Issue 12: Three Count Fall
STARDOM World Climax, ZSJ's New Japan Cup, and Around the Rings
ONE COUNT: KAIRI Returns, Champions Shine at STARDOM World Climax at Ryogoku
The build to the two-night STARDOM World Climax at Ryogoku Sumo Hall on March 26th and 27th was befitting of its status as one of the most significant events in the company’s history. Every major star was in at least one marquee-level match across the weekend, top young wrestlers from across the joshi landscape were featured, and KAIRI (fka Kairi Hojo/Sane) returned after nearly five years away from STARDOM rings.
With so much hype and increased media attention in Japan and among the western fanbase due to KAIRI’s return, it would have been somewhat understandable for there to be a letdown of sorts. Could STARDOM draw respectably well at such a historic building in this COVID-depressed Japanese wrestling scene? Would the matches live up to the best-in-the-world level that STARDOM PPV events have set over the past few years? What level was KAIRI capable of competing at some 20 months removed from her last match?
On the attendance front, these shows can only be seen as a considerable success. In another time and with another promotion, drawing 2,712 and 3,085 fans respectively would not be something to celebrate. In the current reality, however, 3,000 fans seems to be the ceiling for any show from any promotion outside of New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom events. For STARDOM to be near or above that ceiling on back-to-back nights is a remarkable achievement—night 2 actually outdrew the STARDOM Queendom Dec. 29. 2021, which featured the long-anticipated Syuri vs Utami Hayashishita rematch.
Even more remarkably, STARDOM World Climax outdrew NJPW’s New Japan Cup Semifinal and Final shows held at Osaka Jo-Hall on the same day (more on those shows in this issue’s TWO COUNT). It is tempting to make equivocations regarding the how and why of this, but the significance cannot be overstated—the top women’s promotion in Japan outdrew the top men’s promotion in comparably important shows head-to-head on the same weekend. STARDOM’s growth and market performance continues to be the most logical counter-argument to other promotions in Japan using the pandemic excuse to blame flagging interest in their products.
From an in-ring perspective, these shows faced a nearly impossible standard to meet. STARDOM has become the clear leader in in-ring quality and consistency in terms of major shows, with an average Cagematch.net rating of 8.43 (out of 10) for their major PPV events since October 2020. As of press time, STARDOM World Climax on March 26th is rated 8.06 and March 27th is rated 8.53.
While the top stories revolved around the Red and White belt title matches and KAIRI’s return, there were several noteworthy performances and developments through the cards.
Hanan, the current Future of Stardom Champion potential future ace of the company, continued her impressive 2022—particularly on night one in her defense against her younger sister, Rina. Hanan is such an interesting prospect, with her legitimate judoka background and a combination of strength and technical ability that differs from many of her age-/experience-level peers. As I spoke about on this week’s Adam & Mike Big Audio Nightmare podcast, I fully expect a significant push up the card for Hanan after she turns 18 this summer. I would be very surprised if she is not hold a more significant championship than the Future title by this time next year.
MIRAI was also featured in two singles matches across STARDOM World Climax. While her night two match with Utami Hayashishita had more name value (and it was very good), her night one match with the recently-returned Saya Iida ended up being one of the less-hyped highlights of the weekend. Iida has looked better than ever upon returning from her long-term knee injury, fusing her own style with that of her stated role model, Tomohiro Ishii. The likes of Iida, MIRAI, Maika, and others comprise an almost unofficial NEVER Openweight-style division in STARDOM, and that’s something that I’d like to see the company lean into more heavily going forward.
Back to MIRAI for a moment—it has been so rewarding to see her grow into this role in STARDOM after arriving late last year. While this presentation of wrestling is clearly more well-suited to her than the more whimsical nature of her previous home (Tokyo Joshi Pro-Wrestling), she still seemed to be struggling a bit to stand out as a more reserved personality among the likes of the extroverted Thekla, Giulia, and other in the Donna Del Mondo group. MIRAI seems to have found her comfort level in recent weeks, though, and seemed genuinely surprised and moved by the crowd clapping along to her music and then carrying that through to the matches here on these shows.
When talking about transformations in STARDOM in recent months, none is more dramatic than that of Momo Watanabe since joining Oedo Tai. While she has been one of the best wrestlers in the company for years, Watanabe was stuck in a rut both in terms of booking and as a character in Queen’s Quest (arguably becoming the fourth-ranked member of the group behind Hayashishita, Kamitani, and AZM last year). While she reached the final of the 5*Star GP last year, that was only due to Giulia’s injury scuttling initial tournament plans and was not an indication of a renewed push.
