe as you’d want, but when the action got more congested it always felt like you could see the cogs turning, limbs seeking out other limbs to hold, leverage and strength and grip and balance being tested. And there was an overriding feeling of spontaneity too – when Sasha was forced to turn a top rope Meteora into a splash in mid-air because Bianca was on her back instead of her knees it felt like the action of a fighter managing impressively to adjust on the fly, not a pro wrestler narrowly averting a botched outcome to a choreographed stunt.

It doesn’t feel like it should be a lot to ask for, but I suspect I’m not alone in wanting to put matches that achieve this kind of flow and this level of attention to detail (you could call it realism but this was a triumphant example of how to structure and pace a fake wrestling match first and foremost) up on a pedestal. There’s all sorts of worthy reasons to celebrate this match but I wouldn’t have just written six paragraphs on it if the social justice aspect was all it had going for it, and part of me still wrankles at the idea of giving WWE credit for anything in that area; above all, what this was was simply, indisputably, the most masterfully executed Wrestlemania main event I’ve seen in over 10 years watching the current product.

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https://twitter.com/enaena47/status/1383428554516402183

Hikari Noa vs. Miyu Yamashita

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Magical Sugar Rabbits (Yuka Sakazaki & Mizuki) vs. BeeStar (Mirai Maiumi & Suzume) vs. Shoko Nakajima & Hyper Misao

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Rika Tatsumi vs. Maki Itoh

17.04 / Tokyo Joshi Pro / Korakuen Hall

This was one of the best Korakuen Hall cards TJPW have run to date, and each of these matches in turn provided stellar examples of how successfully TJPW reproduces a kind of King’s Road-derived booking philosophy. Hikari showed her ability to scout and dodge a lot of Miyu’s most destructive moves, but then fell victim to a devastating roundhouse kick out of nowhere – you can do your homework, but if you’re not on Miyu’s level then she will almost always have an answer for you. BeeStar winning the three-way tag match was the biggest, freshest surprise of the show, but made perfect sense in context: the triple threat stipulation allowed the two more experienced teams to neutralise each other, and between them Suzume and Mirai had the speed, alertness and strength to capitalise on the brief opening that presented itself to them.

The main event hinged on a very memorable bit of physical storytelling which distilled the difference between 2021 Rika Tatsumi and 2021 Maki Itoh to an essence. Fully in the ascendancy, having executed her gameplan to something approaching perfection, all Itoh had to do to seal the victory and the title was turn Rika over for the Itoh Special, but Rika was able to distract Itoh at the last minute by raising her middle finger: her ego bruised from Rika (a champion who Itoh had accused of lacking the charisma needed to push TJPW to the top) appropriating a gesture that embodies her entire philosophy of life and pro wrestling, Itoh literally took the bait, biting down on the outstretched finger, giving the champion crucial separation and seconds, after which she was able to take down the challenger with the exact same finishing sequence she used to defeat Miu Watanabe in February. Itoh took almost all the emotion out of her game, or at least all of the unhelpful stuff, but couldn’t go all the way, and in the end it was the last remaining trace of emotional baggage that dragged her down.

It shouldn’t be this simple, but what makes TJPW the best wrestling company in my regular rotation in 2021 is its commitment to justifying both hierarchies and results. If one wrestler is clearly superior in skill and experience to another, I want to see that play out in the ring, even if it means the match going under ten minutes (especially if it means that). If two competitors are more evenly matched and then one edges it, I want to be able to understand precisely what it was that gave them that edge. If rookies pull off an upset victory, I want the conditions that allowed that win to take place to be clear for all to see (even inexplicable giant-killings in football can usually be put down to the “magic of the cup” or somesuch). I want to see Antonio Honda pretending a giant toy mallet is his chest hair, but I also want to be able to watch wrestling and analayse and predict and get excited about it like it’s a real sport, and it’s the DDT comedy idol promotion that’s currently doing the best job with that.

