Another Wonderful Way Pro-Wrestling is Art 2

In Another Wonderful Way Pro-Wrestling is Art I talked about the the wrestling centric work of Rob Schamberger. Here, in addition to featuring more from Rob, I’d also like to spotlight another artist who specializes in wrestling related creations as well as an artist readers of this blog will be well familiar with who has entered the realm of drawing professional wrestlers as the result of commission requests from me. 😉

 

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A mix of originals and prints of Rob Schamberger’s striking work.

 

WWE’s Asuka (formerly Kana) is a longtime favorite of mine, and was the subject of first wrestling related commission request I ever made (top left above). She has remained central to collection (and will come up again later), particularly in terms of Rob’s wonderful mixed media creations which generally start with a framework from a photo of the subject and grow from there via Rob’s creativity, expert techniques, and incredible use of color. I’ve also added an original painting (as well as signed print) of current NXT Women’s Champion and Stardom alumni Kairi Sane (formerly Kairi Hojo) that nicely capture the unique presence and charisma of the Pirate Princess.

 

More information about Rob’s art can be found on his website.

 

 

 

As I mentioned in Beautiful Dreams and Beautiful Dreams 2, I’ve been a fan of Juri H Chinchilla’s amazing art for several years and have been fortunate enough to develop a nice collection of her work.

One of the more unique requests I made among a plethora of video game and anime characters was a card featuring one of my favorite professional wrestlers, Mitsuru Konno from Gatoh Move. I thought Juri’s style would be perfect for this and it came out far beyond my high expectations. I specified only the subject here, and I adore the incredible way Juri captured and combined Mitsuru’s strength, determination, grace, and beauty in her remarkable hand drawn rendition. From there I got even more excited about having her draw more wrestlers. Asuka of course was on the list, and Juri wonderfully depicted her striking presence and style.

Aoi Kizuki is a personal favorite of mine who recently retired, so Juri’s fantastic rendition of her will be a treasured momento of a wrestler who will be greatly missed. The little details, like the patterns and textures on both Aoi’s and Asuka’s outfits and the highlighting use of metallics really make these incredible works come to life.

 

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Dash Chisako PSC by Juri H. Chinchilla.

 

Sendai Girl’s Dash Chisako is my favorite high flyer in all of wrestling, and I’m amazed and ecstatic with how perfectly Juri captured Dash mid flight performing her trademark frog splash. Having Dash performing one of her flying moves is the most specific I got with any of my wrestler requests for Juri, and she absolutely knocked it out of the park. The likeness, colors, sense of motion, etc are all pitch perfect.

 

More information about Juri’s art can be found on her artist page.

 

 

 

Shining Wizard Designs is another artist who specializes in depictions of wrestlers, in this case wonderfully stark, hyper realistic black and white ink drawings he regularly shares on social media. I adore the striking assortment of pieces of his I’ve gotten, and have been lucky enough to get a few of them signed by the wrestlers. In addition to excellent versions of the previously mentioned Asuka and Dash, SWD drew the reigning Wave Pro Tag Team Champions Bossy to Mammy (Marvelous’ rising star Mio Momono and Wave veteran Yumi Ohka) as well as Ice Ribbon’s MMA trained rookies Team DATE (Hana, Nao, Nori, and Karen) for me.

Aoi isn’t the only wrestler I follow retiring this year, so in tribute I commissioned a combination piece featuring Aoi, Wave’s Mika Iida, and Tokyo Joshi Pro’s Maho Kurone, as well as a stand alone piece of Wave’s Misaki Ohata (who will retire in December) doing one of her gorgeous flying cross bodies. Of course later even more retirements were announced, which gives subjects for the future I suppose. 😉 I will miss all of these wrestlers greatly but wish them the best.

 

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Gatoh Move (Mitsuru Konno, Sayaka Obihiro, Emi Sakura, and Riho) by Shining Wizard Designs.

 

Finally, I had a piece done featuring some of the core members of Gatoh Move, a small, wonderful company run by the incredible Emi Sakura. In addition to Emi and Mitsuru (from Juri’s work above), Gatoh’s ace Riho and lynchpin Sayaka Obihiro are also pictured. I’m extremely happy with SWD’s work and greatly appreciate the opportunity to get these done.

