At 11:45am on Sunday June 17th the bell rang to signal the start of the Stardom Goddess of Destiny 2018 show at Korakuen Hall. The show was headlined by the new Wonder of Stardom Champion, Momo Watanabe, making her first title defence against Jungle Kyona. Momo represents new blood in Stardom – she is only 18 years old – and clearly the company has faith in her given that she won the title clean at Stardom Gold Star back in May. However, this show was completely overshadowed by the semi-main event – the final match of the Ace of Stardom and arguably the best women’s wrestler in the world, Io Shirai.
Tokyo Sports broke the news at the end of May that Io Shirai was planning to leave Stardom, and Io and Stardom owner Rossy Ogawa confirmed this at a press conference a few days later. When they announced that the show on June 17th was going to be Io’s last ever show ticket sales spiked to the point that they sold over 1,500 tickets for what ended up essentially being a sold out crowd at Korakuen (for comparison they Stardom Anniversary show in January this year drew around 1,000 people to Korakuen.) Io picked Mayu Iwatani as her partner for her final match, reuniting their Thunder Rock tag team for one last time to take on the Oedo Tai team of Kagetsu and Hazuki, her former Queen’s Quest protégé.
The show opened with matches between some of Stardom’s less experienced members, and two tag team matches, the first between members of Queen’s Quest, AZM and Konami, against Starlight Kid and Shiki Shibusawa; the second between the visiting Zoe Lucas and Deonna Purazzo against Tam Nakano and Saki Kashima. The crowd was hot for these matches, particularly for the Queen’s Quest and Stars teams, but that was nothing compared to the reaction when the pre-match videos about Io’s career began. The Oedo Tai team entered first, and got a very good reaction, but they were clearly not the focus of this event.
Mayu Iwatani entered next, a superstar in her own right, but the reaction for Io herself blew everything else out of the water. For one last time Io’s music played in Korakuen Hall, and she entered resplendent in her silver and red mask. On the footage uploaded to Stardom World you can tell that Io felt the significance of the moment before she entered, although once she was in the ring there were no signs of nerves. A hug with Mayu preceded the ring introductions, and Io was enveloped in a cloud of purple and white streamers as she was introduced to the crowd.
The match itself was great, a twenty five minute bout that combined serious, hard-hitting wrestling with some comedy spots, such as the entire roster hitting Io with dropkicks in the corner (except for Konami who hugged her, and Natsu Sumire who took a selfie.) It was a vehicle for Io to show off her amazing talent – she really is such a smooth worker in the ring, and always moves at a pace that is so fast – but also allowed the others to shine. Kagetsu recently defeated Toni Storm for the top belt in Stardom, the World of Stardom Championship, and this match planted the seeds for a future challenge from Mayu. Hazuki split from Queen’s Quest in the recent Stardom draft, and has had issues with Io for not drafting her, and she took the opportunity to work out some of those issues by hitting Io hard in this match. At only twenty years of age Hazuki has a bright future ahead of her as one of the rising stars of the promotion.
Ultimately though, this match was about Io, and she went above and beyond to deliver a great final match. The highlight of the match came when the action spilled into the audience, and Io ended up moonsaulting off the top of the stairwell onto Kagetsu and Hazuki. Io hit another picture-perfect moonsault on Kagetsu back in the ring, before Mayu won the match with a bridging dragon suplex. Post-match Mayu delivered a heartfelt promo about the future of Stardom, including a challenge to Kagetsu, before Io was presented with flowers and said her last farewell to the Stardom audience that she had helped to build over the last seven years.
Although it hasn’t been confirmed, it is widely assumed that Io will now be going to WWE, following in the footsteps of Kairi Sane who left Stardom last year before debuting in the Mae Young Classic. At the time Kairi left Io was also interested in signing with WWE, but for some reason the deal fell through (rumours swirled that it was a medical issue, although this was never confirmed.) There has been no official announcement yet, but it is probably safe to say that Io will be involved in this year’s Mae Young Classic. Io leaves Stardom now in a better position than if both she and Kairi had left last year – in the hands of Momo, Kagetsu, and Mayu, along with younger talent like Hazuki, Hana Kimura, Tam Nakano, and Starlight Kid, there is a bright future for the promotion.
