Issue #4: Three Count Fall
Stardom's Nagoya Supreme Fight, NJPW Stars Shine in Rev Pro, and a Trip Around the Rings
ONE COUNT: Stardom Nagoya Supreme Fight 2022
As unrealistic of an expectation as it may be, the standard for Stardom’s PPV events has become cards with at least one, if not several, legitimate Match of the Year candidates and exciting action up and down the rest of the lineup.
For Nagoya Supreme Fight 2022, the expectation wasn’t necessarily for title changes as most of the major matches were largely foregone conclusions and the one that wasn’t—the Tam Nakano vs Giulia vs Mayu Iwantani three-way contendership match—ended up not taking place.
Coming into the show, the most intriguing match on several levels was the Wonder of Stardom Championship match between Syuri and challenger MIRAI. As I have written about in recent weeks, MIRAI is a wrestler with an incredibly high ceiling but one who also has not been tested at anywhere remotely near this level before. In a another sign of Stardom’s strength right now and the goodwill they have engendered with their fanbase, this show drew a healthy 1,306 fans for a show headlined by Syuri’s first title defense against a relative unknown.
Syuri’s goal was clearly to give MIRAI every opportunity to showcase why she belongs in this spot, dishing out enough punishment to give MIRAI credibility in overcoming it, and having to use her new “super finisher” Red World to put here away.
From an in-ring perspective, this was by far the most impressive performance of MIRAI’s career. With a repertoire that is still very much rooted in basic and fundamental moves, MIRAI’s strengths as a wrestler are revealed much more in a match like this (or her draw with Unagi Sayaka one week previous) than in multi-person tag team matches or the mostly short matches she had during her time in TJPW.
MIRAI had several strong nearfalls with her Jumbo Tsuruta-esque lariats and a spinning death valley driver variation, but Syuri eventually prevailed with a series of head kicks and the aforementioned Red World. It really was the perfect balance of what the match needed to be, with MIRAI standing toe-to-toe with Stardom’s most dominant wrestler (slotting her as a championship-level wrestler to a mostly unfamiliar audience) but ultimately falling in conclusive fashion (showing that Syuri is still a level above her). This was also another successful exercise in boldness paying off for Stardom, as MIRAI is now in that Maika/Himeka/Hazuki tier of being a threat to credibly challenge for a championship at any time.
The semi-main event was not even scheduled to be on the card in the format it was until the day of the show, as COVID/COVID exposure-related “poor physical condition” led to Tam Nakano being pulled from the three way. The result was that one of Stardom’s most protected and intriguing singles matches, Mayu Iwatani vs Giulia, would now be happening on very short notice.
Their record going into this match was 1-1-1 (with Giulia winning in their 2020 5 Star GP match, Iwatani winning their 2021 tournament match, and the two going to a 15 minute draw in May 2021), and you’d have to imagine that Stardom had something specific planned for a “tiebreaker” match this year, likely with one of them as the World of Stardom champion.
From that perspective, the ultimate result of the match at NAGOYA SUPREME FIGHT seemed likely to be a 30 minute draw…and while that’s exactly what ended up happening, the journey there led to arguably the 2022 MOTY through the first month of the year.
The contrast between the two wrestlers—in-ring style, personality, background—is fascinating and always makes for a compelling dynamic. Iwatani is the symbol of everything Stardom has been from the very beginning, while Giulia is emblematic of Stardom’s growth and their embrace of outside talent. Their in-ring chemistry is interesting, because it isn’t 100 percent smooth and seamless, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When I’m watching Starlight Kid and AZM, the speed and precision while being almost perfectly in-sync is what makes their matches so special. Here with Giulia and Iwatani, it’s the oil-and-water nature of what they do that makes the exchanges so compelling.
This was an incredible match that just built and built and built into something special by the end. Like many of 2021’s draws in Stardom, NJPW, AJPW, and NOAH, this would be the clear Match of the Year if it had a decisive winner. As-is, it is still the clubhouse leader for 2022. The combination of Giulia’s presence and Iwatani’s otherworldly selling took this to a different level by the end. Iwatani’s Kawada-meets-Ibushi wobbly-legged selling as she slowly and dramatically scaled the corner and tried to find her footing on the top rope has to be seen to be believed—in an era of incredible offensive moves happening at a breakneck pace, this may have been my favorite in-ring moment of any wrestling match in several years.
