There is perhaps no woman wrestling anywhere that is on Io Shirai’s level. I haven’t even seen her matches in Stardom yet, just going by what I’ve seen in WWE. But, that’s why I’m here now, wondering how her past work stands compared to what I have already seen. I’m familiar enough with her pirate princess friend, be it her time as Kairi Hojo, Kari Sane, or simply KAIRI. But what about Io?
I would have stated that there would be no way Io Shirai could top her excellent, amazing matches on NXT, but with her, I can tell I’d be proven wrong within an instant.
What I Know
As stated earlier, I know Shirai was the resident high-flying ace of the black-and-gold brand and stands accomplished even in the tie-dye splattered NXT. I’ve seen her go toe-to-toe with Shayna Baszler, Toni Storm and Candice LeRae, and become the NXT Women’s Champion. I’ve seen her jump from the top rope in some tight jeans and high-heels. Clearly this woman isn’t human, and if she is, she isn’t mortal. There’s something inside her that lives on a different level entirely.
She’s also sensationally sassy and ready to clap back at haters, like the racist fan that told her to “go back to China”, to which she replied “I’m Japanese, bitch.” And then she naturally proceeded to do the splits. I repeat, a different level.
I hear so many great things about Shirai outside of WWE. That she’s always been an incredible performer with the intangible “it” factor that puts her among other Japanese women in the game today.
Recently, I discovered that before her time in the amazing Queen’s Quest stable, Shirai was also involved in Heisei-Gun, alongside Mayu Iwatani, Takumi Iroha, Hazuki, and Yoshiko. This will come into play later. I also know she’s performed with Iwatani and KAIRI in the now-defunct Lucha Underground, teammates as The Black Lotus Triad. Not going to lie, I kind of want to cover the series. Totally sad I missed out on that too. I know, I suck.
I’m excited to dip in and discover the Genius of the Sky when she was unbound by gravity’s tether, now anchored by the WWE machine.
Io Shirai vs Meiko Satomura, December 23, 2015 (Stardom, Year End Climax)
What do you do when someone comes into your home, threatening to take away all that you have and that you worked for? What do you do when you want to protect your family before the damage has been done? Simple. You fight for it with everything that you have in your power. Io Shirai found herself at this crossroad when the legendary Meiko Satomura of Gaea Girls, Sendai Girls Pro Wrestling, Chikara, and WCW fame came a-knocking.
My knowledge of Meiko is little, bar from a match I once saw of her against Kana (now today’s Asuka), and her time so far in WWE’s NXT UK, where she reigns as champion.
In the past, however, as 2016 was looming overhead, Meiko held a different title. A red one. The World of Stardom Championship. As champion, Satomura put the Stardom roster on notice, as she fixed to run through all of them, including the best of the best. She defeated Kairi Hojo and absolutely demolished Mayu Iwatani, and now it was time for Shirai to get her ass beat.
To describe the visage of Meiko Satomura in all her aura and glory, she would best be described as a Thanos to Stardom’s Avengers. There’s a calmness to her, and it is eerie, as though she knows she can topple just about anyone with any bit of offense in her arsenal. She’s fought wars all over the world in the squared circle, and these little ants matter naught to her. She’s a goddess among the meaningless worms.
Io Shirai knows she may not survive this bout, but she has to try. The honor of her friends and her home is at stake. She knows this, and she avoids lock-up to retreat to outside of the ring.
After much time, the legend and the rookie finally lock-up. Satomura easily overpowers her foe, but she is not in control. Shirai was simply biding her time as she uses her youth and agility to work out of each maneuver. All she needed to do was hold on. That’s all, she just has to survive. It is upon her survival that Satomura is shaken. She is in the ring with a bull.
Meiko requirs a different approach, and to unlock a new level to her offense. She can’t go easy on this one. Unfortunately for Shirai, Satomura is resilient, even at her age. She’s fought women everywhere across many decades. But Shirai is a different woman entirely.
Youth surpasses age again, as Shirai tosses the veteran into the sea of people in Korakuen Hall, and in a staple of hers I’ve come to find from Stardom, she would moonsault off of the stairs entrance in the stands and come back up none the worse for wear.
In wrestling, sometimes the bravado and theatrics will cost talent the match, as they are caught up in the moment and savor it with us or against us fans. Never turn your back on an opponent, or you’ll come to regret it. It’s a great storytelling device at times, and it adds to it here, that Shirai is naive as she poses and rallies the crowd, and Satomura uses that to her advantage, catching her before she could do that mesmerizingly beautiful top-rope missile drop-kick – Satomura prevents this with an uppercut that merely and momentarily incapacitates Shirai.
The Genius of the Sky is able to develop a comeback, but Satomura remains tenacious and unforgiving. She is the nature of destruction and devastation, and she breaks Shirai. Over and over, she breaks her.
The Stardom Macrocosm chanting in the stands of Korakuen Hall called for Shirai to rise again, shouting her name as if to demand: “Show them who you are!” And she ascends repeatedly like a phoenix from the ashes.
Satomura is withstanding, for she is the oncoming storm and she lives the language of violence. Regardless, she faces a woman who ignores all the rushes of pain and fights with the same vigor she entered the match in. Shirai doesn’t have any quit in her.
Io Shirai rushes like a shot of adrenaline and finally uses her aerial-based offense at a speed that Satomura can’t keep up with. Is it happening? Is the Savior from the skies about to bring prestige to the brand again, against the one-woman army?
Not if the immortal soldier from the Sodom below the Heavens has anything to say about it. Each strike and kick rings to the gods as the cosmos is about to be rocked to oblivion in Satomura’s conquest.
