Stardom 2021: A Year in Review

Another year has come and gone in a particularly wild year of professional wrestling. The COVID pandemic has not abated, continuing to affect the industry worldwide. One promotion that has seemingly taken this challenge head on however, is World Wonder Ring Stardom.

As the clock ticked over to 2021, it felt as though Stardom was primed to do big things. The previous year had been a success in spite of everything thrown at it – with the top of the card rebuilding amid restricted crowds and a schedule that was constantly at risk of changes. The pandemic might have still been looming and affecting the box office, but heading into the new year Stardom had a slew of young up-and-coming talent poised to cement themselves.

The overhaul of Stardom’s main event scene during a time of substantial growth cannot be understated. When the company returned from lockdowns in June 2020, they essentially had one established main eventer in Mayu Iwatani. For the entirety of 2021 Mayu only challenged for a top championship once, and the only times she main evented one of their PPV events was on the opening night of the 5 Star Grand Prix tournament, and in December as part of the Osaka Artists of Stardom Title tournament, where she wasn’t even explicitly advertised to headline.

The success of Stardom through 2021 has come off the back of the growth of new stars and the reinvention of seasoned performers, resulting in a total team effort. During this time not only has the in-ring product shone, but the business side as well.

Unagi Sayaka makes her entrance in the Cinderella Tournament. Credit: Stardom

Growing the Business and the Stars

“The Numbers don’t lie” said one famous chain mail-wearing freak, and it certainly rings true for Stardom. By every metric this has been an incredible year. Total attendance was at an all time high at 47 thousand people, placing it third for all Japanese promotions behind only DragonGate and NJPW. They have two of their three best all time single show attendances, both reaching 3000+ people. By comparison, just two years ago Stardom was the seventh most attended promotion in the country.

The numbers are comparable when going head-to-head with the big promotions as well. On the same week in September DragonGate, NJPW, and Stardom all ran Ota Ward Gymnasium, with Stardom drawing the biggest attendance of the three. Then in November Stardom outdrew Pro Wrestling NOAH at Yoyogi National Gymnasium on the same weekend.

Korakuen Hall used to be the prize jewel on the calendar, but with Stardom growing into monthly arena shows the venue has been mostly relegated to above-average matchcards. Despite their reduced importance, they continue to sell out the venue. Yes Covid restrictions have reduced maximum allowed attendance, but they are still drawing the kinds of numbers that were considered the norm at the same venue a few years back – for shows that were treated as ‘big’ back then and had no such restrictions. Other familiar venues like ShinKiba 1st ring are now basically unusable because they’re too small, with venues like Takadanobaba becoming the new go-to in Tokyo.

As mentioned earlier, this success has come off the back of a company that has been growing new stars throughout the year. Utami Hayashishita entered the year as a young and inexperienced champion, and finished as one of the best big match wrestlers in the world. For most of the year Tam Nakano was the other top champion, having dethroned Giulia in March and finally getting the chance to be a company leader.

She too stepped up to the pressures of a top star, providing the emotional backbone of the company, serving as a strong contrast to the more even keeled and business-like Utami. Tam was also front and centre for the continued improvement of her two new recruits from the end of 2020. Unagi Sayaka and Mina Shirakawa were thrown into the deep end from the start, but from those fires forged two quality performers who fill important roles within the roster.

Meanwhile Oedo Tai reinvented several key new members. Ruaka went from the definition of a background character who was in and out of shows, to one of the most improved of 2021 and an ironwomen wrestling more than most of the roster (which seemed impossible just a year ago). Starlight Kid’s turn to the dark side was the talk of the town for the second half of the year, with a transformation that took a young star with boundless potential into one of the key figures on the roster. She then helped Momo Watanabe embrace the darkness, who finished the year with a bang betraying the faction she led to be with the cool kids.

Leader Natsuko Tora also seemed to find the right balance to her character, going from one of the weak points of 2020 to a highlight of one of the biggest stories of the year. She found the right mix of heelish antics in the ring and proved herself as perhaps the best talker on the microphone. Everyone who has joined Oedo Tai this year has seen significant growth in their character work and overall presentation, and the faction as a whole is the strongest its been since the much lauded glory days of Kagetsu and Hana Kimura – despite dealing with major injuries.

The wars between factions have produced many of the big overarching story beats of the year. Oedo Tai has been front and centre for much of that, but the Cosmic Angels/STARS Civil War opened the year strong, while internal struggles within Donna Del Mondo and Cosmic Angels in the second half of the year kept momentum and interest strong. Many of these stories have allowed the performers to showcase their character work, giving them more to work with than just “I want your title”.

