What a Counter(point)! Would Momo Watanabe Be Better Off Leaving Stardom?

With their boots tightened and their bodies oiled, Wrestle Inn columnists Ryan Dilbert and Trent Breward are set to collide as they discuss and debate a variety of (joshi-heavy) topics from the world of pro wrestling. Each writer will weigh in, but only one will win. Check it out. 

Today’s topic: Momo Watanabe is one of the most talented wrestlers on a loaded Stardom roster. Should she stick with the company and rise up the ranks or spread her wings and fly into the freelance skies?

You can’t have an honest-to-god “best in the world” discussion without some heavy Momo Watanabe talk.

At just 21 years old, she has shown herself to be a top-notch, in-ring performer who comes through big in the biggest matches. Momo is smooth and captivating and in command between the ropes. She can pull you in as a babyface in anguish or as a cold-blooded assassin with merciless kicks.

She is a bonafide ace, the type of talent you build around. Stardom only partially seems to recognize that, though.

After a lengthy reign as the Wonder of Stardom champion, the move to the absolute top of the Stardom food chain that seemed inevitable didn’t come for her.

Instead, the promotion (understandably) kept Mayu Iwatani as its cornerstone as she reigned as World of Stardom titleholder for over a year. Then came Giulia who, from day one, was clearly going to be a focal point. Donna Del Mondo’s leader got an immediate push and has since made the company look plenty smart for it.

Utami Hayashishita is thriving now as the red belt champ. She looks ready to claim that spot for a long time.

Momo, meanwhile, is currently in a feud centered on Giulia insulting her for being “fat.” It feels like Watanabe’s role here is to help continue Giulia’s rise, to be another stepping stone along a surging star’s path to glory.

Momo’s time on top will come, you might say. I’m not as confident about that.

As AZM blossoms, she’s sure to nab more high-profile opportunities. You got the promising Himeka ready to take a leap forward. Iwatani’s still around. Storyteller extraordinaire Tam Nakano is making the case that she’s a building block, too. The top tier is going to get crowded in a hurry and how secure is Momo’s place there?

If she ever tires of playing third fiddle, Stardom’s competition would happily take her in. And whether she signed with SEAdLINNNG or Ice Ribbon or wherever, Momo would undoubtedly command a major role.

It’s hard to think of Momo banging heads with Tsukasa Fujimoto or Arisa Nakajima in main events without your heart racing.

I think the key to all of this is one of the things you mentioned: She’s 21. It’s unfathomable that someone at her level in the ring is still so young, and has now been putting on top tier matches for a few years now, firmly establishing herself as a top 3 in ring talent for the company at worst. 

Momo battles Mayu Iwatani. (Credit: Stardom)

The one area that seems to be the defining contention in discussing Momo’s position on the card comes down not to her wrestling ability, but the surrounding elements. I’m not as convinced by Momo’s character work, which I think suffers from inconsistency, especially in the time after her White Belt run. She’ll show flashes of the cold blooded arrogant assassin that punctuated her title run with an air of coolness, but too often she settles into ‘woman who wrestles well’, and if you’re pushing someone as a top star, it’s a difficult sell. Stablemates Utami, AZM and Kamitani have all seemingly figured out their characters and are building to those strengths, but I don’t think Momo presents her character as well on a show-to-show basis.

Which is ok. Again she’s 21, she has plenty of time to nail down her character work. It can take time, and Stardom has shown a willingness to be patient. Mayu was a long term project, Kagetsu took a few years to find her character, and Tam’s journey really benefited from the story of her eventual climb to the peak of the company. Yes Stardom will push people fast out of the gate (Giulia, Utami, Arisa upon her return) but they are also willing to wait until it is your time to shine.

In the meantime it’s not like she’s been doing nothing. She’s won the Tag League alongside AZM, main evented one of their big arena shows and has had her fair share of title shots. She’s still presented as an upper midcard level talent at worst, and it’d only take a minor shift to re-establish her as a champion tier competitor. What’s been lacking is quality stories, and in Stardom that is often left up to the individuals. 

Momo celebrates with tag team partner AZM. (Credit: Stardom)

I also wouldn’t be too quick in assuming that by leaving Stardom Momo would suddenly find herself inundated with all the championship gold that had previously eluded her. There’s no doubt the matches on the Joshi independents would be amazing, but the established champions aren’t exactly budging from their thrones. And in the West she’d be coming into the same issues she’s facing in Stardom character-wise, only with the added burden or trying to establish herself in another language. Stardom is only continuing to grow, and it’ll provide her with the best domestic platform moving forward.

