AZM: Ballad of a Teenage Queen

On January 5th 2021, seven years into her career as a professional wrestler, AZM stood in the middle of the Tokyo Dome alongside her Queen’s Quest teammates as part of the Wrestle Kingdom pre-show festivities. It’s a testament to her hard work that she was selected to not only represent the company but to do so as a champion, walking down to the ring with her High Speed title. It’s a big moment for someone whose career has really begun to shine in the last couple of years.

Oh, and she was eighteen years old at the time. Legally after the match she wasn’t allowed to go out and have a drink in celebration.

If you have followed Joshi wrestling for any length of time, the idea of a grizzled young veteran isn’t that shocking. They often start young, burn brightly and then retire. Even with this in mind it’s rare to see someone start as young as AZM. For context, one of the other trainees in her class was a certain Pirate Princess who after some success in Stardom would move on and spend several years wrestling in the WWE as Kairi Sane.

Credit: Samurai! TV

Kairi is there on the far left, and little Azumi is in the middle. For Kairi, her in-ring career has come and gone, now settling into her role as a WWE ambassador back home in Japan. AZM however, as crazy as it seems, is only just getting started. Even as her in-ring skills grew with experience, there always seemed to be a natural ceiling on those still in school. It was pretty telling that Momo Watanabe’s big push in 2018 came within months of her graduation. As for AZM, she’s set to graduate from high school next month – around the time she defends her High Speed Championship inside the legendary Nippon Budokan arena.

AZM’s dedication to her burgeoning wrestling career is unquestionable. While other student wrestlers had to find time to train away from school commitments, AZM specifically chose a high school whose classes wouldn’t interfere with her training at the Stardom Dojo. While Hanan and Starlight Kid were studying geography, AZM could get an extra grappling session in with one of the veterans. Or be available when oppourtunity came knocking.

When Kacey Owens was unable to make it to Japan for the 2019 5 Star Grand Prix tournament, Stardom needed to find a quick replacement. AZM, whose school schedule was flexible enough for her to compete in the gruelling months long tournament, was chosen to fill that role. All she needed was a chance, and now she was going to get eight singles matches against some of the best on the roster. And not only did she prove her worth between the ropes, but on the scoreboard as well. Going in, most fans would have been impressed if she notched a win or two, but she ended up with eight points, just two shy of the block (and eventual tournament) winner Hana Kimura. One of her four wins came at the expense of said tournament winner too.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

AZM’s potential has always been clear, but there has been a clear shift from “will be great” to “is currently great” as she continued to improve after that tournament. Her diminutive size was fine when she was a kid, but at 4’10” it makes for a very tall hurdle when competing seriously with the best in Stardom. She has her near unmatched speed, but if she ever won a match it had to be by surprise. This was highlighted by her signature move being a flash pin called the AZM-Sushi, with which she won most of her matches. But that kind of gimmick will only get you so far.

So what has she done? She’s gone and taken a page from Zach Sabre Jr, and now rips out a variety of submission holds that she can transition in and out of. AZM will move from two different armbar holds into a Rings of Saturn, before trapping a leg and slowly but surely removing any way for her opponent to reach the ropes. It’s added another weapon in her arsenal and makes her a far more viable competitor near the top of the card. Which is important, because Stardom’s upper card is stacked and there aren’t a lot of veterans filling those spots who will naturally slide down the ranks with time. If AZM is going to make it to the top, she’s going to have to force her way there through sheer force of ability and willpower.

How far she has come is best highlighted in her recent challenge for the SWA title on February 13th, putting forth her best match yet in the semi-main event spot at Korakuen Hall against established veteran Syuri. She ultimately came up short, but the result wasn’t what was important: she looked like she belonged in a high profile spot on the card. Officially, it was an interesting filler defence, but unofficially it was an exam, and AZM passed with flying colours.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

It was a similar exam to the one she faced back in July of 2018. Her and Starlight Kid (who is a year older and her long-term rival) were both given prominent singles matches against the promotions top two stars: Mayu Iwatani and Kagetsu. These were billed as ‘Future Challenge’ matches, and the idea was basically for the two teenagers to go out there against the best and see how they handle the pressure. It’s not a coincidence that when AZM faced off against Syuri for the SWA title a few years later, Starlight Kid got a similar oppourtunity challenging Giulia for the Wonder of Stardom Championship.

