Heartbreaking

I barely know where to begin here. Part of me doesn’t want to write this. And part of me has to.

A short while ago it was confirmed that Hana Kimura has passed away.

Hana wrestled for Stardom and was the daughter of retired wrestler Kyoko Kimura. She had been wrestling for four years and was one of my personal favorites in the promotion. She always made an impression, and seemed to have all the potential in the world. The last time I saw Hana was at Stardom’s American Dream 2019 show in NYC. I commented about how over she was, how far she had come as a performer since I’d seen her in her rookie year, and how impressive her character work in particular was. Her charisma was striking and she always seemed to go out of her way to be friendly to fans and make sure everyone was having a good time.

Earlier in the day Hana posted some worrying tweets indicating self harm. She had been the target of extreme cyberbullying, in part in relation to her appearances on the show Terrace House. Her tweets were shortly removed (possibly by Twitter, who has a reporting function for self-harm tweets to try to extend help) and numerous fans and others who knew Hana tried to reach out to those who could contact her as well as tweeting messages of love and support.

Further details about her passing have not been official released at the request of her family and I won’t speculate further, but felt it important to mention the circumstances briefly.

Her loss is beyond tragic, particularly so young. Underneath the rising wrestling superstar and reality tv personality was a 22 year old woman having a harder time than anyone knew. Please think of the person on the other side of the computer screen, and never wish or encourage harm on anyone. Words cannot express my anger and total lack of comprehension towards those who would wish such things on another. There are also important issues to look at in entertainment industries and the presentation of and support systems available to performers.

On the other side of things, if anyone is ever in trouble and things seem hopeless, please know that you are not alone and there is hope, and please reach out for whatever help and support you need.

I feel a terrible sense of loss and heartache for Hana and wish things had been different. My thoughts are with her family.

Rest in Peace Hana. You will be greatly missed.

The NXT Step for the Sun God

WWE and AEW have both signed a number of incredible wrestlers lately. But with all due respect to the rest, none are quite as exciting as the confirmation that Sareee is headed to the US as part of WWE.

My first time seeing Sareee was during my first trip to Japan at the end of 2015. She was a few months under five years experience at the time, and featured in matches spotlighting young talent with fellow Diana rookie Meiko Tanaka against Rina Yamshita & Kaho Kobayashi at Wave’s Young Oh! Oh! 12/25/15 and against Yuuka at Ribbonmania 2015. She displayed great innate ability and instincts, and I was excited to see what the near future would hold for her.

Unfortunately, my opportunities to see Sareee for the next few years were sparse. In summer of 2017 I caught her during her brief tenure in SEAdLINNNG in hard hitting tournament semi-final against Marvelous’ Takumi Iroha. In spring of 2018 I lucked into seeing her at Pure-J in an interpromotional tag team main event alongside Actwres girlZ’ Mari against Manami Katsu & Rydeen Hagane. She was definitely showing all the hallmarks of fully capitalizing on her potential and was an obvious superstar in the making.

I was thrilled to get to see her regularly in 2019. Her tightly contested, visceral title match at Sendai Girls’ 1/6/19 show against Chihiro Hashimoto might have been my top match of that entire trip, yet was just a glimpse of how fully Sareee’s mastered a variety of aspects of her craft. She was wrestling’s next big thing, and it was only a matter of time before everyone noticed.

My best matches of 2019 list reads like Sareee’s resume, and I imagine I sounded like a bit of broken record last year repeating my belief that she’s one of the most compelling and impressive athletes and the biggest rising star in all of wrestling.

Her grasp of the nuances of technical skill, timing, etc is really amazing, as is the intensity she brings to it all. Similar to another personal favorite of mine recently signed (Timothy Thatcher), one of the keys making Sareee so incredible is that she fights over EVERYTHING. The smallest exchanges are still struggles towards getting an edge progressing to the ultimate goal of winning the match. It makes such a difference in believability, and Sareee’s one of the very best at it. Of course she can also hit just the right notes in lighter, more comedic matches, and that versatility will undoubtably also serve her well.