You’re right about her not being neglected in terms of stories and opportunities. This isn’t a situation where she is buried or completely pushed aside. I just worry the company doesn’t view Momo as a true top-tier talent.

All these storyline mentions of her figure make me nervous that the brass really does think of Momo as too “fat,” as crazy as that sounds. Vince McMahon reportedly had an issue with Christian’s face. Does Stardom boss Rossy Ogawa have similar qualms about Momo’s body?

Are we headed to a future where she is the Tomohiro Ishii of Stardom, the star fans gush over, the wrestler producing four-star matches left and right, but with no big-time gold to show for it?

Credit: Stardom

Yes, she’s 21, but as hard as joshi wrestlers tend to work, careers often end prematurely. We just saw Arisa Hoshiki retire before her 25th birthday. Kagetsu wrapped up her career at 27. Hazuki hung up her boots when she was just a year older than Momo is now.  

Does Momo want to spend the next five years on the midcard with the most prominent women’s promotion in Japan or instead opt for a better shot on the marquee more often? SEAdLINNNG, Ice Ribbon and Marvelous’ rosters obviously have a ton of talent, but they don’t run as deep as STARDOM’s. Momo, in my mind, would instantly be in the running for headliner status at any of those spots.

She may not be unseating Nakajima or Fujimoto right away, but I’d bet on her being a top contender from day one.

Momo is in a similar spot to NBA players who, come free agent time, are tasked to choose between a second (or third) banana role or going to a team where they know they will be the number one option.

Maybe this is just me leading with my fandom, salivating at the thought of Momo kicking in heads in smaller promotions, but I’m rooting for her to take the road less traveled. To Kawasaki, Funabashi, and beyond.

I don’t mean to go all Kanye on this conversation, but I’m gonna stop you right there. We all know Jungle Kyona is the real Tomohiro Ishii of Stardom. Momo did have a lengthy run with the Wonder of Stardom Championship, which as we know from one incredibly wise and handsome man’s article, that title is about as valuable as a ‘secondary’ title can get.

I can understand the concern that Giulia’s comments are coming from management, especially given how Stardom leans a little more ‘idol’ than many of their Joshi contemporaries. Giulia does seem to start these mini-feuds with everyone she spends time in the ring with, so I’m hoping it’s just her running with something rather than a management associated line. But I can’t pretend to know.

The point about early Joshi retirements is fair, but I think Hazuki’s case is a bit of an outlier. There’s more to that situation that we’ll ever really know. Let’s say Momo was to retire at the age of 27 like Kagetsu, that’s still six years to find the missing piece and become a big player in Stardom. 6 years would nearly double her current career length. It also helps that she seems to have been relatively injury free, which will help with her longevity. Couple all of that with the fact she very clearly chose wrestling full time over doing additional study after school leads me to believe she’ll be wrestling for a while yet. Whether it’s only in Stardom of course is the question, but it’s not like if they don’t push her right now then it’ll be too late.

Momo Watanabe squares up against Nanae Takahashi. (Credit: Stardom)

Stardom is already the biggest Joshi promotion, both domestically and internationally, and is coming off the back of one of its best years ever (in a pandemic of all times). She might be more likely to headline elsewhere, but it’s unlikely to be at the same level as Stardom if she can succeed there.

Does she back herself to break through, and does she trust management enough to give her that chance? I would personally argue Stardom has had far more success stories with their talent than they have wasted potential. If Momo truly believes she’ll rot away in Stardom’s midcard and is willing to give up the security and potential platform of her current job, then maybe she would be better off leaving. 

However there are a lot of reasons to stay, and she’s the ‘True Heart of Stardom’ for a reason. I don’t think her future is as dire with the company as others do. She can still become the big star many see in her, and it’s arguable we wouldn’t even be having this discussion if she hadn’t already been given the chances to shine like she’s already had. Worst case scenario she stays at the level she’s at, which is still upper-midcard with frequent title shots and other opportunities. That’s a pretty good ‘worst case’ scenario in the biggest platform for women’s wrestling in Japan. The chance to shine on the brightest Joshi platform has to be a tantalizing prospect. And that right now is Stardom.

Thank you to @jaefinley13 for supporting us on Patreon, helping make features like this possible!