Mayu Iwatani, already one of the best wrestlers in the world, showcased how good she is as a storyteller. She spent much of the year on the back foot and it made for compelling viewing. Meanwhile everybody from Donna Del Mondo got a chance to shine at some point, whether it was Giulia’s constant antagonising or the tension between Himeka and Natsupoi.

A special shoutout also needs to go to Lady C, who has shown considerable growth despite remaining the sole member on the roster without a faction. With less than a year’s experience she found herself performing at Metlife Dome as part of Stardom’s NJPW showcase matches. It could have highlighted how inexperienced she is, but instead it demonstrated just how far she’s come. Now fans are clamouring to see what’s next for the tallest member of the roster after finally finding a home amidst Queen’s Quest.

Utami Hayashishita with the World of Stardom Championship. Credit: Stardom

Champions and Championships

When the focus has strayed from factions and onto championship gold, long term storytelling has been the name of the game. Titles rarely changed over the year. Utami Hayashishita held the World of Stardom Championship for 409 days, missing out by days on surviving all of 2021 as champion. Tam Nakano lasted over 300 days as Wonder of Stardom Champion before falling to Saya Kamitani. Syuri took care of the SWA World Title in the absence of any viable new champions, adding the Goddess of Stardom titles in April alongside Giulia and then claiming the World of Stardom Title from Utami.

Both Syuri and Saya’s journey towards the top have been long ones, built up on and off over the course of many months, adding impact to that moment when they finally were crowned. Their journeys also highlighted the value of Stardom’s major tournaments, Saya and Syuri won the Cinderella Tournament and 5 Star Grand Prix respectively, setting them up for greatness as they lifted championships up on the final show of the year. These tournaments have been breeding grounds for performers looking to rise the ranks, and winners have constantly turned tournament success to championship success, even if not immediately.

Even the normally tumultuous Artist of Stardom Championships saw an unusual amount of stability, with Cosmic Angels setting records in number of defences and reign length before MaiHimePoi captured the gold and endured a brief but effective ‘will they break up’ angle. Only the Future of Stardom Championship really bounced around, with five different wrestlers holding the title in 2021.

It’s a year where champions felt nearly unbeatable, but that wasn’t always the case. It’s easy to forget now, but in the first few months of 2021 there were questions about whether Utami Hayashishita could be the kind of top champion Stardom needed. Two consecutive PPVs were headlined by other championship matches, and even Utami noted the internal struggle she felt because of this in interviews.

The questions were a little unfair, though not without some merit. At the Nippon Budokan Tam Nakano closing out a multiple year story by finally besting Giulia was a far bigger story than Utami facing off against her relatively inexperienced tag partner. Then in Yokohama the all-DDM Tag Title match might not have had a lot of story behind it, but if they had closed the show on Bea’s departure announcement, it might have dropped the audience’s mood.

It was also during this period that Utami Hayashishita proved herself in the ring. She had strong title matches against proven stars like Mayu and Momo Watanabe to close 2020, but through the first half of 2021 she didn’t have that luxury. Her first defences were against Maika, Saya Kamitani, and Bea Priestley. Neither Maika or Saya were experienced in that main event singles position, and while Bea was a former champion she wasn’t guaranteed to draw or put on a great match.

Through these battles Utami started to change the narrative surrounding her, proving her worth as a top champion and performer. Her match against Kamitani in particular was a huge turning point for both young stars, who defied the expectations of a ‘disappointing’ title match on the biggest show of the year.

Then came June. Then came Syuri. Then came 5.5 stars according to Dave Meltzer and the subsequent attention something like that garners for a company that isn’t WWE, AEW, or NJPW. Is it the greatest Stardom match of all time? Where the Ota Ward draw sits on that list is up for debate, but it is hard to argue against it being the most important match in Stardom’s history.

Domestically Stardom had been growing since Bushiroad took over, but this match helped draw global attention, bringing it forward from a niche foreign brand to a promotion being discussed on a global scale alongside the American heavyweights and New Japan Pro Wrestling. Subscriptions for Stardom World skyrocketed in the immediate aftermath, just one of many areas that saw noticeable record numbers in other areas like Youtube and domestic fan club members.

