Final Happy: Farewell to Aoi Kizuki

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During my first trip to Japan at the end of 2015 I had great interest in Joshi pro-wrestling but only a little familiarity.  Ice Ribbon is a favorite promotion of the friends I was traveling with (and would become one of mine as well), and as such we were scheduled to see several of their shows. I was already a big fan of Tsukasa Fujimoto via her appearance in Shimmer, but was unfamiliar with the rest of the roster. The very first show I saw in Japan was an Ice Ribbon dojo show on 12/19/15, and among a really fun night and a talented crew all around, reigning champion Aoi Kizuki made a particularly strong impression.

 

 

Her natural charisma and unique moveset, including her impressive top rope moves where she spins on a vertical axis rather than a horizontal one, gave her an immediately engaging presence. She was naturally friendly when I got to talk to her post show too with an enthusiasm that’s infectious, and overall was one of the big parts of that first trip getting off to a great start for me.

I saw her wrestle five times during trip (including an appearance at Wave), with her biggest and best match being in the main event of Ribbonmania 2015 where she lost the Ice Cross Infinity title to Hamuko Hoshi. I was a bit disappointed at the switch, but clearly understood in retrospect a few days later at the 1/3/16 dojo show when Aoi announced her “graduation” from Ice Ribbon to go freelance after 10 years. The timing was pretty wild, as I just barely got introduced to her at Ice Ribbon before she left.

 

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Custom Funko Pop made of/for Aoi.

 

 

When I returned the following year Aoi was primarily wrestling at Oz Academy, who generally doesn’t run during the holidays, so my chances to see her were quite limited. Over that 2016/2017 holiday trip I was supposed to see her wrestle only twice times, and some unfortunate trouble finding the venue for a Diana show brought it down to a single time, at Gatoh Move’s Christmas Eve show at Itabashi Green Hall. The good news was that in that one match she was once again main eventing a show I was at with a title defense, and her & Sayaka Obihiro against Riho & Kotori was a great, quick paced and hard hitting contest. Although I did start joking at the time that I only ever seemed to come to see Aoi lose titles. :p

 

 

While that was the only match of hers I saw, Aoi also had a Christmas event that year I attended. It was a fun evening of singing and photos and me struggling to parse Japanese. ^_^;  One really cool thing was Aoi talking about her goals and expressing a wish to wrestle in the US, a wish that would come true the following November at Shimmer’s Fall weekend taping in Chicago.

 

 

I adore Shimmer and was really happy for Aoi’s debut. She had a strong debut match in a against the newly proclaimed “Joshi Gatekeeper” Mia Yim despite coming up short, showed off her aforementioned unique offense and enthusiasm in a pair of establishing wins over Veda Scott (who Aoi had worked with in Japan) 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. 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. Aoi seemed to be having a blast and was really excited about being there, which was wonderful to see.

 

 

During the 2017/2018 holidays I saw Aoi at Ichigaya for the first time in a amusing comedy match against Antonio Honda in which they were trying to “recreate” a Kagami mochi by getting a hat that looked like mochi onto Obi’s head (Obi was sitting apparently passively in a corner of the mat), then whoever placed an orange on top of the hat to complete it would win. As ridiculous as it sounds. I was then lucky enough to make a trip to back Japan this Spring for the wedding of two dear friends of mine. I’d see Honda and Aoi together again, this time as partners for Gatoh Move’s Go Go Green Curry Cup mixed tag tournament against Emi Sakura & Masahiro Takanashi. These comedy heavy matches were a bit different than the previous matches I’d seen of Aoi’s (as was the unique and fantastic “high speed” 6 woman tag I saw her in at SEAdLINNNG), but were highly enjoyable none-the-less and it was cool seeing her clearly having a blast.

 

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During that Spring trip, and just a few days before fellow Joshi Mika Iida’s retirement show, Aoi announced her own retirement show titled “Final Happy” for October 7th. At the time I had no plans to be back in Japan until the December holidays, so managed to add in a Pure-J show on May 6th, to perhaps see Aoi wrestle one last time. She was involved in a surprisingly fun gauntlet battle royal, but as it turns out it wouldn’t be the last time I saw her after all.

 

 

I am extremely fortunate to have been able to arrange to come back to see Aoi’s final show, and the lead up was equally wonderful. Given how I initially became a fan of hers, it was particularly great to see her return to Ice Ribbon for a series of events this summer, and Ice Ribbon was among the companies that hosted a final appearance for Aoi during the week I was here before her retirement show. Not only was it a joy to see her last shows for Ice Ribbon, Pure-J, Wave, and Gatoh Move, but after some of the sparse appearance trips I’ve had the last couple years just seeing her wrestle so many times in general before she finished up was a special treat. I even missed a couple shows she was on due to other commitments, so Aoi’s schedule was certainly packed.

