There’s Something About Mayu

For all of the incredible talent that has passed through the doors of World Wonder Ring Stardom, there is one wrestler who is truly synonymous with the company: Mayu Iwatani – The Icon of Stardom. For the entirety of Stardom’s ten year existence, Mayu has been there. Starting as an awkward rookie amongst the first class of trainees, she’s been a constant presence ever since. As Stardom has grown, so has she. In 2021 Stardom is as big as its ever been, and even as other stars rise, Mayu is still the name by which all others are compared to.

It’s no coincidence that Tam Nakano and Starlight Kid, both once close allies of The Icon, have made it their goal to defeat her and prove themselves. Even as the love has dissipated and Mayu’s unique character has rubbed them wrong, they still recognise her as the standard bearer.

Many of the same things that endear her to the fans with such ferver has pushed those fellow stars away. There is a dichotomy surrounding Iwatani – a contrast of immense skill and clumsiness that shouldn’t seem to coexist, yet does so in perfect harmony. Mayu can appear like an unmatchable superheroine pulling off athletic feats with relative ease, only to then trip over the microphone cord and forget what she was going to say after the match.

That ability to appear as both peerless and everyday has won over the fans. Every Stardom fan loves Mayu but her aloof charm and charisma has seemingly encouraged countless betrayals. And more importantly, those who do walk away from Iwatani not only often seem justified, but enjoy prosperity away from her.

So, how did Stardom gain such a unique leader?

Mayu celebrating a World of Stardom Championship defense. Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

When Kairi Hojo and Io Shirai left for WWE in 2017 and 2018 respectively, Mayu became the backbone and face of the company as the last of the Three Daughters of Stardom. There’s no doubting her position in 2021 – but turn the clocks back and that transition is a little harder to picture, especially when it seemed she had to be dragged kicking and screaming into realising her full potential.

Her intense rivalry with Io Shirai through 2016 and 2017 was built around how frustrated Io was that Mayu wasn’t showing that drive to become the best. Iwatani was complacent, happy to just have fun with her Thunder Rock partner rather than strive to be better. So, Io betrayed her (the first of many to do so) in an attempt to draw that fire out. She sacrificed their friendship for Mayu’s own good.

Outside of the ring a similar story played out. Through the early years of her career, Mayu would skip training and miss shows because she slept in and constantly considered just throwing in the towel entirely and quitting. She went so far as to tell people she was done and said her goodbyes at a show, only to rock up at the next event anyway. It was a move that would make George Costanza proud.

For 99% of wrestlers, it’s hard to imagine someone like that succeeding, much less becoming the centrepiece of one of the biggest promotions in Japan. Yet that’s just what she managed to do.

How Iwatani became a wrestler doesn’t really make sense either. Out in rural Yamagata and dealing with public embarrassment in a small town high school, Mayu dropped out and became a ‘hikikomori’ – a Japanese term that describes a sort of extreme recluse. For two years Mayu left her house only three times, going out to look at the sky from her front yard before heading back in. It was a situation born out of fear.

After becoming hooked on wrestling, thanks to her brother and the work of Dragon Kid, she reached out to Fuka – a wrestler who was involved in recruiting for an upcoming promotion called Stardom. With only 6000 yen (around $50) to her name and no place to stay, she hopped on a train and moved to one of the biggest cities in the world.

After years where the four walls of her room became her world, was she afraid at the idea of moving to Tokyo to pursue a wrestling career?

“Absolutely not. I had nothing else. At that point I was like, if I remain a shut-in like this I’ll have no job, no hope, no reason to live, no one would need me. I was thinking, “this is my only chance, as long as I go to Tokyo I could get murdered immediately and at least I did that much.” I figured if I stayed in my home town then dying was all I had to look forward to anyway. So I thought it was better than not going.”

Mayu Iwatani speaking to Mugiko Ogaki. English translation provided by Dana

Two years of fear became backstory just like that, as she jumped into a situation that would scare many with reckless abandon.

Half of that 6000 yen she spent on a thank you present for Stardom President Rossy Ogawa, who would end up housing and looking after her – asking only that she repay him back by becoming a big star. Considering how often she contemplated quitting while also struggling in the ring, that investment probably looked like a bad one. Of all the rookies in that first class of Stardom trainees, Mayu took the longest to win her first match. She looked awkward and unsure of herself, and would tire out very quickly.

What had to give Rossy and the others hope was seeing how the audience responded to her. She might not have immediately turned heads with her in ring prowess, but the fans flocked to her all the same. There was and still is a charm about her. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that one of the skills that did come quickly was the ability to sell like death. Seeing Mayu ragdoll across the ring from moves, and the pained expression on her face as she would pull herself up off the mat – sympathy was easy to come by. To counteract her opponents superior skill and strength, she developed a wild style to keep pace.