Now there was no doubting 23-year-old Utami’s ability to be a top champion, something they will no doubt return to in the future. She thrived under the pressure, reigning as champion during record levels of success. The June war and subsequent December victory also solidified Syuri’s position. She had been heavily protected since her debut with Stardom in early 2020, but her versatility as a character with one of the strongest years of in-ring performance resulted in a challenger everyone wanted to see succeed.

Giulia and Konami at Ryogoku Hall. Credit: Stardom

Bad Luck and Sad Departures

For all of the immense success Stardom has enjoyed, it hasn’t been a perfect year. Injuries have been looming over the promotion for most of 2021, with many striking at particularly inopportune times.

Natsuko Tora had started to find real success as Oedo Tai’s leader off the back of the STARS feud as she guided their new prize acquisition Starlight Kid, only to find herself on the injury list minutes into the biggest match of her career, her knee giving out during her World of Stardom Title match. Despite the immense pain and disappointment she was feeling, she still had the wherewithal to cut a promo while being helped onto a stretcher, and has continued to show her face in the shadows as her faction has grown.

Earlier in the year Saya Iida tore her ACL after a bad landing from a simple move, forcing her to vacate the Future of Stardom Championship. Just prior to the injury everything had started to click for Iida, making serious strides inside the ring as STARS’ musclebound enforcer. Himeka had to miss the entirety of the period between the two major singles tournaments to deal with an ongoing back injury, limiting the momentum she could have built upon after a strong Cinderella showing. Fellow Donna Del Mondo member Giulia was forced to pull out of the 5 Star Grand Prix, and subsequently missed the last quarter of 2021, returning only in time for the final show. Konami also missed much of the end of the year, and Giulia’s return match marked Konami’s last for the foreseeable future, as she takes a hiatus to deal with her poor health.

It wasn’t just major injuries that wreaked havoc with Stardom. Performers like Maika, Natsupoi, Mina Shirakawa, and Momo Watanabe all took weeks off to heal nagging injuries – which is both sad to see but encouraging from a certain perspective. In years past it wouldn’t be unusual to see 3/4s of the roster being held together by athletic tape as they work through ailments, but these short breaks are an encouraging sign that there is less pressure and expectation to work through injury and to instead take the breaks they need.

The roster is now deep enough that they can support people taking some time off for rest and recovery. This will be particularly important if they keep running as many shows as they are. For the first time Stardom performers cracked 100 matches in a single year, with Syuri, Momo Watanabe, Unagi Sayaka, and Utami Hayashishista all reaching triple figures, while many others sat just shy of that record.

There were less scheduling issues to arise from COVID-19 this year, but it still made its mark. Both major singles tournaments had to endure schedule changes, with the Cinderella Tournament most notably affected. In previous years it had been a one night event, but it was expanded to two shows in order to give matches more time to breathe. After COVID forced changes in the scheduling, the tournament took two full months to complete over three shows. When they finally reached the final, Saya’s coronation shared the stage alongside the Utami/Syuri war that had everyone talking, as well as the match that forced Starlight Kid to join Oedo Tai. It was an amazing achievement for Kamitani, but it was overshadowed at the time.

The final low was seeing three long-term Stardom wrestlers leave, with only one getting the chance to properly say goodbye. Top Gaijin Bea Priestley ended her Stardom run on a high with a hard hitting title match against Utami Hayashishita. Her resident status allowed her to return to Japan during the pandemic in 2020, but she felt called back home, signing with WWE and leaving in March. Her long-running angle with Momo Watanabe unfortunately never got a true resolution, though they and Utami hugged it out in the ring as she said a tearful goodbye was quite heartwarming.

The other two departures were Jungle Kyona and Natsu Sumire, both who never returned from their injuries in October of 2020. Natsu Sumire took an extended break from wrestling and is only now considering a return of some sort, and was quietly removed from the roster page on the same day that it was announced Jungle wouldn’t be returning. Kyona’s plan to return to the ring as a freelancer took a detour after needing to return to hospital to attend to complications, but it seems we haven’t seen the last of Jungle Power. All three will be missed, though Natsu’s unique brand of comedy and low card support is probably the hardest to organically replace.

Hazuki and Koguma both returned in 2021. Credit: Stardom

New Faces and Old Friends

In spite of these departures, Stardom ended up adding to its overall roster size. Cosmic Angels added two inexperienced wrestlers in Mai Sakurai and Waka Tsukiyama, hoping to replicate the success they saw with Mina and Unagi. Waka has quickly found a place, serving as something of a Hiromi Mimura 2.0 as the enthusiastic but under-leveled comedy act, while Mai hasn’t quite found her groove yet but is showing signs of improvement.