Jitsu vs. Sol vs. Kunay

30.04 / Chinampaluchas / Lago de Xochimilco

I could be wildly misfiring in my read of these guys but one thing discussed in the chat while watching this match was how liberating it must feel not to have to think of a “bump clock” while you’re wrestling. You’re a guy who knows he’s never going to make it to superstar status in the wrestling industry, so you turn up to a makeshift arena in some remote fen on the southern outskirts of the Distrito Federal (the last remaining habitat of the Axolotl!), at a show with maybe a dozen fans in attendance, and you absolutely give it your all, to hell with the risks.

There were probably more death-defying high spots in this than any match I’ve watched in the last twelve months, and the ephemerality of it all – the fading light, the eerie sonic emptiness, the sense of a spectacle on the absolute fringes of officially sanctioned professional wrestling, all added to rather than taking away from the drama. The closing segment, with Kunay stealing both of his opponent’s masks and flinging them away casual as you like only to get his comeuppance in the post-match interview, felt like the kind of short, sharp shock you want when you’re checking out a promotion far from your comfort zone for the first time and have no idea who anybody is or if they’re important – this was a fuckit performance which I fortuitously chanced upon in very fuckit circumstances.

Pencil Army (Lulu Pencil, Emi Pencil, Mino Pencil & Chris Pencil) vs. Best Bros (Mei Suruga & Baliyan Akki) & Egg Tarts (Chie Koishikawa & Hagane Shinno)

01.05 / Choco Pro / Ichigaya Chocolate Square

First things first, I spent a lot of this roughly hour-long match wishing it had been done as a gauntlet. The fact that the teams at “ringside” were very obviously ready to break up any situation of jeopardy for their teammates led to a lot of what the presenters of This Is Awesome? Podcast would call ‘moments of static’. But by the finish I understood why the match had been orchestrated the way it had – the idea was to set up the next major flash point in the Chris Brookes/Lulu Pencil saga, a feud I wouldn’t have thought still has legs but which just definitively proved me wrong.

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Brookes spent the finishing stretch of the match helping Lulu with ever greater levels of involvement – even maneuvering her into a lariat at one point – only for Lulu to tap out to Chie once the opposition rallied and managed to take Brookes out of the equation. This then set up a post-match promo from Brookes which was heartbreaking in its relationship to truths both factual and emotional – yes, Brookes is right that this surrender marks a kind of backsliding on Lulu’s part, since the way she won the respect of Brookes in the first place was by not giving up in my 2020 MOTY last November. But what was also clear is that Brookes is only taking this as a reason to walk away from the Pencil Army because he’s angry that he ever cared, frustrated that he found himself buying into what he dismissed here as an “Internet fan joke”.

Lulu is left in a familiar, but new, position: she came about as close as she’s ever come to getting a pinfall victory here, only to visibly regress before our eyes, and now that this fact has been pointed out to her she’s tasked with the challenge of proving to everyone that the progress she made in her MVP season last Autumn hasn’t dissipated, or been in vain. I think a lot of people suspected way back that Lulu’s losing streak could prove to be one of those storylines that can be mined for years on end, but what’s been remarkable following along in real time is how convincing certain would be-turning points have felt, only for the narrative to ultimately reroute us back to square one. Long may it continue.

Rika Tatsumi vs. Miyu Yamashita

04.05 / Tokyo Joshi Pro / Korakuen Hall

The match these two had at this same show three years ago was my favourite match of 2018, and possibly my favorite TJPW match full stop, so it was an utter delight to see these two managing to pull off a second main event which clearly built on and referenced the first without getting too bogged down in it, which felt like it captured the same intensity this pairing produced at the last big peak of the TJPW product and successfully transplanted it to the very different context of 2021, which told a story about company history while also feeling firmly rooted in the things that make TJPW the most vital wrestling promotion alive in 2021.

