A Ray of Light Gone Too Soon

Before my first trip to Japan in late 2015, my initial exposure to most Joshi wrestlers I was familiar with came via Shimmer Women Athletes. In 2012 Shimmer announced Leon would be debuting at the company’s March tapings, along with her tag team partner Ray. I wasn’t familiar with either, so my first glimpse at their work was via highlight clips as I looked into Shimmer’s newest Joshi visitors. Both were impressive, talented veterans and fantastic additions to the Shimmer roster. But with all due respect to Leon, it’s Ray who immediately captured my attention and a few short clips were all it took to make her an instant favorite of mine.

 

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Ray combined innovative offense, like her fantastic Cartwheel-Bomb, with a crispness and smooth execution that made her an absolute delight to watch. Already being nearly a ten year vet when I started watching her, she was at the top of her game and incredibly precise in everything she did. She came to Shimmer twice, covering a total of eight matches taped over two different weekends set two years apart. I spotlighted her and Leon’s title match against Ayako Hamada & Ayumi Kurihara on volume 47 as a shining example of Shimmer’s tag division looking back during Shimmer’s 10th Anniversary, and they were always a treat to watch.

It was during Ray’s second trip in 2014 that I was lucky enough to attend live, seeing her & Leon tear the house down in tag matches against three different teams that all had or would hold Shimmer’s tag belts at some point (the Canadian Ninjas (Nicole Matthews & Portia Perez), 3G (reigning tag champs at the time Kellie Skater & Tomoka Nakagawa), and the Kimber Bombs (Cherry Bomb & Kimber Lee)), as well as a singles encounter for Ray against Mia Yim. Again, every match was a treat to see and Ray was incredible.

In December of 2015 I made my first trip to Japan and saw several excellent shows and matches. One of my most anticipated things was getting to see Ray again, and it was nice to get to talk to her again and see her tag with Alex Lee against Takako Inoue & Karou at Marvelous’ 12/20 show. Unfortunately this would turn out to be one of Ray’s final matches, as to start JWP’s Climax a week later she came out to announce she was pulled from the show due to illness. That illness would sadly later be revealed to be a malignant, inoperable brain tumor.

Ray fought her cancer emphatically, and there was always a tiny bit of hope and prayer in everyone’s minds of a recovery and comeback for her. Unfortunately Ray succumbed recently and passed away. In the ring and out she was an inspiration, and she will be greatly missed.

 

Shimmer Weekend November 2017 Live Thoughts

November 11-12, 2017 in Berwyn, IL

I’d like to share some (long overdue) thoughts on Shimmer’s fall 2017 taping weekend as we head into the first one of 2018. I’m going to change the format a bit compared to my previous write ups and approach this by topic and highlights rather than trying to go match by match.

 

Return of the Joshi

These tapings saw Joshi talent return to Shimmer for the first time in three taping weekends (about a year and a half). The Japanese talent bring a particular energy and various styles that are missed when absent, so it was great to see them back. Beyond that the lineup itself was a treat with three big returns and a debut.

 

 

 

Starting with the debut, Aoi Kizuki made her first US appearances as part of these shows. I’m familiar with Aoi from the tail end of her 10-year career in Ice Ribbon as well as her freelance work for companies like Wave and Gatoh Move the last couple of years. She’d talked about wanting to come overseas to wrestle and I was very excited to see her get the opportunity.

 

 

 

She had a strong debut in a really good match against the newly proclaimed “Joshi Gatekeeper” Mia Yim despite coming up short (keeping Mia strong for an important match announced for later in the day), showed off her unique offense and enthusiasm in a pair of establishing wins over Veda Scott and Chelsea Green in decent affairs, and teamed with a returning Joshi (and Shimmer mainstay) Hiroyo Matsumoto against Chelsea and her tag partner Britt Baker (known as Fire & Nice) to finish the weekend. I wasn’t surprised to see Aoi work with Veda given both card placement and their familiarity with each other from Veda’s time in Japan. The tag match was largely comedy, allowing the four to play around a bit with a lot of antics centered around Hiroyo’s Godzilla mask. The established duo of Fire & Nice pulled this one out with a pin on Aoi to have her go 50-50 over her debut weekend.

 

 

It’s always great to see Hiroyo back in Shimmer and her other matches saw her facing off with (comparatively) newer Shimmer talent in Hudson Envy and Kellyanne. Both matches were excellent with great work from all involved, and Kellyanne’s upset victory over Hiroyo likely signals a strong push for one of Shimmer’s brightest up and comers. Hiroyo also appeared on Rise 5: Rising Sun the previous Friday night in a fun 6-woman tag teaming with Dynamite DiDi & Rachael Ellering against The Blue Nation (Charli Evans & Jessica Troy) & Aja Kong.

 

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Hikaru Shida made a lasting impression and was strongly pushed when she appeared in Shimmer in 2013-2014, so her return has been long anticipated. She had a large role in stories over the the course of these volumes which I’ll talk about a little later, then finished the weekend with a big victory over two-time Shimmer Champion Cheerleader Melissa.

 

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The biggest news as far as returns was of course the legendary Aja Kong, who had only appeared in Shimmer in a one match prior as part of Tomoka Nakagawa’s retirement weekend in an 8-woman tag, coming back to Shimmer. Seeing her in a singles match live was a treat, and having it be the previously mentioned match for “Joshi Gatekeeper” Mia Yim was even better. The two put on a PHENOMENAL back and forth, “David vs Goliath” style contest that claims match of the weekend honors against a tough field. Can’t say how lucky I feel to have seen this live and had the opportunity to meet Kong and get a picture the following day.

