Stardom 2020: A Year in Review

2020 was always going to be a year of substantial change for Stardom, but I doubt anybody expected it to be quite so dramatic. The company was riding high heading into the year off the back of the Bushiroad acquisition, starting with their debut appearance inside the Tokyo Dome as part of the New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom festivities. Mayu Iwatani, Arisa Hoshiki, Hana Kimura and newcomer Giulia all stepped inside the ring that night and in doing so were essentially marked by Bushiroad as the pillars around which the company would be built. Cementing this new main event standard for Stardom would be important because they’d be moving forward without one of their most important wrestlers, the incomparable Kagetsu, who was to set retire in February.

Excitement was high, and an increased marketing push saw a lot of fresh eyes on the product. The atmosphere at shows was electric, especially when they packed Korakuen Hall to near unseen amounts for Stardom in successive months. It felt like nothing could slow them down. Even when Sareee had to pull out at the last minute from a dream match with Mayu Iwatani due to illness, the company managed to secure Takumi Iroha as a replacement and the two put forth a near match of the year candidate against each other. It wouldn’t be the last time Iroha and the women of Marvelous would appear in Stardom this year either.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

And then something stopped their momentum. Several things to be accurate.

The Covid-19 global pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt. Starting with the cancellation of the February 23rd show in Nagoya (which was going to feature the first ever one on one meeting between Mayu Iwatani and Jungle Kyona), Stardom’s future would be up in the air for months. There were two events in March held under special conditions, but that would be it from Stardom until the end of June. Without any shows, the wrestlers did their best to stay connected to fans, running live streams on Youtube. These ranged from simple chats amongst the factions, to cooking sessions, and even an exercise boot camp ran by Jungle Kyona. But for months, there would be no shows and no wrestling.

And that big four that represented Stardom inside the Tokyo Dome? That would be cut in half in the space of a few days. Arisa Hoshiki, an electrifying striker in the middle of a successful run as the Wonder of Stardom Champion, was strangely absent from the two March shows. After a lot of radio silence, Arisa announced on May 20 that she was retiring due to a combination of physical and mental health reasons. She never even got the chance to properly say goodbye, although she is at least able to continue her musical career with Unlimited Dream Navigator.

And then on May 23rd, the wrestling world was shaken when the tragic news came out that Hana Kimura had passed away at the age of 22. Alongside her work inside the ring she had been cast on the reality TV show Terrace House. But as a result of those appearances, a segment of the show’s fanbase grew to hate her due to how she was presented on screen. Hana became the victim of a lot of harsh cyber bullying, which eventually led to her taking her own life. The wrestling community mourned her death, having lost not only a bright young star of the industry but a beloved member of the roster behind the scenes.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

Just like that, any momentum Stardom had was seemingly gone, and plans for the year would have to be reshaped on the fly. Giulia was being groomed for a top spot in the company from the moment of her arrival after a rocky departure from Ice Ribbon. But without Arisa and Hana, there were a lot of question marks surrounding Stardom’s depleted main event scene, and her strong push didn’t sit well with some fans who felt that she didn’t deserve the spotlight over some longer serving members of the roster. And there wasn’t even a guarantee of consistency. As shows returned, there was always the looming threat of cancellations due to the ongoing pandemic, and it came to fruition. In August, a show was cancelled minutes before it was scheduled to begin due to a member of the team testing positive. Four shows were also cancelled, including two big shows that were to mark the grand opening of the Yokohama Budokan, which would be rescheduled and changed to a single night event in October.

But in the face of these difficulties, the performers kept working hard, and soon enough the fruits of their labour began to bloom. Stardom’s Icon Mayu Iwatani remained a reliable hand as their top champion, putting forth great matches before and after the lockdowns. Meanwhile, the faith management had placed in Giulia quickly paid off. She comfortably slotted into her role as a marketable star. She won the vacated Wonder of Stardom Championship in a mini-tournament and became a constant presence at the top of the card, whether it was by leading the big new faction Donna Del Mondo, or through engaging feuds against the likes of Tam Nakano. It wasn’t just Stardom who noticed her hard work. Tokyo Sports awarded her their Women’s Wrestling Grand Prize, an award won by Mayu the year before.