A clear indication that I’m not alone in my opinion of Sareee is the apparent and repeated shows of confidence in her from veteran Japanese wrestlers. During a chunk of 2019 she was simultaneously reigning champion of both Kyoko Inoue’s and Meiko Satomura’s promotions (Diana and Sendai Girls respectively). She even won the Diana title back from the person who took it from her, the legendary Aja Kong.

In my write up of Diana’s 5/12/19 show at Korakuen Hall that Kong vs Sareee main evented, I commented:

“Sareee is wrestling’s next big star, and everyone clearly knows it. She recently won said double title match so is currently a reigning double singles champion across two companies. On her way to the Sendai title she pinned their legendary owner Meiko Satomura, as well as DASH Chisako and other top competitors. And of course any sort of victory over Kong is a huge deal, let alone a singles pinfall. The important part of course is Sareee’s completely believable and natural in this role, with both the technical skills and charisma/mannerisms to pull it all off.”

The mentioned match against DASH Chisako happened a few weeks prior at Sendai’s 4/27/19 show and was yet another stunning display. This featured two of my absolute favorite wrestlers and I actually traveled out to Sendai specifically to see it. It was an incredibly hard-hitting, wonderfully escalating contest that was everything I hoped for. They would meet again in a title defense for Sareee at Korakuen Hall in a match that from all accounts was somehow even better.

I was also lucky enough to see Sareee in a variety of great tag matches that paired her up with unusual opponents and showed even more of her variety and skills. One fun one of note saw her teaming with Pro-Wrestling Eve’s Yuu against Meiko Satomura & Gatoh Move’s Mei Suruga at Sendai’s 5/18/19 show.

During the summer it was reported that Sareee had met with HHH, and the rumors started in earnest. With heavy indications that her time in Japan might be wrapping up, she held a special self produced show in early December entitled Sareee’s Special Night. And it certainly was. 😉

In addition to tearing the house down in the cross promotional main event dream tag team match (Sareee & Syuri vs World of Stardom Champion Mayu Iwatani & Regina di Wave Champion Takumi Iroha), Sareee also showed she could put together a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable card from top to bottom. There was a little bit of everything, with multiple match styles and stories being told, special significance to things such as Jenny Rose’s return to Japan to face Marvelous’ Hibiki (formerly Diana’s Meiko Tanaka) and the injured Natsumi Maki still appearing as the ring announcer, and generally great action all around.

In early January Sareee officially announced she’d be leaving Diana in February and going to the United States. Today it became official that she is indeed WWE bound.

So in what ended up being my last time to see Sareee wrestle live for a while, I attended my first Diana dojo show on 1/19/20. It was a blast and Sareee’s excellent tag encounter alongside her trainer Kyoko Inoue against Actwres girlZ’ Champion Miyuki Takase & Diana rookie Haruka Umesaki was a great note to go out on for now.

There’s some admittedly justified trepidation among fans when independent talent gets signed by WWE considering their less than stellar track record with using people to their full abilities, but I’m still extremely happy for Sareee and hopeful that she will excel in the all the ways she’s clearly capable of. Best of luck to the Sun God in the next phase of her career.

Thank You Liger: Farewell to a Childhood Hero

I became enamored with professional wrestling as a kid, and while great many of my tastes have changed there have been some eternal constants. Wrestlers, styles, etc that transcend time in a sense.

When I was young I had only watched American wrestling, in the form of (then) WWF and WCW. Bret Hart, the Midnight Express, Mr. Perfect, and other wrestlers who combined athleticism and in-ring storytelling were among my favorites. I’d seen a little bit of the Great Muta in his WCW appearances, but that was largely it as far as non-North American talent went.

Then Superbrawl II started off with Jushin Thunder Liger vs Flyin’ Brian Pillman in a match (rightfully) still lauded to this day as perhaps the greatest opening match of all time. Liger was like nothing else I’d ever seen. Combining precision flying and hard strikes with uncanny psychology, and of course an incredible, striking presence, Jushin Thunder Liger was a superhero come to life (literally, as his persona was based off of an anime character). The match, and Liger, obviously left quite an impression on me and remains one of my all time favorites.