Since turning on Queen’s Quest and joining Oedo Tai, Watanabe has appeared to be completely rejuvenated. The transition to this character seems to draw the best out of her in a way that just wasn’t there as the babyface version—while there are never accurate one-to-one comparisons in wrestling, this transformation to such a dismissive and anti-authority character has echoes of Testuya Naito in NJPW. She is also the perfect compliment to what Starlight Kid brings to Oedo Tai, and there Goddessess of Stardom Tag Team Championship victory over Hazuki and Koguma was another highlight of a busy weekend.
While the AZM vs Natsupoi vs Koguma match for the High Speed Title did not approach the MOTY-level greatness of AZM vs Starlight Kid from last month’s PPV, the action here was very good and saw AZM retain with a flash pin. Post-match, Cinderella Rumble winner Mei Suruga approached and made a surprise challenge to AZM for a High Speed Championship match—I am not using hyperbole when I say that this immediately became my most anticipated match in wrestling. AZM is, to steal a phrase from Kevin Kelly, “the next level’s next level” when it comes to the High Speed style—and Suruga is one of the most unique, endearing, and talented wrestlers in the world that is proficient at the same style.
Suzu Suzuki also stood out across both shows, particularly in her interactions with Thekla on night one and Giulia on night two. While building PROMINENCE seems to her primary focus, Suzu’s ability and charisma would make her an instant top star in STARDOM if she ever decided to take that option.
From a championship standpoint, the most significant story coming out of these shows is that both Syuri (World of Stardom Champion) and Saya Kamitani (Wonder of Stardom Champion) successfully defended their titles on back-to-back nights.
For my money, Saya Kamitani had the two best matches of STARDOM World Climax. She is a fascinating wrestler, in that she is 1) getting a huge push, 2) nowhere near a finished product, 3) dramatically improving with every big match she has, and 4) has been clearly positioned as the company’s biggest crossover-to-NJPW star in STARDOM’s offer matches on major New Japan shows.
Kamitani idolizes Kota Ibushi, to the point that she has in storyline been pushing Stardom Executive Producer Rossy Ogawa to give her a singles match against Ibushi. The similarities of the two are not entirely imagined, as Kamitani has been at that same stage that Ibushi was at before he fully broke through—an incredible high flyer, but one whose consistency-of-accuracy or precision wasn’t quite there yet. Kamitani was thrust into the main event scene while working through these things, and these matches showed significant progress on that front.
Kamitani’s defense on night one was against Queen’s Quest stablemate Hayashishita in another test and an indication of where Kamitani stands not only in the pecking order of the main event scene, but of her own group. This ended up being of a similar level to their prior two major singles matches, but it was the most impressive of them from Kamitani’s standpoint. Why? Because she was in the champion’s role her with a Hayashishita who has become the true ace of the company and someone who feels like a champion regardless of whether she has a physical belt or not. Kamitani shined here, winning with a perfectly executed Phoenix Splash after the Star Crusher. Kamitani also landed by far the best spinning heel kick of her career here—it’s a great move for her to use in counter situations and it looked tremendous on this occasion.
On Night 2, Kamitani and Tam Nakano had the best match of this STARDOM weekend and the one real MOTY contender from these shows. It was also very interesting from a booking standpoint coming in, as Kamitani just won the championship from Nakano last December—it didn’t feel like it was time for Kamitani’s reign to end, but it also seemed unlikely that Nakano would lose to her again so quickly thereafter.
Kamitani did indeed get her second win over Nakano, fully validating her White Belt reign and establishing herself as one of the top stars in the company. From an action standpoint…this was a WILD match. It had the usual high drama and emotion of a Nakano main event, but it also featured two of the craziest spots we’ve seen in any promotion this year—Kamitani’s top rope frankensteiner to the floor and Nakano’s “balcony dive” from atop the entranceway area. The finish was very well-executed and protected Nakano from losing again to Kamitani’s Phoenix splash—this time Kamitani hit her roll through into the cradle back suplex, Nakano shifted her weight and landed on top of Kamitani for the pin attempt, and Saya rolled straight through into a pinning combination of her own for the win.