 

More information about Shining Wizard Designs art can be found on Twitter.

 

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Thanks again to all three of these artists for their impressive creations.

Mae Young Classic 2018 Episode 4 Review

Former Shimmer champion’s up tonight, and Io makes her debut.

Oh, and MATSUMOTO. HIROYO. DESTROY.

 

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Previous episodes:

Episode 1

Episode 3

 

Round 1 continued:

13) Hiroyo Matsumoto vs Rachel Evers  **1/2

Cole puts over Hiroyo’s character in addition to her in ring skills. Loves wrestling because it makes her happy. Problem is Rachel’s familiar to the crowd, so Hiroyo’s a defacto heel whenever she gets aggressive and actual gets some booed at various points in the match.

Rachel’s the “One woman Minnesota Wrecking Crew.” Eh, as nicknames go there are worse, but it feel forced.

They run down Rachel’s power lifting history and other accomplishments.  “Does that make Rachel the favorite in this?” No. No it doesn’t.

This fed into the match being structured/presented as a power vs power contest, which is an interesting approach. Hiroyo actually displayed more speed and agility than Rachel overall as a result. They did everything they could to make Rachel seem Hiroyo’s equal (including Evers doing a strong style no sell of a German suplex), and it still didn’t quite feel right. Hiroyo eventual advances with the backdrop driver, which was a relief. Good match with some nice spots from both, although I thought they tried too hard to get Rachel over in defeat, and all it did was emphasize how far above her Hiroyo actually is.

 

14) Jessie Elaban vs Taynara Conti *1/4

“I just sort of throw my body at people.” Being a clumsy goof (her words) is certainly a unique gimmick for Jessie.

Jessie got a few flashes of offense, but this was all about establishing Conti’s new heelish attitude. She wins in pretty short order amid some pretty basic action. Effective for what it was, but the match itself had nothing to it.

 

15) Isla Dawn vs Nicole Matthews **3/4

Matthews is an ex-Shimmer champion, and was an alternate for last year’s MYC.  “If I wasn’t in that tournament your weren’t showing the best of the best.” Heel vet with a chip on her shoulder is a pretty perfect role for Matthews. 😉

Isla’s the new to me competitor I’m most intrigued by, and her look, the way she carries herself, etc all combine to make her immediately striking.

Handshake? From Matthews? O_o Ah, she is going dismissive/condescending to start: she pats Isla’s head on first break, etc. This becomes a story of Dawn’s strikes against Matthews using short bursts of offense to gain control and then just grinding Isla down. They worked the formula well, and this had markedly different style and pacing than other matches in tourney in an appreciated way. Nice showing for Isla and a well deserved win for Matthews (via the Liontamer).

 

16) Io Shirai vs Xia Brookside **3/4

They’re treating Io’s signing as big deal it is, which is great to see. I’m unfamiliar with Xia, but have heard good things. Clearly she’s well thought of since she’s getting the spot as Io’s opponent.

Kairi’s shown cheering Io. 🙂

Xia charges Io to start (in a show of determination, not as a cheap shot or anything), which is an awesome character moment. Io later counters a headscissors by landing on her feet, and the crowd is hers. Great point from Cole about Io being all smiles throughout but not in a mocking way, just because she’s enjoying what she does.

Xia makes enough of a fight of it to get chants herself at points. Io’s explosive offense, counters (that ducked strike turned into a crossface was a thing of beauty), and general star presence just wows the crowd. She wins with the moonsault of course, and helps Xia up post match. Can’t go higher on the rating do to the short length and dominant structure, but this great for what it was (a quasi-squash) and provided a hell of an emphatic intro for WWE audiences to one of the best in the world. Xia should be proud of her performance here as well.

 

——-

Most of today was story first, but that’s fine and there was enough great action sprinkled in to make it a breeze to watch. And we saw Hiroyo, Matthews, and Io in WWE, which alone is worth checking out. Fine end to the first round.

