One of the critiques that has consistently landed on All Elite Wrestling thus far is that there has not been a sufficient focus on, and development of, the women’s division. Part of this is related to the pandemic, resulting in travel restrictions, as well as injuries to performers who were breaking out at the time they got hurt like Dr. Britt Baker and Kris Statlander. However, in spite of that there has still been plenty of depth where we could have 1) multiple women’s matches on TV weekly and 2) stories and feuds for women who aren’t chasing the title belt. AEW, capitalizing on newfound partnerships with other federations, is looking to jump start the women’s scene with its own equivalent of the Eliminator Tournament to crown a #1 contender. Kenny Omega won the men’s counterpart last year to earn his match with Jon Moxley, and now 16 women have been set up with their chance to make the same major move on Hikaru Shida’s Women’s Championship.
While one match is already in the books, it’s worth taking a look across each side of the bracket (8 on the US side, 8 on the Japan side) to get a sense of who’s involved, what they bring to the table, and just who we think is going to win this dang thing! Feel free to take a wide-ranging look at the whole field, fill yourself in on particular competitors, or skip right down to the predictions. What will all of this mean for the women’s division moving forward? For starters, look out Shida, your next hurdle lies somewhere within…
UNITED STATES BRACKET
(preview by Thumbly Squeezed)
Leyla Hirsch – First Round opponent: Thunder Rosa (L)
“Legit” Leyla Hirsch has a no-frills sensibility both in presentation and in modus operandi. Her IRL amateur wrestling background comes through in her grappling-focused style, which sees her batter opponents with targeted strikes, hard suplexes, and holds designed to set up her cross-armbreaker. Hirsch is only 24, having started her career in independent feds like CZW as recently as 2017 before getting more seasoning overseas in Japan’s Stardom promotion.
Direct, brutal, and effective, many online have commented that her style would make her an easy fit on Team Taz in the future. I for one would love to see that used as a way to boost her overall profile. She’s already become a fan favorite in AEW, so in spite of her setback against Thunder Rosa don’t expect her to be out of the picture for long.
Thunder Rosa – First Round opponent: Leyla Hirsch (W)
The former long-reigning NWA Women’s Champion shocked the wrestling world when she first appeared in AEW to challenge Shida for the latter’s title. Since she’s stuck around, Rosa has shown grit and her own unique approach to both promos and in-ring work, most recently showcased in a primetime feud with fellow tourney entrant Britt Baker.
Learned, fluid, and always in control, Rosa’s work betrays her travels around the world. She’s had stops in Ring of Honor, Lucha Underground, Tokyo Joshi Pro, Stardom, NWA, and more, melding the best of each region into a style you won’t see anywhere else. She grappled back-and-forth with Baker (before being felled by Rebel’s interefence), then went shot for shot with Leyla Hirsch in the first round, ramping up the impact until she was able to get the 1-2-3. In between, she’s been putting on dynamite matches in her very own promotion called Mission Pro Wrestling. Rosa is a leading contender to win this whole event and the longer she remains in AEW the better off we’ll all be.
Serena Deeb – First Round opponent: Riho
One of the few performers (male or female) who can say they have appeared in WWE, the original TNA, and AEW, Serena is the most experienced hand on this side of the bracket. It shows in her confidence and her strategic approach, targeting specific body parts on her opponents with purpose in a manner that would make Bret Hart himself proud.
Since claiming the NWA Women’s Championship from Thunder Rosa, Serena has taken on all comers and fended off each and every one so far. It’s important to note, though, that those challengers have largely been up-and-coming talent (getting to share the spotlight with Serena has been huge for many of them, which is laudable). While Deeb will not back down from anyone in this tournament, and is poised to put on some barn-burners, I think it’s most likely she goes out to a bigger name before the final.
Riho – First Round opponent: Serena Deeb
AEW’s inaugural Women’s Champion has become something of an afterthought in her home federation due to being stuck overseas mid-pandemic. This tournament presents her with a murderer’s row to use to remind fans just what she can do. Should she make it all the way to the end, she is quite familiar with the names on the other side.
Riho’s high-flying offense, featuring a plethora of mid-air kicks and stomps, was a mainstay of the first months of Dynamite as she established herself with American audiences for the first time. Her battles with Nyla Rose provided a true textbook David/Goliath story that featured Riho going all-out to deliver the big blows necessary to overcome the larger opponent. She’ll need to do so repeatedly to get out of this half of the bracket, but it feels like she’s primed to return fresh and with a vengeance.
Tay Conti – First Round opponent: Nyla Rose
Conti’s emergence back onto a big stage in AEW has allowed her to put the focus on her athletic prowess and real life Judo background. Throws, strikes, and painful joint-snapping holds are all at her disposal. What’s more, her friendship with Anna Jay of the Dark Order has been a fascinating dynamic as Conti has so far resisted the urge to full-on embrace the group.