 

 

Aoi’s self-produced retirement show was on October 7th, 2018 at Shinjuku FACE. In the main event Aoi teamed Riho & Mei Sugura against Emi Sakura, Hikaru Shida, & Makoto. It was a perfect way to finish up and a nice tribute to her trainer (Sakura) and other wrestlers she had a long history with. The sole exception was Mei, a rookie who became Aoi’s tag partner and seemingly something of  protege since her debut this spring. Mei’s already incredible for her experience level and seems to have big things ahead of her. The fact that Aoi ended up having her final singles match against Mei on October 5th (and put the rookie over to boot) and included her in this main event illustrates how close they became. In a particularly sweet gesture, Aoi gave Mei her rainbow “wings” from her entrance gear. Mei’s excitement about it as she wore them not only for this match but at Gatoh Move later in the day was clear and contagious.

 

 

The match was great and an appropriate end cap for Aoi’s career. Emi Sakura, bad back and all, gave 110% to give her former trainee a proper farewell throughout the match and busted out a freakin’ 450 to pin Aoi to end it. All of Aoi’s trademarks were also on display, including one more glimpse of her rare, incredible spinning top rope splash. Fun, emotional stuff from bell to bell.

 

 

The post show retirement ceremony was likewise emotional and a treat to be at. All in all it was a wonderful, bittersweet, and fitting show see Aoi off.

 

 

Although I’m sad to see her go, Aoi had a great 13 year career and I’m really happy I had the opportunity to say goodbye to her in person and wish her well. Whatever the future after wrestling holds for her I hope life is happy for the Happy Maker. 

 

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Farewell to a Pintsized Powerhouse

 

Gatoh Move is a company I enjoyed a lot and immediately became a big fan of during my first trip to Japan at the end of 2015 / early 2016. When I returned a year later the first show I saw of theirs had an interesting interpromotional 6-woman tag team match featuring respective veterans of REINA and Gatoh Move Makoto and Emi Sakura teaming with rookies from their promotions.

 

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Emi’s partners were both new to me, and made an immediate positive impression. One was Mitsuru Konno, just a couple of months from her debut, who was eliminated first yet had a striking aura about her and has since become an absolute favorite of mine. The other was Aasa Maika, who lasted until the end against opposing team captain Makoto, got a nice chance to shine and show off her wonderful style which I always describe as “pintsized powerhouse.” I’ve said before said before that at 5’2″ she perhaps doesn’t seem suited for such a gimmick, but then she’d start throwing herself at opponents like she was Big Van Vader and it was GLORIOUS. The power style was surprisingly perfect for her, and her overall enthusiasm and devotion to the gimmick gave a thoroughly compelling layer to her performances.

 

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I saw three other matches of the riceball fanatic that trip, all at Ichigaya in Gatoh Move’s unique home environment. She definitely struck me as someone with vast potential who was developing her skills and personal style rapidly.

 

I was fortunate to make a short, unexpected trip back to Tokyo in August 2017, and was treated to seeing the now retired Kotori vs Aasa in the semi-finals of the Super Asia Championship tournament as the main event of the 8/26/17 Ichigaya show. Kotori’s win was a foregone conclusion with her en route to face partner Riho in the finals, but she and Aasa created tension and drama regardless in a fantastic match that felt like the big deal it should be. There was a sequence in the match in which Aasa chased Kotori out the window and around the building back inside the door, at which point Kotori tried to ambush Aasa and the latter just LEVELED Kotori with one of her vertical Vader splashes instead. It was so cool and a spot that has totally and vividly stayed with me among the ridiculous amounts of wrestling I watch.

 

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I didn’t know it at the time, but that match would turn out to be the last time I got to see either of them wrestle live. Aasa was scheduled to compete at the Ichigaya shows I saw when I returned during the holidays, but couldn’t participate because she was sick. I would check back in with the other wrestlers when I could as time passed wishing Aasa well and hoping for her return. Just this week she announced her “graduation” (retirement) due to chronic illness and that she would be returning home to concentrate on her health.

 

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She will be greatly missed, but as someone well familiar with chronic illness myself I am happy that Aasa’s doing what she needs to to take care of herself. She was always friendly and a delight to talk to, as well as a unique, dynamic presence in the ring who made such an impression I feel like I saw far more of her matches live than the five I actually did. I wish her all the best in the future, whatever it holds.