From there I would occasionally hunt down bits of his matches in Japan, and while I never quite saw as much as I wanted the sampling was invariably impressive. He was always captivating, and I have distinct memories of rewatching certain moves and sequences over and over in awe.

Flash way forward to 2015 and NXT Takeover Brooklyn would end up being my first time seeing Liger live, somewhat surreally in a WWE ring no less. His style had understandably changed over the years, but it still felt like a Liger match, and a very good one at that. Tyler Breeze was a great choice for his opponent and it was a treat to be there.

The following year at ROH/NJPW War of the Worlds 2016 I actually got to meet the legend, and then I was lucky enough to be able to attend Wrestle Kingdom 11 on 1/4/17 finally see him wrestle in Japan (albeit in limited fashion as part of a battle royal). As it happens it would end up being the only time I saw him wrestle live in Japan and the final time overall.

Throughout my changing tastes and focus on different parts of wrestling, I’ve remained a huge fan of Liger and am extremely happy he was able to keep wrestling for as long as he did, and for the times I was lucky enough to see him live.

Earlier this month Liger finished up his 35 year career. With Wrestle Kingdom 14 becoming a two-night event Liger’s farewell was unusually spread over three days, with his last two matches at the two WK shows on 1/4 and 1/5/20 and his retirement ceremony being held at a separate event than his final match at New Year’s Dash on 1/6/20.

I sadly was unable to attend the 1/5 show as planned due to illness, but watching online still conveyed the weight and emotion of the occasion. Liger wrestled with and against several of his compatriots on 1/4 in the star studded Jushin Thunder Liger, Tatsumi Fujinami, Tiger Mask, & Great Sasuke vs Shinjiro Otani, Tatsuhito Takaiwa, Naoki Sano, & Ryusuke Taguchi, then put over the next generation in a tag match on 1/5 teaming with Naoki Sano against Hiromu Takahashi & Ryu Lee. While many hoped he had on last singles match in him, these carefully chosen tag matches were a great, fitting way to say goodbye.

It’s almost as weird to see Liger go as it was to have him in wrestling at the level he was for so long. All that’s really left to say is thank you to the legend for everything, particularly the memories.

Farewell to a Gran Maestro Part 2: An Emotional Two Months

Two months ago I wrote Farewell to a Gran Maestro, a look back on Tequila Saya’s career just before her planned retirement date of October 12, 2019. As I mentioned towards the end of that piece, things didn’t go as planned. A typhoon caused that show to be canceled, and the following day Saya’s regular tag team partner (who was scheduled to tag with Saya in her final match) abruptly left the company under unusual circumstances.

After the dust settled a bit Saya announced she was postponing her retirement until the end of the year and would be stepping in to honor her former partner’s previously scheduled commitments. This was a big gesture on her part, and visibly greatly appreciated by the company and fans alike.

No matter the circumstances surrounding Saya’s short career extension, she certainly made the most of it. One of the previously mentioned commitments she took over was a spot on Rising Slam, a free to attend event in Italy aimed at spotlighting Joshi Puroresu live for the first time in that country. Saya was joined by fellow Ice Ribbon roster member Tsukushi, Actwres Girlz’ Mari, Tae Honma, Misa Matsui, & Saki, and freelancers Makoto and Rina Yamashita in traveling to Italy for this unique show. It would be Saya’s first and only international expedition as a wrestler. She also ended up doing more matches outside of Ice Ribbon than she ever had before, including a singles match against Yumi Ohka in Wave among others.

Saya would also win her only career singles title during the overrun, taking the Triangle Ribbon Championship from someone who debuted shortly after her and was as often a rival as a partner, Uno Matsuya (the match also involved Tae Honma). It was well deserved and wonderful to see this opportunity seized out of unusual circumstances.

She was involved in a wild champions vs challengers 8-woman tag at the December 14th show, defended the belt against Uno and Satsuki Totoro at her final P’s Party show (as an active wrestler) on Decemeber 18th, and lost the title to Tae Honma on Ice Ribbon’s December 21st show at Shinkiba 1st Ring (in a match that also involved Kaori Yoneyama).