For my money and personal tastes, I enjoyed this more than any of the Utami Hayashishita vs Syuri matches in 2021. As incredible as those were, neither had Iwatani’s selling and ability to build the intensity of a match through more than just dishing out harder and harder strikes. While completely different sylistically, Iwatani is similar to Kazuchika Okada in that they are SO great that it’s almost easy to forget how great they are…and then the moment they are back in the title scene, you realize “oh yeah, they’re still the best wrestler in the world!”
Following Iwatani landing that moonsault in the waning moments of the match, they did indeed reach the 30-minute time limit. The decision was made by Rossy Ogawa at ringside to give each Iwatani and Giulia their own respective Red Belt championship matches at Stardom Ryogoku shows on March 26th and 27th.
For Giulia, though, it appears that a title match won’t be the only significant action she sees on those events. The shock appearance of PROMINENCE, the Ice Ribbon-breakaway stable featuring Risa Sera, Suzu Suzuki, and others, lead to a declaration of all-out war between the group and Giulia (playing off the very real and controversial exit of Giulia from Ice Ribbon in 2019) and Donna del Mondo as a whole.
In other championship action, Saya Kamitani made her first successful defense of the Wonder of Stardom Championship. This was very good by the end, but the opening minutes of grappling/mat wrestling didn’t play into Kamitani’s strengths and there is always going to be a ceiling on Sayaka’s title matches. The Goddesses of Stardom tag team title match between FWC (Hazuki and Koguma) and MaiHime (Maika and Himeka) is definitely worth going out of your way to watch, though, The finish—Koguma rolling through a pin Himeka pin after a devastating lariat to get the flash pin—helped set up a similar nearfall in the Giulia-Iwatani match, and Himeka’s violent reaction also seemed to plant some additional seeds in the “Himeka has a temper” story that we started to see in her dissention with Natsupoi last year.
The fact that I am 1,100 words into this article without having even written about the second match on the show, which featured four of Stardom’s top stars, tells you how deep this card was. The story of Momo Watanabe’s betrayal of Queen’s Quest continued as Watanabe and Starlight Kid got the win over Hayashishita and AZM in 10 minutes of great action that was highlighted by Momo and SLK debuting a new double-team Shouten Kai. Starlight Kid scored the fall over AZM with a beautiful top rope Spanish Fly.
Look for more on Stardom in this issue’s THREE COUNT section, as they had an eventful and newsworthy show at Korakuen Hall on February 1st.
TWO COUNT: NJPW Stars Highlight RevPro’s High Stakes 2022 Event
While NJPW stayed dark for another week until shows resume from their COVID-related hiatus on Feb. 6th, their sister promotion in the UK put on a noteworthy major show featuring two of the best matches of 2022 to date.
From an international intrigue standpoint, the Gabriel Kidd vs Francesco Akira is about as unique as wrestling gets these days. You had two young wrestlers who spent well over a year in Japan training and wrestling during the most difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kidd was on tour with NJPW in Japan after joining the LA Dojo—after the pandemic, Kidd stayed in Japan to continue his training alongside Young Lions Yota Tsuji and Yuya Uemura. During that time, Kidd blossomed as a wrestler (see his tremendous New Japan Cup match with Zack Sabre, Jr.) and was consistently one of the most compelling promos in New Japan’s backstage comments after each show.
Francesco Akira, meanwhile, was discovered by Tajiri while on tour in Europe. Akira impressed and was brought to All japan Pro Wrestling by Tajiri—when the pandemic began to take hold in Japan, Akira moved into the AJPW Dojo and stayed there for well over a year (see the great documentary AJPW produced on Akira’s time in the Dojo, with English subtitles). Akira improved dramatically during his time in AJPW, culminating in a brief AJPW World Junior Heavyweight title run before he returned home to Europe.
Their match at RPW High Stakes on Jan 29th provided both men a platform to showcase their growth as wrestlers, as well as the training of their respective home promotions in Japan. Kidd, in particular, is on an incredible roll right now and is already legitimately one of the best wrestlers on the world. His matches are not predictable and he thrives in just about every style, with great matwork and an intensity and aggressiveness in-ring that separates him from other similar wrestlers—in some ways, he is beginning to resemble a modern-day Fit Finlay.