 

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Addendum 10/5/18 11pm:

A few short hours after I posted this, Aasa made an appearance at a Gatoh Move show at Ichigaya to say goodbye. On an already emotional night featuring Aoi Kizuki’s final appearance for Gatoh (or anyone for that matter) before her retirement show in two days, Aasa coming out to talk about what everyone in Gatoh meant to her was both wonderful and heart wrenching. I am truly lucky to have seen her again and gotten a chance to wish her all the best in person, and I hope the warm welcome of the crowd and a chance to wrap things up will help her with whatever is next.

 

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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.

 

Deep Inside Your Soul: Farewell to Mika Iida

Straight up: there are few wrestlers that give such an impression of having fun in the ring as Mika Iida. There was always a “spark” to her performances that held a captivating edge to it. I haven’t been a fan of hers for very long relatively speaking compared to the length of her career, but she made a strong impression in a short time to become a favorite of mine and it was a  privilege to be at her final show at Korakuen Hall on May 4, 2018.

 

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My first times seeing Iida wrestle were during my first trip to Japan at the end of 2015 / early 2016. I saw her in a pair of 6-woman tags, teaming with Cherry & Hiroe Nagahama against Hiroyo Matsumoto, Makoto & Maruko Nagasaki at Ribbonmania 2015 and with Fairy Nipponbashi & Hikaru Shida against Ayako Hamada, Yumi Oka & Yuu Yamagata at Thanksgiving Wave on 1/3/16.  Both matches were good but a bit limited by time and format. Even so Iida stood out among the several wrestlers that were new to me, and I remarked at the time that I was “particularly interested in seeing what Iida can do with more of a spotlight.”

 

 

A year later I was back for Thanksgiving Wave 12/29/16, and again saw Iida as part of a trios team. This time however it was in an elimination match against Kaho Kobayashi, Rina Yamashita, & Natsu Sumire and ASUKA, Kaori Yoneyama, & Sawako Shimono, and alongside two wrestlers I was well familiar with due to Shimmer (Yumi Ohka & Hikaru Shida). Despite being another trios type of match, it was also the opportunity to see more of what Iida could do I was waiting for. I found her team a lot of fun, and remarked at the time that Iida herself was particularly impressive.

After that show was my first opportunity to meet Iida, which was great. She speaks English fairly well and was friendly and approachable.

 

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In Spring 2017 Iida suffered a shoulder injury that would keep her out a majority of the year. She was still at the Wave show I attended in August (which she helped me reserve a ticket for) and it was nice to catch up with her. She was in great spirits and talked about getting better and returning to the ring.

 

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By my holiday trip Iida was back happily in action, but had also announced her retirement for the following May.  With it seeming unlikely (at the time) that I’d see her again after that trip it was wonderful to see her back in the ring and get to see her wrestle several times. At Thanksgiving Wave 12/29/17 she and Hiroe Nagahama had a packed five minute match that was well structured to let Hiroe look good before Iida put her away.  To end the show Iida would win Wave’s Zan-1 Championship for the year (determined by fan vote). It was a wonderful and fitting honor as her career wound down.

 

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During that trip I was also lucky enough to see her team with Maya Yukihi against Risa Sera & Mochi Miyagi at Ice Ribbon on 1/6/18 and in an excellent match against Kaho Kobayashi at Wave’s Young OH! OH! show on 1/8/18 to wrap up my visit. At the time I thought those would be my last opportunities to see Iida live.

 

Instead, I was extremely lucky to have a spring trip to celebrate the marriage of two dear friends of mine be close enough for me to extend my stay to attend Iida’s retirement show on 5/4/18. During the week leading up to her final show, amid numerous appearances scheduled across various promotions, Iida unfortunately dislocated her shoulder during a gauntlet match. She realigned it and managed one more portion of that match in a crazy display of toughness, but then had to acquiesce and withdraw from the match and most of her remaining appearances to recover.

 

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Custom Funko Pop I made of/for Iida.

 

She was still aiming to complete in her final show, twice in fact. In a five minute exhibition to open the show and a 6-woman tag to close it. In a wonderful sign for her recovery (and of course her fortitude and perhaps stubbornness) she took the microphone at the beginning of her exhibition match against Hiroe Nagahama and declared she was ok and turned it into a full match to a large ovation. It was a good contest and a nice callback for me to the match between the two I had seen a few months prior. Unsurprisingly Iida put the up and comer over and the latter was particularly choked up.

 

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Something already noticeable was a sense of Iida really enjoying everything and having a joyous goodbye (despite of course it all being very emotional). This would continue throughout the show and really highlights Iida’s wonderful personality and outlook, as everything from the opener to the main to the ceremonies seeing her off were infused with a sense of fun that made it all particularly special.