From a selfish standpoint I must admit to being happy that the extension would allow me to see Saya wrestle live few more times before she finished up. Her final dojo match against Tsukasa Fujimoto was all kinds of fun, including a particularly amusing section where she tried, rather unsuccessfully, to imitate the signature moves of all the other wrestlers at the show. Tsukka then invited them all in to demonstrate all the correct versions on Saya.

Her final match was earlier today, a special 38 (plus a few) person challenge that saw Saya face everyone consecutively in one minute time limit sections. A mix of some competitive sections, lighter comedic ones, and some old familiar faces just coming back to say goodbye, it was a perfect way to say farewell to the Gran Maestro.

The last two sections saw Saya gaining her only pinfall over Ice Ribbon’s ace Tsukka with the “Gran Maestro de Tequila,” then falling to the rookie she’d given the moves to as Suzu Suzuki showed she also mastered Saya’s “Tequil Shot” variation.

The show drew 1,384 people, making it the largest crowd ever for Ice Ribbon at Korakuen Hall and their forth largest crowd ever.

It was an honor to be in attendance to wish Saya well, and I hope whatever future lies ahead for her after wrestling is a bright one.

Farewell to a Gran Maestro: Tequila Saya’s Retirement

During my first trip to Japan at the end of 2015 I became an immediate and big fan of Ice Ribbon. A few months later, on March 12, 2016, a wrestler called Tequila Saya made her debut for the company.

I saw Saya wrestle for first time when I returned to Japan the following December. She made strong positive first impression in a tag match teaming with Kyuri against Uno Matsuya & Maika Ozaki on 12/24/16 and a great 7-way at Ribbonmania a week later, with both matches involving several other rookie talents.

The immediately striking thing about watching Saya is her infectious charisma. She always seems to be having fun and excited about whatever she’s doing and there’s an engaging quality to her performances. Her expressions and body language are great in helping to tell the story of her matches, and a distinct style and personality make her a compelling performer.

One of my favorite examples of the fantastic little details she adds to her matches is from Survival Ribbon during that same trip. Saya was drawn first for her random match and entered the ring visibly confident and psyched up. She then absolutely crumpled in the corner in resignation seconds later when it was announced her opponent was Ice Ribbon’s resident powerhouse Kurumi Hiiragi. In mere seconds with no words she emphatically and completely put over the notion that Kurumi’s a monster and the enormity of the task in front of her.

Saya continued to impress in all the subsequent times I’ve been lucky enough to see her wrestle, including some particularly fun matches this past January.

In Spring of 2018 Saya started producing a series of biweekly shows called P’s Party (“short” for Peace Party) initially focusing on talent with less than three years experience (although as time passes some of their core roster are obviously passing that particular hallmark), with some vets mixed in for them to work with. The concept is fantastic and I always enjoyed the shows of theirs I saw.

This Spring P’s Party had their first larger, non-dojo show as part of the Yokohama Wrestling Festival during Golden Week. Yokohama Party was a really enjoyable event, and it was great to see them get an opportunity in front of a larger audience. Saya wrestled in the main event alongside Burning Raw tag team partner Giulia again Rina Yamashita & the debuting Yappy.

Around the same time as starting up P’s Party, Saya also opened a bar close to the Ice Ribbon dojo. Continuing the theme it’s called After Party, and is a cool little place with a nice atmosphere. It reminded me a bit of bars back home, and Saya’s a great bartender in general in addition to it being awesome to have the opportunity to hang out with other fans and chat with them and Saya a bit. There were frequent guest events and other wrestlers helping out, and I always had a lot of fun when I went.

Both P’s Party and After Party have dates set for October post Saya’s final match, but it’s unclear how long either will continue (particularly the bar, which has already scaled back its open dates to solely post Ice Ribbon/P’s Party dojo shows).

I didn’t know it at the time, but from her announcement up until this week I thought the Lovely Butchers (Hamuko Hoshi & Mochi Miyagi) vs Burning Raw on 5/28/19 would be the final time I’d see Saya wrestle live. If so it would have been a great little opener and a fine note to go out on. I adored Burning Raw as a team (despite the nonsensical name lol) and this was really the start of their push to the International Ribbon Tag Team Titles, which they would win from Azure Revolution (Risa Sera & Maya Yukihi) in July and lose back to them a month ago. After the match Saya announced her impending retirement.

