Stardom’s 2021 5 Star Grand Prix Review: Their Best Yet?

September 25th marked the conclusion to the tenth 5 Star Grand Prix tournament inside of the Ota Ward Gymnasium. It felt like their biggest tournament yet, and not just because there were more competitors than ever before. From the inclusion of outsider Takumi Iroha, to the opening and closing shows being broadcast on PPV inside big arenas, everything about this year’s event felt like a big deal.

Once the tournament started, that trend continued. You’d be hard pressed to find a better 5 Star Grand Prix. Across the two months, fans were treated to top tier wrestling with a compelling tournament narrative that led to a tense final night of action. Even as the dust settles from the journey, the road map for the next few months has already started to become clear. Champions will owe defences, rivalries have started to brew, and Syuri still has a couple of months to continue cementing her claim to not only a future World of Stardom Championship reign, but also the title of Wrestler of the Year.

I don’t say that for the sake of dramatics either. Even before the start of this tournament Syuri had put forth an impressive resume. Obviously, everybody’s first thoughts go to the all-time match she had against Utami Hayashishita back in June but she’s had stellar matches since January, whether it be from defending her Goddess of Stardom Title alongside Giulia or lifting the value of the SWA Title to unparalleled heights.

Then there’s her 5 Star Grand Prix performance.

Syuri locks in a sleeper hold against Konami. Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

She was one of the favourites and with good reason. The previous tournament winners make up a who’s who of Stardom’s history – and while Syuri’s only been with the company for less than two years her pedigree more than lines up with names like Yoko Bito, Io Shirai, and Nanae Takahashi. Syuri has established herself as one of their top wrestlers and has been incredibly well protected since joining Stardom. She also had the narrative going in – determined to get herself another shot at Utami’s Red Belt after their epic war ended in a draw. Now all that was left to do was to put forth a tournament performance worthy of wearing the crown.

Was there ever any doubt?

When picking my personal top 5 matches from the tournament, it felt only fair to split it into two categories: Top 5 matches featuring Syuri and top 5 matches that didn’t. Now this might seem a bit ridiculous, but when you consider just how strong a tournament she had, you will understand why.

Top 5 matches featuring Syuri:

  • Vs Takumi Iroha (September 25th)
  • Vs Momo Watanabe (September 25th)
  • Vs Tam Nakano (September 16th)
  • Vs AZM (August 7th)
  • Vs Utami Hayashishita (September 4th)

Top 5 matches that didn’t feature Syuri:

  • Mayu Iwatani Vs Momo Watanabe (July 31st)
  • Tam Nakano Vs Utami Hayashishita (September 25th)
  • Himeka Vs Momo Watanabe (September 11th)
  • Tam Nakano Vs Takumi Iroha (September 6th)
  • AZM Vs Takumi Iroha (September 18th)

Considering how hyped people were after her opening weekend, the fact neither match made my personal top five should speak to the consistently high quality of Syuri’s tournament. The same can be said for the rest of the field as well. Last year’s change to a twenty minute time limit rather than fifteen has helped the tournament matches spread their wings and showcase their full potential, rather than feel like teasers for when two stars can face off another time.

So even though Syuri was the MVP of this year’s 5 Star Grand Prix, she wasn’t the only high point. Far from it.

Starlight Kid celebrates her win by masking Himeka. Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

The Highs:

First and foremost this was just a really fun and well rounded tournament. Half of Blue Block were still in the running on the final night, and all of them were believable block winners providing things fell their way: Takumi as the outsider who constantly forces Stardom’s best to lift their game, Saya Kamitani looking to become only the second person to win both the 5 Star and the Cinderella Tournaments in a single year, Utami cementing herself as the undisputed top star of the company by being the first to win as the top champion.

These potential stories backed the ebbs and flow of the tournament.

She had an unspectacular opening, but over the course of a single weekend Konami doubled her score with two big wins over Takumi Iroha and Syuri – instantly changing the feel of the tournament while reminding fans of how good the Submission Sniper can be. Takumi joined the tournament late but arrived like a freight train, charging through to the top of the standings. Even during the expected lull through the middle of the tournament, things were developing and kept interests levels high.

It also helped that the overall quality of matches were stellar across the board. As exciting as the headline pairings might be when there are 91 matches to watch, a top heavy lineup will result in burnout as you slog through the boring stuff. Thankfully there was little of that here. Less exciting matches didn’t overstay their welcome, there was a variety of styles on display and everyone brought their A-Game, either matching already high expectations or putting forth breakout performances.