 

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The main event saw Iida’s chosen competitors for her final match face off in a 6-woman tag featuring Iida and her opponent from the opening contest on the same side along with Yumi Ohka vs Kaho Kobayashi, Natsu Sumire, & Rina Yamishita. The latter team actually was part of the 3-way trios contest I talked about earlier involving Iida from late 2016. Rina had won this year’s Catch the Wave earlier in the night in an incredible match against Ayako Hamada and had an additional honor here, pinning Iida to end her career.

 

 

The match was the appropriately enjoyable spectacle, including “traditional” retirement spots like whipping all of the roster (and then some) into Iida in the corner with amusing variations like Rina interrupting Gami’s turn and allowing Iida to wipe out the boss instead. Special guests also got in on the action, including Ice Ribbon’s Tsukasa Fujimoto coming in to hit an Ace Crusher on Iida for a near fall at one point. Just a ton of fun all around. The gift presentation and final ceremonies were also touched by humor, perhaps highlighted by Yuki Miyazaki and Sakura Hirota brawling around Iida as she stood in the center of the ring while her career highlights were read.

 

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All in all everything came together in a way that really felt like the perfect goodbye for Iida that reflected her unique, infectious charisma throughout. I’m sad to see her go but happy to have seen her wrestle during her time in the ring and wish her the best in whatever comes next.

 

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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.

 

Farewell to a Rising Star

 

I was largely unfamiliar with the professional wrestling company Gatoh Move, and completely unfamiliar with 17 year old competitor Kotori, when I attended my first show of theirs on 12/22/15. Kotori was on opposite sides from another new to me competitor named Riho in a tag match also featuring wrestlers previously familiar in Hikaru Shida and Makoto. It was a very good match, and I left impressed with both of the younger participants and wanting to see more of them.

 

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Of course “younger” in Joshi doesn’t necessarily correlate to experience, and the 18 year old Riho was the most senior competitor of the match with nearly 10 years as a wrestler. So it’s understandable that she overshadowed the least experienced a touch as far as first impressions go. But Kotori more than held her own against the veterans, and immediately showed well honed skills beyond her 3 years.

 

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Once I got a chance to see Gatoh Move in their home environment the true depth and ability of the talent on their core roster became even more apparent. The 12/22/15 show had been a “traditional” wrestling show with a traditional wrestling ring. The reason I specify is that Gatoh Move’s home venue, Ichigaya Chocolate Square, is a small room with no ring and two large windows on one wall which are removed for the shows. The crowd itself is effectively the “rope break” marker and the wrestlers will sometimes use the front row to bounce off of for “running the ropes” and the windowsills to jump off of for high risk maneuvers. The limitations of the venue restrict the action in ways compared to “normal” matches, but also provide opportunities for creative variations on standard wrestling elements.

And it was increasingly clear under such constraints that Kotori was already a fantastic wrestler who was only going to get better. Complimenting her excellent instincts and skills benefiting from being trained by one of the very best in the world in Emi Sakura, Kotori brought an exuberance and enthusiasm to her wrestling that was downright contagious. I called her match with SAKI “pretty much as good a 7 minute match as you’ll ever see,” and I couldn’t wait to what she’d achieve going forward. Kotori’s infectious positive attitude also came across in her roundtable discussion, where she practiced her English by doing some translation for us visiting foreign fans.

 

 

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The following year I had the privilege of seeing Kotori (now teaming with Riho instead of across the ring from her) crowned GM’s tag team champions in an excellent match main eventing the 12/21/16 show against Aoi Kizuki and Sayaka Obihiro. The undercurrent here was a more stern Kotori having something to prove as the least experienced competitor and being extremely aggressive in pursuit of the titles. She played the role perfectly and her emotional reaction to victory was genuinely moving.

It was great to see her development during the intervening year, becoming a little more focused and honing her skills even further. She was equalling impressive in the three other matches I saw her in that trip, including a fantastic 6-woman tag including the entire expanded core Gatoh Move Roster (Kotori teaming with Riho & Aasa against Emi Sakura, Sayaka Obihiro, & Mitsuru).

 

 

 

I was fortunate to make a short, unexpected trip back to Tokyo in August 2017, and was treated to seeing Kotori vs Aasa in the semi-finals of the Super Asia Championship tournament as the main event of the 8/26/17 Ichigaya show. Kotori’s win was a foregone conclusion with her en route to face partner Riho in the finals, but she and Aasa created tension and drama regardless in a fantastic match that felt like the big deal it should be. Kotori was beyond proud with her victory when talking to her after the show, and it was great to be able to share that excitement with her.

