Making Sense of Stardom’s SWA World Championship

When looking at the many, many championships within Stardom, two titles will stick out in particular. While most of their championships feature the star motif for their centre plate, both the High Speed and SWA World Championship belts lack this feature. The former is easily explained, it was never originally a Stardom belt; first belonging to the NEO Women’s Pro Wrestling. The SWA title’s history is a little more complicated however – and for its lifetime has struggled to find a place in the company. Bound by restrictive booking rules and an original purpose that has long since gone, the belt could have easily faded into the annuls of history. Yet as 2021 draws to an end it has arguably never been more valuable.

In May of 2016 a new initiative was formed. The Stardom World Alliance – a partnership between five different wrestling promotions: Stardom (Japan), Womens Wrestling Stars (Mexico), British Empire Wrestling (UK), Revolution Championship Wrestling (Spain), and ABC Catch Wrestling (France). These five companies were going to work together, and unifying them would be a championship for all the women to strive for.

The SWA Undisputed Women’s World Championship was created, and with a very specific rule. The challenger had to be from a different country than the champion. A true ‘World’ title of sorts. The first champion was crowned in Spain under the RCW banner, as Io Shirai defeated Toni Storm in the final of a 9 woman single elimination tournament.

Toni and Io squaring off in the SWA Tournament Final in Spain. Credit: Stardom

The Stardom World Alliance never really got off the ground though, and any real teamwork seemed to fade away as quickly as it came about. Since the title’s inception in mid-2016, here are all the times it was defended outside of Japan:

  • Io Shirai vs Toni Storm, May 21st 2016. RCW, Spain (where the title was first introduced)
  • Io Shirai vs Kay Lee Ray, May 22nd 2016. BEW, UK
  • Toni Storm vs Jetta, January 22nd 2017. BEW, UK
  • Toni Storm vs Bea Priestley, October 21st 2017. Stardom, Taiwan
  • Toni Storm vs Shotzi Blackheart, December 2nd 2017. RISE, USA
  • Toni Storm vs Dust, December 2nd 2017. AWS, USA (yes, twice in one day for separate promotions)

Outside of Stardom, only two of the SWA promotions even saw the belt on their shows, with two of Toni’s defences taking place in unaffiliated US promotions. Once the calendar turned to 2018 the international matches stopped completely. With the championship mostly confined to Stardom shows, challengers were either Japanese wrestlers signed to Stardom or foreigners on tours within Stardom.

The SWA Championship was designed to celebrate wrestlers, promotions, and matches from around the world, but the only time it really felt like a global championship was when it was around the waist of Toni Storm, who spent 612 days as champion and wrestled around the world.

Her reign was complicated by another issue the championship has faced since its iteration. Very rarely has a champion ‘just’ been the SWA Champion. For nearly half of Toni’s reign, she was also parading around as the World of Stardom Champion. At one point, she entered a Stardom ring holding four separate championships.

The crazy thing is, the first four champions were able to do this. Io Shirai, Toni Storm, Viper, and Utami Hayashishita were all quadruple champions at some point during their SWA title reigns.

Io Shirai, Toni Storm, Viper and Utami Hayashishita with all the gold. Credit: Stardom

The championship has also been defended alongside a myriad of other honours. When Utami defeated Viper for the SWA Title, she also won the EVE International Title from the Scottish star. Viper won it from Toni in a match where she had to put her ICW Women’s Title on the line too. Meanwhile current champion Syuri has been putting up her rights to challenge for the World of Stardom Championship (represented in the form of a briefcase) whenever she’s defended her SWA Title. She’s also currently the Goddess of Stardom Tag Champion, so she’s carrying two belts and a briefcase to the ring.

Bea Priestley is the only champion to not spend a significant amount of her reign carrying around another title belt – and that’s only because she lost the SWA Championship the day after winning the Artist of Stardom Championship.

The image of a wrestler walking to the ring draped in championships is a great way to signify their position as a top performer. It’s an imposing visage. Every wrestling fan has that iconic Ultimo Dragon image burned in their minds. However the titles they carry can be at risk of becoming ‘just another belt’, especially when it’s not the most prestigious there. For a new championship, how can it forge an identity when it is almost never held by itself? For both Io and Toni, the SWA took a backseat to the World of Stardom Championship, which was always treated as the top title. The other champions have all had other stories going on and titles to defend during their reign.

Which begs the question: How prestigious is the SWA Championship?

That question, like the championship in general, is a little complicated. When you look at its lineage, it’s an impressive list of names: Io Shirai, Toni Storm, Viper, Utami Hayashishita, Jamie Hayter, Bea Priestley, and Syuri. From that group four have held the World of Stardom Championship and four have been crowned 5 Star Grand Prix Champion (two of the biggest honours in Stardom). Viper and Jamie might not be able to lay claim to either accomplishment, but both were highly regarded during their time with the company and formidable competitors.