Also, like Shida, Kong had a large role in stories over the the course of these volumes which I’ll talk about… right now:

 

 

Num-ber One!

Early on in Volume 96 Mercedes Martinez & Nicole Savoy came to the ring to discuss Shayna Baszler has gone on to greener pastures (she had signed with WWE in between tapings), but that Trifecta was recruiting a new member……Aja Kong! This was a quite a surprise and a perfect use of the legend for the weekend. Subtle dissension starts as Mercedes declares Kong the new #2 in Trifecta, which Savoy shows some resentment towards.

 

 

Later on the same volume Savoy would face Shida in what seemed likely to set up a challenge to Shimmer Championship. Indeed, after prevailing in an excellent match Shida would go on to face Mercedes for the title on Volume 97. Post match Savoy showed respect to Shida and offered a handshake, drawing the ire of her new teammate Kong who came out and dragged Savoy to the back.

On Volume 97 Savoy got a huge victory of her own over former champion Saraya Knight (in what was a bit of a dream match for me and was every bit as great as I hoped). The main event was interesting, with the structure being more about Mercedes dominating by attacking Shida’s bad knee and wanting a reluctant Savoy to cheat and help her cripple her opponent. It was very well done and a great story, but I was honestly surprised Shida never felt like a threat and this wasn’t the match I was expecting between the two. But again, that’s not a bad thing.

 

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After Mercedes successfully fended off Shida’s bid she decided she wasn’t done trying to cripple the Joshi and she and Kong held Shida down while demanding Savoy attack with a chair. In a nice bit of story telling Savoy was even more reluctant because they were targeting Shida’s knee, and Savoy herself had gone through a knee injury and had no desire to inflict it on someone else. To a thunderous audience reaction she attacked Trifecta instead (including an amusingly soft chair shot on Kong you could almost tell Savoy didn’t want to be giving). In a show of how well everything was set up, the crowd jumped right on the (admittedly obvious) cues and would continually taunt Mercedes and Kong by chanting “NUM-BER ONE!” for Savoy for the remainder of the weekend. Veteran Kong had to be thrilled with how much nuclear heat she was able to generate just by responding “THREE!” repeatedly.

 

 

The next day it all exploded with a tag match pitting Mercedes & Kong against Savoy & Shida on Volume 98. They hit all the right story notes and had the expected excellent encounter that ended with Kong WAYLAYING Savoy behind the refs back with a thunderous shot from Kong’s trademark mini garbage can leading to the win. Lexi Fyfe comes out (amid fantastic “what did I do wrong?” shrugs and facial expressions from Kong), declares the ref incompetent, and gives Savoy a shot at revenge, and her former mentor’s title, at Shimmer 99.

 

 

That resulting match was the perfect culmination of the story and Savoy’s well deserved ascent up Shimmer’s card as she overcame Mercedes’ relentless assault (and Kong’s interference) to become Shimmer Champion. The whole thing was another example of the incredible weekend long stories Shimmer does so well, and might have been the best they’ve ever done.

 

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Tremendous Tag Teams, and a Long Awaited Implosion

Shimmer’s tag team scene grew wonderfully during this weekend, featuring duos like Hottest Free Agents (Ashley Lane & Deonna Purrazzo), LuFisto & Hudson Envy, Sinister Sweethearts (Brittany Blake & Samantha Heights), Paradise Lost (Courtney Rush and Dust), the previously mentioned Blue Nation (Charli Evans & Jessica Troy) and Fire & Nice (Britt Baker & Chelsea Green), etc (including more on the preshow I hope get a main show look in the future). They all looked good, with Blue Nation impressing me the most of the new to me teams/ wrestlers and the new pairing of LuFisto & Hudson being particularly fantastic.

But the biggest impact of a new team was Totally Tubular Tag Team (Delilah Doom & Leva Bates) taking the Shimmer Tag Team Titles off of Mt. Tessa (Tessa Blanchard & Vanessa Kraven) on Volume 97. To be perfectly honest I’m not a huge fan of the new champs, as I don’t find their wrestling or act holds my personal interest, but their win was well received and I’m happy for them.

 

 

The cracks started to show in earnest for Mt. Tessa during the match, teasing a payoff to the long simmering underlying friction between the two. Afterwards things FINALLY exploded with the crowd rabid for Kraven to get her hands on Tessa. The two would face on Volume 98 in a match Tessa would bail on, giving Kraven an unsatisfying countout victory, then Vanessa would fully vanquish her former partner in a Lumberjack match on Volume 99. Another well told, satisfying overarching story built on top of strong ringwork. This felt like a goodbye for Tessa, but she’s back for this Spring’s Shimmer weekend.

 

 

Everything Else and Then Some

 

 

I’ll touch on a few other things that stand out before wrapping this up. Seeing Shotzi Blackheart back was great. As I alluded to earlier Kellyanne had a big weekend, winning a 6-way on Volume 96 then defeating two big names in Hiroyo and Jessicka Havok even after coming up just short in a Heart of Shimmer title shot against Shazza McKenzie on Volume 97. She’s got a ton of potential and I hope her rise continues. Havok looked great this weekend too, including in a title match against Mercedes on Volume 96. Shazza continues to drive me crazy with her frequent lack of selling, but otherwise had decent title defenses.

One was unfortunately cut short by an injury to Allysin Kay on Volume 98 in which Kay was severely busted open. She got patched up, and came back out to open Volume 99 trying to get a rematch, then was out meeting fans after the show. The AK-47’s as tough as nails. Pinkies up!  Fallen Flower Kikyo, who’s fast becoming a personal favorite, also suffered an injury during the weekend but has thankfully been back in action.

