Mayu Iwatani and Kagetsu: A Friendship Forged in Battle

A wrestler’s legacy can often be defined by their rivals. Who is Austin without McMahon? Who is Okada without Tanahashi? Who is The Shockmaster without a wall? In the world of Joshi wrestling, Mayu Iwatani and Kagetsu are two names held in the highest of regards, and their stories were interwoven for years. When they both got the chance to shine, together they would come to define an era in Stardom that served as a precursor to where it is today. In doing so, two rivals would become friends.

The two have found themselves in opposing corners since Kagetsu first appeared in Stardom as a freelancer in 2016. She came in with the villainous stable Oedo Tai, which made her a natural foil to the goofy and lovable fan favourite Mayu Iwatani. During this time they would fight and lay the foundations for what was to come, but for now, Mayu’s story was centred around a different wrestler: Io Shirai.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

Io Shirai was the Ace of Stardom. By the time Kagetsu made her way into the company, Io was in the middle of her second reign as the top champion, one that would last for 546 days and break every record in the process. Mayu had teamed with her for years as Thunder Rock, and as part of the Threedom with Kairi Hojo (later known as Kairi Sane in WWE). This trio would dominate the Stardom landscape but Mayu was widely considered to be the weakest of the group, and seemed content in that spot, standing alongside Io rather than trying to surpass her.

A chance came Mayu’s way when she won the Cinderella Tournament and earned a shot at the World of Stardom Championship. Against her best friend she wrestled as hard as she ever had, but like all the others, she couldn’t topple the Ace. It was a good effort, and afterwards Mayu settled back into the position she had held before as tag partner and friend. However, Io wanted more from her; she had hoped the match would motivate Mayu to work twice as hard to become good enough to beat her. Furious, she turned on her long-term friend, berating her for being weak and bringing her to tears.

Mayu had to dig deep after the betrayal, and in the process began to find that next level that Io had been trying to pry out of her. After another unsuccessful challenge at the end of 2016, Mayu would finally surpass Io Shirai to win the World of Stardom Championship on June 11, 2017. This was meant to be her crowning moment. She became the first person to hold the company’s top two championships – the Red and White belts – at the same time, and her first singles victory over Io marked a changing of the guard. With both Kairi Hojo and Io Shirai moving on to WWE, Mayu was being positioned to get her moment in the sun, claiming those championships from each of them.

Of course, life doesn’t always follow the script. Three months into her reign, she dislocated her shoulder in the opening moments of a title defence against Toni Storm, doing so on a low dropkick she had performed hundreds of times before. It would put her out for the rest of the year, and the momentum she had built up stalled. She was still a big star for the company upon her return, but it would be some time until she’d win another singles title.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

In the middle of the Mayu Iwatani feud with Io Shirai, a lot would change for Kagetsu as well. After years of working the Joshi independents, she began to question herself. Despite her abilities, she had never really made the impact she wanted to, and decided to step away for a few months in 2017 to do some soul searching. On the same night that Mayu finally beat Io Shirai, Kagestu would begin a year long reign as the Goddess of Stardom Tag Champion alongside Hana Kimura, heralding the start of the golden era of Oedo Tai under her leadership.

The return to action was only meant to be temporary for Kagetsu. In October of that year, she ran her own self-produced show that concluded in a singles match against Io Shirai. Originally this was going to be her send-off, retiring on a high and walking off into the sunset. But after talking with Io she decided to not only keep wrestling, but sign on with Stardom as a full time performer. Also at that show was Mayu Iwatani. She was still recovering from her elbow injury, but appeared nonetheless to support Kagetsu, draped in her shirt and running the merch stand (though according to Kagetsu she couldn’t be trusted with handling the money). Despite earlier battles, they were full of smiles and laughs as they shared the ring to open the show.

It would be when Mayu could return to action in January of 2018 that the rivalry would begin to resemble the one we remember. After winning her comeback against Rachel Ellering, she showed up after the main event ended to recruit Tam Nakano, who had been forcibly removed from Oedo Tai after their loss to Queen’s Quest. This put her squarely in the firing line of Kagetsu, and they fought several times over the tag titles until Mayu eventually claimed them alongside Saki Kashima.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

Losing the tag titles freed up Kagetsu for bigger things. The next week, Kagetsu won the World of Stardom championship from Toni Storm, who had held the title ever since Mayu’s injury handed it to her. Eight months after nearly retiring from wrestling, Kagetsu finally stood tall as a promotion’s top champion. The main event scene would be left wide open too as Io Shirai was finally leaving for WWE later that month, after injury concerns put her contract with the big American promotion on ice for a year. The company was now Kagetsu’s to mold in her image, and Mayu could finally prove herself as The Icon of Stardom.

As champion, Kagetsu would become the standard bearer. She was determined to carry the company to greater heights and pull the rest of the roster up to her level. Behind the scenes she took over from Shirai to become the head trainer, pushing the young wrestlers to become better and close the gap with those who were at the top. In the ring, she would tell her fallen foes to improve so that they could come back and challenge her again. And all the time, she kept one eye on Mayu Iwatani, who was no longer the meek sidekick but a true star.