 

I’ll likely be unable to watch live (or possibly at all) the next couple weeks, so will hopefully catch up on the quarters (and maybe the round 1 episode I haven’t reviewed yet) after the fact.

Mae Young Classic 2018 Episode 3 Review

This year’s Mae Young Classic got off to an impressive start with good matches, improved production and commentary over last year, and the introduction of legend Meiko Satomura to the WWE universe. I was only able to watch last week’s episode peripherally, so in terms of these reviews I’m skipping to this week’s episode 3.

 

Previous episodes:

Episode 1

 

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Two big rivalries exploding in the first round tonight, a former champion returns, and a wrestler from last year’s tourney faces off with someone I’m familiar with from outside WWE in four intriguing matchups.

A really nice quick intro to all eight of tonight’s wrestlers opens the show, which will be built upon with the longer packages later. The presentation this year has been top notch.

 

Round 1 continued:

9)  Kaitlyn vs Kavita Devi **

Devi loss last year to Dakota Kai is highlighted and she’s determined to win this time. Kaitlyn’s this year’s Serena-like return story. Nice package on her focusing on her being a former champ and her personal redemption/transformation.

Cole admits he’s not impartial here because of excitement for Kaitlyn’s return after all she’s overcome. She looks quite different, and comfortable. Davi seems to be playing quasi-heel, but her importance and fame as the first Indian woman superstar is also emphasized. Cole owns up to past problems with WWE’s presentation of women during Kaitlyn’s original run and his own part in it, and apologizes.

Kaitlyn, referred to as the “Hybrid Diva,” trying to overcome Devi’s power and size was the focus here. The spear eventually ends it and sends Kaitlyn on. “Will she be the Cinderella Story of this tourney?” Basic but decent, with the story more the point here, and it was a good one. I’m happy for Kaitlyn, and while Devi’s still green she’s improving. Kaitlyn will face the winner of tonight’s main in the next round.

 

10) Toni Storm vs Jinny **3/4

The Fashionista has arrived. “My style is ruthless. I don’t care about my opponent.”

Toni made the semis last year, and “got a taste of my dream.” Presented as a rock star to Jinny’s haughty refinement, Toni gets a longer package and is clearly being positioned as a tourney favorite. I hope we get more of the Toni I’ve heard so much about on the indie scene around the world and less of the one who I honestly thought underperformed last year.

Big crowd reaction for Toni. Jinny has fantastic heel presence, body language, etc. Curiously there really isn’t much mention of the history between these two. Jinny wants no part of Toni’s handshake and slaps it away. Throughout the match the more vicious Jinny became, the better this got. Both looked decent, and this was the most I’ve liked Toni so far. One highlight was a beautiful snap German by Toni. Toni wins with the “Storm Zero” (tiger driver). She doesn’t get much height on it, and honestly it looks dangerous to me as it seems her opponent could easily under rotate and come down on her head. Decent, but this could have been more. Seems to be a theme with me and Toni’s tourney matches. We’ll see how next round goes.

 

11) Karen Q vs Xia Li ***

Karen Q looked good when I saw her at Shimmer, and it’s nice to see her get a chance here. It’s stressed that Xia debuted at last year’s tourney (against Martinez), and she’s the clear favorite from the way things are being presented.

Both square up for martial arts immediately and the crowd goes wild. Karen discards respect early and slaps Xia, which backfires a bit as Xia unloads on her, but then the ref pulls Xia back and Karen ambushes her with a kick to take control. Mocking bow and Karen’s gone practically full cocky heel in attitude, but is still using speed and martial arts back ground for some crowd popping strikes. The mixture actually works well here, given the two showed respect again once the match was over. Anymore heel work by Karen and that would have felt odd.

Xia’s kicks look brutal. She’s come a long way in a year. These two hit the hell out of each other and put on a really nice little match. Both should be proud, and I’d love to see a rematch when both have more experience. Karen missed a frog splash (that had shades of Dash Chisako in its beautiful form), and Xia capitalized with a flipping axe kick for the win. Heat of competition aside, Karen congratulated Xia afterwards.