 

 

Several new to me and/or debuting talents had impressive showings, including but not limited to Zoe Lucas, Indi Hartwell, Rachel Ellering, Charli Evans, and Miranda Salinas. I hope they all become regular parts of Shimmer’s roster.

Finally it’s always a pleasure to see Saraya destroy people, and I took particular delight in her victory over a specific opponent.

 

I’m going to finish there, but of course there was of course a lot more going on over the course of the weekend. My apologies for the things I didn’t touch on. Overall as always Shimmer was an incredible time, and while I unfortunately can’t attend this spring I hope everyone has a blast.

 

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The NXT Step for a Legend III: No One Was Ready

In Summer 2015 I wrote about my favorite wrestler’s Shimmer career and impending signing with WWE in NXT Step for a Legend. A year and a half later I looked at her impressive initial period during that new phase of her career in NXT Step for a Legend II. Here I’d like to share one last NXT Step piece featuring Asuka looking at the end of her time in NXT, being called up to the main roster, and the start of her main roster run culminating in her first Wrestlemania last night.

 

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The first half of 2017 saw Asuka continue her domination of the NXT women’s division. In May Asuka passed Goldberg’s legendary (recognized) 173-0 win record to obtain the longest such undefeated streak in wrestling history. Goldberg himself acknowledged the accomplishment on Twitter and commented that “‘the streak’ is in good hands.” WWE themselves seemed a little tentative to promote it at first though, possibly due to the possibility of wanting to end it before she was called up to the main roster. More on that later.

 

Even in light of the dominance described above, Asuka still consistently elevated her opponents in defeat through both the skills they further developed by being in the ring with the veteran and strong showings against her. One particularly strong example of such was an incredible Last Woman Standing match she had with Nikki Cross in July 2017, which was perhaps the best match of either’s NXT tenure. That match was a additional treat for me in being a rematch from one of the first few live matches I saw of either from back in Spring 2014 at Shimmer, and it was interesting to see the two face off again at very different points in their careers.

 

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Ember Moon was also a persistent rival for Asuka in NXT, and often it seemed the champion had to resort to shortcuts to fend off her challenges and keep the title. As NXT Takeover Brooklyn III approached it seemed conceivable that Ember would finally hand Asuka her first loss and take the NXT Women’s title, sending Asuka on to the main roster. Instead the champion prevailed once again in an excellent match I was extremely lucky to have seen live and that, unbeknownst to those watching at the time, would be Asuka’s farewell to NXT anyway. It was reported shortly after that she suffered a collarbone injury during the match, would be vacating the NXT Women’s championship, and when she returned to action it would be as a member of the RAW roster. She hold the longest title reign of any kind in NXT history, recognized as 523 days (through to the date when the segment with her vacating the title aired on TV). She was far from finished collecting records and accolades.

 

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Fantastic depiction of Asuka by Rob Schamberger.

 

Asuka made her main roster debut at TLC 2017 in a match against one of her early NXT opponents in Emma. From there she carved out a path of success just as she had in NXT, continuing to build her undefeated streak (now fully emphasized by WWE at all opportunities) against top names like Sasha Banks, Alexa Bliss, and the woman Asuka had taken the NXT title from in the first place, Bayley. She also was the sole survivor in her Survivor Series debut, and won the first ever Women’s Royal Rumble in January 2018, giving her the choice of champions to challenge at Wrestlemania. She was one of the obvious, and fitting choices for that honor, although the underlying disconnect that someone holding the longest undefeated streak in history and had pinned Raw’s champion in non-title competition needed to win the Rumble to earn a title shot was starting to convey the booking difficulties surrounding the streak. The Rumble match was excellent, and seeing Asuka victorious in a “PPV” main event (something curiously absent from her NXT run) was glorious. 

 

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Asuka would decide to challenge Charlotte for the Smackdown Women’s title in what looked on paper to be a setup for an excellent encounter giving Asuka her first main roster title. Instead at Wrestlemania last night “The Empress of Tomorrow” shockingly tapped to “The Queen’s” Figure Eight ending the streak at 914 days and making her record 267-1. Given the rumors swirling that WWE had Ronda Rousey penciled in to eventually end the streak down the road this was even more of a surprise. I have reservations about having the first ever Women’s Rumble winner fail in her title bid as well as having Asuka’s streak end as a challenger rather than have someone get the boost from taking a title off her to end it, but Charlotte was a fine choice (certainly preferable to the rumored plan) and the match was the expected fantastic contest that ends the streak on a high note. After the match Asuka embraced Charlotte in respect and admitted “Charlotte was ready for Asuka” in a show of humility playing off her “no one is ready for Asuka” catchphrase she used for the duration of the streak. 

 

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Another incredible rendition of Asuka by Rob Schamberger.

 

What’s most amazing about all of the above though is that all of it has been accomplished with Asuka still just six months into her main roster career at WWE, with a great deal ahead of her. She’s one of the most charismatic and technically proficient wrestlers in all the world, and I of course look forward to seeing what her future holds.

 

Rise 5 Rising Sun Live Thoughts

November 10, 2017 in Berwyn, IL

Rise is a relatively new promotion (associated with the well established Shimmer) that is built around holding training seminars taught by professional wrestling veterans from around the world and having participants earn a chance to perform on the related Rise shows.