It was clear how much Kagetsu and Mayu loved going to war against one another. They could barely contain their smiles as the bell rang. Their matches ran at a different level, their strikes would land a little stiffer, and Kagetsu would take great joy in finding new and wonderful ways to maim the Stardom Icon. She made a running joke of hanging Mayu off of balconies, dropping her from great heights, and one time she even managed to crash the entire metal entrance frame onto Mayu’s neck.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

Unlike with Io Shirai, she was able to trade wins back and forth with Kagetsu. However even in victory Mayu would be left battered and bruised, and told by her rival to come back stronger than before. Just as Io had pushed Mayu to take that next step, now Kagetsu was doing the same. It’s important to remember that for all the brutality of their matches, there wasn’t a seething hatred between them. It wasn’t portrayed that way on or off camera. Mayu dressed as Kagetsu for a costume change battle royal, and Kagetsu would enter the ring with Mayu’s towel tucked into her gear. They were rivals from opposing factions, but they were both working towards the same goal: a better Stardom. And they both knew the endgame for that was with Mayu Iwatani standing at the top of the mountain.

Remember, Kagetsu was all but retiring in October of 2017. Even though she kept wrestling for another two and a half years and achieved a great deal of success in that time, her entire run from that point on was about lifting up the rest of the roster. Changing and improving the Joshi scene had been her goal for years. She worked to bring the best out of stablemates Hana Kimura and Hazuki. As a trainer, she pushed rookies like Saya Iida and Utami Hayashishita to be the best version of themselves. Kagetsu knew that Stardom would need its Icon at the top. So every battle between them was a test to see if Mayu was ready.

They would fight one last time in singles action on December of 2019. Mayu had finally reclaimed the World of Stardom Championship, and who would be there to challenge her first? Kagetsu. On Christmas Eve she threw everything she could at Mayu: jumping from over ten feet into the air to double stomp her on the bleachers, using her blue mist to blind her, nailing all of her finishing moves with precision, but nothing could keep the Icon of Stardom down. Mayu took it all and defeated her with a moonsault. The next day, having seen first hand how good Mayu Iwatani had now become, Kagetsu announced that she would be hanging up the boots and retiring in her home city of Osaka in February.

The retirement run for Kagetsu was basically a series of matches where she could lift up those she had worked hardest with. She reunited with Hana Kimura one last time, who came out adorned in her classic Oedo Tai look. Fans finally saw her team with AZM, the young prodigal wrestler who had a wonderful side story with Kagetsu wanting to be her friend. Her final singles match in Stardom was against Tam Nakano, another rising star Kagetsu had constantly pushed to realise her potential. And she was a surprise opponent for young Saya Iida on her self-produced retirement show, who couldn’t hold back the tears as her mentor stood opposite her.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

With all of that there was one final thing missing, and on Janurary 26 in Osaka, Kagetsu and Mayu Iwatani teamed up for the first and last time. They walked out in matching gear, working together like old friends, with Mayu even partaking in some uncharacteristically evil shenanigans. It was a match of the year candidate that ended as one would expect from someone with Kagetsu’s mind for the business: on her back, looking up at the lights, making her opponents look like a million bucks.

In her final shows with Stardom, the impact she had on the roster was abundantly clear. There were rumours that she was disliked due to her training style, but if that was true then they’re all incredible actors based on the outpouring of love in the ring. Above it all was Kagetsu herself, beaming like a proud mother having seen how all her children had grown up. In her own (translated) words: “I didn’t raise the children of Stardom, I was brought up by them”. None of that rang truer than her connection to the biggest child of them all, Mayu Iwatani.

In a wild twist, her goodbye couldn’t have been timed better. Her February retirement show was one of the last with fans before the pandemic shut everything down for months. Kagetsu left a company ready to take a new step forward under Bushiroad, with Mayu Iwatani firmly established as the company’s star and one of the best wrestlers in the world.

It was a position Mayu had been working at for years. She was there from the very start of the company, and by her own admission she wasn’t a natural at wrestling. Even as she became the incredible in ring performer she is now, becoming the face of the company was something well outside her comfort zone. She needed someone like Io to push her forward, and Kagetsu to help her truly realise her potential. Likewise, Kagetsu needed someone as good as Mayu standing opposite her as she realised her destiny. Someone that would test her as much as she tested the rest of the roster.

They made for the perfect rivals, acting as light and dark versions of each other; a true yin and yang relationship. Two faction leaders with goofy sides that knew when to get serious and showcase their skills. Two wrestlers dedicated to being at the top of their craft, who found their perfect violent dance partner standing across the ring. Two competitors who brought out the best in each other. Two foes who would become friends. You can’t properly consider Kagetsu’s legacy without Mayu Iwatani, and vice versa.