 

12) Mia Yim vs Allysin Kay ***3/4

Pinkies up! Great intro package for Kay, including background on Mia breaking her nose and how they’ve feuded all over. Her discus lariat finish is stressed. Mia talks about bringing a whole different game this year. Unlike with Toni and Jinny the history between these two is greatly emphasized.

Via Shimmer footage of Mia’s matches Aja Kong and Aoi Kizuki appear up on WWE tv, which is an amusing little treat for a Joshi fan like me, particularly with Aoi retiring in a couple weeks.

Allysin Kay is constantly refining her craft, and has really evolved and grown over time. She went from someone who I found ok to someone I get excited to see and cheer for. Really happy to see her included.

Glad to hear commentary bring up Mia Yim’s history as a domestic violence survivor and her efforts to spread awareness and encourage others to break the silence.

Tense stare off, no handshake of course. “Let’s go Mia!” “Pinkies up!” dueling chants throughout. This was intense, well worked and paced, and had a great underlying story. Neck and neck with Kelly vs Meiko for best match of the tourney so far. Kay hits the lariat but was slow to cover, so Mia survived. They kept going toe to toe until Mia got the better of an exchange on the turnbuckles and nailed a sweet second rope Seoul Food for the win. Mia will face Kaitlyn in round 2, which I’m quite interested to see after tonight.

 

——-

I really enjoyed this week’s episode overall, and the tournament is nicely living up to its potential thus far.

Mae Young Classic 2018 Episode 1 Review

Been psyched for the return of the WWE’s women’s tournament after its inaugural edition last year (check out my thoughts starting here). The taping format limited the matches in certain respects and the presentation and commentary was hit or miss, but it was a decent showing overall leading to a strong final and deserving winner (who just recently won the NXT Women’s Championship). This year the lineup is even more impressive, with several returns as well as numerous exciting WWE debuts.

Instead of the episode dump of last year the tournament is airing weekly after NXT. Episode 1 will start things off in a big way, as one of the biggest names will main event.

 

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Round 1:

 

1) Tegan Nox vs Zatara ***

Nice video packages to hype both wrestlers. Zatara’s got into her background as 10 year vet and WWE’s first Chilean wrestler. Tegan’s focused on her missing last year’s tourney due to an acl tear and being inspired by Molly Holly.

Renee Young, Beth Phoenix, and Michael Cole calling this, which with all due respect is a big step up from last year’s team. They all talk up Tegan as a possible favorite for the tourney, while also commenting it won’t be easy because she had a tough draw in the first round of a physical vet who’s looking to make a statement.

Great to see Nox back from the injury. I’m familiar with her from Shimmer (as Nixon Newel), while this is my first look at Zatara. The latter started in sportsmanlike fashion but slowly allowed the heel tendencies to emerge as the match continued, reacting to Tegan’s hot start and the crowd’s lack of support for her against the darling Nox. Solid, well worked match with an easy to follow story that culminated with Nox overcoming trouble with her previously injured knee to nail the Shiniest Wizard to advance. Both looked good and this was a great choice to start with.

 

Ember Moon and Alexa Bliss are shown watching in the crowd.

 

2) Rhea Ripley vs MJ Jenkins **3/4

Rhea’s been repackaged, claiming to be a darker, better version of herself and is out to make up for “making a fool of myself last year.” Interesting angle. MJ’s charisma comes across instantly, and although there seems to be no real hope for her here she’s getting the crowd involved and generally playing her part well. Rhea mentioned as a darkhorse. Commentary is excellent so far, sounding informed about the competitors and genuinely interested in what’s happening.

Rhea won’t shake hands to open. Jenkins shows a bit of fire early, but Rhea takes over with a HARD dropkick counter to a springboard that sends MJ to the floor. Rhea’s all heel here but the new look and aggressive attitude has the crowd behind her for a bit. The two do get the crowd behind MJ later on, which is a credit to both.  Rhea grinds Jenkins down little by little and while the newcomer got to look tough for holding on as long as she did and had a couple of nice flurries Rhea eventually picks up the expected victory with a SWEET pumphandle sitout powerbomb. Solid.

