On July 4th, inside the Yokohama Budokan, Stardom will crown its newest Future of Stardom Champion. With the championship vacated after Saya Iida suffered an ACL injury a couple of months back, a tournament narrowed down the list of contenders to two, each representing the Cosmic Angels faction.
Mina Shirakawa and Unagi Sayaka. There has been an influx of talent for Stardom in the past year and a half, and while stars like Giulia and Syuri might draw a lot of the attention, there have been success stories across the board. The two contenders for the Future of Stardom title are proof of that, having quickly established themselves among a stacked roster and risen to the opportunities presented to them.
There are many similarities shared by the Cosmic Angel finalists. Both joined Stardom towards the end of 2020 and quickly aligned with Tam Nakano. Both were originally working for Tokyo Joshi Pro Wrestling before jumping over to Stardom alongside fellow TJPW wrestler Natsumi Maki (who would join Donna Del Mondo and go by Natsupoi, since there’s apparently an unwritten rule you can only have one name in that group). Both are over the age of thirty, and neither were heralded as massive acquisitions for the company at first, being better known for their looks rather than their in ring ability.
In fact through the early stages of Mina’s arrival in Stardom, the focus wasn’t so much on her but on her breasts. In backstage interviews both Tam and Mayu Iwatani would gawk and even touch them, and the official tag team name for Mina and Tam referenced her cup size.
This wasn’t new ground for Mina; not just in wrestling but life. Her and Unagi have both spent time working as gravure models, where their looks and body are purely the focus. This profession is something of a double-edged sword as they entered the professional wrestling industry. Women’s wrestling and sex appeal has often been strange bedfellows both in Japan and the West, and having a gravure background can definitely draw eyes on you early on, especially given predominantly male audiences at most Joshi shows (though that is slowly showing signs of change).
The problem lies in that while wrestlers can do gravure, models who come into wrestling generally aren’t expected to be strong wrestlers, instead coming in to gain some exposure and new fans while they mess around in the lower card. For those who want to truly succeed in wrestling, the background can lead to a stigma that you just aren’t as passionate or dedicated as others, or that they are only pushed because of their looks rather than their skill. Performers have to work even harder than normal to prove themselves.
This assumption doesn’t just come from the fans, but from fellow wrestlers as well. Mina Shirakawa has experienced that judgement firsthand, which she discussed in in a recent interview with Mugiko Ozaki from Sportiva:
“[…] With my background in gravure I know wrestlers in other companies have been like “Oh, she’s the model who thinks she’s a wrestler”, or think I’m some bimbo or that I can’t wrestle. If I want to change that perception, I feel like I need to have matches that are twice as intense or emotional as someone else. I’m hoping that people can understand me through my matches.”English Translation provided by Dana aka @ItsDanaNow
One of the reasons she chose to work for Stardom was because it would be a chance for her to prove herself as a serious gravure idol wrestler, with an emphasis on the wrestler aspect. She can do both, and do them well. As she has become settled into the company, the focus has moved away from her breasts and onto her as a performer. She’ll still pose for the crowd, but she is a wrestler with a ‘sexy’ presentation, rather than a gravure model playfighting.
If there was any doubt as to the dedication of Mina and Unagi, you just have to look at how far both have come since their arrival in Stardom. With the average skill level in Stardom being quite high, both were expected to either sink or swim as they were given early spotlight moments, winning the Artists of Stardom titles alongside Tam Nakano and being inserted in a high profile story with Mayu Iwatani and the STARS faction. To many fans, it was a position well above their skill.
In under a year working for Stardom, both have dramatically improved inside the ring, becoming more confident and skilled with each oppourtunity that comes along. In many ways Tam Nakano was the perfect person to guide them through their early months in Stardom. Tam too debuted at a slightly older age, and relied on her character work to carry her through the early stages while she was still improving in the ring. Now she stands as one of Stardom’s most valuable assets, serving as the strongest character on the roster with the kind of workrate required at the top of the card.
Unagi has enjoyed the most success, ironically benefiting from Mina having to miss time due to a broken nose. With her tag partner out of action, Unagi requested the chance to prove herself in a seven match trial series (turned eight) where she would face off against the company’s best talent in singles competition. She wouldn’t win any of these matches – not a huge surprise considering the mismatches she was facing – but it forced her to quickly adapt and learn.
She was often overpowered, and even embarrassed by the likes of Mayu Iwatani and Giulia as they tried to draw more from Unagi. She took a beating, but through those hard times a stronger performer grew. The results now speak for themselves. The following month Unagi won the All-Star Rumble inside the Nippon Budokan, overcoming industry legends and other notable Stardom wrestlers on the biggest stage in Stardom’s history, with her win coming as she eliminated one of the biggest gravure-turned-wrestler success stories Yuzuki Aikawa – a fitting symbol for what is possible. Then she managed to eliminate both Natsuko Tora and Syuri in the Cinderella Tournament, earning a spot in the semi-finals that took place inside the Ota Ward Gymnasium.