That said, she will need a more bloothirsty approach from somewhere in order to conquer the sheer force of Nyla Rose. Will the Dark Order get involved, and how would Tay react if they did? The contrast in styles should make for a great 1st round contest as the skilled martial artist tries to keep the force of nature on the mat.
Nyla Rose – First Round opponent: Tay Conti
Nyla Rose has been drifting a bit away from the main event picture since dropping the AEW Women’s title to Hikaru Shida at Double Or Nothing 2020. She has gone around backstage dropping whoever she felt deserved it at the time, but has not been unleashed in-ring to the same extent. That said, her strikes, slams, power moves, and Beast Bomb finisher make her a threat in any match.
Nyla should in theory be the favorite in this event with her size and strength advantages over everyone else involved. However, ring rust and momentum are real things and may catch up to her. Lucky for everyone else, and for any tables near the ring.
Britt Baker – First Round opponent: Anna Jay
Dr. Baker has been shining at bright as anyone on the roster since embracing her inner “Role Model” and then returning to the ring. Her bloodthirsty attitude, discovered back when Shida herself busted Britt’s nose wide open to gush her own blood, has continued to pay off including with her recent victory over Thunder Rosa at Beach Break.
Baker will bend, twist, and break any joint or tooth she needs to in order to get her hand raised and continue to call herself the face of the AEW women’s division. Given how much she’s lived up to that billing lately, it’s hard to see her going out early. It’s not nearly as hard to imagine her taking the whole thing down and coming full circle for another shot at the mistress of the kendo stick.
Anna Jay – First Round opponent: Britt Baker
While she had appeared on TNT a few times in her own right, Anna Jay has truly emerged since becoming #99 of the Dark Order. She transformed from a standard sneaky heel to an out and out badass baddie. She takes ZERO guff and does whatever it takes to win in the shortest time and distance (just ask Dark Order cohort Stu Grayson).
Similar to Leyla Hirsch, Anna Jay is still in the beginning of a wrestling journey that has no ceiling. In her case, she is only around a year into her pro career and has already been around AEW and contended for the title, which is an insane trajectory. However, her still being a bit green is most likely to cost her in the first round against a devious foe who’s been around the block in Britt Baker (they’re both out for blood enough to be their own version of the Spider-Men meme). But don’t sleep on her hard-hitting talent.
Interesting storylines are spread throughout this side of the tournament. Depending on how matchups shake out, recent combatants Thunder Rosa and Britt Baker could end up meeting again, as could BFFs Anna Jay and Tay Conti. Given the matchups and seedings, I ultimately see a semi-final between Riho and Britt Baker. Both have something they want to prove, and both have reason to feel like they have unfinished business with the title and/or its current occupant. In the end, I think Riho announces her return with a triumphant trip to the finals.
(preview by Ryan Dilbert)
Yuka Sakazaki – First Round opponent: Mei Suruga
Don’t let the genie gear and radiant smile fool you. Sakazaki may look like some cutesy character wrestler, but she’s a top-notch, all-around in-ring performer.
AEW fans have seen glimpses of Sakazaki in a handful of matches on Dynamite and the company’s first PPVs. Her best work, though, has been with Tokyo Joshi Pro-Wrestling where she recently reigned as Princess of Princess Champ. To get a feel for her energetic style and impressive ability to pump a match full of emotion, check out her title bout against Mizuki at TJPW’s Wrestle Princess show last November.
When the bell rings, expect knockout strikes, gorgeous leaps from the top rope, and for the Magical Girl to yank folks to the mat in violent, artful fashion.
Mei Sugura – First Round opponent: Yuka Sakazaki
There may not be a more likeable wrestler in this tournament than Mei Sugura. The Big Apple is a natural babyface with effervescent energy. While she’s not at the same level bell-to-bell as the top names in this field, she makes up for it with charm and bursting-at-the-seams enthusiasm.
Sugura has wrestled everywhere from Sendai Girls to TJPW, but she’s best known as being the bedrock of Gatoh Move’s ChocoPro. The kooky, ringless wrestling show held in a Japanese chocolate shop has been the perfect showcase for her. Now, the 21-year-old is set to set to step into a newer, bigger spotlight. Chances are, she’s going to make the most of it by reeling fans in with her supernova of a personality.
Veny – First Round opponent: Emi Sakura
Veny (FKA Asuka) is one of the most talented women in Japan today. To see her eye-popping athleticism on display, to see her tear it up against women or men, it’s hard to believe she’s only 22.
In addition to floating around the joshi scene, Veny often wrestles for Dramatic Dream Team. It’s in that often-goofy promotion that she’s been able to show off an impressive range, thriving in comedy bouts and slobberknockers. She excels at punch-you-in-the-face offense, power moves, and can even take to the air. Beyond the moves, her presence stands out right away. It doesn’t take a scout to tell she’s going to be a big-time star.
The eliminator tournament will mark her first time stepping into an AEW ring. Here’s hoping it isn’t the last. Veny could easily be a cornerstone for the company’s division.