In a gambit which refracted rather than reversed the one she used three years ago, Rika had called Miyu out for this title challenge herself, wanting to prove she could defeat the Ace of the company and thus call herself the top dog without any equivocation. She had every right to feel confident after the series of victories she’s had this year, which have felt more focused and tactically astute than just about any victories in the history of the company. Here she brought that A-game again, and learned bitterly that it just isn’t enough – not against a Miyu that can almost pin you inside 5 minutes with a Roundhouse Kick out of nowhere, that has the wherewithal to catch a Missile Hip Attack and turn it into Teardrop Suplex, that knows how to stage her comeback bit-by-bit to neutralise the effects of a potentially devastating move like the Figure Four Leg Lock (let’s not forget that in January Yuka Sakazaki was so weakened by this move that the referee had to step in and stop the match).

There’s something terrifying about Miyu in a title match where she isn’t defending but is fully unleashed on the attack. Her old trick used to be to absorb, absorb, absorb and then strike on the counter (her title defence against Itoh in January 2019 is maybe the classic expression of this), whereas here she took the fight to Rika from the off, drawing a performance from the champion that felt if anything even braver and more impassioned than her exceptional work in the 2018 fixture (and violent too – that Twist of Fate onto the ring apron was gross), proving beyond any doubt just how far the bar has been raised in this company in that time. Rika’s performance would have won most matches for this title in the history of the belt, but instead we see a dynasty forming before our eyes, the ringing in of Miyu as a three-time champion, an accolade which feels remarkable in the context of this title but also serves as a reminder that the bulk of the TJPW old guard are still only in their mid-to-late twenties, and could still have years of this kind of richly-storied battling for ownership of an increasingly illustrious prize ahead of them.

I’m sad that Rika lost so soon after establishing herself among the elite, I’m excited that we once again get to see Miyu walking to the ring with the Big White Belt (there are probably TJPW superfans today that have never experienced this – imagine!), but most of all I’m delighted that a match which could have stood out to me first and foremost for all the ways in which it wasn’t one of my favourite matches of all time was executed with such conviction and control of character dynamics and overall attention to detail that it fully lived up to the memory of the 2018 match, and maybe even surpassed it, and stands as my favourite match of this brief but captivating title run, and thus a shoe-in for the end of year list.

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Suzu Suzuki vs. Jun Kasai

05.05 / Ice Ribbon / Yokohama Radiant Hall

Suzu’s deathmatch challenge series continued where it left off with her gruesome match against Masashi Takeda in April: while the first couple of matches in her seven-part series had an aspect of playing around to them, of letting Suzu explore this new environment, now she’s just having straight-up gangbuster hardcore matches. This isn’t necessarily because she’s suddenly discovered some newfound expertise in this genre (although that isn’t not the case), it’s primarily because she’s drawing on a skill she had all along – that preternatural ability to create exciting wrestling matches by pressing the right buttons at the right moments that we saw all the way back in her debut match against Asahi.

Pacing can work magic when it’s done right – there were moments here where I got so swept up in the action that I genuinely bit on some of Suzu’s near falls, even though she was clearly never winning this and in fact I knew she hadn’t won this. The reason for this is chemical. Strike precisely the right chord at precisely the right time and it doesn’t matter who you are or who you’re facing, there’s going to be a part of an invested wrestling fan’s brain that lights up with excitement for a false finish. Sweet, sweet dopamine – there’s basically no other reason to watch pro wrestling. It was the transitions and the nuts and bolts and both wrestlers’ slickness even when working with a first-time opponent that really stood out here, but we should also talk about the spots – Suzu getting and giving her first taste of bamboo skewers to the forehead and then literally getting a taste of them when Kasai shoved a load into her open mouth; the revenge Suzu got later on when she staple-gunned Kasai in the asshole and then Spider German Suplexed him off the top rope. Sumptuous.

