I’ve been trying to write about Stardom for months. It’s been hard to see any clear direction in the company’s endless, seemingly circular faction wars; I couldn’t see where the promotion was, never mind where I thought it might be headed.
There was a time about a year ago when Stardom made sense. Mayu had finally capitalised on joshi’s most emotive storyline in years, beating Io Shirai for the red belt and establishing herself as the new ace of the promotion. Io was rumoured to be following Kairi Hojo to WWE. While the promotion was going to miss them both in the short term, it was safe with Mayu at the helm and a group of young, talented prospects moving through the ranks.
A few months later, Mayu was injured and Toni Storm was champion. Io was back, holding the white belt and regularly main-eventing shows to defend it. And while the red belt scene was underdeveloped, with precious little storyline to speak of, the rivalry between Oedo Tai and Queen’s Quest had taken over the show. Since Mayu came back, she’s often seemed to be floating: unwilling to take the title from Storm at a time when she has such a high profile, the company has left Mayu holding together a team of otherwise random people in Stardom’s least important faction. STARS is loyal to Stardom above all, and in her role as the ‘company woman’ Mayu is still the nominal ace. But look at any Stardom card and it’s clear that word doesn’t mean what it did when Io had the red belt.
The only storylines with any real emotional weight during this period have been within the two main factions. Queen’s Quest has had the best of it, as you might expect when your sempai is one of the best wrestlers on the planet. It helps that Io’s stable has held some of the most talented performers in the company. While Momo’s ascendancy has been satisfying, Hazuki’s storyline is far more interesting. Momo’s return pushed Hazuki down the Queen’s Quest pecking order just when she was convinced she was one more shot away from beating Io. Then she saw how little she really meant to her mentor, when Io picked Azumi first in the Stardom draft and left Hazuki vulnerable to being poached. Now, as the first of Io protégées to defeat her, Momo has well and truly stolen Hazuki’s thunder.
Hazuki desperately needs to get her win over Io. If she pulls it off before Io leaves, she’s partially vindicated, and will take that confidence into fighting Momo for the white belt. But what if she doesn’t? What if she finds herself having worked for so long, only to miss her chance to prove herself? With Hana Kimura heading out on a tour of Mexico, Kagetsu needs a new lieutenant. If she can nurture that rage that’s deep inside Hazuki and help her direct it at Momo, we could have the feud of the year.
Not that Oedo Tai is incapable of turning on its own. Tam Nakano’s departure and the insanity that followed (exploding barbed wire baseball bat death match, anyone?) provided the other main source of drama during the early part of the year. She’s now providing some much-needed star power in Mayu’s stable, which otherwise really feels like a chance for Mayu to mentor and elevate some rookies. The lack of established figures compared to less experienced, more idol-style wrestlers also triggered the birth of Jungle Assault Nation as a stable in its own right; it’s exciting to finally see some of the more powerfully-built wrestlers strike out on their own.
Everyone benefits from Mayu winning the tag belts with Saki Kashima. Saki gets her first title run and the chance to work with the ace every night. Mayu gets a chance to re-establish herself as a champion. And Jungle Kyona finally gets the feud she has long deserved. Re-watch that segment where Kyona announces her team are leaving STARS. Look at the body language and the facial expressions, the hurt and betrayal on all sides. She is lashing out against people she trusted who don’t seem to see her value. Mayu is watching Kyona abandon her, just like Io did two years ago. The anger and sadness are palpable.
I see two feuds carrying Stardom for most of this year: Hazuki and Momo, Mayu and Kyona. All four factions have a clear direction at or near the top, and in tag and trios matches they will bring new opportunities to people like Natsuko Tora, Tam, Saki and Konami. At the same time, Starlight Kid and Azumi are leading a charge of incredible young talent – and with Io’s star having fallen, Kagetsu is going after Toni Storm. If she brings the red belt to Oedo Tai, the top title in the company could finally be exciting again.
None of this could work with Io still in the picture. She has beaten everyone there is to beat, except for Mayu, and what’s the point of undoing all the work Stardom did to put Mayu over her? Nor does anybody else gain anything from her staying where she is. Finding space for Io has arguably held back what could have been some of Stardom’s biggest storylines in a year. By losing her to WWE, the company creates more space to build a broader and deeper talent pool that will keep the company sustainable for years to come.
Stardom will still take short-term damage. Admittedly, this is a bad time to be vulnerable. With Sendai Girls finally getting a streaming service and WAVE and Tokyo Joshi Pro starting to break out, the competition between joshi promotions in international markets has probably never been so strong. But that hit was always going to come, and when you rely on a small group of top-level performers, a couple of injuries can cause as much harm as a WWE signing. From a business standpoint, Io going to the Fed won’t be the thing that kills Stardom – and with a bigger and better roster to draw from, the company will end up more sustainable in the long run.