Kidd took control early with incredible intensity and the match was off to the races from there. Going just 15 minutes, there was no feeling out process and no wasted time or motion. Francesco hit a moonsault to the floor—moments later, Kidd responded with an Exploder suplex on the ramp. Francesco went for a double leg takedown—Kidd countered with one of the most violent drop kicks I have ever see. Francesco threw forearms—Kidd responded with gunshot-level chops.
As the match neared a close, Kidd landed a hard lariat after a series of lightning-fast ducks and reversals. A brainbuster and spinning tombstone piledriver quickly followed, leading to the three count for Kidd. This was as good of a midcard match as you will ever see—they maximized the time they had and then some. Between this match and his NJPW STRONG efforts against Jonathan Gresham and Eddie Kingston in recent months, Kidd is one of the wrestlers to watch in 2022.
The main event, meanwhile, was one of the most unique matches of the past several years and is at the very top of the best matches we’ve seen so far this year. Will Ospreay vs Michael Oku headlined High Stakes, with Ospreay’s Undisputed British Heavyweight Title on the line in a match that could not end due to any sort of referee stoppage—only by pinfall or submission.
I try not to speak in superlatives here, but just about everything in the presentation of this match was perfect. From the opening video package setting the scene, to the entrances with Oku’s family ringside, to the match itself, and the postmatch scene. It may have been the most effective fusion of the modern, fast-paced, high athletic wrestling style with the more heated, emotional, believably violent action of the territory-style presentation of wrestling that I grew up on.
To be 100 percent clear—I am not a regular viewer of RevPro shows outside of the directly NJPW-adjacent matches they promote, so I have seen very little of Oku before…but I do know that his incredibly compelling and sympathetic babyface performance in this match should give him a shot in NJPW, if he wants it. Much like Ospreay’s performance against Kazuchika Okada years ago in RevPro, this is the level of performance that should open eyes in larger promotions than Oku currently wrestles for.
The finish, with Ospreay hitting multiple Hidden Blade elbow strikes, as Oku’s girlfriend and family/entourage tried in vain to throw in the towel to save him, was as emotionally-charged as anything I’ve seen in-ring in quite some time. And that was coming in completely cold as a viewer who had not seen Oku or the build to this match before—I can just imagine what the match was like for people who have had an emotional investment in his story. For those reasons, this may have been the most impressive overall in-ring performance of Will Ospreay’s career.
On the undercard, Yota Tsuji and Shota Umino had a very good match that really picked up once the Legion influence was lessened in the closing stretch. Tsuji continues to impress on excursion, putting himself in the conversation as a potential top star whenever he returns to NJPW in the coming years. Umino also looked great here, having one of his best RevPro performances and continuing to put the pieces back together after a star-crossed first year-plus of his excursion. Also of note, Alex Coughlin had an impressive first post-Young Lion appearance in an unannounced match with Gideon Gray to open the show.
THREE COUNT: Around the Ring - Stardom, TJPW, DDT, Pro Wrestling NOAH
On the TJPW front, the final of the Futari No Princess Max Heart Tournament is set after Jan 29th’s semifinals saw the teams of Miu Watanabe & Rika Tatsumi and Nodoka Tenma & Yuki Aino advance. It’s a bit of a curious final, as more interesting teams with at least one outsider (ASUKA, teaming Yuki Kamifuku) and one rookie star with significant buzz (Yuki Arai, teaming Moka Miyamoto) fell in the semifinals. The double champion team of Miyu Yamashita & Maki Itoh lost in the quarterfinals, as did the young upstart team of Suzume and Arisu Endo.
This tournament feels somewhat indicative of where TJPW as a whole seems to be right now—caught in between. They don’t have enough main event-level wrestlers, but they don’t seem to be in any particular rush to get anyone like Suzume or Endo there after losing potential main eventer Mirai Maiumi to Stardom. The lineup for TJPW’s Feb. 11th Korakuen Hall show includes:
International Princess Championship: Maki Itoh (C) vs Yuki Kamifuku
Tournament Final: Miu Watanabe & Rika Tatsumi vs Nodoka Tenma & Yuki Aino
Yuki Arai vs Suzume
Arisu Endo vs Moka Miyamoto
DDT kicked off their tag team tournament this week as well, before 516 fans at Korakuen Hall. The show was headlined by Daisuke Sasaki defending the Universal Title over Minoru Fujita.