Syuri also retained her Red Belt at STARDOM World Climax, defeating Giulia and Mayu Iwatani to complete that feat. While I wasn’t quite as high on her match with Giuilia on night one as some, it was the better of the two Red Belt matches and I enjoyed much more on a second watch a couple days ago. This was a bomb-throwing from the start with a brutally violent jumping piledriver on a table, a protective Plexiglas shot to the head, and dueling one-count kickout after each hit the other’s finisher. Syuti eventually outlasted Giulia, hitting three devastating spinning backfists and her new “super finisher,” the Syu Sekai drop, for the win.
The main event of night two saw Syuri once again retain, this time against Mayu Iwatani in a very good match that never quite hit that next gear that the best STARDOM matches do. It’s partially a function of Syuri’s style—like Katsuhiko Nakajima in Pro Wrestling NOAH, she is a great wrestler but not one who specializes in putting together particular dynamic or dramatic finishing stretches. It’s more of an accumulation of damage leading to a direct and dominant finish.
Iwatani was her usual best-in-the-world-level self here, able to draw fans into her pain and struggle with such vivid and kinetic selling that really can’t be compared to anyone else in wrestling currently. She seems to be slowly transitioning into a Hiroshi Tanahashi role, where she is positioned as a threat to win championships but is viewed as more valuable to the company outside of the title scene. Unlike Tanahashi, she is still at her physical peak. It is somewhat of a shame that this expanded STARDOM fanbase has not yet had the opportunity to see Iwatani as the leader and champion of the company, but hopefully this will happen at some point before Iwatani eventually retires. The finish here also protected Iwatani, as rather than being defeated with the Syu Sekai or a knockout kick, she lost via referee stoppage due to a modified Stretch Muffler hold.
Not to be outdone in any way, the return of KAIRI was the emotional highlight of STARDOM World Climax.
While her NXT run as Kairi Sane was tremendous and raised her profile as one of the best wrestlers and characters in the world, her main roster run was predictably disappointing and flawed (through no fault of her own)—WWE proper had no idea what do with someone who was a perfect babyface character, so the inexplicably turned her heel. While Kairi and Asuka (fka Kana) did their best to make the unfortunately-named Kabuki Warriors team work, it was nowhere near the best utilization for her a wrestler like her. Injuries followed and Kairi was moved into a WWE Japan ambassador role before that wing of the company was shuttered and her contract expired.
KAIRI’s return on night one saw her eased back into competition teaming with Mayu Iwatani (again, exactly the role Iwatani seems to be featured in these days) to take on the Cosmic Angles duo of Tam Nakano and Unagi Sayaka. What was apparent here, more than anything, is how much of a star KAIRI is compared to most on the roster (Tam is one of the few who carries a different but similar-level aura). KAIRI showed just enough her to see that she can definitely still perform at a high level, but this match was clearly structured to hold enough back that people would want to pay everything she could do in a singles match on the next night. After she hit a picture-perfect Insane Elbow on Sayaka, Iwatani finished the deal with a top rope moonsault to get the win for her team.
From a spectacle standpoint, nothing on either of these shows came close to matching the atmosphere on night two as KAIRI took on Starlight Kid. In last week’s issue, I wrote about the ring entrances on TJPW’s big Ryogoku show and how that helped them stand apart from STARDOM’s usually more reserved approach in that regard. Here, the entrances of SLK and (especially) KAIRI upped the game significantly—while the TJPW entrances were fun and and entertaining, KAIRI’s entrance could only be described as epic (an overused word that I am often loathe to use, but it 100 percent applies here) on its own in a way that elevated the importance and drama of the match before the bell even rang.
Starlight Kid is one of those few people I mentioned earlier—those who come off as every bit the star that KAIRI does. While she is much younger and earlier in his career, there was nothing about SLK that felt like she was lower in the pecking order than KAIRI. She felt like an equal in terms of presentation, charisma, and in-ring performance, which is a remarkable statement for someone who just turned 20 years old and has only recently become a top star. However, KAIRI did get the win here with the Insane Elbow and establish her dominance…for now. Starlight Kid was chosen as KAIRI’s opponent here for a reason, and I fully expect that she will get the biggest win of her career in defeating KAIRI whenever that rematch takes place.
Unfortunately, that or any other match will have to wait as KAIRI suffered a ruptured eardrum in the course of action. While there was no timetable for return at press time, an injury such as that can take up to several months to fully heal from.
STARDOM’s focus now shifts to the 2022 Cinderella Tournament, with the largest field ever getting underway on April 3rd. Look for full coverage of the first round of this tournament in next week’s THREE COUNT FALL.
