The core driving influence of any professional wrestler is to become the best. And the easiest way to prove that you’ve accomplished this is by winning a company’s top championship. It’s a statement. By becoming the champion, you become the manifestation of the best that company can put forth. You ‘are’ that company, and everyone else is after your spot.
Which championship is the top title is normally not up for debate. It takes a truly special situation, like Shinsuke Nakamura’s run as the IWGP Intercontinental Champion, to even make people question that idea. It was such a big deal when the Intercontinental Title headlined Wrestle Kingdom over the IWGP Heavyweight Title that it would go on to completely re-shape the entire career of Tetsuya Naito, who was challenging for the supposed ‘top’ title on that night.
At first glance, World Wonder Ring Stardom’s top prize is the World of Stardom Championship, affectionately known as the Red Belt. It is their world title after all. Not just anyone earns the right to hold the championship, and those that do join rare company. It is the title for the best wrestler in Stardom.
However, there is some debate surrounding whether being the World of Stardom champion means you represent Stardom.
In a recent interview with Mugiko Ozaki and Sportiva, current Wonder of Stardom Champion Tam Nakano spoke at length about her thoughts on this situation. In her mind, “the White Belt is the pinnacle of Stardom, not the Red Belt as many would think”. When asked why, she stated:
“I think the red belt is a belt of technique, and the white belt is a belt of emotion. Lots of people have imbued the white belt with their emotions. If you look at the past champions, they fight with their emotions and they created lots of drama. I think that’s unique to Joshi wrestling, but even in Joshi there aren’t any other belts that are exactly like this. That’s why I think the white belt is the symbol of Stardom.”English Translation provided by Dana aka @ItsDanaNow
In Tam’s mind each belt has come to represent something different. The World of Stardom Title is for the best “wrestlers”. The in-ring technicians. But the Wonder of Stardom is driven by something more powerful: passion.
Tam isn’t alone in believing this. In fact it’s an idea that goes right back to the man who brought these belts into existence: Stardom president Rossy Ogawa. While speaking with Emi Sakura on the Gatoh Move YouTube channel, he described the vision he has for the two belts.
“The Red Belt would of course be the literal embodiment of talent, of technique, of what a wrestler really can do. Who is number one in this world? The Red Belt will represent that. The White belt on the other hand will represent the spirit of Stardom. What Stardom is. A wrestler who will convey the most of what it means to be a Stardom wrestler. What it means to have that in themselves. That will be what the White belt will represent.”
The important part to take away from this comment is that to Rossy, the president of the company, the White Belt champion is the wrestler that best represents what Stardom is. Not the Red Belt champion. They might be number one, but they aren’t Stardom.
These two statements present an interesting split in the typical signifiers for the best. Are you the best because you’re the number one wrestler? Or because you’re the company figurehead? Both the Red and White belt champions could theoretically lay claim to be the top star in the company, depending on what you value most. And that gives each belt a distinct flavour.
Tam Nakano had to give everything of herself to win the Wonder of Stardom Championship. It was a journey years in the making, back when her enemy-turned-friend Arisa Hoshiki was champion. It was the most emotional and powerful feud in Stardom at the time. Then when Giulia took over the title, their wars were just as intense, culminating in the tearful showdown at the Nippon Budokan as she finally won the title, and in doing so not only took Giulia’s title but her hair as well.
When Giulia beat her in their second White Belt match, she didn’t tell Tam to become a better wrestler. No, to earn another shot, Tam would have to ‘crawl through hell’. It’s a path that Tam now wears like a badge of honour. To her, the belt has a mysterious power – almost cursed in nature – that draws darkness and rage in a person’s heart. Now that might just sound dramatic, but when you look at previous champions, they all seem to have been influenced by this curse in one way or another.
Giulia has never been a saint in Stardom, but as her title reign continued she was tempted to give into her more sadistic side, only sated when her opponent did likewise. Beyond just her wars with Tam, she took glee in tearing and ripping Starlight Kid’s mask off, and attacking her stablemate Himeka during an interview in the leadup to their title match. The longer she remained champion, the more lost in the title’s grip she became.
The same could be said for Arisa Hoshiki, who returned to Stardom bright, bubbly and excited to be back wrestling. Her path to the championship was short, but like Giulia the longer she held that championship the more she seemed to revel in dishing out punishment. She’d have an opponent beaten but break up a certain three count so she could land one more big move to punch an exclamation point on the match. She left Utami Hayashishita bloodied after their duel, a rare site in Stardom. It seemed that her friendship with Tam Nakano was the one thing stopping her from losing sight of herself, but even then she seemed to enjoy the ferocity that both expelled when they faced off.
Momo Watanabe was a cold blooded killer while champion, but the title affected her even before she had won it. She was overwhelmingly fixated on dethroning then champion Io Shirai, the person she served under with Queen’s Quest. It consumed her focus. Once she did wrestle control of the title from the Genius of the Sky, Momo became more resentful of those who dared challenge her, as if she was insulted anyone could think they stood a chance of defeating the ‘True Heart of Stardom’.
The Red Belt meanwhile has largely stayed away from this kind of storytelling in recent years. Those who have stepped up to Utami Hayashishita have done so respectfully (with the exception of Bea Priestley), and these matches feel like two warriors wishing to see who is the best. The matches have hit hard sure, but the focus is competition, with only snippets of additional story. When someone challenges Utami and she doesn’t think they’re good enough there’s no anger, just disappointment.
