The Phoenix Rises: Saya Kamitani’s Journey from Struggling Idol to Soaring Wrestler

With one year and four month’s worth of pro wrestling experience, Saya Kamitani walked into the Tokyo Dome alongside her Queen’s Quest sisters to represent Stardom at Wrestle Kingdom 15, winning the match with a spectacular Phoenix Splash. It wasn’t her first time performing inside the Dome, but it was her first time as a wrestler. It marked the beginning of a banner year for the young performer, her 2021 punctuated by a series of spotlight moments. Stardom put faith in their Golden Phoenix, and each time Saya Kamitani rose to the occasion, culminating in an emotional battle against her mentor Tam Nakano inside the hallowed Ryogoku Hall.

“Kamitani, we were both Idols, so you understand when I say this, right? Only one person can be the centre.” This was the warning Tam passed down to her challenger ahead of that December 29th Wonder of Stardom Championship match. The comments weren’t just a callback to Saya’s pre-wrestling life, but spoke to a desire that had eaten her up inside for years as she struggled to see her hard work pay off.

Like her biggest rival Tam Nakano, Saya Kamitani’s journey to being a key part of the biggest women’s promotion in the world has been a fascinating one. She started off in dance and gymnastics, going so far as to place second in a World Championship in Las Vegas. Transitioning into idol work, Saya spent time working with Baito AKB – an offshoot of the legendary AKB48 troupe. It was short-lived, however, only spending five months with the group before ‘graduating’.

In an interview with ShuPro (Weekly Wrestling) she spoke of how it was made clear to her that there was only so far she could go as an idol. Despite being a natural dancer, her taller and more muscular frame often pushed her to the 3rd or 4th row while the “thinner, cuter girls” got front and centre. No matter how hard she worked, it didn’t seem to get her anywhere. As she failed to find more work in the idol industry, she began to despise herself, with her body being at the forefront of it all.

Baito AKB – Saya is in the back row, third from the right. Credit: Nihongogo

She knew idol work wasn’t right for her and she wasn’t right for it. It was through this avenue though that she would discover pro wrestling. Saya signed up to join Stardom Angels, a short-lived idol experiment headed up by Tam Nakano, and was introduced to a crazy world she knew nothing about.

The same height and muscular frame that had hindered her work as an idol would earn her praise as a professional wrestler. She could use the very thing that had previously hurt her.

Stardom Idols didn’t last, but her and fellow idol trainee Itsuki Hoshino stayed on board to train as full time wrestlers. From her debut against Momo Watanabe it was clear Stardom had something special in Saya Kamitani, and they knew it. Debuting within months of Hoshino and another rookie Saya Iida, it felt like the taller Saya was immediately placed at the top of the line. She demanded the audience’s attention, dancing her way to the ring when most rookies simply walk, and pulling off running shooting star presses when the others never went flashier than a dropkick.

Stardom has never been afraid to draw upon the idol industry in its business model and presentation. As a result, Saya felt like a gift. Her youthful image, her colourful costume, her bubbly but bashful personality was a mix that would get over with the crowd quickly, and while her hyper athletic moves were often erratic and ineffective early on, it certainly was eye-catching. Under the tutelage of Tam Nakano, Kamitani was well-situated to rise through the ranks quickly as their own wrestling idol.

Saya teaming with her mentor Tam Nakano. Credit: Stardom

Then, just four months into her career, Saya Kamitani took a hard left turn. After an unsuccessful challenge for Utami Hayashishita’s Future of Stardom Championship in February, she was presented with the chance to choose which faction she would join. It seemed obvious that Saya would be with STARS. They were the natural good girls with a cleancut image, and it was there that Tam was second in command. Of all the groups, STARS seemed best suited to her style.

Instead, she joined Queen’s Quest. Originally formed by Io Shirai in 2016 and then under the leadership of Momo Watanabe, the group didn’t concern themselves with the flashiness of STARS. They were a focused, serious unit that prided themselves on being the very best wrestlers in Stardom, pushing each other to be the better out of fear of being left behind.