Mei Suruga vs. AKINO

09.05 / OZ Academy / Shinjuku FACE

Choco Pro has succeeded in creating this very abundant-feeling alternate universe where Sakuraist wrestling can thrive in spite of the Pandemic, but this match was a reminder that one of the great thrills bound up with this corner of the wrestling world is seeing Sakura trainees interact with the world beyond. Mei Saint Michel has been an instant revelation in TJPW, but Mei Suruga‘s appearances outside Ichigaya Chocolate Square have been few and far between in the past twelve months. Here she brought every little bit of her essence and used it to craft a brilliant story of a scrappy underdog actually managing to dominate a much larger opponent through sheer wilful persistence (and no small amount of skill – the crowd gasping when Mei bridged over for the Apple Mutilation was great to see).

AKINO for her part was a brilliant foil, with some of the best comedic selling seen in this promotion since Sakura Hirota’s breathing exercises. It’s easy to forget about wrestling in the Before Times, but this was precisely the sort of match that led me to call Mei one of my favourites before her matches were readily accessible, only now she’s got those two added years of experience that make her pretty indisputably one of the top joshi workers around today. If the Miyu Yamashita vs. Rika Tatsumi match that took a place a week before this was pretty much a perfect main event, I’d go as far as to call this pretty much a perfect opener.

Irregular Battle Royal

23.05 / Hana Kimura Memorial Produce / Korakuen Hall

It was a nice touch that this whole memorial event played out like the retirement show that Hana never had, and it was even nicer that it so closely followed the contours of Hana’s mother’s own retirement show, from the masked regional indie guys in the opener to the bonus unannounced singles match at the close. The “Toshimen Pool Ticket Contest Battle Royal” at that 2017 show was one of the matches that taught me that it’s OK to include comedy wrestling in your MOTY list, and this match, which featured a handful of the same competitors (Lingerie Mutoh, Yuki Miyazaki, Moeka Haruhi, Onryo, Yuko Miyamoto) more than lived up to the memory.

Just as that earlier match span off into a series of vignettes making the most of the diverse match-ups on offer, the sort of encounters that can only happen at shows like this – the face-off between Mayu Iwatani and Tsukasa Fujimoto was one of my earliest exposures to the Ice Ribbon Ace – this match gave us a heartwarming meet-up between Jun Kasai and superfan Mika Iwata, a chop battle between Hagane Shinno and Miyuki Takase (get her in Choco Pro ASAP!!), some grappling between Chihiro Hashimoto and Shotaro Ashino, Ram Kaicho getting the better of CIMA and Masato Tanaka to win the thing outright, and so on. Both matches fizzed with a sense of possibility; both times I came in expecting a show which would mark the end of things, and both times I was instead presented with silly, poignant celebrations of all the manifold ways in which life can and does go on. This match alone would have been enough to get that message across, but then…

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https://twitter.com/cima09106/status/1396814072255893504

ASUKA, Mio Momono, Natsupoi & Syuri vs. DEATH Yama-san, Hazuki, Kagetsu & Konami

23.05 / Hana Kimura Memorial Produce / Korakuen Hall

The ten-bell salute, comprehensive video retrospective and mass of tributes at the end of the show brought some closure and catharsis to this memorial, which was much-needed, partly because I still have a hard time believing day-to-day that Hana is really gone, but also because the main event that preceded these things felt about the furthest thing from closure you could put in this spot. Hazuki and Kagetsu came back together, and in doing so begged the question as to why they had to leave in the first place. In their entrance, they did the old Oedo Tai dance, which Samurai TV intercut with footage of Hana and Kagetsu doing the dance during their era-defining tag title run, which felt like the sort of thing you might expect at a tribute show for a clutch of storied veterans, over the hill and into middle-age but still able to roll back the years to please the old faithful. Kagetsu is 29, Hazuki is 23. Hana was 22.