The same can be said for Mayu Iwatani’s reign, where people would come forward to either test themselves or the champion. There was always mutual respect. Kagetsu’s reign featured more emotion, but the added passion in Kagetsu’s style was there to push her opponents to become better. She’d antagonise them and draw emotion, but it was all in search of unlocking their potential as a competitor. When she won Kagetsu wouldn’t gloat, she would simply tell her challenger to go away, get better and come try again. She was setting exams for her challengers to see if they could graduate to the position of champion. It was all about who was the best.
Bea Priestley’s time as champion challenged this notion a bit, especially her October battle with Hana Kimura, but it’s the exception that proves the rule. To see the kind of emotionally charged storytelling that’s become part of the White Belt scene, you need to go back to the Io Shirai/Mayu Iwatani feud through 2016 and part of 2017. Once Io had turned heel and formed Queen’s Quest, their matches became personal.
The two belts serve as opposite focal points of wrestling. Tam Nakano is an emotional White Belt champion, fuelled by her feelings, drawing upon them to bring an aggression and wildness to her wrestling. She and Giulia stood and traded slaps until her cheeks swelled. Her and Natsupoi fought to gain a psychological edge as they humiliated each other with water.
Utami Hayashishita is a cool, calm and collected Red Belt Champion. She’ll wryly smile as someone challenges her, and instead of trying to provoke her opponents into a mistake she’ll simply use her size and ability to control a match. You win the title by fighting Utami in the ring, not inside her head. Each current champion perfectly represents the title they currently hold.
It’s not the first time a title has been imbued with a certain spirit by those who compete for it. NJPW’s NEVER Openweight Championship developed a personality that was completely different from its initial concept. Originally designed for young up-and-comers and unsigned wrestlers who would fight on special NEVER promoted events, the belt’s original purpose fell away almost as soon as it began, as the tournament meant to crown the champion was the last event under that branding. Despite this, it soon found life as a championship for heavy hitters: wrestlers such as Katsuyori Shibata, Tomohiro Ishii, and Shingo Takagi would force opponents to go to war in order to obtain it. You didn’t win the NEVER title by being the best wrestler, you won by being the toughest.
What makes Stardom’s case particularly interesting however is that the value between its top and secondary belt feels almost arbitrary. The World of Stardom Championship is typically presented as the top championship, but it doesn’t always feel that way.
When Stardom ran its biggest ever show in March at the Nippon Budokan, it was Tam and Guilia’s war for the Wonder of Stardom Championship that main evented, doing so over the World of Stardom title match. The last three winners of the Cinderella Tournament (which grants the victor a wish of their choosing) have all decided to challenge for the Wonder of Stardom Championship rather than the World of Stardom Championship. Even Mayu Iwatani chose to challenge for the White Belt when she won the 5 Star Grand Prix in 2018 rather than try to regain the Red Belt, which she wouldn’t win for another year after Bea Priestley challenged her in order to ‘prove herself’.
This isn’t to say the World of Stardom Championship isn’t still ‘THE’ title in Stardom. When you go onto their official website and click on their title page, the Red Belt is at the top. There is an undeniable prestige surrounding it, and White Belt champions talk of making their belt the most valuable; Red Belt champions don’t need to bother saying such things. The White Belt headlining over the Red generates discussion every time precisely because it doing so is unusual.
At any point in time, the perceived quality of the belt often comes down to: who are the champions? Generally the gap in talent is pretty negligible. Before Tam and Giulia it was Arisa and Momo who held the title, both easily main event level talents. Before them it was Io Shirai, Yoko Bito and Mayu Iwatani (who would become the only person to hold both the Red and White Belts simultaneously – a true statement on her spot as The Icon of Stardom). At times it’s debatable which champion is the better ‘wrestler’; a point which is meant to be the Red Belt’s very identity according to Rossy.
The title you consider to be the true pinnacle of Stardom may largely depend on what you value most in wrestling. Do you want your top champion to be the best wrestler in Stardom? Or do you want them to be the best representation of Stardom? For Tam Nakano, we know what she values most. For her being the spirit of Stardom is more important than being the best in ring wrestler. The total performance is what matters. Therefore the White Belt is the more important accolade. However this doesn’t mean she is at the top yet. In her interview with Ozaki, she states:
“But I think it’s going to take a long time for me to truly surpass Giulia, now I’m thinking about how to define the white belt. I think people associate it recently with Giulia, but I need people to definitively see it as Tam’s belt. So I’m not at the pinnacle yet at all.”
It’s not enough to just be champion, but Tam needs to leave no doubt in people’s minds. When Mayu Iwatani was the World of Stardom Champion, people associated that championship as being the top prize because everybody saw Mayu as the best. The Red Belt was defined by her work, and it was undeniably hers. When Io Shirai was the White Belt champion, it felt more prestigious because any title she held instantly felt valuable.
That is what Tam Nakano is now looking to achieve. For her to be the best, she needs the ‘top’ title to be thought of as Tam’s belt in the same way one might associate the IWGP Heavyweight Championship with Kazuchika Okada.
It will be then that she reaches the pinnacle of Stardom in her mind. It won’t matter who the World of Stardom champion is, because that won’t be the top title. Not as long as Tam Nakano has anything to say about it. And when you are everything Stardom represents, it makes for a pretty compelling argument.