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.

Farewell to a Legend

On November 3, 2017, in an hour long match with 50+ opponents, Manami Toyota ended her incredible 30 year career in professional wrestling.

Toyota is a innovator and standard bearer whose impact on the sport will be felt long after her retirement. I haven’t watched nearly as much as I want / intend to of Toyota’s older matches, but am of course well aware of her impact on professional wrestling.

As my own personal goodbye to her legendary career, I’d like to focus on the fortuitous opportunities I’ve had to see Toyota wrestle live.

 

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The first was a complete surprise, and an incredible moment for me during my first trip to Japan. Toyota was not scheduled for any of the 12 shows I saw during my two week trip to Tokyo at the end of 2015.

On December 20 I attended a show by Chigusa Nagayo’s Marvelous promotion. The main event was a 6 on 2 handicap match featuring Chigusa, Aki Shizuku, Chikayo Nagashima, Mima Shimoda, Takumi Iroha & Tomoko Watanabe vs Dump Matusmoto & Yumiko Hotta. Chigusa’s teammates were largely cannon fodder for Dump to  to hit with a kendo stick and other objects over and over. Hotta arrived wearing numerous pairs of handcuffs all over her gear, so it was obvious where things were eventually going. After the brawl spilled throughout the arena Chigusa’s team was eventually incapacitated by being handcuffed to the ropes.

The heat coming from sections of fans for both Dump and Chigusa was incredible, creating an electric atmosphere. If possible it intensified even more when Manami Toyota came out as surprise help for Chigusa. For me it was a jaw dropping moment, and I felt incredibly privileged to get to meet Toyota after the show.

 

Fast forward a year and I was back for the holiday shows again, including a personal favorite of mine in Ice Ribbon’s annual Ribbonmania. Toyota’s match this time was particularly interesting, as she was one of the challengers for Ai Shimizu’s Triangle Ribbon Title (along with Maruko Nagasaki).  This was a straight up slaughter, which might not have made for the most interesting of matches from the perspective of an completely overmatched champion, but Toyota plowing through both opponents and winning the Triangle title with a double pin after her moonsault was a strong spectacle and nice moment all the same. Toyota commented/joked afterwards about her winning a title in 2016, and it was again an honor to get to greet her in person and congratulate her.

Her Triangle Ribbon championship reign was a quiet one, as she successfully defended the title only once during her six month reign before losing it to her heir apparent Tsukasa Fujimoto. But a final championship before she retired was well deserved.

 

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My third opportunity to see Toyota wrestle live came during a shorter trip this past summer.  At SEAdLINNNG’s August 24 show she was again in a 3-way match with Maruko Nagasaki, this time under high speed rules with Kaho Kobayashi as the third participant. It was an amusing opener centered around the legend having some difficulty with the match concept (super quick counts and covers only valid after some sort of running move from what I could tell) and getting annoyed with special referee Natsuki Taiyo. She eventually adapted and outlasted the youngsters, picked up the win, then sold being exhausted from so much running. It was really amusing, particularly in watching Toyota’s protege Tsukka crack up at ringside at the various antics, and a fun format to see the veteran perform in. 

 

 

 

A few days later I saw what would be my final live Manami Toyota match at Ice Ribbon’s August 27 event. A somewhat poetic way to close things out, as Toyota was the opponent for the debuting Asahi. The rookie played the role of totally overmatched but determined underdog well against  the legend and the dynamic of the confident, somewhat dismissive Toyota acting more and more surprised at Asahi’s resiliency and the length she had to go to in order to beat the upstart was fantastic.

 

 

 

Tsukka and others cheering on Asahi excitedly each time she got a little edge on the veteran or survived a pin attempt added a lot to the atmosphere, and short of being in attendance for Toyota’s actual last match I couldn’t have asked for a better note to say goodbye on.

 

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I appreciate everyone reading indulging me in my personal memories of interactions with one of wrestling’s brightest stars. I highly recommend seeking out anything and everything you can from her incredible career. Congratulations to Manami Toyota and best of luck with whatever’s next.

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.” 😉