The experience of working through gruelling singles matches against strong opposition not only increased her skill, but it helped her blossom into a compelling and fiery underdog, whose unique charm beams out whenever she appears while her flashy moves hint at the heights she can reach. Mina’s character has found success in the back and forth theatrics playing off of her opponents actions, or filling in short comedic moments when the occasion calls for it. Originally Tam had to heavily carry early Cosmic Angels tag matches, but now the load can be more comfortably shared as the trio has grown both individually and as a unit.
With both Unagi and Mina past the age of thirty, it might seem a little weird that they’re the two finalists of the Future of Stardom Title tournament. Most of the roster are under thirty, from the fourteen-year-old twins to Stardom’s longest serving member Mayu Iwatani. Even the company’s top champion Utami Hayashishita is only twenty-two. There’s no reason why they can’t have long careers, but it is a disadvantage, especially when some of the youngsters are essentially veteran performers already.
The Future rules stipulate that you must be under the age of twenty or have less than three years wrestling experience (the rule was originally two, but the extra year was added upon Saya Iida’s request so she could continue her reign). Both fit under the latter category, with Mina debuting in August 2018 and Unagi in January of the following year. More importantly, it shows that Stardom see them as important pieces of the puzzle moving forward, and weren’t just brought in to sell photobooks.
It’s a championship that has an odd history. Three of the four previous champions are part of the heralded Golden Generation of Stardom, including current World of Stardom Champion Utami Hayashishita. The other champion was Starlight Kid, whose future has always been bright as she’s grown up in the company. All who have won it have gone on to bigger and better things, and have reason to claim themselves as ‘the future’ beyond just having a title around their waist.
However its prestige has suffered because despite the lineage of its champions, it is still the title with the lowest value. Due to the title stipulations, there is a limited pool of challengers in the tournament, and half of them are still in school. Many of the other eligible contenders are simply considered ‘above’ the title. AZM, Starlight Kid, Saya Kamitani, Maika, and even Utami (who has her third anniversary in August) were all absent from the tournament despite meeting the criteria. That alone tells you the perceived level of the belt, and there have been issues with previous champions being far too skilled for their average challenger in the division.
Seeing the path the finalists had in making the finals kind of shows the divide between those in the tournament and those who didn’t enter. Mina defeated sixteen-year-old Ruaka and fourteen-year-old Hina, while Unagi advanced against the winless rookie Lady C and sixteen-year-old Hanan. All of them show promise, but the two Cosmic Angels were clear favourites when they entered and they delivered. Now it’s a matter of finding out who gets to prove themselves away from Tam’s shadow.
The value in either winning the title is that they can essentially bridge the gap. As Artists of Stardom champions they regularly compete against high level talent and hold their own, so if an AZM or Starlight Kid were to challenge it’s not unrealistic for Mina or Unagi to get away with a win. However they’re still at a point in their careers where being champion isn’t holding the belt hostage from some of those represented in the tournament like Hanan. It opens up a wealth of possibilities with the belt that aren’t really possible otherwise.
It’s hard to gauge what their ceiling will be in Stardom. This may be the one singles title either can confidently win. Even with the improvement they have shown already, singles championships aren’t easily won in Stardom, and the roster is as stacked as it’s ever been. Winning this championship guarantees some spotlight moments through title defences, and will bring some momentum as the 5 Star Grand Prix Tournament kicks off at the end of July.
There’s also the fact that with their careers following parallel paths, there has to be a natural competitiveness between them. After years wrestling with and against each other in multiple promotions, now they can find out who is the better wrestler as they face off for the Future of Stardom Title. Mina and Unagi are so focused on July 4th that it has started to affect their tag matches. The usually sound Cosmic Angels teamwork has been lost in search of asserting individual strength, and it’s led to both tension and losses.
Their time as the Artists champions have obviously meant a lot to both of them, it’s clear on their faces every time they retain. It legitimised both the small Cosmic Angels group, but also their place in the company. Neither had much success before arriving in Stardom, so to be able to stand tall side by side as champions proved they belonged. Seeing the first cracks appear in the group with the Future Title hanging over their heads will serve as the first test of Tam Nakano’s leadership, who can ill afford the distraction with her own title on the line at the Budokan against Saya Kamitani.
Whoever walks out of Yokohama as the Future of Stardom Champion will have bragging rights, but both Mina Shirakawa and Unagi Sayaka should be proud of their growth since joining Stardom. They could have easily rested on their looks and gravure work to build up a fanbase, but instead they dedicated themselves to becoming the very best professional wrestlers they can possibly be. They’re fighting against preconceived notions, both surrounding their background and their age, but wrestling has a way to rewarding those who reach for the stars. And the Cosmic Angels feel at home when doing so.