 

Rise 5: Rising Sun was held the Friday night before Shimmer’s Fall 2017 taping weekend and followed a day long seminar featuring Madusa (Alundra Blayze) and an advertised Joshi legend who turned out to be Aja Kong. Kong would later wrestle on the show, teaming with two seminar participants against another trio featuring Joshi talent (and Shimmer regular) Hiroyo Matsumoto and another pair of seminar participants.

This was my first time seeing Rise (outside of a couple of dark matches before the November 2016 Shimmer tapings). I like the concept behind the promotion and the unique opportunities it presents for both the participants and the promoters.

 

 

 

A three match pre-show started things off and was broadcast free on youtube, which was a worthwhile way to try to generate buzz. It also allowed a significant number of extra participants to be featured in a fine 6-woman tag of Paloma Starr, Samara & Trixie Tash vs Londyn Ali, Robyn & Savanna Stone, had a great contest between Indi Hartwell and Hyan (which very well may have been the best seminar participants only match of the night), and ended nicely with Layne Rosario getting a shot at veteran LuFisto.

 

 

To open the main show Delilah Doom came out with an emotional, tearful explanation that she injured her wrist during the seminar and had to pull out of the main event. I remember thinking it was appropriate if legit, and manipulative and overdone if part of a story. And since it was a full blown in ring interview instead of just an announcement and the cameras were rolling…

 

 

 

Wrestling-wise the early part of the main show had four (what I think were) participant vs participant matches of  Heather Monroe vs Renee MichelleJewells Malone vs Hawlee LayneThe Sinister Sweethearts (Brittany Blake & Samantha Heights) vs Amanda Carolina Rodriguez & Valentina Loca, and Tasha Steelz vs Allie Kat.  All were pretty much exactly what they were intended to be: ok matches allowing the wrestlers an opportunity to perform and the audience a chance to see some new faces.

 

 

 

Things picked up with the tryouts vs veterans section, starting with an impressive showing for Zoe Lucas (who earned a chance to travel to the US and appear at Rise and Shimmer via Rise 4’s seminar in Great Britain) against Cheerleader Melissa. Melissa’s ring style has changed significantly since last I saw her, but she still played the bullying powerhouse well against Zoe’s arrogant upstart challenge. Zoe looked great all weekend and I hope she returns.

 

 

 

The best storytelling of the night was certainly in the Four Way Match between Saraya Knight, Karen Q, Miranda Salinas, and Ray Lyn. Ray and Karen did everything in their power to avoid Saraya at all costs, working over Miranda constantly and scattering whenever Saraya was tagged in, leaving her no choice but to bring the beaten down rookie back in and hope she lasted long enough for Saraya to come back in. It was an odd dynamic, and I generally don’t like when mulit-person matches become quasi-tag team matches, but it really worked here. Everyone played their roles perfectly, and Miranda couldn’t have looked any more sympathetic. I came out of this fun story really wanting to see Saraya and Miranda as a team.

 

After a solid contest in which Nicole Savoy defeated Kylie Rae, Hudson Envy came out and demanded a match with someone new to Rise and Shimmer. Of course instead of a rookie from the seminar she’s answered by the debuting Taya Valkyrie (who was a last minute replacement when the advertised Courtney Rush couldn’t make it). Good, hard hitting match.

 

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Another big debut, and one I’d really been looking forward to, saw Thunder Rosa face Heart of Shimmer Champion Shazza McKenzie in a non-title bout. Rosa looked fantastic and gave Shazza her best match in ages before the champ squeaked by with a rollup.

 

The semi main was the previously mentioned Joshi led 6-woman tag team match with The Blue Nation (Charli Evans & Jessica Troy) joining Aja Kong and Dynamite DiDi & Rachael Ellering on Hiroyo Matsumoto’s side. This was a ton of fun, with the two powerhouses pounding on each other in between really good showings from their partners.

 

 

 

The main event saw a 6-way “Incursion of the Phoenix” elimination match for the Phoenix Of RISE title featuring six original members of Rise roster (one year previous). Supposedly it was now a 5-way with Doom out injured. This was an ordered entry elimination match with pinfalls, submissions, disqualifications, and countouts in effect and increasing time intervals between entries (two minute first period, then three minutes after entrant #3 until entrant #4, etc).

The early going was decent, with Britt Baker and Deonna Purrazzo starting followed by Kikyo and the champion Shotzi Blackheart. No eliminations until four of the (supposed) five were in the ring, after which Kikyo cleared Baker and Purrazzo. The section with the four of them went on so long (seemingly much longer than the four minutes it was supposed to) that I was starting to think there was no one else when Dust finally came out.

 

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Dust did not seem at all interested in reclaiming her title, instead getting herself disqualified and attacking Shotzi with a barbed wire bat after help from the promoter Kevin Harvey, then leaving after being told by him “she” (Courtney Rush) says that’s enough. The dominant Kikyo then finished off the scraps of the defending champion to become the NEW …. hahahahaha. No. She finished off Shotzi then surprise surprise Delilah Doom comes out to “valiantly” cheat her way into the last spot. Er, valiantly defeat the “unfairly” crowned champ Kikyo, who had actually kicked ass so much the crowd was cheering for her.

As Doom celebrates a scratchy recording of Courtney Rush played and poor Doom has to pretend she can’t tell, that it’s live, and she’s trying to figure out where Rush is speaking from. I know things had to be changed since Rush couldn’t appear, but this was eye-rollingly cheesy. It all leads to Doom vs Rush in a cage for the title being set for Rise 6.