TWO COUNT: Zack Sabre, Jr. Runs the LIJ Gauntlet to Win the New Japan Cup
There is no doubt that New Japan Pro Wrestling has positioned Kazuchika Okada as the face of the company’s 50th Anniversary year. He is the face of the company, the IWGP World Heavyweight Champion, and the wrestler being positioned to interact with the company’s living legends throughout 2022.
What is more surprising, however, is who appears to be “the next man up” in that crowded line. While NJPW is filled with the likes of Hiroshi Tanahashi, Tetsuya Naito, Shingo Takagi, Hiromu Takahashi, Will Ospreay, and many others, it is Zack Sabre, Jr. who has taken up the mantle as a symbol of the type of wrestling that the Lion Mark stands for when New Japan is at their best.
As I wrote about in a previous issue of THREE COUNT FALL, even before the New Japan Cup it was apparent that the company sees increasing value in ZSJ—as evidenced by his exhibition match with Shibata and his presence in the six-man tag team legends main event of the 50th Anniversary show last month.
At a time when New Japan is leaning more heavily than ever into a borderline parody of Western wrestling tropes, ZSJ represents more than just himself and the British wrestling scene—he represents a mix of the styles that the original iterations of NJPW what they were, as well as what the company can once again be if only they chose that path.
The 2022 New Japan Cup felt more like the 2012-2020 glory days of the promotion than any tour or tournament since the pandemic began, and ZSJ’s performances throughout were one of the main reasons why. On my Twitter account @AdamOfTheBAN, I touched on part of why this was the case. Unlike most wrestlers in NJPW (and throughout the wrestling world, for that matter), Zack Sabre, Jr. can win with almost any move in his arsenal—whether it be the Zack/Michinoku Driver, any variety of cradles or rollups, or a seemingly endless supply of creative and unique submission finishers.
For whatever reason, NJPW has done with ZSJ what they haven’t done with almost anyone else—they have invested wins in all those different finishes so that when the time comes for a title match or tournament final, the fans are on the edge of their seats with every nearfall or submission attempt.
On the other end of the New Japan Cup Final, Tetsuya Naito had a somewhat similar path to the match with ZSJ. While he hit the running version of the Destino throughout the tournament for nearfalls, he never cleanly landed the proper Destino to win any matches in the tournament. Rather, he used a variety of flash pins including the Polvo de Estrella to pick victories over the likes of Tanahashi, Okada, and the others.
The end result of this was a New Japan Cup Final that legitimately felt like it could end at any time with either man getting the victory. Because of that this may have been the most outwardly vocal NJPW crowd in the pandemic era, with the fans reacting to every nearfall and unable to suppress their gasps at each nearfall or submission escape.
The finishing sequence that led to ZSJ winning the Cup was a perfect encapsulation of everything that NJPW did right in this tournament. After escaping the Polvo de Estrella and getting a close PK nearfall, ZSJ hit the rebounding tornado DDT out of the corner and held on to roll through into a jumping Zack Driver for the victory. Beyond his incredible timing and technical wrestling, ZSJ’s selling of an in-match rib injury was by far they best he has ever done in that element of the game as well.
As high-end as the New Japan Cup Final was, ZSJ’s semifinal with the Shingo Takagi was the best match of the tournament, the best match in NJPW this year to date, and a shortlist candidate for 2022 Match of the Year. The dynamic between the two is perfect every time out, as each man’s style is the other man’s proverbial kryptonite. As good as their IWGP World Title match was last year, their G1 match that proceeded it was the match of the tournament and one of the best in all of wrestling last year.
Here in the 2022 New Japan Cup semifinal, the action throughout was at the same level but it was the finish that took this beyond what we saw from them last year. As ZSJ locked on the rear naked choke, Takagi tried every way possible to escape or throw him off of his back. This culminated in Takagi slowly and walking to the corner with ZSJ still on his back, dramatically walking up the ropes in that position, and then leaping backwards off the second rope as they both crashed to the mat to one of the loudest pops of the pandemic era. Zack briefly relinquished the choke on impact but kept the bodyscissors intact, immediately locked the RNC back on, and worked to flatten Takagi out and score the immediate tap out from that position.
To put all of this more simply—if the argument about the best match of the tournament is among three matches featuring the same wrestler in each, it’s pretty safe to say that he was the MVP in the tournament and is one of the best wrestlers of the world at this point.
The Okada vs Naito semifinal did not reach the levels of either ZSJ match on that weekend, but it would have been the best match on most major shows and was impressive in being so compelling just weeks after the met with even higher stakes for the IWGP World Title.