Hazuki and Mio finally tangled, a match-up I’ve been dreaming about at least since their interactions at the Joshi Pro Wrestling Athletic Meet in 2018. Their segments were the highlight of the match, with Hazuki doing a very impressive job matching the intensity of an opponent on such a career high. Although the line-up of the match spoke to old connections with Hana and the Kimura family, it felt less like a trip down memory lane than a staging ground for fresh match-ups, some of which we’ve never seen before and might never see again.

More or less a more serious version of the Battle Royal, then. But whereas the earlier match was all fun and heart (even Sakura Hirota’s Hana cosplay spot, which felt in bad taste when I first saw the photos, was oddly joyful and moving when you saw it play out), this one came with a slightly bitter taste. Here are eight great wrestlers, all potentially in their prime, only two of them are prematurely retired, paying homage to a friend who, if there were any justice in the world, really should still be there with them. Maybe an inverse of the Battle Royal then: where that match fizzed with potential, this one spoke of potential shut down before its time. I enjoyed watching these eight mixing it up, but I also mourned the fact that they should be doing so under these circumstances. It took the thirty-plus minutes of tribute video package, and particularly Kyoko’s final sign-off at the very end, before things finally got put in their proper perspective and I could let go of this present and future that is not and will never be, and say matane in my own heart.

Pencil Army (Lulu Pencil, Emi Pencil & Mino Pencil) vs. Chris Brookes, Yuna Mizumori & VENY

25.05 / Choco Pro / Ichigaya Chocolate Square

Stuart Iversen has written very well about the meaning of this feud and how this match escalated it over at his blog, and I’d recommend you go and read that before continuing here. In short though: Lulu Pencil is the embodiment of Darejyo’s “everyone welcome” approach, and Chris Brookes has begun to take aim at that entire ethos. We might think Chris is the devil for the way he’s asking his questions, but it’s hard to deny that the questions do carry weight. What does success look like in the end, if you’re content to be losing all the time? If your attempts to work with and learn from older pros results in them turning down their own power levels, without boosting yours? As Stuart asks, is caring enough? And if so, who gets to decide that?

All I’d add to this is that there are writings in Lulu Pencil’s back catalogue which help to furnish our understanding of Lulu’s own relationship with the Darejyo ethos. Whether she still stands by these words or is wavering after defeat piled upon defeat is unclear, but it’s worth quoting this short piece from 25 August, 2019 in full (and it’s also worth noting that this is one of the pieces that will eventually find its way into manga, via the Be Careful Lulu Pencil! project):

Lulu is weak. That’s why I won’t give up. As long as I have people to watch over me, I’ll keep going. I want to keep fighting. 

Someday, I want to find a different kind of strength in my own fight, a strength that’s distinct from what the rest of the world considers “good”, or something different from strength altogether. 

That’s what women’s pro wrestling means to me, and it’s why I think people all over the world need it right now.

My body is still far from being the body of a pro wrestler, but there are now thoughts and feelings moving through that body that I can’t fully dissect…These thoughts and feelings might not be “good” things in the traditional sense, but I want to affirm them all. I want to gather them up and use them to pave my path to the ring.

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https://twitter.com/Yssiki/status/1404389026635784194

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

13.06 / GAEAISM / Ota Ward Gymnasium

This felt like the biggest stage joshi wrestling has had since I’ve been watching, a realisation of a dream I’ve had since the moment I learned about what a gilded age the period of Chigusa Nagayo’s peak as wrestler and booker was for women’s wrestling in Japan. I’ve often dreamed out loud about a match which would take this prestigious past and use it to help create icons of the future. If this match didn’t surpass my expectations – I realise that’s what you’re supposed to say in these situations – that’s because in meeting my expectations it succeeded in feeling like the biggest deal imaginable in this medium: bigger than Stardom running Nippon Budokan, bigger than Tokyo Joshi Pro running matches at Saitama Super Arena. It’s beating out Banks/Bel Air and Tatsumi/Yamashita to take my Match of the Year at time of writing, entirely unsurprisingly.