 

 

 

I was quite interested in the match concept and appreciate the attempt at trying something new and notable, but honestly this was disappointing. It just didn’t come together, with inconsistent enforcement/execution of the overly convoluted rules leading to crowd confusion and disinterest. The three eliminations practically made Kikyo a face, and a corrupted authority figure is the LAST thing a developmental federation needed. The increasing time periods for entry had no logical reason from a competition standpoint, and I’d be shocked if they were properly timed, leading to awkward pacing. Doom either got preferential treatment (by the promoter who just turned heel mind you) by being allowed to enter the match last after the random draw had happened, or she drew anyway despite supposedly not being in the match and just happened to get the last spot. One lessens sympathy for her and both strain credulity.

I apologize if it seems like I’m nitpicking, but I want to explain in full the issues I had here, as they did make what could have been an exciting match with compelling stories a bit of a mess instead. Let me be clear: the wrestlers all put in great effort and did the best they could here, providing a lot of good action. And a good chunk of the audience did get behind Doom’s win.  But I felt the booking and overall execution let the wrestlers down.

 

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Rising Sun had a nice mix of veterans brought in to work with the new / tryout talent, with a couple of matches between themselves to spice up the card. I understand the reason for having such matches as a draw and they were some of the best of the night. But from start to finish this was WAY too long at 14 matches, so I wonder if going with more tag matches involving participants and veterans would be better. I’d also cut down or out the pre-show and possibly just show the first match of the “main” show online for promotion.  But again, I’m explaining my criticisms in detail in hopes that Rise continues to refine itself and grow as a promotion. And the length of the show is less of an issue while watching on video versus live anyway.

Despite some issues this was a good show overall that I would recommend checking out, with a variety of new and experienced wrestlers all putting in incredible effort and a number of standout performances. There’s just room for improvement, and I’m sure Rise will iron out the rough spots as it progresses.

Farewell Kellie: A fan’s personal look back on a(nother) great career

I’ve been anticipating writing this since the Shimmer 90 tapings last November. After losing the Shimmer title she had just won the previous day back to Mercedes Martinez, Kellie Skater gave a thankful and heartfelt speech that felt very much like “goodbye.” However nothing was announced or concrete until yesterday (2/23/17), when Kellie gave a “thank you / goodbye” speech at a Stardom event at Korkuen Hall confirming that she was retired from professional wrestling.

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As an avid fan of the Shimmer promotion throughout its history, I’ve had the privilege of watching Kellie grow and transform during her career. She had been wrestling a little over two years when she made her Shimmer debut on May 2nd 2009 during the Volume 24 tapings, and would wrestle in 66 matches over the course of six and a half years. With her announcement at Stardom, it’s official that her last match was against Mercedes Martinez at Shimmer 90.

Kellie entered Shimmer as a comedic heel whose bark was bigger than her bite. Her charisma really made the gimmick work, and as she cheated and stole her way to victories over light competition fans got majorly invested in see the brash loudmouth get her comeuppance. They went crazy on the occasions more formidable opponents got their hands on Kellie and made her pay for her arrogance. Unsuccessful outings against Cheerleader Melissa (hearing the crowd collectively gasp as Skater dared grab Melissa’s pom-poms and mock her deadly opponent was fantastic) and Amazing Kong spring immediately to mind.

Yet the very next show the “Rate Tank” would be back out bragging as usual about being “indestructible.”  It had just the right amount of delusional overconfidence, and made for an entertaining story. Add it her and Shimmer’s announcers playing up her “suspect” protein shake (“ROO ROIDS!”) that she would partake in during matches and ridiculous boasting and Kellie an annoyance that just wouldn’t go away in the very best sense possible.

But beneath it all, Kellie had excellent technical skills anchoring her matches, and that were always improving. On the back of a long string of strong outings, particularly against visiting Joshi talents, Skater was slowly but surely winning the crowd over despite (or perhaps partially because of) her antics. On Shimmer Volume 50 Kellie would gain her first major victory in the promotion by defeating Yumi Ohka, signaling her moving up the card and transitioning into a viable threat. Watching the transformation as Kellie continued to develop and grow as a performer was a treat.

However her singles ascension would be delayed a little as two shows later she would team with Tomoka Nakagawa for the first time, forming arguably the best team in Shimmer history, 3G (the Global Green Gangsters).

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3G t-shirt by ShuperCousin Designs singed by Kellie and Tomoka.

The dynamic of reformed heel and crowd darling Skater trying to reign in the underhanded instincts of not-quite-former-yet heel Nakagawa was fantastic, and 3G were instant fan favorites and title contenders.

Their feud with then reigning Shimmer Tag Title Champions Nicole Matthews & Portia Perez (the Canadian Ninjas) spanned several volumes and culminated in a wild no-DQ, no-countout, no-time limit contest in which Skater and Nakagawa finally overcame the nefarious Ninjas to claim their spot atop Shimmer’s tag team division.

They’d keep ahold of that perch for two years making 13 successful title defenses in a reign that spanned 16 volumes. They didn’t relinquish the titles until Tomoka retired in April of 2015, when during her final weekend they lost the championships to the Kimber Bombs (Kimber Lee & Cherry Bomb). Their issues with the Ninjas would continue on and off during that time, including involvement in involvement in a great no-DQ, no-countout war that spilled through the crowd and all over the venue  alongside Madison Eagles & Jessica Havok against the Canadian Ninjas and the Kimber Bombs, as well as Tomoka choosing one last 3G vs Ninjas encounter for her final match.

Skater and Nakagawa had incredible chemistry as a team and produced several of the best tag team matches Shimmer’s ever had. Kellie’s style fit perfectly with that of Shimmer’s visiting Joshi in general, and my favorite matches of hers (which are also two of my favorite Shimmer matches of all time) were multi-woman tags involving numerous Joshi talent.