Another very impressive performance came from T-Hawk of StrongHearts/GLEAT, who had an incredible sequence with Okada in an eight-man tag on March 27th that also featured the legendary Tatsumi Fujinami. StrongHearts again looked great in NJPW here, while Fujinami’s ongoing participation in the company’s 50’s anniversary year continues to be one of the best stories of 2022.
NJPW’s next major show is on April 9th, headlined by Kazuchika Okada vs Zach Sabre, Jr. for the IWGP World Title.
THREE COUNT: Pro Wrestling NOAH, TAKA-TAICHI MANIA, Fale NZ Dojo Graduates, and more
Pro Wrestling NOAH returns to action as they head toward back-to-back nights at Ryogoku Sumo Hall, with an all-junior heavyweight show on April 29th and a heavyweight show headlined by Kazayuki Fujita vs Katsuhiko Nakajima for the GHC Heavyweight Title on April 30th.
NOAH is taking the biggest step of any Japanese promotion in bringing in foreigners, with the following scheduled to appear on those Ryogoku shows:
El Hijo de Dr. Wagner
Before they get to Ryogoku, NOAH has several noteworthy match on tap in early April. They include:
Hideki Suzuki vs Manabu Soya
GHC Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Titles: Atsushi Kotoge & YO-HEY vs Tadasuke & Hajime Ohara
Hideki Suzuki vs Katsuhiko Nakajima
Takashi Sugiura & Kazayuki Fujita vs Go Shiozaki & Masato Tanaka
Takashi Sugiura vs Kenoh
The next installment of TAKA-TAICHI MANIA, which follows on the heels of the Taichi vs DOUKI classic at the second installment, is at Korakuen Hall on May 6th. The announced DOUKI & El Desperado vs Jun Kasai and Tomoaki Honma special tag team match is fascinating on multiple levels.
This will be the first interaction between Desperado and Kasai since their 2019 TAKA-TAICHI MANIA death match that led to Desperado suffering a broken jaw and being forced to pull out of NJPW’s Best of the Junior Tournament that year. The other is the reuniting of Kasai and Honma, who teamed together (and faced each other) several times all the way back in 2000 in Big Japan Wrestling (BJW).
Nanae Takahashi made several apperances in recent weeks after making the decision to go freelance late last year. She appeared at STARDOM World Climax on March 27th before the Syuri vs Mayu Iwatani main event, joining Rossy Ogawa to present the World of Stardom Championship belt as part of the pre-match ceremony. This held special significance for Takahashi and the company, as she was the original World of Stardom Champion in 2011.
Earlier that week, Takahashi appeared at GLEAT’s G-Pro Wrestling event on March 23rd event to declare her participation in the company and issue a challenge for GLEAT’s April 20th show. Takahashi confronted Michiko Miyagi and Yukari Hosokawa, the only two women who are regulars in GLEAT, and said she will bring a partner to the G-Pro Wrestling show on April 20th to challenge them. GLEAT also announced that Kaz Hayashi sustained an injury on that same March 23rd show and will miss an extended period of time.
Now that the LION’S ROAR documentary series has concluded, I highly recommend binging it on NJPW World if you have not yet done so. It was a very well produced and insightful look at Bad Luck Fale’s NJPW New Zealand Dojo, and is probably the closest behind-the-scenes look we will ever get at what it is like to train in a NJPW-affiliated school. Fale comes off very well as a trainer—stern but caring, invested in the development of his students, and uncompromising in his approach of replicating the NJPW dojo itself in training methods and standards.
SPOILER! STOP READING HERE IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHO RECEIVED NJPW CONTRACTS AT THE END OF THE FINAL EPISODE!
The main storyline undercurrent cutting through the entire series was the journey of Michael Richards, the longest-tenured member of the Fale/New Zealand Dojo. He had an ill-fated tour of NJPW representing the Fale Dojo (as it was then known) in the 2019 New Japan Young Lion Cup. He was nowhere near the level of his New Japan and LA Dojo peers in the tournament and was bluntly told as much by NJPW management after one of his matches.
Fast forward to today and after seven long years with Fale in the Dojo, received a one-year NJPW Young Lion contract. He has completely transformed his body since that 2019 tour and seems to be highly motivated to finally succeed where he has once failed. Fellow New Zealand Dojo students Jake Taylor and Andrew Villalobos were also awarded Young Lion contracts, with Villalobos showing serious star potential in his time on the LION’S ROAR show. Their NJPW debuts (or in Richards’ case, re-debut) have not yet been announced.