Of course in light of this week’s events that match becomes a bittersweet memory. Saya’s final match was scheduled to be on October 13, in which Burning Raw would face Uno Matsuya & Satsuki Totoro. That show was canceled due to a typhoon, and the expectation was that it would be rescheduled at a later date.

Instead the next day Giulia attempted to terminate her Ice Ribbon contract, and showed up at Stardom the day after that. There is a lot of turmoil and speculation surrounding her departure, which is of course outside the scope of this piece. Last night Saya announced she is postponing her retirement until the end of the year and will be wrestling in the previously committed matches Giulia was scheduled for. Whatever the situation this is a big, and appreciated, gesture on her part towards the company and the fans. Her new retirement date is set for Ribbonmania on 12/31/19.

Saya’s indicated that she planned to wrestle for three years from the start, and while I’ll miss her I’m glad she was able to realize her goal. Wishing the Gran Maestro de Tequila all the best in whatever’s next, though I do selfishly hope she’ll remain involved in Ice Ribbon in some capacity post her in-ring career.

Last Song for You: Riho’s “Graduation” from Gatoh Move

Later today (7/2/19) Riho, Gatoh Move’s ace, will have her final match with the company. She will be “graduating” (the term used in Japan when someone leaves a company to move on, whether it’s for retirement or a case like this) to go freelance.

 

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Prior to my first trip to Japan at the end of 2015, I was primarily only had seen Joshi wrestlers that had come stateside for Shimmer. So, as I mentioned in my look back on Kotori’s career when she retired, I was largely unfamiliar with the professional wrestling company Gatoh Move and their wrestlers when I attended my first show of theirs on 12/22/15.

On that show freelancers Hikaru Shida and Makoto, who I knew from Shimmer, were on opposite sides from each other in a tag match paired with Gatoh Move roster members Kotori and Riho respectively.  It was quite good, and in particular Riho stood out with skills and instincts that seemed beyond what her 18 years of age would have implied.

 

 

And with good reason. “Young” in Joshi doesn’t necessarily correlate to experience, and Riho was in fact the most senior competitor in that match with nearly 10 years as a wrestler, incredibly starting at the age of just 9 years old. She grew and honed her craft under the training and tutelage of the incredible Emi Sakura, first in Ice Ribbon then following her mentor when Sakura split with the company in 2012 and started Gatoh Move.

 

 

So in my initial exposure to Riho, she was already an accomplished, polished veteran. And boy did it show. Particularly later that trip when I got a chance to see Gatoh Move in their home environment. 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.

It’s such a unique environment, that not only provides something special for the audience but also forces the wrestlers to push themselves and adapt to the unusual constraints. And Riho is an absolute master of it. Her athleticism, creativity, and precision always combined in fantastic fashion as she bounced around the confined space, often utilizing not only the windowsill but also her opponents and partners as platforms to launch herself off of in lieu of ropes and turnbuckles.

 

 

As such, some of the most memorable moments of Riho in Ichigaya for me came from Gatoh’s incredible 6-person tag matches, including  Riho, Kotori, & Aasa vs Emi, Obi, & Mitsuru on 12/31/16, a similar variation two years later of  Riho teaming with Emi & Obi against Mitsuru, Mei Suruga, & Yuna Mizumori in a special “Old Gatoh Move” vs “New Gatoh Move”  match on 12/31/18  (which is up on Gatoh Move’s YouTube channel!!!), and a fantastic match from just  last month  of Riho, Baliyan Akki, & An-Chamu vs Emi, Masahiro Takanashi, & Mei (also up on Gatoh Move’s YouTube channel!!!).

 

 

At the risk of getting overly cliched, Riho has the presence of a star. The audience reactions when she appeared at other promotions, such as in a pair of great tag team title challenges in back to back years in Tokyo Joshi Pro’s biggest events, was always incredible.

 

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Riho’s greatest strength may be her ability to make whatever story she’s telling in the ring accessible and convincing. She’s believable as a threat, even against far larger opponents and in the many intergender matches she’s had. A particular favorite of mine was her no-rope match against Yaso Urano at Basara’s 12/28/17 show.