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On Volume 67 3G teamed with Mia Yim to face Tsukasa Fujimoto, Akino, and Kaori Yoneyama in an incredible contest that simply has to be seen. In the main event of  Volume 74, in Tomoka’s penultimate match, Kellie joined her alongside Misaki Ohata & Hiroyo Matsumoto to face legends Aja Kong, Dynamite Kansai, Kyoko Kimura, & Mayumi Ozaki in a dream match beyond anything I ever thought I’d see in Shimmer. I was lucky enough to attend both of these events / matches live and they represent everything I love about pro wrestling. Admitted in both there was a lot more going on than just Kellie’s involvement, but she shone just as bright as anyone else and played a major part in these amazing moments.

With her partner retired, Kellie focused on reestablishing the upward trajectory of her singles career, and got several huge wins over stars such as Sonoko Kato, Courtney Rush, Ryo Mizunami and others leading to a shot at Madison Eagles for the Shimmer title on Volume 84. A countout victory seemed to set up a rematch, but instead Kellie would be attacked before the match and Madison’s resulting open challenge saw Mercedes Martinez making a surprise return to Shimmer to take the title with help of her new proteges Nicole Savoy and Shayna Baszler.

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This all set up for what seemed like it could be a long feud between Kellie and the newly dubbed Trifecta. In the main event of the first show of the next set of tapings Kellie pinned Mercedes in a tag match, and was granted a title match on Volume 87. It seemed the epitome of foregone conclusions, with Mercedes getting an establishing win over a top contender to set up a quest for Kellie to finally get the elusive Shimmer championship she seemed destined for. Turns out she was destined sooner than I thought, and she won the title from Mercedes to the crowds shock and delight. As I’ve referred to Kellie’d grown into one of the (in not THE) most beloved wrestlers in Shimmer and the audience roared in support of the new champion.

Kellie would defend the belt in solid matches against Vanessa Kraven and Cat Power, then to end the weekend Mercedes received a rematch. Warning bells about a possible 3S style reign started going off, and sure enough at the end of a hard hitting match where Trifecta put on a master class in heel tactics Mercedes regained the belt to a chorus of boos. Kellie then cut the promo I talked about at the beginning, which gave no details but felt like “goodbye” and left me wondering if her weekend long reign was to make sure she received her well deserved time with the title in case that was her last appearance in Shimmer. And we now know it was.

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Like with Tomoka, the vast majority of my experience with Kellie’s work is via Shimmer, but I did see her wrestle on Shine ippv’s and was lucky enough to see her live at Stardom. She was clearly respected wherever she went and always gave 110%.

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Thanks to Kellie for a career’s worth of incredible devotion to her craft and everything she put into entertaining us. It’s greatly appreciated and you’ll be dearly missed. Best of luck in whatever the future holds.

The NXT Step for a Legend II: A Great Year for the Empress of Tomorrow

Last year I wrote about my favorite wrestler’s impending signing with WWE in NXT Step for a Legend. A year and a half later and I’m back to look back on her impressive initial period during this new phase of her career.

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At NXT Takeover Brooklyn in August 2015, somewhat in the shadow of the great Sasha vs Bayley NXT Women’s Title match that was about to start, the camera cut to show superstars in the front row and next to Ric Flair was the “World Famous” Kana.  There had been speculation that her announced “hiatus” from wrestling could be foreshadowing a move the the WWE, but surprisingly there had been no real information or clues, so seeing her on camera at a NXT/WWE event was a legitimate shock to most.

At the September 10 NXT tapings Kana made her debut (air date September 23), and took the name Asuka.  Interestingly while WWE announcers themselves have repeatedly pushed the fan speculated theory that the name is an homage to Lioness Asuka, Kana herself stated on Twitter that it wasn’t the case. She said she chose the name for its meaning of “tomorrow/future” and it had nothing to do with the legendary Crush Girl.

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Asuka’s trademark kabuki masks worn during her entrances have become a huge part of WWE’s merchandise efforts for her, with three worn so far and subsequently turned into plastic masks for the fans.

Dana Brooke and Emma crashed her initial interview,  leading to Asuka’s in ring debut for NXT against the former on October 7. She pretty well destroyed Brooke, with a surprising amount of her pre-WWE look, character, and style kept intact which allowed her to make an immediate strong impression on the crowd.

From that strong start Asuka’s continued to dominate and never looked back. About 50 matches and 6 months after her debut match the undefeated Asuka defeated likewise fan favorite Bayley to claim the NXT Women’s Championship. During her title reign she’s continued her string of impressive victories, including a rematch against Bayley and defenses against Nia Jax, Micke James, etc.

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She’s excellent at playing up her mystique, and the choice to keep her undefeated (at over 140 matches and counting) has amplified that advantage considerably. Long term some care will need to be taken to make sure she keeps getting her opponents over as well as herself. In that respect there has been talk among some fans of her as a “division killer,” but I personally haven’t felt that to be the case thus far. People don’t necessarily look bad getting dominated because she’s portrayed as such a insurmountable obstacle, and often her opponents get to hang in with her just enough to look impressive despite the defeat.

Also, there’s potential in varying the formula, such as when Mickie James returned to challenge Asuka at NXT Takeover Toronto and was portrayed as one of the first real threats to the champion to great effect. And whenever someone does finally get a pinfall on her an instant star will be made (as long as it’s not booked in a flukeish manner).

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A sample of the WWE trading and “relic” cards available featuring Asuka.