Io dousing Kay Lee Ray in a British Pub wrestling for BEW. Credit: Stardom

The issue is that despite the level of its champions, the title itself hasn’t really carried that same weight. The World and Wonder of Stardom titles are the clear top prizes, placing the SWA firmly in the position of a tertiary singles championship. Many title defences feel like a foregone conclusion – and this is an issue that has exponentially grown of late.

Jamie Hayter had to vacate the SWA Championship after COVID-19 essentially locked her and every other foreigner out of the country. Stardom then found themselves with a title that literally needed competitors they could not access. Bea Priestley was able to return for a bit since she was a resident, but once she left for NXT UK they were essentially left with a purely Japanese roster.

Their solution was Syuri. Japanese-born but through her mother she has Filipino heritage. After claiming the title from Bea in November 2020, she requested to be recognised as such. By representing the Philippines rather than Japan, anyone on the roster could challenge her. It’s allowed Syuri to defend the title, but as a byproduct every defence right now is more or less a foregone conclusion – and that was before they tacked on the key to her big money rematch against Utami Hayashishita at Ryogoku Hall. She’s not losing the briefcase, which means she can’t lose the title.

Syuri is likely to remain champion until Stardom can bring back foreign wrestlers on tour – and when exactly that will be is unclear. Presuming that is even a priority any more. Stardom’s full time roster has grown substantially since the end of 2019 (when Bushiroad took over), to the point they no longer need touring talent to fill out the cards. To make matters worse, many of their regular foreigners are now signed with Western promotions. Every previous champion has been at least a proven part time member of the roster when they won the title.

Beyond that, the only other person in Stardom who could be recognised as a non-Japanese champion is Giulia, who is English born with Italian heritage. That, or booking Syuri to lose and regain the title on a rematch would buy them some time. Syuri’s reign is approaching 400 days, which is lengthy but still well shy of Toni’s record. They can keep things crawling along until the borders open up and Stardom have access to foreign talent again.

Syuri defending her SWA Title against Unagi Sayaka via KO. Credit: Stardom

At present, it would seem like the SWA Championship is a belt without direction or purpose. Yet if they were going to retire the title, it would have made sense to have done so already. Nobody would have questioned the decision to leave it vacated after Jamie couldn’t return, even if they planned to bring it back once the pandemic had cleared.

Somehow in spite of all of this, Syuri has managed to raise the perceived value of the title. It has arguably never been more important than right now.

Syuri’s decision to represent the Philippines might primarily be for the sake of giving her challengers, but in doing so she framed it as representing her late mother, who passed away mere months before she won the championship. When Syuri enters the ring for an SWA Championship match, she’s not just defending a belt, but defending her mother and her own lineage.

She values the championship, even with one eye firmly on Utami and the World of Stardom Championship. It seems like an obvious story, but of all the prior champions, Syuri is the first who has approached defending the championship as being akin to defending her heritage. Bea was calling herself the ‘Top Gaijin’ but it was mostly resigned to a catchphrase, and neither her nor Jamie had time to do much with the title anyway. Io and Utami were too busy juggling all their other titles to really care about the belt’s value, and Toni and Viper both being foreigners only weighed into who they faced, not the stories told as champion.

Syuri in the closing moments of a successful defence against AZM. Credit: Stardom

It’s a championship that has suffered the reputation of being ‘just another belt’, both to its challengers and champions. Syuri’s reign has been filled with predictable results, but she’s the first to really stamp an identity and purpose onto the belt. As champion she helped draw mainstream attention to Stardom thanks to her match with Utami Hayashishita, and was champion as she stood in the middle of Ota Ward and was crowned the 5 Star GP winner. Syuri could have fallen into the trap others faced as the belt was surrounded by other accolades, but the SWA Championship never felt overshadowed.

It’s also helped that her main rivals to the belt during this time have been AZM and Konami, two incredibly talented performers that fans have wanted to see in important matches. AZM finally getting to step up to an important singles championship represents a key step forward in her career, while Konami’s history with Syuri has added weight to their confrontations.

It’s not just her main rivals. Syuri’s defence against Unagi Sayaka went a long way to show Unagi’s growth as a competitor and determination as a fighting underdog. Drawing with the Wonder of Stardom Champion Giulia helped raise the perceived value of the SWA World Championship comparative to the other titles in Stardom, while also helping affirm Giulia’s in ring ability.

The SWA Championship has never felt more relevant in Stardom than right now. It’s not because Syuri is more legitimate than any other champion, but because she’s sought to make the title more legitimate. She fiercely defends the belt, leaving every challenger licking their wounds after brutal strikes and painful submissions. She defends the title with pride, for both her Filipino heritage and the mother she lost but still loves. The person who finally claims the title from her won’t just win a belt to wear, they’ll claim a championship that someone gave everything they could to retain.

The lack of viable contenders to dethrone Syuri and provide match-ups with the rest of the roster has and continues to be a problem. However, the pandemic should have been a death sentence for what already felt like a superfluous championship. Instead, Syuri did what those before her couldn’t: she brought prestige and meaning to the title. In doing so she gave that title what it has so desperately craved since its inception: value. When Japan’s doors open back up, who knows what possibilities await the SWA Undisputed Women’s World Championship?