Firstly, an apology. The title of this article is unacceptable. Nobody ‘should’ be watching any particular type of wrestling. People can watch whatever they want to watch, and no other wrestling fan should be able to tell a fellow wrestling fan whether they are right or wrong to be watching or avoiding any particular promotion.
But would you have read this article if it was called, “I politely request that you give Stardom a change because it’s really quite good my friend”? Like buffalo you would.
So actually the title is your fault…and in any case you absolutely 100% should be watching Stardom.
My own personal time as a fan of Stardom has been relatively short, starting as I did a couple of years ago. As many will have been I was drawn in by seeing the likes of Io Shirai and Kairi Sane in WWE and wanted to know where these superbly talented and charismatic wrestlers were coming from.
I picked my starting point and avidly watched every match of every show until I caught up (because, you know, I’m a massive nerd) and I enjoyed every bloody minute of it.
Fortunately for any Stardom newbies, now is a superb time to be dipping into the promotion. Stardom is about to start the 5 Star Grand Prix, which is their equivalent of the G1 in New Japan or AJPW’s Champion Carnival. 16 women, drawn into two blocks, will all face off against each other before the two block winners meet to decide the winner. Previous winners include both Shirai and Sane (then Kairi Hojo) as well as Toni Storm and current world title holder Mayu Iwatani, which gives you a sense of the calibre of the tournament.
But once this festival of fighting has finished, what might (SHOULD) keep you watching Stardom?
The Quality…and Variety
Over the years, many graps fans have gone on the now relatively well-worn wrestling journey of leaving behind the main American mainstream promotions and pitching up in the increasingly available Japanese Puroresu scene. Most of these intrepid wanderers will tell you that whether it’s NJPW, AJPW, NOAH or even the lesser-known companies, the wrestling itself in Japan is seemingly an entirely different sport to what is served up in the WWE-dominated US market. The actual in-ring work takes centre stage and the wrestlers are required to go through years of rigorous training before they are thrown into the limelight.
Let’s put it this way…where Enzo Amore was pushed to the moon in WWE because he had a funny catchphrase, in any of the Japanese dojos he would be beaten to within an inch of his life before getting to the ‘D’ of ‘How you Doin?’
The gulf in quality between the Joshi scene and what America has to offer is perhaps even more stark. Whilst women’s wrestling in the US is probably at the height of its powers currently (well in NXT at least), it would be fair to say that not many wrestlers on the WWE, NXT or AEW rosters would get a look in when compared to the top 10 in Stardom alone. And those that might be mentioned would likely only be those who came from the Joshi scene in the first place.
There is a breathtaking array of talent within Stardom with very little deadwood and fierce competition to be at the top of the card. Technical and hard-hitting is the name of the game in Japan generally, and the women of Stardom embody this magnificently.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that there is a formulaic element to Stardom. Far from the stilted and often poorly agented matches that we see in WWE, in Stardom the wrestlers are permitted to develop, and then revel in, their own style and character. There are superb technical wrestlers (Konami), high-flyers (Starlight Kid), brawlers (Natsuko Tora) and, in the ever wonderful Natsu Sumire, a woman whose main offence is thrusting her groin in the face of a downed opponent.
In short, if you like great wrestling, Stardom is for you. And if you like variety…well they’ve more than got you covered there as well you lucky swine.
Factions and Stories
Fellow viewers of NJPW will be familiar with the focus on factions within the promotion, but in Stardom it always feels like those factions are a far more integral part of the product, to the benefit of both the in-ring and pre-match storytelling.
Whether it’s the sugary sweet babyface faction ‘Stars’, the dark and emo group of ‘Oedo Tai’ or the colourful and chaotic ‘Tokyo Cyber Squad’, all of the factions in Stardom have their own unique identity and this often plays out in the storylines running through the matches.
The use of the factions also creates great stories before a bell has even rung. Last year we saw previous ‘Stars’ member Saki Kashima move to the dark side with ‘Oedo Tai’ which signalled both an interesting character shift for Saki and an immediate feud between her and the betrayed leader of Stars, Mayu Iwatani (of whom more later).
We also saw the simmering tension between faction members last year as Tam Nakano and Arisa Hoshiki seemed destined for an inter-’Stars’ war before the opportunity was cruelly taken away from us with Arisa’s unfortunate retirement due to injury.
And in recent months we have seen the creation of a new faction, Donna Del Mundo. Giulia, joining Stardom from rival promotion Ice Ribbon, played a similar role to Scott Hall in the days when the nWo wasn’t just a money-making wet dream for Hulk Hogan, and has subsequently been joined in the faction by three other outsiders in Maika, Himeka and the incredibly talented Syuri. These four have gone on a tear through the division picking up belts with ease and picking up a fierce reputation on the way. Watching the other factions try to recover to bring them down will be fascinating.
And where at times in New Japan it’s hard to see what’s holding the various teams together, the pre and post-match promos in Stardom really give you the sense that these factions are real, creating a proper sense of anticipation when they then go head-to-head.
It Caters to the Uncivilised ‘West’
Look, I know. English speakers are the absolute worst. We make absolutely no effort to learn alternative languages, particularly those ‘really foreign’ ones with a different alphabet, and then expect every other country to translate things for us whilst we sit in our pants eating burgers and getting drunk on vodka (no…this is not autobiographical).