Details: the poses and staredowns before the bell has rung; the way Mio immediately leaps into action by taking two opponents out with a split-legged springboard dropkick seemingly entirely of her own invention; the way Rin’s conditioning shines through in her ability to endure the lion’s share of offence in the first 5 minutes and then rally to take out Mika, who has been a weak link throughout this feud (and who will, I hope, receive some kind of big redemption angle off the back of it). The speed at which everything happens: this feels like two crack teams who have figured out the combos they need to execute in order to inflict damage quickly. The action is always purposeful and never ponderous and yet there’s still a few moments where you can see that they know how to let things breathe: there’s a passage where both Mio and Chihiro are both down and the camera shifts its focus to the Marvelous seconds screaming for Mio on at ringside, which on first viewing proves such a compelling sideshow that I almost forget about the match-up at hand.

More details: the scream Mio lets out when she pins DASH and knows that the reward at the end of a long hard road is finally there for the taking; the subtly different scream she lets out when she has Chihiro in an armbar: this scream speaks to a level of wanting most of us will never feel in our lives, but which is the essence of this sport-come-art. The way Rin and Mio’s tandem dropkicks to Hashimoto after DASH’s elimination feel like an apotheosis of everything Marvelous has been building towards these past five years. The way Rin fights with every fibre of her being to kick out even after being marmalised by a Hashimoto powerslam, but just isn’t strong enough to muscle out of the cover.

And on and on: the back-and-forth final act, where you feel like either warrior can win it entirely on their own merit, where Mio almost brings about a referee stoppage with a flurry of headbutts only to demand Hashimoto get to her feet to finish this thing properly, only to nearly lose it all off a messed-up high spot attempt, only to recover and then succumb, as nature would appear to dictate, to Hashimoto’s superior power. The way Mio harnesses the magic of pro wrestling to create the sense that her pinning a competitor many times bigger than her is just as likely as the alternative; the way that this bratty rookie has, without sacrificing a single thing that makes her special, developed into someone fit to compete in a one-on-one battle that feels like a referendum on who the Best Pro Wrestler In The World is. The way Mio’s sobbing threatens to drown out the title ceremony, letting you know in your heart as much as in your head that she will not rest until everyone is ready to acknowledge her as the holder of the title belt she’s just narrowly missed out on, and the heritage and status that comes with it.

Risa Sera vs. Rina Yamashita

27.06 / Ice Ribbon / Korakuen Hall

One thing that I still have a hard time adjusting to when watching deathmatches, even as I’m exposed to the genre more and more through its increasingly prominent presence in Ice Ribbon (the top two matches on this card were both deathmatches, back to back), is the cooperative aspect. My favourite matches are usually ones where the wrestlers authentically look as through they’re trying to win; this fluorescent light-tube deathmatch opens with both competitors intentionally smashing themselves into piles of broken glass. It’s good, dumb fun, but it’s a psychology that’s less about the spectacle of absorption and more about the spectacle of, well, spectacle. I enjoy it, but there’s always that part of my brain asking “so why are they doing this again?”

That’s how this match starts. But about halfway in it becomes a different beast altogether, reaching a point of no return that reminds me of a half-remembered concept from Shaun Keaveney’s BBC Radio 6 breakfast show that I’m going to call “The Garvey Vortex”. By all accounts, every night out drinking with Elbow lead singer Guy Garvey reaches a point where the drunken revelry spirals to such a level that your chances of having a normal evening are utterly obliterated. You can see it coming before it really begins, but by the time you see it it’s already too late. Likewise, I can’t point to the precise moment where this match turned from a blackly funny gore-fest and became a brutal fight to the death, but all of a sudden the mat was covered in shards and the air was filled with noxious dust and there was Risa repeatedly dropping Rina onto her back, slicing it to ribbons, and then Rina was dropping Risa on her head onto a steel chair, and the escalation felt more intense than any match in the history of this title, and then just as suddenly it was over and they were friends again. A ten-month title reign with so many highlights demanded a special match to lay it to rest, and this was special.

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