They were a group of prodigies. Joining at 23 years old, Saya was somehow the oldest member of the group. Utami Hayashishita was 21, Momo Watanabe 19, and AZM was only 17 (yet she was also the most experienced). Choosing Queen’s Quest as her new home felt like a statement: she wasn’t going to settle for just being an idol-like wrestler, she wanted to push herself to be more.

“I’ve been trying to follow in Utami-san’s footsteps since I was a trainee,” Saya told Utami in between tears. It makes sense, any rookie would dream of an early career like the Super Rookie Hayashishita, and Saya’s early success had people pegging her as the next runaway star like Utami. That desire drove her to endure the hardships of training and make it to the ring, and she’d use that desire to keep pushing her further. Once the new member was approved by group senpai AZM, she was welcomed into Queen’s Quest.

Her fellow former Stardom Idol Itsuki Hoshino chose to join STARS, wishing to surpass Saya rather than just stand next to her. Tam Nakano had secured one of her two, but there was a lingering bitterness as she watched Saya embrace her new team. She had helped Saya get here after all.

Saya as part of AphroditE alongside Utami Hayashishita. Credit: Stardom

Saya would have to wait to start wrestling with Queen’s Quest. She joined the group on February 16th, which ended up being the last show before COVID threw the schedule out the window for months. However it did give her time to prepare an image change. When June rolled around Saya had ditched the frilly lime green and pink attire she started in, debuting a more amazonian look to match her new tag partner Utami Hayashishita, together forming AphroditE. Her high energy dance routine was soon dropped for a more measured, albeit still performative, entrance.

This was still the same excitable Kamitani at heart. She remained more boisterous and emotional than the rest of the more stoic Queen’s Quest stable. The high risk offence that had defined her rookie year only continued to grow, helping her stand out against the entire roster. As she gained more experience, her flashy moveset started to land more consistently. Once she mastered the formerly erratic Running Shooting Star Press, she began to experiment more and more. She added a majestic springboard crossbody to her arsenal, as well as the Phoenix Splash, and the Star Crusher – a kind of Fisherman’s Driver.

2020 felt like a big year of growth for Saya Kamitani, and it was. She solidified herself as one of the five to be crowned Stardom’s Golden Generation, and had her boss speaking of a future where she would be main eventing for the top title. In hindsight however it was merely a precursor. She won only three of her fifteen singles matches, and although she enjoyed tag team gold with Utami Hayashishita, there was no doubt as to who was the stronger of the two.

It would be the following year where the true reach of Stardom’s Phoenix would be realised.

The first big moment was winning the showcase match at Wrestle Kingdom with the Phoenix Splash. The only other time she had stood inside the Tokyo Dome was to perform as a backup dancer for EXILE while she was still in high school. This time, even though she shared the ring with the World of Stardom Champion Utami Hayashishita, she was no backup performer. She stood tall getting the pinfall.

Flying through the air at Metlife Dome. Credit: Stardom

She would find herself in another big match with Utami just a couple of months later, but this time it was on opposite sides of the ring. At the All-Star Dream Cinderella inside the Nippon Budokan, a little over a year since Saya had fallen short of beating her for the Future of Stardom Championship, she was challenging Utami for the World of Stardom Championship.

It was an oppourtunity that felt early to many fans. Saya was improving, but was she ready for a match of that magnitude? On a show that was billed as one of the biggest in Stardom’s history, Saya wasn’t even 18 months into her career and getting a shot at the top title.

Saya had dreamed of being the centre back in her Idol days but never got it. She wasn’t going to waste the chance now. This was the match that announced to the world that Saya Kamitani wasn’t to be underestimated. She didn’t get the win (though she came tantalisingly close with a recently perfected hurricarana pin she would use to great effect throughout 2021) but in defeat she had silenced the doubters.

The next step was to win a big one on her own. Heading into the single elimination Cinderella Tournament, Saya Kamitani was one of the favourites. It is a tournament that is often used to announce the next big star of the company, with former winners including Giulia, Arisa Hoshiki, and Momo Watanabe all using it as a platform to win championship gold.

