There is no reason to get angry or frustrated when watching wrestling.
Sure, there are many times when I’ve been disillusioned with whatever garbage the McMahons were arrogantly expecting me to accept. Yet even in the days before all promotions had their own streaming platforms, I was able to keep my fandom alive and outlook positive by seeking alternatives.
Late 80s WCW, early ROH, British start-ups such as FWA, Shimmer, Pro Wrestling Eve, TNA and technically even NXT all provided me with satisfying shows that breathed new life into my love of wrestling. Naturally, Japan could always be relied upon to provide a feast of great action. From the days of buying bootleg tapes to the brief time I could watch weekly shows on the short lived UK Wresting Channel, Japan was always worth that extra effort and today thanks to streaming, keeping up with Puroresu promotions is as easy as following American groups.
As a fan of women’s wrestling, Japan was especially vital to my fandom with AJW in the 80s and Gaea in the early 2000s. Today, it continues to feed my appetite with Stardom, a promotion I’ve admittedly only recently become a regular viewer of, but has managed to immediately pull me in, in a very short amount of time.
Any ardent fans of women’s wrestling owe it to themselves to check out Stardom, either as an alternative or simply an accompaniment to the American scene. It’s very easy to sample as it regularly posts full matches for free on their YouTube channel and their streaming channel Stardom-World as well as featuring most of it’s events from its ten year history (there are gaps that it’s slowly filling) also makes their new shows available within about 48 hours. There are also plenty of introductory videos on YouTube to familiarize yourself with the history and personalities involved.
Here are eight reasons why Stardom has drawn me in and become my favorite wrestling organization of the moment.
1. The action is incredible.
Joshi promotions have often had a reputation of not only being the world’s best women’s wrestling, but also possibly the best wrestling full stop. Stardom makes a strong contribution to continuing that tradition with a high-octane and fast-paced style. There is a heavy martial arts influence with a strong reliance on kicks and strikes as offense, which leads to lightening fast exchanges, mixed in with lots of high flying, reversals, suplexes and breathtaking displays of athleticism.
While the cards aren’t consistently great from top-to-bottom due to lower card matches featuring younger wrestlers gaining experience, the top matches and main events almost always deliver, and first time viewers may well be blown away by the quality level.
While Stardom’s roster has been in flux lately with a number of retirements and COVID-19 obviously preventing foreigners from coming in, there are strong performers to keep an eye on such as Mayu Iwatani, Tam Nakano, Momo Watanabe, Giulia and Utami Hayashishita. Meanwhile for those willing to delve back into the archives, essential viewing can be found from retired wrestlers Kagetsu, Arisa Hoshki and Hazuki, not to mention a few familiar faces…
2. Getting to see Io Shirai and Kairi Sane at their best.
Anyone who has enjoyed the two Stardom alumni, Io Shirai and Kairi Sane consistently tearing the house down on NXT shows owes it to themselves to check out their matches on their native sole. Yes they were brilliant at the Mae Young Classics and on Takeover shows, but in Stardom they were unrestrained and allowed to be on another level.
Kairi was even more of a fast paced firecracker, a wild ball of energy who could have a great match with anyone. Io deserves to be regarded as one of the best workers of the decade, with every move she did looking so clean and crisp and having amazing feuds with Kagetsu and Kairi of course, but it’s her long feud with Mayu Iwatani in 2016 and 2017 that is legendary in its emotional storytelling and quality of matches.
Kairi and Io’s Stardom careers alone are worth checking out Stardom.
3. Stardom’s factions
Factions have always featured heavily in Stardom, however in the last few years the promotion has taken the concept to a whole new level. Everything is built around factions, with every wrestler in the company belonging to one of five groups. This means that every match has a little edge behind it based on the ongoing rivalries and bragging rights, occasionally tensions can rise to the level that some factions end up in all out war with each other.
This concept allows for all sorts of storyline possibilities, with a wrestler’s place in a group taken so seriously that match stipulations insisting a loser has to leave their group have become highly emotional issues. Likewise the yearly draft where the factions are temporarily disbanded and the leaders have to pick their members again (high school sport team style) has become a Stardom fixture and always refreshes the company.
The five factions are:
Stars: Made of up face like, young, colorful and popular wrestlers.
Queen’s Quest: Built around the idea of achieving excellence and reminiscent of the real life dojo’s that most of the wrestler’s come from.
Tokyo Cyber Squad: Cyber Goths, clad in colorful, zany attire and with a philosophy of individuality and acceptance.
Odeo Tai: The rebels and trouble causers of Stardom, reveling in chaos like a wild biker gang.
Donna del Mondo: The newest faction in Stardom and speaking of them…
4. Donna del Mondo
2020 may be the year of this particular group, as they have made their intentions clear to pretty much take over Stardom by collecting all the major titles in the organization. This aim along with their no-nonsense, kick ass and take no prisoners approach and charismatic coolness, gives them a very four horseman vibe.