More than any of that, though, I am still perplexed by the career path of Yusuke Okada in DDT as we enter 2022. He was booked horrendously in the second half of 2020 in his former home of AJPW, falling below the subsequent class of AJPW trainees and dropping falls in matches that included the likes Seigo Tachibana, Ikeman Jiro, and CHIKARA. His initial entrance into DDT seemed promising, particularly his pair of very good matches with Yuki Ueno last year and his alliance with Jun Akiyama. He is now a part of the new BURNING stable with Akiyama and Tetsuya Endo, but is a complete afterthought and hasn’t even been featured on the main card in many instances. Throughout his career we’ve seen flashes of the skill, timing, and natural ability that he has, but even at a relatively young age (28) time seems to be running out for him to become a significant player.
News in Stardom this week was not limited to their NAGOYA SUPREME FIGHT show, as they also held a Feb. 1st event at Korakuen Hall headlined by Starlight Kidd vs Natsupoi for the High Speed Title. Rather than the usual lightning fast, short matches that the High Speed belt is usually contested in, this was a 30 minute draw that had some uneven moments early but really picked up steam late when playing into the fast-paced strengths of both wrestlers. While draws are more commonplace in Stardom than any other promotion, it’s hard to complain when the action is as good as it usually is and was here.
Following the show, several announcements were made for key matches at Stardom’s upcoming major shows:
Feb. 23rd in Nagaoka:
Wonder of Stardom Title Match (C) Saya Kamitani vs Natsupoi
Goddesses of Stardom Title Match (C) Hazuki & Koguma vs Unagi Sayaka & Mina Shirakawa
High Speed Title Match (C) Starlight Kid vs AZM (look for more on this in an upcoming issue, as SLK and AZM might be the most exciting matchup of any two wrestlers in the world right now from an in-ring chemistry and quickness standpoint
DDM Ryogoku Outpost Battle: Syuri, Maika & Himeka vs Giulia, Thekla & MIRAI
March 26 at Ryogoku Kokugikan
World of Stardom title match (C) Syuri vs Giulia
March 27 at Ryogoku Kokugikan
World of Stardom title match (C) Syuri or Giulia vs Mayu Iwatani (if Giulia defeats Syuri and goes on to defend against Iwatani here, the draw on Jan 29th makes even more sense
It was also announced that we will see the first PROMINENCE vs DDM skirmish at the next Korakuen Hall event, in the form of Risa Sera and Akane Fujita vs Syuri and Thekla. The build toward the “mystery woman” also continues, with speculation continuing to be centered around Kairi Hojo (Sane) appearing at Ryogoku in some capacity. Stardom also announced New Blood 1, the first in a series of shows beginning March 11th. While details are scarce at press time, the concept seems to be similar the long-defunct Lion’s Gate Project in NJPW, which saw the promotion’s young wrestlers battle their peers from other promotions.
Something else to watch for next week is Pro Wrestling NOAH’s series of shows at Korakuen Hall on Feb. 9th, 10th, and 11th. Key matches include:
Feb 9th - GHC Jr. Heavyweight Title: Daisuke Harada (c) vs. Tadasuke
Feb 9th - Go Shiozaki vs. Masato Tanaka
Feb. 10th - Naomichi Marufuji vs. Go Shiozaki
Feb. 10th - GHC National Title: Masakatsu Funaki (c) vs. Masaaki Mochizuki
Feb. 11th - Go Shiozaki vs. Kenoh
ABEMA TV (Feb 9th) and Wrestle Universe (Feb. 10th/11th) are promising the highest production quality ever for a wrestling show at Korakuen Hall. It is continually fascinating to see the difference between the Wrestle Universe service, with an ever-expanding roster of promotions (GCW being the latest) and technological innovation, and NJPW World, which seems content to be largely the same streaming service it has been since its inception.