 

 

3)  Lacey Lane vs Vanessa Kraven **1/2

Kraven’s a Shimmer mainstay who I’m thrilled to see getting a shot here. Nice use of Shimmer footage in here intro package matching up with a calm, even delivery from Kraven about here ambitions. Lacey’s new to me. She has a unique look and comes across well in her video. As she comes to the ring it’s mentioned she’s signed to the performance center, which doesn’t bode well for the Mountain. 😦

Lio Rush is shown in the crowd.

Big size advantage for Kraven, and the commentators go right for the David vs Goliath comparison. Cole mentions though that it’s not just that: there’s also a big experience advantage for Kraven. Nice touch. They mention Lane’s intergender wrestling background, which is good context for her taking on an opponent who has 100 pounds on her. Lane flubs a rope bounce early, but recovers well (and again Cole, Phoenix and Young explain/cover it well talking about big match nerves). Kraven catches Lane on a dive outside and then dominates with nice power style for a bit. Some of Lane’s stuff didn’t quite hit clean and the pacing was off, but she looked decent overall with some real fire and flare. She picked up the victory with a crucifix bomb, and is on to round 2. It was sold as a huge upset over the 14 year veteran, which is at least a good amount of respect for Kraven and a good story even if I’m disappointed to see the Mountain out so quick. Lane’s your Cinderella story at this point.

 

Natalia gives an interview backstage and says she’s rooting for Io and Mia.

 

4) Meiko Satomura vs Killer Kelly ***3/4

Meiko is a legitimate legend and quite possibly the best wrestler in the world. I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to see her wrestle several times live in Japan, including against another MYC participant in an incredible match on a show by Meiko’s promotion Sendai Girls this past April. Footage is show from 22 years ago when Meiko wrestled a match for WCW. Killer Kelly comes across as no nonsense and seems a good choice for Meiko’s opponent just from her attitude and style alone.

 

Funaki’s in the audience with Tye Dillinger.

Meiko being presented as the legend she is (Cole even uses the word). Crowd explodes for her too. Handshake and a bow before the match. Strikes and chain wrestling early, and I can’t stress how much of a treat it is to see Meiko ply her craft. Kelly holding her end up wonderfully and the crowd’s well invested. Meiko wow’s the crowd with some of her incredible transitions and counters and gets Kelly in a STF that puts Cena to SHAME. Kelly forces a rope break but Satomura continues to pick her apart bit by bit. Kelly gives the vet all she can handle at times though, including locking in a dragon sleeper on the tope rope, and getting a 2.9999 off a fisherman’s. Meiko’s just too much however, and the Death Valley Driver puts Kelly away. Meiko pulls Kelly up afterwards to hug her and bows to an emotional Kelly who congratulates Meiko on the win. Kelly clearly know what an honor she received being able to wrestle Satomura in a main event. And she looked great. Meiko of course is Meiko, and this was a blast.

 

——-

Fantastic first impression here. And we’re just getting started…

NXT Takeover Brooklyn IV Live Thoughts

August 18, 2018 in Brooklyn, NY

NXT Takeover Brooklyn is a highlight of the year for me, and this show looked quite good going in.

 

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Before Takeover “proper” a pair of matches were taped for this week’s NXT (so these first two matches I’ll talk about are technically spoilers).

Taping for 8/22/18:

1) Bianca Belair vs Deonna Purrazo

 

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Nice way to start, and a very good showing for both competitors. Well structured match that ended with an important win for Belair as she perhaps gains momentum towards a title shot. There’s time to build up Deonna later.

 

2) UK Championship: Pete Dunne (c) vs Zack Gibson

 

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Gibson’s a fantastic heel and NYC loves the Bruiserweight, so this was heated from the word go. They viciously picked each other apart in between unique moments like getting their legs tied up, pushing into dual headstands, and then slapping each other. Dunne can do it all, as he demonstrated here with some beautiful arial offense. In the end they fought over Dunne’s mouthpiece, leading to just enough an opening for Dunne to hit the Bitter End and retain. Excellent match.