The inclusion of Marvelous’ Takumi Iroha definitely added some spice to the tournament. One of the best talents in all of Joshi is always going to make an impact, but her inclusion realised a lot of dream matches in the process. Even her non-dream contests brought gold – like her prolonged beatdown of perennial underdog Unagi Sayaka after she tried to get a cheap shot as they shook hands.

Takumi Iroha giving Unagi Sayaka a ‘receipt’ for her cheap shot. Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

Red Block was no slouch either. Starlight Kid getting significant time atop the standings was the perfect move to establish how far she has come over the past year. Alongside her were most of the company’s High Speed division performers, providing exciting contests as well as fun style mismatches against the few competitors who weren’t at home keeping a blistering pace. Said contrast was highlighted perfectly by the Jumbo Princess Himeka, who continued to prove herself as one of the company’s best up and coming assets, showcasing strong chemistry with basically the entire block and throwing decapitating lariats against the smaller field.

Long suffering Momo Watanabe fans will be disappointed to see their favourite yet again fall short, but as expected she led the charge in the Red Block with a performance that shouldn’t be overlooked. Being runner up might not bring with it the glory, but it’s an important step in reminding fans as to how good she really is. Momo set the pace early with a blinder against Mayu Iwatani and never looked back, with the only disappointment being that her hotly anticipated final night matchup against Giulia didn’t eventuate due to the latter having to withdraw from the tournament due to injury.

Speaking of lows…

Mayu Iwatani headbutting Giulia. Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

The Lows:

An intense period of big matches back to back are often a dangerous recipe for injuries. Tournaments are a delicate balance in that regard, especially when one injury can throw out intricate plans in an instant. Giulia was a heavy favourite in the lead-up, only to have to withdraw from her final three matches due to injury. Whether this was her year or not we may never know, but she definitely was going to be a factor on the final day.

Others spent periods where it was clear they were fighting through physical issues, like Maika who battled with clear neck problems through some of her matches. The worst of which was her match against Tam Nakano where she barely bumped, and when she did she was clearly struggling.

Even before it all began the tournament was affected. Natsuko Tora suffered an ACL tear early into her World of Stardom Title match against Utami Hayashishita soon after the entrants were announced. She likely would have been a major player in the Red Block, perhaps best demonstrated by the amount of points her replacement Fukigen Death picked up.

Like the Cinderella Tournament earlier in the year, the 5 Star GP wasn’t free from schedule complications. After a spike in Covid positive tests in Japan and members of the roster being in contact with a confirmed case, two weeks worth of shows had to be put on the backburner. Events were cancelled, new ones were added to handle the load and match cards were shaken up in order to cover the full schedule. Thankfully unlike the Cinderella Tournament the final didn’t have to be delayed, but it led to a tense couple of weeks while also affecting the pacing when of the tournament over the two months.

While not specific to the tournament itself, throughout the 5 Star shows there have been two separate trial series for the company’s newest additions: Mai Sakurai and Waka Tsukiyama. The idea of the trials weren’t the problem, but running both during the middle of Stardom’s biggest tournament took away some of the interest. When Unagi Sayaka had to face seven opponents it felt important, being one of the few singles matches highlighted on any given show. However Mai and Waka’s series have been in the shadows of the 5 Star, where singles matches are the regular and the gap in talent for these newcomers feels particularly pronounced.

It’s not that moments can’t still stand out during tournament season – Hazuki’s shock return and Lady C’s first win both got due attention – but these new signees have kind of faded immediately into the background.

Speaking of shocks.

Mayu Iwatani celebrating over a fallen Mina Shirakawa. Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

The Surprises:

In a tournament that was stacked with talent, there were only a few wrestlers who didn’t inspire a lot of excitement. Mina Shirakawa might have entered the 5 Star as one of the weaker wrestlers in the lineup, but she put forth a breakout performance and proved she belonged. Her match against Momo Watanabe might be a career best, but she also had several really enjoyable matches against Mayu Iwatani, Giulia, and Natsupoi.

The Mina Shirakawa revelation wasn’t even the most surprising Cosmic Angels story of the tournament. On the first night Unagi Sayaka managed to score an upset win over the group’s leader and Wonder of Stardom Champion Tam Nakano. It was a classic night one upset win to set the tone that anything can happen (though I’ll point out I did call it!), but more importantly was the accompanying story that might have gone under the radar for fans.