Emi Sakura – First Round opponent: Veny
Sakura’s best work of late has been as a promoter, turning Gatoh Move ChocoPro into one of the more intriguing, creative wrestling shows around. While the veteran wrestled for AEW in 2019 at both Double Or Nothing and Full Gear, the pandemic put a hold on further adventures in America last year. Sakura, though, kept busy at the helm of Gatoh Move where she also regularly wrestled.
Starting with a showdown against Veny, the 44-year-old will get a chance to remind us what she can do outside of the zany world of ChocoPro. A savvy, technically sound wrestler with all manner of suplexes in her toolbox, Sakura is sure to make some noise in the tourney and beyond.
Maki Itoh – First Round opponent: Ryo Mizunami
Middle fingers, pigtails, and strikes that will loosen your jaw. That’s the Maki Itoh recipe. This TJPW star is about to make a whole bunch of new fans. Her irreverence, liberal use of four-letter words, hard-hitting style, and unique look will get her ample attention.
Itoh’s ring work has lately started to catch up to her personality/presence. That was on full display when she and Miyu Yamashita tore it up at TJPW’s January 4 show. Expect her to have some of the best matches of the tournament while becoming the darling of the whole event. You’re going to want to follow her on Twitter, too. She’s as skilled at social media as she is at doling out headbutts in the ring.
Ryo Mizunami – First Round opponent: Maki Itoh
It’s been nearly two years since Mizunami teamed with Riho and Hikaru Shida at Double Or Nothing 2019. That moment was a pivotal one for the crimson-haired veteran as Baliyan Akki revealed in a recent Gatoh Move livestream. Mizunami had been considering retirement before that match, but the AEW experience changed her mind.
The powerhouse will get a taste of that stage once again, albeit minus a crowd, as she takes a break from competing for SEAdLINNG to seek AEW gold. Mizunami brings a smashmouth style to the tournament which is likely to bring out Itoh’s best. Prepare to see some thunderous lariats and power moves aplenty.
Aja Kong – First Round opponent: Rin Kadokura
Aja Kong brings serious name power to the tourney. She’s a living legend, one of the top joshi stars of the ‘90s, and simply one of the best women’s wrestlers ever.
The imposing brawler with a sledgehammer of a backfist has slowed over the years and is limited in the ring these days. Kong will get a big reaction. She will bring attention to the event. Just don’t expect her to put together the kind of classics she has in the past. As she has hopped around the joshi circuit in recent years, she’s mostly been a tag team wrestler including many a battle alongside Kaori Yoneyama.
On her own in the hunt for the AEW women’s world title, Kong will probably be ousted early to boost a younger star or keep to short, to-the-point bouts.
Rin Kadokura – First round opponent: Aja Kong
Kadokura, a charismatic star for Marvelous and WAVE, is arguably the most underrated wrestler in this tournament. Itoh and Sugura are more well-known, but like them, Kadokura’s got plenty of personality to show off when the lights come on. She’s funny, endearing, and has some eye-catching offense at her disposal. Her dropkick is equal parts beautiful and nasty.
In the eliminator tournament, she’s sure to slap the spit out of somebody much to our delight, but probably won’t be around long. There are bigger names and talent with previous ties to AEW more likely to get spotlighted. Kadokura is sure to make some new fans, however, even with minimal ring time.
Maki Itoh has the most buzz going into this thing and has the potential to be a big-time star, but her time in the spotlight may have to wait. Mei Sugura is my pick to take the Japanese side of the bracket. Her personality is easy to market. Her high-energy style is a great fit for AEW. And should it be Britt Baker who makes to the final (as is my guess right now), Sugura is the perfect babyface for her to tear apart. Breaking Sugura’s heart and bloodying her mouth would give the dentist all kinds of heat.
Just say who’s going to win already
Ryan: Britt Baker completing her climb back after injury with a tournament win and later a championship victory over Hikaru Shida has a hell of a ring to it. AEW is so invested in her that when she tore up her knee, they made sure to put her on TV regularly anyway. Her smack-talking segments allowed to grow as a mic worker as she verbally dissected opponents and audience alike.
Now that she’s healthy again, it makes a lot of sense to give her all the momentum that will come from winning this tournament.
Thumbly: Riho led the line for AEW’s women for a long time, but remember how she got there. Back at All Out 2019, Riho scored a quick rollup of Shida, who had been in control, and hung on for the pin. This sent her on to face Nyla Rose and ultimately win the inaugural championship. Shida will want to prove that she has come far enough to top Riho since then. Riho needs to prove she can simply get back to that point of prominence.
Riho should be driven enough to get out of the US bracket, meet and beat a familiar face from Japan, and make that long-coming showdown a reality.
The AEW Women’s Eliminator Tournament kicks off the Japan bracket today, Monday February 15, on YouTube starting at 7pm Eastern/6 Central. The US bracket will carry on during AEW Dark and Dynamite.