Perhaps more than anyone else on the roster, Starlight Kid is who drives AZM to be better. They’ve essentially grown up in the Dojo together, constantly finding themselves competing for the same titles and same chances. Several years ago when Vice covered Stardom in their ‘The Wrestlers’ series, Stardom president Rossy Ogawa spoke on how much more popular Starlight Kid was than AZM, and how she wasn’t moving enough merchandise to succeed. Now she’s one of the first wrestlers chosen for a collaboration with Japanese fashion brand Gut’s Dyanmite Cabaret. She looks like a star, with a striking image to match her in ring prowess. Suddenly it was looking as if Starlight Kid might be left behind, and now she too has begun to take that next step.

What has always made AZM particularly interesting is how she challenges the typical Japanese hierarchy of respect. Outside of Ruaka and the three sisters (Hanan and the twins Rina and Hina) she is the youngest member of the roster. But in wrestling terms she’s a veteran: only Mayu Iwatani has been with the company for longer, and one of only a couple with a lengthier career. So whenever she starts disrespecting her elders (which she loves to do) it carries the brash rudeness of a young immature kid, but with the added confidence of being their elder within the industry. Considering how important hierarchy and respect is in traditional Japanese culture, AZM presents a unique dynamic.

Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

This is highlighted at its best when she has someone willing to play off of. Enter Natsu Sumire: Stardom’s underrated asset. She started wrestling weeks after AZM’s debut as a freelancer and is about a decade older than her. In terms of in ring skill she’s….serviceable. You won’t get 5 star classics from her, and that’s ok because that’s not where her value lies. Her strengths lie in making any feud she’s in the most fun part of any show. Give her time to get a story going, and people will be tuning in for the lower card antics with as much excitement as they do the main events.

The two have butted heads for years, and it’s entertaining every time. As they trade strikes they’ll also trade verbal barbs, and neither are afraid to use any small trick to gain an advantage over the other. Which includes AZM playing up the fact that a grown woman is belittling a kid in public. She’ll pretend to cry, and the crowd will play their part and boo Natsu with the kind of ferocity normally reserved for a Roman Reigns Royal Rumble victory. Her battles with Natsu Sumire have been a great bridge between her role as the little kid and the young star.

AZM has always shown the potential to be great, and Stardom have made a point to let her natural ability evolve into the best wrestler she can be. When Io Shirai formed her own faction called Queen’s Quest, AZM was someone she brought in under her wing. She got the chance to learn and develop directly under one of the best wrestlers of our generation. And Io’s influence on her career is more apparent now than ever before.

When AZM walks down to the ring, she does so with a certain swagger that is reminiscent of the Genius of the Sky. If you were hesitant about believing this eighteen year old can hang, you quickly buy into what she’s selling. She’s a confident and distinct promo, able to sell both her character and a match. In the ring she’s maintained her fervent pace (there’s only a couple on the roster who can keep up with an AZM at full speed), but has added a stability to it: you always feel like she’s in control. She can attack from multiple angles, taking it to ground or by flying through the air. She can beat you in multiple ways and continues to expand her game, adding new pieces to the puzzle.

Credit: New Japan Pro Wrestling

All this and she’s still only eighteen. Who knows how far off from her peak she is. Even if she did what a lot of Joshi do and retire before thirty to start a family, that would still give her about a decade of wrestling up her sleeve. Or she could follow in the footsteps of some of the greats and keep wrestling. That same decade of wrestling will put her at the same age as Mayu Iwatani right now, not to think of whether she was to continue her career to the levels of a Meiko Satomura.

A long term Joshi career is perhaps more viable now than ever before too. Stardom’s continued growth under Bushiroad brings with it job security and better oppourtunities to make money. In the first three months of 2021, she’ll have worked two of the most famous venues in Japan. The Japanese wrestling scene is also becoming more prominent globally, opening doors that were once very difficult to enter. A long and fruitful career is now very possible whether you want to stay in Japan or travel the world honing your skills.

Considering AZM’s career so far, there’s no question that she has the drive and dedication to be the best. That was apparent with how she approached juggling school and training. The talent has always been there – watching back over her debut match you can see that once the bell rang she went from a nervous ball of energy to a focused competitor in seconds. The only question was if she could figure out all of the intangibles that separate your average wrestler and your stars.

A few years ago you could question if that would be what held her back. But now? The AZM of 2021 who stood in the middle of the Tokyo Dome looked like she belonged there on the grandest stage.