At the end of the tournament awaiting the winner was a dress and a wish. Anything you want. When Saya powered her way through the competition to be crowned Cinderella in June, there was no question what she wanted for her wish. She had challenged for the Red Belt and failed, but it wasn’t the title that would truly suit her. That was the Wonder of Stardom Championship.

That was Tam Nakano’s Championship.

Saya Kamitani in a ceremonial dress as the Cinderella Tournament winner. Credit: Stardom

The two titles hold two very distinctive flavours. The Red Belt is one of technique, but the White Belt is a title of passion. It’s an idea that Tam has pushed to great length during her reign because of how important she believes passion is to wrestling. It’s a notion that Kamitani also shares. She’s an emotional wrestler. “Women’s professional wrestling has a lot of emotions compared to the boys, and I think it’s important.” she told Number Magazine. What she needed to do was learn to harness that.

She wished to surpass her master in July, but she fell short. After defeating Tam in the 5 Star Grand Prix however, Saya set herself up for another title shot, which she would get in December.

Kamitani had a different mindset going in to the rematch. In July she was trying to overtake her mentor and was fighting from underneath. Now, she believed she had already overtaken Tam. She had reason to believe that too. Despite losing the July title match, she held the 3-2 record over the champion. She had grown beyond her, and as a result the title was an inevitability. “The White Belt looks better on me.”

She had grown and she had overcome her demons. Tam had told her that she didn’t understand her own weakness, but at the press conference ahead of their rematch Saya spoke of how she had “faced every part of her that she hated”. It wasn’t just learning to understand her emotions, but it went back to all those years prior when Kamitani had learned to hate her body for ruining her idol dreams

The change in mindset in just five short months meant heading into Ryogoku Hall Saya Kamitani was a very different challenger to the one Tam Nakano had defeated before. It was a growth the champion even acknowledged. It’s what Tam had always wanted to see – despite Saya choosing to carve her own path away from her she still held a special place in her heart for the youngster she had brought up through Stardom Idols. That was never clearer than when she stood at ringside, her smile beaming from ear to ear, as she watched Kamitani’s coronation as the Cinderella Tournament winner.

Inside Ryogoku Hall Saya Kamitani wrestled the best match of her career. All of Tam Nakano’s title defences follow a certain pattern, but Saya forced the match to be wrestled more to her style. The emotion heavy slugfests were there, but more often than not Kamitani pushed the match to a faster pace, utilising the space both in and outside the ring to her advantage.

Still, she needed a bit of luck on her side, because Tam wasn’t giving up her title easily. Tam caught Saya in her finishing combination of the Violet Screwdriver and the Twilight Dream Suplex, only to throw her opponent too close to the ropes and allowing a rope break. Expelling the last of her energy in that attempt to finish things, she was unable to withstand a final onslaught. Saya Kamitani finished the match and the year the same way she started it: soaring through the air with a Phoenix Splash to win the biggest match of her career.

Through all of Saya Kamitani’s career there’s one thing that she has repeated several times. As an idol, it didn’t matter how hard she worked – she would never be able to get ahead of those who were a bit smaller and a bit cuter. Effort didn’t hold her back, it was outside of her control. When she decided to become a wrestler, Tam Nakano told her it’d be different here. How much work you put in will determine how far you get. For Saya Kamitani, she put in a lot of effort, working hard to learn moves like the Phoenix Splash that would stand out. She had found an industry that rewarded the time she put in.

In her post match interview, with the Wonder of Stardom Championship she had worked so hard for in hand, she repeated this sentiment.

“When I was an idol, I gave so, so much effort all the time and got nothing for it, the more I tried, the more scared I became. But if you put in that effort with pro wrestling, it will pay you back.”

Kamitani might have become a pro wrestler, but elements of her idol upbringing still ring true. Tam Nakano told her that only one of them can be the centre. On that night, Saya Kamitani stood in the centre of the ring, with everyone’s eyes on her. She had finally achieved her dream.

Tam Nakano putting the Wonder of Stardom Championship around Saya Kamitani’s waist. Credit: Stardom