Having been a big fan of Kana before she signed with WWE (particularly in Shimmer, where among other accomplishments her match with Ayako Hamada was the best in the promotion’s history), it’s been intriguing to watch her evolution in NXT. From things like her improving English to the effect on her ring style.

In interviews and other public statements she’s shared significant insight into the challenges and personal growth that has come with it, such as needing to engage American crowds more fully faster when pacing a match than with Japanese crowds. She’s also talked about her initial reluctance to speak in Japanese at all during matches, only to later realize conveying emotion was more important and even if the crowd couldn’t understand her words yelling at her opponent in Japanese could still be a useful tool to connect with the crowd and tell the needed story.

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I was lucky enough to see her wrestle live at NXT Takeover Brooklyn II and later at an NXT show at Madison Square Garden. Takeover was almost two years after the last time I had seen her live at Shimmer, and in addition to just having the opportunity in general it was a treat to see how things have changed for her during her time in NXT.

It will be interesting to see what the future has in store for the Empress of Tomorrow, as the WWE’s eventual direction with her could go several ways. Her mastery of her craft and uniqueness as an attraction begs a spot on the main roster, but there are huge benefits to having her in NXT to expand the breadth of training of others in addition to the general advantages of having her on those shows.

Although whatever Asuka’s path holds going forward one thing’s for sure: for her opponents, “tomorrow brings danger.” 😉

Shimmer Weekend November 2016: Day 3 Live Thoughts

November 13, 2016 in Berwyn, IL

After a Friday night show featuring the debuts of Mickie James and Hudson Envy and a Saturday that saw a new Shimmer Champion as well as the debut of Dulce Garcia, Shimmer weekend wrapped up with the taping of Volumes 89 and 90 on Sunday.

I had seen Sonya Strong before at Marvelous USA in Queens, and it was nice to see her get a spot on the pre-show via Rise against Heather Monroe. This was a basic, by-the-numbers encounter with Monroe in the heel role and Strong as a face. Strong was slightly more impressive and I was happy to see here on the main card later.

 

 

In a second Rise pre-show match, Angie Skye faced Kate Carney. This was honestly a bit of a train wreck, with Skye looking a little rusty compared to the last time I saw here and Carney’s timing being extremely off.

 

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The main shows started off with Solo Darling vs Cherry Bomb and the Thunderkitty vs Taeler Hendrix rematch stemming from events on Volumes 87 & 88. Cherry stealing Solo’s drink and have a hyper reaction to it (a la Veda Scott on Volume 88) was amusing.

Thunderkitty vs Taeler was similar to their first match, and Thunderkitty’s retribution victory for Taeler’s cheating fell flat due to TK applying her finisher while in the ropes and never breaking as Taeler stumbled out to the center of the ring. Considering, like Dulce and Mickie, Taeler only had two matches for her debut weekend I would have liked different opponents between the two shows.

 

 

Nixon Newell upset LuFisto in a well deserved victory for the youngster. Good dynamic, with LuFisto getting more and more aggressive as her march towards a heel turn continued.

 

 

Another Rise participant got a main card showing as Kennadi Brink faced Mia Yim in a good, back and forth encounter.

 

 

Kimber Lee defeated Samantha Heights in a solid match and a good return for Heights. She had appeared in Shimmer once before as Crazy Mary Dobson’s partner, and returned this time via the Rise seminar. Great to see her back and she was a big crowd favorite here and in her Volume 90 match, which will hopefully lead to her becoming a regular part of the roster.

 

 

BaleSpin (Xandra Bale & KC Spinelli) once again faced The Rejected (Christina Von Eerie & Hudson Envy). This was likely meant to be another chance for the faces to get their hands on the heels who had thus far always gotten the better of them, but as it started with none of the intensity of their first encounter it came off a little less meaningful than it could have been.  The rapid fire nature of Rejected’s tag title match followed by this rematch heavily foreshadowed BaleSpin’s victory as well as the result of the tag title defense later on this volume and BaleSpin’s title shot on  Volume 90. Another team used here against Rejected would have preserved a lot of unpredictability and made the tag division seem much less shallow.

Was happy to see Jessicka Havok and Allysin Kay matched up in a singles contest, as they have great chemistry and their styles are extremely complimentary.

I am totally in favor of Shimmer continuing to have 4-ways on (nearly) every show considering how good they always are. This one featuring Nicole Matthews, Kay Lee Ray, Candice LeRae, and Rhia O’Reilly was no exception, and after good period of back and forth between the four Matthews stole a victory at Rhia’s expense, leading to Saraya storming the ring again to continue her issue with Matthews.

 

 

Also building off of a weekend-long story, Shazza McKenzie and Shayna Baszler had a rematch under no DQ rules. In the early going more use of the stipulation would have been nice, but it picked up as it went along and ended with Shazza overcoming the odds due to mistimed interference by Baszler’s Trifecta teammate Nicole Savoy. As only Shayna’s second loss in Shimmer, this would seem to be aimed towards elevating Shazza in the direction of a Shimmer title shot. Shazza again no sold a lot of leg work done by her MMA star opponent, but while still frustrating it was slightly less noticeable in the context of this match.

This was heated and well worked overall by both competitors leading to a strong finish to their story for the weekend. Shazza also showed incredible heart finishing the match after smacking the back of her head in what looked like a powerbomb reversal gone wrong. Blood was visible in a line down the back of her hair. She required seven staples afterwards and obviously did not wrestle later in the day on Volume 90. Gusty performance and I’m very glad to have heard since that she’s ok.