Likewise STARS saw a couple of much needed additions to bolster a team hanging on for dear life after injuries and Oedo Tai’s handy work. The reinforcements came in the form of Stardom alumni; Koguma and Hazuki, the latter serving as a huge shock after what seemed to be a less than amicable split at the end of 2019. Everyone knew Hazuki could still go after her appearance at the Hana Kimura MATANE memorial show, and she even hinted at a return to the ring, but Stardom seemed off limits. When she entered the ring during a suspiciously live streamed show at Shiodome, everyone stood up and took notice. Now she’s back as good as ever and seemingly enjoying wrestling once more.

Side note, if Stardom ever randomly streams an event on Youtube like this again, it’s not to be missed.

Hazuki and Koguma brought some much needed life into STARS, taking little time to fit back into the picture, finding a home near the top of the card and even winning the World Tag League together. They’re well-positioned for a strong 2022, and once Saya Iida returns STARS will be at its strongest since the pandemic began.

There are two more arrivals in Stardom, though they technically didn’t reveal themselves until after the new year. Masked assailants started attacking some of the lower card wrestlers at big events, and on Christmas Day Mayu and Tam joined forces to superkick the mask off one of them. Giulia was the apparent mastermind, and joining her in an already stacked faction is Thekla (from Ice Ribbon) and Mirai (from TJPW). Both made an instant impression upon their debut and it won’t take long for them to seem right at home. Stardom shows have also been boosted by the continued support of Marvelous, with Takumi Iroha making several appearances and even competing in the 5 Star Grand Prix (which was of particular excitement to Saya Kamitani).

It’s easy to forget, but this is the same year that opened with SEAdLINNNG’s Yoshiko and Nanae Takashashi reappearing in Stardom. Hazuki’s return might have been a surprise, but Yoshiko back in a Stardom ring seemed even more unlikely, having been persona non grata since The Ghastly Match against Act Yaskuawa that eventually led to both departing.

Both returned in one off appearances at the All Star Dream Cinderella show inside the Nippon Budokan, which celebrated 10 years of Stardom as well as Joshi in general. Yoshiko endured injuries to make it, taking time off after her war with old friend Mayu Iwatani, while Nanae Takahashi and Momo Watanabe tried to kick each other’s head off. Yuzuki Aikawa came back and essentially handed over the gravure wrestler crown to the next generation in Unagi, Emi Sakura appeared with her ChocoPro crew in tow, and other Stardom legends like Hiroyo Matsumoto and Hiromi Mimura returned as part of the celebrations.

It was a show that felt like ‘the night’ for Stardom, building to that moment for months, but in many ways it was merely the beginning of a new chapter.

The World of Stardom title match between Utami Hayashishita and Saya Kamitani didn’t feel like a worthy match for their biggest title on their biggest show at the time, however they more than exceeded expectations. Saya proved herself worthy of their push, setting her up nicely for her Cinderella Tournament win, while Utami proved she didn’t need the established top stars to produce gold. Unagi Sayaka was at the tail end of her 7 match trial series, and winning the Battle Royale was a turning point in her legitimacy as a wrestler. Tam and Giulia brought their storied feud to its high point, with a MOTYC and key character moments for both competitors. It was a celebration of the past, but a look into the future as well.

Their hard work has put them in a position where running the Nippon Budokan and other big venues is almost expected now. They’ve accomplished this without burning through all of their marquee matchups as well. Utami’s reign lasted over 400 days, but they still haven’t touched the highly anticipated Utami vs Giulia matchup. Syuri as champion opens up a bunch of new headline matchups, and Mayu Iwatani toiling away in the midcard for a year means any return to the main event picture will feel long awaited. Stardom have plenty of big matches they can run that will feel fresh and worthy of an arena setting.

Giulia losing her hair and her Wonder of Stardom Title. Credit: Stardom

Conclusions, Predictions and Awards

By just about every metric it could be argued 2021 was the most successful year in Stardom’s history. In terms of in-ring quality, shows have never felt as strong from top to bottom like they do now. The best example of this was the 5 Star Grand Prix, where for two full months shows were stacked with high quality singles matches, adding to an already long list of MOTY candidates from Stardom. Business-wise they are succeeding in every area. While many of their Joshi contemporaries struggle to stay afloat, Stardom have shown significant growth (and they didn’t have to cut 80 wrestlers to make their financials look good). The future is looking as strong as ever. Their young talent still has room to grow like they did in 2021 while setting record numbers. As restrictions ease those numbers can continue to grow.