 

Takeover

1) NXT Tag Team Title: Undisputed Era (Kyle O’Reily & Roderick Strong) vs Moustache Mountain (Trent Seven & Tyler Bate).

 

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With the recent trading of the titles and War Raiders on the horizon there seemed no chance of a switch here, but predictable is fine if done well, which this was. I’m not the biggest fan of UE, but they can rise to the level of their opponents reasonably well, and MM is one of the best tag teams in the business. Great match overall that saw a lot of changes in momentum and played off of their previous encounters in interesting ways. UE eventually retained with their version of Chasing the Dragon after a long sprint that kept pace throughout. Afterwards War Raiders send the champs packing to make a statement.

 

2) Velveteen Dream vs EC3

 

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EC3 is has a heel gimmick and attitude, wrestled like a heel here, and yet was cast in the babyface role storyline-wise. Unsurprisingly the NYC crowd was firmly in Dream’s corner. This was way too long for the styles involved and what they were doing, but had an extremely hot finish with Dream hitting the top rope elbow to EC3 on the outside apron then rolling him back in for a well deserved and needed win. Didn’t expect that outcome, but it was the right one.

 

Matt Riddle was the front row “surprise” plant, and I’m beyond happy for him and can’t wait to see him tear it up in NXT.

 

3) North American Championship: Adam Cole (c) vs Ricochet 

 

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Again not a big fan of Cole, and he was a bit limited here, but when it counted most he admittedly nailed things (like a beautiful superkick counter to an Asai moonsault) and he mostly committed to playing the proper heel role (outside his ridiculous crowd pandering for his catchphrase). Ricochet is so incredibly smooth with everything he does, and dropped the crowd’s jaws several times including an INSANE rope clear hurricanrana to the floor with Cole standing on the apron. 630 gives Ricochet the win and the title to counter Cole’s “you’re not special” claims and send the audience through the roof despite being split throughout the match. Extremely good match, and this was the right time for the switch.

 

4) NXT Women’s Championship: Shayna Baslzer (c) vs Kairi Sane

 

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Speaking of the right time for a switch, I was convinced coming in that because of the incredible way Shayna ran down Kairi leading into this, along with the likelihood of Shayna being called up soon, that Kairi had to be winning the belt. It’s a testament to the skill of both wrestlers and the wonderful escalating match they had that I doubted it at a couple of points. They both played their parts perfectly, building off their previous encounters as well as Shayna’s claims of Kairi lacking the killer instinct needed to win.

In a call back to the finish of one of my all time favorite matches, after having the Seven Seas (top rope diving elbow) countered into the Rear Naked Choke Kairi immediately rolled her weight back over Shayna’s shoulders for the pin and the championship.  It was a beautiful bit of storytelling. Kairi didn’t win with her trademark elbow, NOR her brand new submission finisher (which was still made to look threatening and dangerous). She beat the shoot fighter with a wrestling counter. Loved this, and it was probably my match of the night against some very high level competition.

 

5) Last Man Standing for the NXT Championship: Tommaso Ciampa (c) vs Johnny Gargano

 

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This feud is going on rather long and these two need some space from each other for a while after this. That being said, NXT made the most of being in a tough spot because of Black’s injury and Gargano and Ciampa’s battles are always interesting. They heavily played off of previous encounters, with the crutch and handcuffs being brought out, the ring mat being removed, etc.

The finish was clever to an extent with Gargano’s anger getting the better of him (again), causing him to taunt Ciampa by doing the latter’s move instead of his own which cost him the match when a near dead, handcuffed Ciampa simply rolled off the stage to “stand” and win. But the lead up to it was too drawn out and Ciampa’s position made it obvious what the finish would be. A little tightening and tweaking would have helped this, as would have the interference I honestly expected, but it was still an intense, engaging main event. As great Gargano is, Ciampa’s gone nuclear as a heel champ and I want to see what he can do in a different feud.

 

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Overall

Takeover Brooklyn is always great, and this year was no exception. Nothing actively bad and several excellent matches make this an easy recommendation. 

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.

 

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.