Genuinely it is a pretty pathetic state of affairs, but fortunately, it is a pathetic state of affairs that Stardom has made an excellent effort to cater to. All pre-match and post-match promos are translated into English subtitles, and when any match stipulations need to be explained this is also translated onto our screens for our delectation.
Whilst I am being slightly flippant about this, personally, it’s something that really helps with my enjoyment of Stardom. Whilst it is more than possible to go and find out about histories and storylines of certain feuds on your own, it is nice to have those translations to allow you to follow proceedings without too much homework.
One slight word of warning here is that the shows don’t go up on Stardom’s streaming service until the subtitles have been added, often meaning there is a 4-7 day delay before every match is available meaning spoilers can become a bit of an issue. But if you can’t keep away from Twitter because you just need to know what Ed Sheeran has eaten for breakfast then frankly that is your own fault.
The Future is Bright
It has been a dark few months for Stardom. Coming off the back of the retirements of the brilliant Hazuki and the lynch-pin of the company Kagetsu, they were also forced to accept the retirement due to injury of Arisa Hoshiki, the then holder of the White Belt (Stardom’s second singles belt). And of course with the tragic death of Hana Kimura, Stardom and everyone linked to the promotion was shaken to the core.
That horrendous chapter should never be forgotten, for a number of reasons, but it does not mean that Stardom is not in a great place to be building for the future.
In October 2019, Stardom came under the control of Bushiroad, which is also the parent company of New Japan Pro Wrestling. This move appeared to be paying dividends immediately with Stardom getting a match on the pre-show at night one of WrestleKingdom 14, and whilst it is unlikely there will ever be a formal union of Stardom and NJPW, the security and visibility that Bushiroad now gives Stardom can only be a plus.
Indeed since the Bushiroad deal we have seen the arrival of the likes of Maika and Himeka from other promotions in Japan, and the much-vaunted signing of Giulia from rival promotion Ice Ribbon has been seen by many as the first step in Stardom’s attempts to dominate the Joshi scene. Of course that brings its own potential issues with some fans not pleased with this policy, but for those who support Stardom, it suggests a bright future.
That future is practically luminescent when you look at the talent and the ages of the current roster. Konami (24 years old) Utami Hayashishita (21 years old) and Momo Watanabe (just 20 years old) all already feel like seasoned veterans within Stardom and yet have so so much more to give. Whilst I personally wouldn’t want to see any of them leave, it’s fair to say that if they wanted, there are any number of current roster members who could make a splash in WWE or AEW, if given the right platform (and I admit that is a huge ‘if’).
And if you want to peer into the longer term future, I present to you the disgustingly talented AZM, who at the age of just 17 could already out-wrestle 99% of the women (and a large proportion of the men) that we see hogging the headlines in America. Preternaturally skillful in the ring, she has also spent the last 12 months greatly developing the character side of her wrestling, and injuries permitting, seems certain to be a Stardom champion before long.
At the time of writing this, the holder of the World of Stardom Championship, more affectionately known as the Red Belt, is Mayu Iwatani, and Stardom couldn’t really hope for a better ambassador for the brand. The story of Mayu’s rise to the top of the tree in Stardom has been told before, and by people with much more knowledge of the issues at hand than me. Vice’s ‘The Wrestlers’ has a brilliant episode centering on Stardom in which Mayu’s story is emotionally detailed, and I’d highly recommend you watch it and read into her history.
Suffice to say though that watching Mayu Iwatani today, it is scarcely believable that she spent much of her teenage years as a social recluse. She strides around the ring with a compelling mixture of confidence and shyness. One minute rallying the crowd with ease at the end of the show, the next giggling and hiding behind her hands as if hugely embarrassed by her success. Whether it is by design or just by pure adorable luck, she also has an impeccable sense of comic timing, and seems to know more than most how to act to get a reaction from the crowd.
She is the ultimate babyface in Stardom, being the leader of ‘Stars’ but has an edge to her as well, most recently being seen taunting her opponent Jungle Kyona with the Red Belt before a title match in what was an emotional hometown night for Jungle.
And all of this is before the bell even rings…at which point Mayu Iwatani goes up another level.
There is an argument, and in my humble opinion a very strong argument, that Mayu is one of the most complete wrestlers in the world right now. Technically she is wonderful to watch, able to tie people up like pretzels with alarming ease, and she is equally adept at getting into a slug-fest if needed particularly if there is a personal edge to the contest as was the case with her feud with the traitorous Saki Kashima.
On top of this is a lucha-libre style to Mayu’s work that I haven’t seen replicated elsewhere within Stardom or, for that matter, many other promotions. Her speed and aerial ability is scintillating and you are often left sitting watching her work wondering what on earth you’ve just seen.
To sum up, she’s one of the best in the world, and once you do get into Stardom, the one match you always want your favourite to have is with Mayu Iwatani. In Stardom terms, at the age of 27 she’s practically a pensioner, but there is no sense that Mayu is slowing down and I suspect she will remain one of the main focal points of this expanding promotion for years to come.
And if you want to read any more of my ramblings please visit www.wrestlingwithprocrastination.co.uk