After such a banner year, what can we expect from Stardom in 2022? There’s a mostly fresh slate of champions which means new match-ups at the top of the card. Syuri’s veteran experience should provide a strong balance while Saya Kamitani grows into her role as a top singles champion. Faction vs Faction battles will probably dominate the first couple of months before Stardom return to Ryogoku Hall for back-to-back shows in March, and by then the direction for the rest of the year will likely become clear. The key will be whether restrictions lift on audience numbers, audience interactions, and the big question: when will borders open up and foreign talent can be involved again?

That’s the future though, and regardless of what happens it won’t change the success Stardom have enjoyed in 2021. To close, it’s time to highlight a couple of standouts.

Wrestler of the Year: Syuri

Runners up: Utami Hayashishita, Starlight Kid

There may never have been a better single year of wrestling inside a Stardom ring than the year Syuri has had in 2021. Her wars with Utami Hayashishita have helped shine an international light on the company like never before. That alone would put her in the running, but she also put forth a near flawless 5 Star Grand Prix tournament run (forcing me to make two separate best match lists just to make it fair to everyone else). She consistently turned in top tier showings against a variety of opponents, topping it off by pulling double duty against Takumi Iroha and Momo Watanabe, two matches on the shortlist for Stardom’s MOTY. Then there was her SWA Title run, putting on wonderful matches against AZM, Konami and others while making a troubled title actually feel important.

Syuri’s not just my Stardom Wrestler of the Year. Syuri’s not just my Women’s Wrestler of the Year. She’s just straight up my Wrestler of the Year.

Match of the Year: Utami Hayashishita vs Syuri (Tokyo Dream Cinderella, 6.12)

Runners up: Momo Watanabe vs Syuri (5 Star Grand Prix Final, 9.25), Saya Kamitani vs Tam Nakano (Dream Queendom, 12.29)

In a year with countless incredible matches, it’s hard to pick just one. Just from the 5 Star Grand Prix alone there are a bevvy of matches that could have won the honour in any other year. In terms of sheer impact and importance however, it’s impossible to look past Utami Hayashishita versus Syuri from June. It means too much for the company. For thirty minutes these two went to war, and then agreed to keep going for another thirteen because they weren’t content with a draw. It was a career defining match and even if they go on to have better matches technically, they might not matter as much as this one.

Most Improved: Unagi Sayaka

Runners up: Saya Kamitani, Ruaka

In a year with a lot of wrestlers enjoying great growth, Unagi stands out as having defied expectations. Working as a low card wrestler in TJPW, her arrival in Stardom didn’t excite too many, and early signs seemed to suggest she would be pushed despite her ability. In a few short months however Unagi started to change the narrative. Her 7 match trial series defined her gimmick as a fiery underdog, which constantly developed into an almost needless defiant wild one that hints back to the legacy of the Kabukimono. On top of that, her in ring skill improved exponentially, until she was able to hang in the semi main event of a PPV title match against her leader Tam Nakano. Many have taken considerable steps forward in 2021, but none have been more dramatic.

Character of the year: Starlight Kid

Runners Up: Unagi Sayaka, Tam Nakano

It would be easy to just point at the Darkside Kid transformation as the reason Starlight Kid won this award, and even on that alone she’s made such an impact that the award would probably still be hers. But doing so would ignore the key developments she made initially in the Cosmic Angels/STARS war as she fiercely stood against Tam and her recruits, and then the effects of her February Wonder of Stardom Title match against Giulia that enraged her.

It all led to a young star who embraced the darkness, and emerged as a performer you cannot take your eyes off for a moment. Her mannerisms, her mic work, even her wrestling has all grown thanks to her new persona, and she added one of the coolest gimmicks to her arsenal as she humiliates fallen opponents by masking them. Starlight Kid truly arrived in 2021.

Who to watch for in 2022: Momo Watanabe

Runners Up: Hazuki, Thekla

Momo Watanabe is great. We already knew that, but she had been struggling to stand out amidst the influx of new talent and growth. She ended the year betraying her Queen’s Quest stable to join Oedo Tai, and suddenly the hottest story in Stardom is her against her former friends. The new attitude will allow her to tap into her more vicious side, which is when she’s always shone brightest previously, and will bring a new twist to matches she’s already had. Expect the first few months of 2022 to revolve at least partially around Momo, and she can use that to launch into a dominant year if the cards fall right.