 

 

Mount Tessa (Vanessa Kraven & Tessa Blanchard with significantly timed new team name) challenged Slap Happy (Evie & Heidi Lovelace) for the SHIMMER Tag Team Championships. I was honestly hoping for the implosion of Kraven and Tessa’s alliance and the beginning of the implied feud to come, but given the earlier signs I wasn’t shocked to see them unseat Slap Happy. I feel things have been drawn out with Tessa and Kraven perhaps a touch too long, but there are great comedic touches in pairing and Tessa doing the “I’M the tag team champions” shtick is pouring fuel on the fire for the crowd turning Kraven face. Good title match.

 

 

Dulce Garcia (Sexy Star) finished up her Shimmer debut weekend with a dream match of sorts against Mercedes Martinez. This was honestly a bit of a styles clash, but still extremely good. Early on Mercedes commented a bit about how fast Garcia was and made “slow down” comments that while in character might have been a legit request. It would have been nice to see Garcia against someone in a similar style that could match her speed (like Kay Lee Ray, etc), but no real complaints about the two opponents chosen for her and the matches produced. Dulce did not get a “please come back” chant, but that was likely due to the crowd not realizing she wouldn’t be wrestling on Volume 90.

 

 

Cat Power had her last match of a strong return weekend challenging Kellie Skater for the SHIMMER Championship in Volume 89’s main event. The pacing felt a little off early on, but it built nicely and ended up another good showing for Cat and solid defense for Kellie.

 

 

 

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Sonya Strong, perhaps due to her performance during the pre-show, faced Marti Belle to open the second taping of the day.

In the second match Samantha Heights upset Nevaeh to a nice pop from the crowd. Nevaeh continued to perform in a face role here, but showed some touches of her heel persona. Nevaeh’s well established enough that the losses this weekend won’t hurt her, and in contrast the win was huge for Heights.

 

 

Melanie Cruise continued her seemingly designated role for the weekend of crushing Rise talent against Kiera Hogan. Pretty much a squash. “Hogan” is not a name that needs to be used by anyone in Shimmer.

 

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Leva Bates came out for her match with Cherry Bomb with an E.T. doll and dressed as Eliot to most of the crowd’s delight. The humor and interactions were awkward at first, but smoothed out a lot once Cherry Bomb established control , spoke with the doll, and declared “E.T. wants me to kick his ass!”  Her combination of goofiness with a dangerous edge elevated this considerably.

LuFisto defeated Solo Darling, showing reluctance the longer the match went as she had to get more and more vicious to keep Solo down. After she finally chose to hit the Burning Hammer and pinned Solo she snapped, and just decimated the Sugar Creature to a 50-50 reaction from the crowd. Big payoff to the slow building heel tendencies of Lufisto’s been showing / fighting.

 

 

In what very well might have been the best match of the weekend, Kay Lee Ray and Nixon Newell tore down the house in a FANTASTIC contest. Nixon has looked great in her Shimmer appearances, and KLR is always in the running for MVP of all the Shimmer weekends she’s been a part of. Great pairing and I’d love to see a rematch sometime.

 

 

Mount Tessa (Vanessa Kraven & Tessa Blanchard) defended their newly won SHIMMER Tag Team Championships against BaleSpin (Xandra Bale & KC Spinelli). Would have preferred a different team in the challenger role, as Rejected and BaleSpin trading wins over the course of the weekend being enough to propel each into title contention highlights the current lack of depth in tag division. Match was primarily a backdrop for Kraven & Tessa’s interactions and an establishment victory for the new champs.

 

 

The streak of great 4-ways continued as Mia Yim picked up a win against Allysin Kay, Kimber Lee, and Evie. Allysin and Kimber’s on and off alliance during the match was highly amusing, as was Kimber’s delight in the crowd cheering her by default when chanting “everyone but Allysin.” I personally did not partake – PINKIES UP!

 

 

 

Shayna Baszler bounced back emphatically from her no-DQ loss to Shazza by besting Heidi Lovelace in singles action. Heidi’s a high level competitor to keep Shayna’s continued threat clear, and she always looks strong in defeat. Very good match.

The weekend long issue between Saraya Knight and Nicole Matthews came to an appropriate climax in a Berwyn Bunkhouse Brawl. This was the expected crazy brawl all over the Eagles Club, which ended by TKO when Saraya was hanging Matthews over the ropes and the refs declared the latter couldn’t continue. Shimmer wisely doesn’t do matches like this too often, but they’re very effective when used sparingly. The feud between these two was very well done, with ups and downs over the course of the five shows and a satisfying ending.

 

 

Warning bells of a possible 3S style title reign for Kellie Skater started going off when it became clear Mercedes Martinez would be getting a rematch for the Shimmer Championship to finish Shimmer weekend. Trifecta played the crowd like a fiddle, executing traditional heel interference behind the ref’s back with flawless execution. Obviously Shazza wasn’t available to counter them, but having someone else take issue with Trifecta’s cheating and attempt to come to Kellie’s aid at some point would have been nice. Strong, appropriate main event regardless though, and indeed Mercedes eventually hit the Fisherman’s Buster and regained the title to a chorus of boos.

 

 

I’ve actually seen more criticism of Kellie losing the title “so quickly” than of Mercedes losing it in her first defense. Hazards of being a heel I guess. 😉 But after the match Kellie gave an usual speech that felt like a farewell, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this booking was a way to make sure Kellie received her well deserved reign with the Shimmer belt (as well as underscoring unpredictability in Shimmer and giving Trifecta nuclear heel heat). If this was Skater’s goodbye, it was a hell of a run.

 

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Impressive finish to this Shimmer trip, with Volume 90 the best show of the weekend. Fun time as always.