Mayu with an unsuccessful suicide dive on Saki Kashima. Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

Even as she has risen to be the top of the mountain and become one of the best wrestlers in the world, that wild feeling remains. She’ll launch herself into suicide dives like a wrecking ball without a care for what kind of landing awaits her. She’ll throw thrust kicks with such force that she’ll get knocked back from delivering the vicious blow. Entering a forearm exchange, she’ll launch her whole body into a strike, exchanging precision for impact. Even after falling to The Icon, her opponents will look good because Mayu will appear as if she just went through hell and back. Her ability to bump and sell is a self-admitted source of pride for her.

That same struggle that Mayu went through to reach the top made her an aspirational figure for many on the roster. Both Starlight Kid and Tam Nakano (among others) looked up to her and wanted to learn under her tutelage. Yet many who flock to her end up turning away.

Tam Nakano stayed close by Mayu’s side even as others became The Icon’s favourite. It was only when Tam started to look elsewhere that she got the full attention of Iwatani, and by that point the damage had been done. Starlight Kid was fiercely loyal, fighting by her side during the Civil War that led to Tam leaving with Cosmic Angels, and again as Natsuko Tora led Oedo Tai to war against STARS. Due to a match stipulation she was ripped away from Mayu and forced to stand alongside Oedo Tai. With tears in her eyes, Mayu promised to win her back as soon as possible.

A month went by, and no attempt was made. When Mayu did eventually try to free her, it came suspiciously the night after Natsuko Tora suffered a major injury and would be out of action. By then it was too late, Starlight Kid had grown fond of Oedo Tai, the team’s camaraderie and her newfound darker persona.

Mayu clutching at the wrist of her former friend Starlight Kid. Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

Two people incredibly close to Mayu, and both realised they were better off without her. This would later be proved, as both went on to win singles titles previously out of their grasp alongside Iwatani. Then, of course, there are the others. Saki Kashima got sick of being in the shadow of The Icon. Ruaka announced her desire to part ways from Mayu by cracking a steel chair over her head. In an interview after the attack with Weekly Pro Wrestling, she called Iwatani “a pure dumbass”.

It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. On a tour to Hokkaido earlier this year, Mayu missed her flight because she was tired, turned her phone onto ‘Airplane’ mode, and as such didn’t hear the many phone call attempts from teammate Koguma asking where she was as she slept. More recently, as the group travelled for a couple of shows in Nagoya, Mayu instead went to their go-to hotel in Osaka 140kms away.

It would seem not all that much has changed from the immature youngster who missed a show because she slept in. Only in 2021, she’s the biggest star in the company. Even now Iwatani kind of laughs off the errors of her youth (and present); it’s just a part of who Mayu is. She even teased the fans by posting a picture of an empty suitcase, pretending to have forgotten to bring her gear.

Yet still, she endures. These blunders become a part of her endearing character. You can’t help but shake your head and laugh. When Mayu kept accidentally saying “Konbanwa” (good evening) to audiences in the middle of the day, it became a catch phrase.

We laugh because we’ve all been there at least once. A moment of pure stupidity, or a lapse in judgement that keeps you humble. We all see a little bit of ourselves in Mayu Iwatani. Even if we can’t relate to her athleticism or talent, there’s a clumsy side of ourselves we see in this superwoman who stands in very rare company as one of the absolute best in the world.

Mayu having fun at Mina Shirakawa’s expense. Credit: World Wonder Ring Stardom

It’s that claim as one of the best that keeps her as the standard bearer in Stardom. Even if Tam Nakano and Starlight Kid have both grown outside of Mayu’s shadow, they are yet to surpass her. They compare themselves against The Icon, and their careers will be defined by whether or not they can rise above her.

“A wrestling genius”, that’s how Tam Nakano referred to Mayu Iwatani. Even if she was slow to develop, now a decade into her career it’s hard to argue with that idea. While once upon a time she was a rookie at the bottom of her class, now she doesn’t need to practice a new move – if Mayu can visualise it, Mayu can do it. While most wrestlers would shy away from risky moves after an injury, Iwatani chose to add a moonsault to her repertoire – despite never using one before – purely to show how well her knee had recovered. That moonsault quickly became one of the most aesthetically pleasing in wrestling. Iwatani might carry the appearance of a wild wrestler, but everything is precise and executed with mastery.

Someone at the top might worry about having the image of an airhead or a klutz, but it doesn’t seem to faze Mayu. She leans into it and embraces it. Because she’s not trying to be anything but herself. That is the person who became the most beloved in the company, and also the person who drives other wrestlers away. Still, a decade of owning who they are has made both Mayu and Stardom as popular as ever.

And unlike relationships with people, that’s a partnership that will never fall apart for Iwatani. The two are so intertwined that it is simply impossible to imagine one without the other. In the words of Rossy Ogawa, “Stardom’s history is Mayu’s history”. And if anyone would know, it’s the man who kept a roof over her head when she ran away from home to pursue this life.

For better or worse, there’s only one Icon of Stardom.