The leadership of Cosmic Angels was unofficially put on the line ahead of the match, so as it stands right now Unagi Sayaka is kind of in charge of Cosmic Angels. At the time it seemed as though they might continue the story by running a Championship Vs Leadership match between the two, but now the next White Belt defence has already been set: with Mayu Iwatani and Tam Nakano finally settling the score between them after the Cosmic Angels split from STARS. If Tam retains, they can easily build to a rematch with Unagi, but fending off the Icon of Stardom might be the most difficult test of her title reign to date.

There were others who proved theirselves in this year’s tournament too. Red Block saw recent returnee Koguma in action, and any initial ring rust she might have had after a lengthy absence is now well and truly gone. She didn’t necessarily feature in the tournament’s best matches list, but she was a consistently strong performer, showcasing not only her in ring acumen but also some more personality, which will be an essential area of growth in helping her rise through the ranks.

Credit should also go to Ruaka. At just sixteen years old she was the youngest competitor in the tournament and had to deal with the murderer’s row that was Blue Block. She failed to pick up a win, but did well showcasing her growth since aligning with Oedo Tai (a recurring theme for all their recruits). The long term benefits from the experience will pay off tenfold – one just has to look at the leap AZM and Starlight Kid have both made after their first 5 Star appearances. Ruaka’s matches were generally the weakest in the tournament but still managed to entertain, and provided a great moment on the final night where the Oedo Tai crew tried desperately to bring her that single victory.

Fukigen Death multi-tasking against Momo Watanabe. Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

The Rest:

Fukigen Death once again proved her immense value in these settings. She filled the Toru Yano role, providing a comedic change of pace from the usual affair while also opening the door for shock losses to bigger names without hurting their credibility. It’s crazy to think she wasn’t originally meant to be involved, serving as Natsuko Tora’s replacement, and put forth the most surprising final score with a total of ten points. With Tora, Jungle Kyona, Hazuki and Saya Iida all potentially in for next year’s tournament (and who knows who else joins Stardom over the next year) this may be her last appearance, but she proved every tournament really needs someone who can fill that role.

Saki Kashima is best suited to carry the torch in her place, at least in terms of credible shock wins – her Revival pin is still one of the deadliest moves in all of Stardom, and the tension that gets injected into a Kashima match once she starts trying to set it up makes for great viewing even if there seems to be a hard ceiling as to her overall match quality. Saki’s final total of four points is probably the most disappointing result and not indicative to her value, but those two wins did come as a result of upsetting the block’s biggest names in Giulia and Mayu.

Which is a sound strategy. If you’re only going to get a couple of wins, you might as well make them count. AZM was lagging behind the pack for much of her tournament, but she managed to defeat block leaders Syuri, Takumi Iroha, and Konami while also earning the ‘Outstanding Performance’ award for the third straight year.

Mayu Iwatani was one of the tournament bright spots as you would expect, but her best performance would be saved after everything had come to a close. Hyping up her upcoming title match against Tam Nakano, she told everyone in Ota Ward to come back on October 9th to see the bout. In classic Mayu fashion she had messed up, as Stardom would be at Osaka-Jo Hall that night. What made this even more hilarious is that on the 9th TJPW are running Ota Ward, so Mayu inadvertently encouraged fans to check out their competitor’s biggest show. Was this relevant to the tournament? Not particularly, but clumsy Mayu is as essential to Stardom as a wrestling ring.

The award winners at the end of the tournament. Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

2021 has been an incredible year for Stardom, and that momentum continued with an unforgettable 5 Star Grand Prix. It might be recency bias, but from beginning to end this year’s tournament has felt like the best yet in the company’s ten year history. At the end of it all stood Syuri, whose journey to this moment has been arduous. The weight she has been carrying, both professionally and personally, seemed to lift in that joyous moment together in the middle of the ring with the rest of Donna Del Mondo. No one deserved it more than her, but there’s no time to relax.

Just two weeks after Syuri closed out the tournament, she now has to defend her title shot against her protege Konami, with Stardom taking inspiration from NJPW’s G1 Climax Briefcase. She’ll do so inside Osaka-Jo Hall, the biggest arena Stardom have ever run. If she holds onto her contract, she’ll get her title shot inside the legendary Ryogoku Hall.

There’s plenty to celebrate for Stardom, there’s just no time to do so.