The rest of Donna Del Mondo were part of an influx of new talent that joined Stardom in 2020. Joining Giulia to form the faction of outsiders were the two experienced performers Syuri and Natsupoi, as well as up and coming stars in Maika and Himeka. Syuri and Maika would both win multiple titles in their first year with the company, while Himeka made it to the finals of the 5 Star Grand Prix. Following in the footsteps of Giulia, Tam Nakano brought in some reinforcements of her own in Mina Shirakawa and Sayaka Unagi. The trio began as a sub-unit of the STARS faction, but tensions grew, leading to the three breaking off and forming the Cosmic Angels, and doing so with the Artists of Stardom titles around their waists.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

With so many new stars making their mark on the company, the pressure was on the rest of the roster to stand up and deliver. The most obvious success story is Utami Hayashishita. When shows returned in June, 2018’s Super Rookie came in with a new look and a renewed focus, reeling off a series of major victories. First she captured the vacated Goddess of Stardom tag titles alongside fellow rising star Saya Kamitani. Then she won the 5 Star Grand Prix, using that to propel herself to the World of Stardom Championship after she defeated Mayu Iwatani in Sendai. And in her first title defence, she had a match of the year candidate against fellow Queen’s Quest member Momo Watanabe.

But it wasn’t just Utami. The aforementioned Saya Kamitani went from a high upside but inconsistent rookie to a tag team champion who can mix it up anywhere on the card, wowing the crowd with high impact moves like the Phoenix Splash. Teenage veteran AZM had taken a big step forward last year when she made the most of her late addition into the 5 Star Grand Prix, and then continued to take big strides forward in 2020. Proving herself to be one of the most exciting wrestlers on the roster at just eighteen, she was rewarded with her first singles title, claiming the High Speed Championship and capped the year off with a fun battle with Mei Hoshizuki. AZM’s eternal rival Starlight Kid got the chance to step up as the STARS number two, and the split with Tam’s Cosmic Angels has led to a deeper and more interesting character for Kid, setting her up for big things in the new year.

And that split was the culmination of a very successful year for Tam Nakano herself. She was positioned as Stardom’s go to wrestler for PR duties, and also established herself as one of the most dynamic stars of the roster. At any point in time during the year, the story Tam was involved with was the most interesting one, and she always lifted up everyone else who was involved. There’s also Saya Iida, the Little Giant who made huge strides and is now able to finish the year as the Future of Stardom Champion. And then there’s the continued growth of young Hanan and the twins, both in terms of in ring acumen and general height – they now stand tall over a good portion of the roster and they’re still got a few years of growing to do! Rina especially was starting to come into her own as a member of Oedo Tai before the three had to take time off for family reasons.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

In the face of adversity, everybody picked up their game. Even a group like Oedo Tai, who seemed to be floundering without Kagetsu behind the helm, steadied the ship as they reinvented themselves from lovable rogues to more detestable heels. It’s easy to forget but the group was decimated by losses. Core members Andras Miyagi, Hazuki, and Kagetsu were all gone from the company in the span of a couple of months, Jamie Hayter was unable to return to Japan due to the ongoing travel restrictions, and the lovable Natsu Sumire ended the year on the sidelines due to a shoulder injury.

With Oedo Tai a shell of its former self, the newly crowned leader Natsuko Tora initially struggled to make much of a mark. But as the year progressed, Natsuko became more comfortable in the position, developing her wrestling and rule breaking to suit the role of the antagonist while still being interesting to watch. It also helped that she crafted one of the best looks in wrestling today.

Alongside her, the new Oedo Tai began to take shape. Saki Kashima and Konami both benefited from heel turns that gave them more to work with as characters, betraying beloved babyfaces Mayu Iwatani and Jungle Kyona respectively in the process. And Bea Priestley has continued to improve as the Top – and currently lone – Gaijin, with an added ferocity to her in ring style complimented by her spiteful disdain of people named Momo Watanabe and anyone not in Oedo Tai.

The one exception to these successes was unfortunately Jungle Kyona. Of all the roster members, Jungle was as close with Hana as anyone and was the one to first find her dead in her apartment. When shows resumed in June, Kyona took a little longer to return as she continued to struggle with what had happened, before coming back to finally have that match against Mayu Iwatani. The year continued to get worse for her, when it was announced in October she would be out of action to recover from a brutal combination of injuries to both knees and her shoulder that would require multiple surgeries.

The efforts of both management and the stars hasn’t been in vain. Despite the difficult circumstances thrown at them in 2020, Stardom still managed to have a productive year from a business perspective. For proof, just look at this report from the press conference for the Osaka Dream Cinderella Show from December.

Using the translations provided by @niagaradriver93, we can see that this was an incredible year of growth and engagement for Stardom. Those kind of increases would be impressive in a year under normal circumstances, let alone one ravaged by a global pandemic. But engagement is up substantially across the board. The fanclub is perhaps the most impressive increase. Not only because it serves as another valuable source of revenue, but because some of the advantages of that fan club – such as exclusive fan events with the wrestlers – have been indefinitely put on hold due to the pandemic. That should have negatively affected its numbers, but to still see a 750% increase is incredible. Stardom is also reaching more domestic homes than ever thanks to the debut of We Are Stardom, a weekly 30 minute television show that is later uploaded to their Youtube channel.