Lead by Giulia (who has a natural superstar presence), Donna del Mondo includes Syuri, Maika and Himeka and there is a natural chemistry between the four despite only being together a short amount of time. From having a rocking, cool entrance music to their high impact wrestling style and ice cold ruthlessness, Donna del Mondo have two of the titles and more are in their sights.
5. The titles are important.
For such a small roster, it may seem overwhelming to have an abundance of titles, seven at last count. Yet Stardom manages to give the titles a special aura, as title changes are rare, reigns can be lengthy and the legacy of them important as each defense means something. AEW earned plaudits for keeping a record of wins and losses, but could take a leaf out of Stardom’s book by keeping count of successful title defenses. Wrestlers will refer to the number of the defense of a title in their promos, as well as the days held and the possibility of someone one day coming close to breaking Io Shiri’s record run of 14 successful defenses has storyline potential.
The main titles are the World of Stardom (the red belt), the Wonder of Stardom (the white belt, a secondary title in the same vein as the Intercontinental title back in it’s heyday), the High Speed Championship (similar idea as the X-Division) and the Tag and Six-Woman Tag titles.
6. Stardom World provides subtitles.
There’s a lot of fun to be had simply watching Stardom matches cold and with no context. They are that exciting and the wrestlers are so distinctive and expressive that you get a sense of their personalities regardless. However, watch the shows on Stardom World and you get subtitles which opens a whole new level of appreciation for the stories and characters.
An advantage that I’ve always felt women’s wrestling has over men’s is in being free of having to adhere to a sense of masculinity. The potential is opened up for a greater range of emotions and vulnerability. Storylines in women’s wrestling can have a depth involving fears, insecurities, distress over failures; real human concerns.
Just the other day I witnessed a battle where Giulia defeated Tam Nakano for the vacant White belt, and in the aftermath, a cocky new champion admitted her new found respect for the woman who she had defeated. A heartbroken, devastated Nakano responded with defiance and how she would chase Giulia to the ends of the universe to win that title. It was a simple exchange, but couldn’t help but draw me and gave me goosebumps at the idea of them battling again and the chance that Nakano’s dream may yet be realized.
Themes of sisterhood, loyalty and a person reaching their potential run deep through many feuds in Stardom, with a popular trope being the younger wrestlers striving to prove themselves and winning the respect of their elders (again mirroring the philosophy of the dojo). It’s this kind of emotional depth that the subtitles really help to convey and help to give the viewer something to feel and relate to.
7. The Odei Tai dance
This may seem like a silly one, but for several years one of the most entertaining entrances in all of wrestling was that of the whacky, troublesome rebels Odei Tai. This riotous gang, known for lovably causing chaos and cheating their way through matches would descend on the ring and to the tune of their funky theme music, break into a choreographed, ritual dance routine.
Admittedly they weren’t always completely in synch, but the dance was always entertaining, especially when the trope consisted of Kagtsu, Hana Kimura, Tam Nakano and Kris Wolf. Recently the Odei Tai lineup has changed dramatically under the leadership of Natsuko Tora morphing into a more vicious heel like group (reminding me of the Dump Matsumoto faction in 80’s AJW). Sadly this has meant an end to the dance, but it’s certainly worth checking out from the days where Odei Tai made fans laugh with their naughty escapades.
8. The memory of Hana Kimura
In my first month as a fan of Stardom I’d been learning who all the wrestlers were, learning their names and discovering all their back stories and the makeup of the factions. It was almost a month to the day of being a fan when I woke up to the sickening news that Hana Kimura had taken her own life after being subjected to abuse and online bullying.
Hana was in the first match I properly watched of Stardom, a 2019 year-end match against Giulia where I quickly became a fan of both of them. Hana with her wonderfully colorful outfit and her adorable and quirky persona made her a favorite of mine. Only knowing about her for a short amount of time though made me feel guiltily like a phony that her passing and the circumstances really effected me and got me down.
I even questioned if I wanted to carry on watching any Stardom, as it would be a constant reminder of a beautiful life taken from us way too soon and due to the most horrendous circumstances. Yet while that tragedy can never be diminished, at least something of what she left behind is honored by continuing to watch and enjoy her matches.
“I wanted to be loved,” is one of the heartbreaking last messages Hana had for the world. By continuing to remember her, maybe her fans are showing her that love.
(Ed. note: Justin Knipper has written three parts of a four part series on Hana Kimura, which you can read on this website. It’s called Hana Was Here, But She Left Early | The Story of Kyoko & Hana Kimura and you can read them here: Part I, Part II, Part III.)
There is so much I enjoy about Stardom and more than I can put into words here. It’s funny, exciting, colorful, loud and at its core, based on great wrestling action, with the important stuff happening right inside the ring. But most of all, I’m thankful that it exists, because thanks to promotions like Stardom keeps me a happy, positive wrestling fan for just a little bit longer.
Also Stardom has a one night Cinderella tournament, the coronation of which sees the winner accepting her crown dressed in a ball gown. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing that says pro wrestling more than the sight of 2017 winner Toni Storm in a red ball gown and carrying it off with a kick ass, rocking attitude.