 

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This Spring I was extremely lucky to be able to attend some of Riho’s last matches in Gatoh Move, and there have certainly been a lot of high notes to go out on. At the beginning of May she faced DDT wrestler and regular Gatoh Move guest Masahiro Takanashi in an incredible encounter that’s one of my top matches of the year thus far. A few days later she won Gatoh’s annual Go Go Green Curry Cup (a mixed tag team tournament).

 

 

And just a month out from her final match, in her second to last “traditional” show for Gatoh, she successfully defended her Super-Asia Championship against rising star Mei Suruga in a wonderful match, after which she relinquished the title.

Tonight Riho will wrestle her trainer Emi Sakura one-on-one in her final Gatoh Move match. I can’t think of a more fitting farewell.

 

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Riho has already given fans a little glimpse of what’s to come after Gatoh Move, as she’s had a pair of good outings with AEW. She’s implied in a recent interview that she doesn’t intend to sign anywhere full time just yet, so it’ll be interesting to see if/where she wrestles in Japan in addition to continuing with AEW in the states (as of now nothing else has been announced/scheduled). It will also be interesting to watch Gatoh Move change and adapt after her departure.

I look forward to the continued success of both.

 

Farewell to an Angel: Yuuka’s Retirement

During my first trip at the end of 2015 to Japan I became a huge fan of Ice Ribbon, and follow them to this day. I had my first exposure to several would-become-favorites during that time, including the then reigning Ice Cross Infinity Champion and recently retired Aoi Kizuki.

During my first Ice Ribbon show, which was also my first ever live show in Japan, there was another wrestler who really impressed me in the same tag match as Aoi. But in contrast to Aoi being a 10-year veteran, this was a relative rookie with just under 2 years in the sport.

 

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Yuuka, nicknamed the “White Angel of Ice Ribbon,” wowed me with her instincts and level of skill for her experience and 17 years of age. She presented herself in a way that made an immediate impact, including a ring style that showcased hard strikes and fierce determination in a thoroughly compelling manner.

Throughout the trip I got to see Yuuka in four other matches. On Neko Nitta’s Produced show she faced normal tag partners Risa Sera and Maya Yukihi in an interesting triple threat, and my final Ice Ribbon show of the trip saw her team with Hamuko Hoshi opposite Aoi again, this time in a 6-woman tag with Maruko Nagaski as their third and Akane Fujita & Mochi Miyagi on Aoi’s side.

 

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In between those shows were two matches I look back on particularly fondly. On Risa Sera’s 2nd Produced show Yuuka was part of a rather hilarious cell phone destruction match, and on Ice Ribbon’s biggest show of the year Yuuka got nice singles spotlight against fellow up and comer Sareee in perhaps my favorite of the live matches I saw with her.

 

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I wouldn’t return to Japan until the following holiday season, so those were my only opportunities to see Yuuka wrestle live. But the first half of 2016 held a number of other interesting things for her. She had a fun rivalry/partnership with another favorite of mine in Wave’s veteran Misaki Ohata (who also recently retired … been a rough year or so), won the Young Oh! Oh! portion of Wave’s annual Catch the Wave Tournament, then was built up to challenge Risa Sera for the Ice Cross Infinity Championship to main event Ice Ribbon’s 10th Anniversary show in what has to be considered her career highlight.

Yuuka had an energy and commitment to whatever story she was telling that was captivating. Little details in her matches, her body language and facial expressions, and the general way she carried herself added tons to her character and made her a joy to watch.

 

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Yuuka’s last match was in mid-July 2016, after which she went on hiatus for undisclosed reasons. But she was still listed as part of the Ice Ribbon roster on their webpage with an implied possibility of return until recently. On March 25, 2019 her retirement was officially announced. She was one of the young wrestlers who left a great impression on me, and I’ve mentioned before she certainly had the potential for a big career ahead of her if she continued.

 

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While it’s a shame that didn’t come to pass and I miss seeing her in the ring, I’m always happy and supportive of seeing people do what’s best for them and I wish Yuuka all the best in whatever’s next.