If Io does end up in WWE, a part of me will be happy that she is getting wider exposure, because she really does deserve to be seen by as many people as possible. Her talent and all-around wrestling ability is so high that she deserves to have the global spotlight that WWE can provide. I have deep reservations about the potential booking of Io if she does end up in WWE, particularly since it is widely accepted that the main roster booking rarely, if ever, lives up to NXT booking. However, Io really has done everything that there was to do in Stardom, so it is perhaps not surprising that she wishes to move on to new challenges, and a less physically taxing style of wrestling in the US.
Io’s departure from Stardom brings up two wider issues that have been surfaced online recently. Firstly, the question of WWE signing talent almost just for the sake of signing talent. WWE has recently established an NXT UK brand, which involved signing a lot of top British indie talent to deals, in a move that was seen partly as a cynical attempt to undercut the upcoming World of Sport Wrestling that is supported by a TV deal with ITV. The level of commitment to producing a UK product remains to be seen, but the fact is that a lot of the most established British talent are now signed to WWE deals, and cannot appear for other companies that broadcast their shows. This approach hasn’t been limited to the UK, as WWE has been raiding US indies for several years now, as well as Stardom who lost several of their regular foreigner wrestlers this year, in addition to Kairi and Io. WWE’s increasing attempts to have a global monopoly on wrestling strikes me as a worrying development for the general health of professional wrestling. I have nothing against people who enjoy WWE, but one of the most exciting things about being a wrestling fan in 2018 is the choice to watch something other than the WWE product. If WWE can just throw money at a company to poach their top stars eventually smaller promotions won’t be able to continue replenishing their rosters. The second largest promotion, New Japan Pro Wrestling, is still far behind WWE in terms of finances, and could face the prospect of losing some of their top stars when the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega become free agents in 2019.
This leads into the second issue currently surrounding Joshi wrestling, the idea that New Japan ought to have a women’s division. Ever since WWE ran the Greatest Royal Rumble in Saudi Arabia, and rightly received criticism for excluding women from the card, New Japan have been criticised for also not having a women’s division. The people who are making this criticism seem to mostly be WWE fans, and I certainly haven’t seen Joshi fans arguing for this, but the argument seems to be that NJPW ought to use their platform to support women’s wrestling, and presumably if they did there might be less of a need for women to go to WWE. This argument has been eloquently argued against by many people online (in particular @toshanshuinLA and @puroresuroad’s own Twitter account,) and to echo their sentiments, anyone who seriously suggests this is ignoring the history of women’s wrestling in Japan. Beyond the fact that joshi wrestling is thriving in Japan outside of the confines of a single mega-company, the suggestion that New Japan would be able to successfully book a women’s division is questionable. It might give women a bigger stage, but it would also give them a much lower ceiling. I haven’t seen any Joshi wrestlers clamouring to work on a New Japan show, and my suspicion is that they are quite happy being able to lead promotions like Stardom and Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling (which is backed by Abema TV,) rather than be relegated to the undercard of a men’s promotion. Instead of arguing that New Japan should be doing something, supporting Joshi promotions via their online streaming services, or buying tickets when in Japan is a much more practical way to contribute to supporting women in Japan. Beyond Stardom and TJPW there are numerous Joshi promotions to support, including Sendai Girls, Ice Ribbon, and Wave, along with several promotions that do book women alongside men, such as DDT.
Getting back to Io Shirai, although her future is uncertain, WWE is holding a show in Tokyo on June 29th and 30th, so it is quite likely that she will be in attendance and be introduced to the crowd at those shows. There has been a rumour online that another legendary joshi wrestler, Meiko Satomura, will be in the Mae Young Classic this year. Leading up to her final Stardom show, Io appeared on Kenta Kobashi’s show Fortune Dream 5, in a triple threat against Meiko and Hiroyo Matsumoto. This match saw three of the best women in Japan go against each other in a great fifteen minute match, which ended in a time-limit draw. If Io and Meiko face each other in the Mae Young Classic it would really demonstrate the quality of the Japanese women’s wrestling scene. Wherever Io goes to continue wrestling she deserves to be watched in her attempts to elevate professional wrestling to even greater heights.
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