When you see the kind of numbers they were drawing to shows at the start of the year, it is unfortunate to see how the restrictions have hit their attendance figures. But the live show situation isn’t all bad. Prior to 2020, Korakuen Hall was the biggest venue Stardom typically ran. But with Bushiroad now in charge, they announced plans to run shows with larger capacities. While the initial plans were impacted by the pandemic, they still managed to run three bigger venues than usual: Yokohama Budokan, Sendai Sunplaza and Edion Osaka Arena 1. They also announced a show at the legendary Nippon Budokan for the 10th anniversary show in March 2021. And with Tokyo serving as the country’s danger zone for Covid, Stardom have stretched their wings and toured more across the country. This outreach has potentially opened up new markets to explore: in particular, further north around Aomori prefecture who warmly received them for the first time.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

Even accounting for 2015, which featured the infamous ‘Ghastly Match’ between Act Yasukawa and Yoshiko, it’s hard to think of a more difficult year for Stardom than 2020. And in a twist of irony, Stardom’s 2020 ended with Yoshiko herself in a Stardom ring – a controversial moment, given what led to her expulsion. Just consider everything that’s been thrown their way: The death of one of their brightest stars Hana Kimura. The retirements of main eventers Kagetsu and Arisa Hoshiki, as well as Leo Onozaki and Itsuki Hoshino – two valuable lower card wrestlers. And of course Covid-19, which brought everything to a halt and continues to impact on revenue streams.

The fact that Stardom has managed to endure all of that, and end 2020 in the position it is now is nothing short of miraculous. The Bushiroad acquisition could not have happened at a better time for Stardom. The security of a major company’s backing during the months of closure gave them the foundations to not only survive, but to thrive once things could get rolling again. The Stardom landscape may look vastly different now than it did at the start of the year, but thanks to the hard work from everyone on the roster, they’re still managing to end 2020 in a strong position. And that position should only continue to grow stronger as their hard work yields new opportunities and chances in 2021.

So to close this year I want to keep it simple, and present to you my wrestler and match of the year for 2020, as well as my wrestler to watch next year. If you’re new to the promotion, it might give you something to start with. And if you’re a diehard fan, you can tell me why I’m wrong in my choices. Here’s to a great 2021 everybody!

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

Wrestler of the year: Mayu Iwatani

Runners-up: Momo Watanabe, Tam Nakano

When you look at her sheer body of work this year, Mayu has a fair case for wrestler of the year, across all promotions. All of her World of Stardom title defences were ‘very good’ at a minimum and more often than not great, and even when the title wasn’t on the line she had some of the best matches of the year. She led the company through both the high and low points of the year, and also became a best selling author in the process. Stardom was focused on building new stars in 2020, but Mayu continued to prove why she is the Icon of Stardom and the measuring stick for the rest of the company.

Match of the Year: Mayu Iwatani v Takumi Iroha, February 8.

Runners up: Utami Hayashishita v Momo Watanabe, December 20., Giulia v Tam Nakano, September 13.

Mayu Iwatani and Takumi Iroha had two wars in 2020, and both of them were match of the year candidates. But the key difference between the two was ultimately that in February Korakuen Hall was packed to near capacity and cheering for every strike with gusto, as opposed to the polite clapping of the Covid era. This is a hard hitting, no frills affair between two of the best Joshi wrestlers of our era and who have wonderful chemistry with each other. Iroha is a dominating bruiser, Mayu is the ultimate fiery fan favourite. And together they always make magic.

Who to watch for in 2021: Himeka

Runners-up: Tam Nakano, Saya Kamitani

Himeka may have only debuted with the company this year, but she’s quickly established herself as a dangerous brute, serving as the muscle for the dominant Donna Del Mondo faction. The ‘Jumbo Princess’ has mostly kept quiet after failing to defeat Giulia for the Wonder of Stardom Championship in late October, but she is one of Stardom’s go to wrestlers for special singles matches. It’s a sign that the company want to prepare her for big things moving forward, and it makes sense. Himeka is already one of their best talkers on the microphone, she has a fantastic look, can constantly excite crowds with moves like her double Torture Rack and can put on solid matches even at her experience level. Rossy already predicted that Himeka and Saya Kamitani would be a future World of Stardom title match after they fought earlier in the year, and both are well primed to make waves in 2021.