 

 

 

I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be the last opportunity I got to see Kotori wrestle live. Her “graduation” (retirement) from wrestling was announced on 10/26/17 due to graduating from high school and needing to move away for family reasons. A hiatus was considered, but Kotori wanted to try different things and chose to wrap up her wrestling career. Her last match was on 12/21/17, unfortunately a single day before I’d be arriving in Tokyo for my winter trip. While I am sorry to have missed that, I was lucky to have seen her wrestle as often as I did. I was also able to pick up the wonderful commemorative booklet produced looking back on her great, short career.

 

 

 

While I will always wonder what she may have achieved if she had continued and am sad to see Kotori go, I wish her all the best in whatever her future holds.

 

The NXT Step for a Pirate

The signing of Stardom’s Kairi Hojo in early 2017 by the WWE created immediate buzz and excitement. It was wonderful to see that feeling build in anticipation as the Mae Young Classic and her debut as Kairi Sane approached.

 

Kairi is a masterful ring technician, measuring everything she does carefully and exerting expert body control for maximum visual impact. Her trademark diving elbow from the tope rope looks as beautiful as it does devastating. Her excellent selling draws the audience in and invests them emotionally in her matches, yet she always believably feels like a threat to her opponent no matter how much punishment she’s taken or how much bigger her opponent is. She brings something special and unique to WWE, and the hype surrounding her debut as it approached showed they realized it.

 

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My own perspective on Kairi’s pre-WWE career was bit different from when I wrote about Kana (NXT Step for a Legend) and Johnny Gargano (NXT Step for an Icon) heading to NXT, as I’d only seen her live on two occasions (though she essentially wrestled twice on each show). Even from that small sample it was easy to see the command she has of her craft.

 

My first time seeing Kairi live was under unique circumstances, as she was involved in Act Yasukawa’s retirement match at Climax 2015.

 

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Act’s retirement match and ceremony had an incredible atmosphere around it, and the entire spectacle was awesome to be at live. Kairi teamed with Act & Haruka Kato vs. Holidead, Kris Wolf & Kyoko Kimura in a match that went on for about 10 minutes, with back and forth action that saw Act and her teammates, particularly Kairi, more and more at odds. Both Act and Kairi did a phenomenal job at portraying two people who thought they had reconciled but were just never meant to get along. Things eventually exploded and the two fought into the crowd with everyone else along for the ride, resulting in a double countout.

 

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Then the “real” match began, as Act rejoined her former Oedo Tai stablemates leading to Act Yasukawa & Kyoko Kimura vs Haruka Kato & Kairi Hojo. This was a fitting send off, with Act and her teammates clearly enjoying themselves against long time rivals. Kairi was clearly genuinely emotional as she helped bid farewell to her fellow wrestler’s career.

 

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The following year I was back for Climax 2016 and saw Kairi in a pair of equally impressive matches at opposite ends of the spectrum. In a special contest model Nana Suzuki made her debut in a singles match against Hojo, one of Stardom’s aces. Nana actually played her role as an overmatched but determined underdog well and the match was quite good, due in no small part to Kairi playing her own role of dominant veteran absolutely perfectly. She knew exactly how to rightly control most of the offense and avoid reducing her own standing yet still make her rookie opponent look strong. That takes an incredible amount of skill and a deft touch, and the two told a great story here.

 

 

Later that night Kairi told a completely different story as she and partner Yoko Bito looked to regain their Goddesses of Stardom Titles from Oedo Tai (Kyoko Kimura & Kagetsu). This time Kairi was in some sense the underdog, as there was a lot of interference from the Oedo Tai entourage outside the ring. The stacked odds and again excellent awareness of the story being told combined to generate quite the conquering hero reception for Hojo & Bito when they finally overcame it all and took their belts back. It was a treat not only seeing Kairi perform twice, but in such different (but complimentary and consistent) circumstances.

 

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Fast forward back to a few months ago and Kairi entered a WWE ring for the first time as part of the Mae Young Classic. It was certainly no surprise when she provided several of the best matches of the whole thing, including a show-stealing first round encounter with Tessa Blanchard, great bouts with Bianca Belair, Dakota Kai, and Toni Storm, and a fitting finale to the whole thing against Shayna Baszler. Seeing her joy at becoming the well deserved first ever MYC winner was wonderful. Since then she has become an integral part of NXT’s women’s division, and is likely to feud with Shayna Baszler and eventually progress to a one on one challenge to champion Ember Moon.

 

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Incredible art print depicting (and signed by) Kairi by Rob Schamberger.

 

Kairi Sane is the epitome of the cliche “a joy to watch,” and I wish her all the best as this exciting new phase of her career continues.