By some divine destiny, by some force inside her, Shirai perseveres, deploying an elbow drop, as tribute to her friend Kairi, she finishes off the inevitable with a moonsault, and Stardom is saved. History is made. The Genius of the Sky outsmarted the more knowledgeable and experienced, and both women acknowledge the honor and respect between each other.
Io Shirai began this reign with the force required to fight for what was hers.
Hitokiri vs Pentagon Dark, October 4, 2016 (Lucha Underground, Season 3 Episode 13)
For this one, we are going outside of Japan. I’m not sure where exactly we are on the globe, so let’s just say Underground.
This was the final part of a gauntlet match in Lucha Underground, a match worth seeking out in its entirety. AEW’s Pentagon Jr. has dispatched Doku (KAIRI) and Yurei (Iwatani), and now it’s time for Shirai’s character, Hitokiri, to step up to the plate.
I admittedly do not know what is going on in the story at this point. I just know that Pentagon has survived and beaten two women, which feels like a horrible thing to type. But the presentation alone makes it feel that the lucha wrestler is about to have an unfortunate time.
Hitokiri’s music plays as Pentagon lies in wait. He watches for her, ready, or so he thinks. He’s not. She’s behind him and immediately gets the literal drop on him with a mind-blowing missile dropkick from the top turnbuckle. I’m not sure that is quite fair, but we are not above ground, so maybe the rules of the land don’t apply to her. Still, it’s suboptimal for him – he’s already having a bad day, it seems.
She uses herself as a weapon. She uses weapons as weapons. She uses acceleration and tables as weapons. By George, she’s even using the concrete beneath the ground as a weapon. I think Penta has had enough. She disagrees.
Somehow, he persists. Despite everything, he’s still going. With a name like Pentagon Dark, I wonder if he’s even supposed to be a good guy, but the man has been through the wringer, so I’m hoping for the best. Hitokiri seems like a horrible person and a dirty fighter. Shame on her.
Hitokiri’s brutal and unforgiving offense isn’t enough, for Penta has regained his bearings and he’s ready to go again, this time delivering hell upon the Japanese woman. It is her turn for punishment, and it is her turn to crash upon the embrace of the steel cheers lined up outside the ring.
Unsatisfied, Pentagon ties a rope around her neck and chokes her at a ringpost, and wields a chair with malicious intent. Maybe the Dark within him is arising, and now he savors ripping apart the woman who was labeled as the most dangerous member of the Black Lotus Triad.
It is here I am reminded that she is still that vicious woman at the start of the match. With the switch of a breath, she trips Penta onto a chair he set up specifically for her. Knowing that time is short, she runs to the highest balcony and to the chorus of fans, she jumps from it and nails her target, damn near hitting a superhero landing.
I ask this, at this point, why the hell do we not capitalize on the awesomeness of intergender wrestling? Even the fans want this business.
Hitokiri drags her opponent back into the ring, but he snatches the momentum as he tries a Package Piledriver, only for it to be reversed by a Canadian Destroyer, and for once (to my memory), it wins the match.
Hitokiri rejoices as her fallen Triad sisters descend with a woman who appears to be Black Lotus herself, ready to pick apart the defeated warrior. Black Lotus brutalizes both Penta and the referee, and she breaks his arm.
I think that’s a great stopping point here. I just wanted to visit this for a bit, and the lack of context may confuse me further. I simply need to watch Lucha Underground.
Io Shirai vs Mayu Iwatani, June 21, 2017 (Stardom, Korakuen Hall)
Important to note that this match comes at the end of a trilogy, and one you should absolutely watch.
It’s a story that starts in May of 2016, a match between friends and members of the stable Thunder Rock during Stardom’s annual Cinderella Tournament, and it is here where the gripes of the future can look back upon as to where the relationship went wrong. In this match, Io Shirai is ruthless and merciless to win. That’s the purpose, to put your all into something and let your work be shouted with warm regard from the heavens. This is the way she wrestles, with every part of her soul. Mayu Iwatani, however, wrestles in a more subdued way. Sure, she will try and try, but her love for wrestling varies from Shirai’s. She’s just happy to be there, and she’s happy to indulge in this hobby. Such aloofness will not do in Io Shirai’s ring and she torments her own friend until she fights back against the abuse. In the later half of this match, she nearly topples the Genius of the Sky. All for naught, as in the end, Shirai won, and all is well again.
Between this match and their later match ahead, a change occurred. Shirai isn’t stupid, she knows that Iwatani is holding back and could do so much more. Much like Ben Affleck’s character to Matt Damon’s in the film Good Will Hunting, Shirai craves, she yearns to see Iwatani push herself to be the ace and to be better. So much so that Shirai will sacrifice who she is, shifting her moral compass to see it. This was the genesis of the stable Queen’s Quest.
December brings the year’s end, as is the way of the world. In Korakuen Hall on December 22, Io Shirai and Mayu Iwatani would collide once more, as different women. Iwatani wore herself the way she always had, but Shirai was the same in name, style, and gear only. The brown hair made way for a blonde, and there was never any holding back. Shirai means death. Iwatani means anger and redemption. She fights with the rage of a sea combed through by a vicious storm, born of hurt and sadness. Ultimately, it was not enough, and again Shirai accuses Iwatani of not loving this business enough, and thus she will never take the red belt off of her.
But on June 21, 2017, Mayu declared things would be different. She would be different. This is the endgame. She will take the Red Belt, Io’s World of Stardom title.
On this hot summer night, Iwatani would show just how seriously she takes the art of wrestling. Shirai, under a scarlet hair style, draws first blood upon the first lock-up.
The Genius of the Sky toys with her opponent, as if she were presented with a level one boss in a video game. But Iwatani bursts like lightning, as the rain falls in her heart and she strikes in the way the storms had never struck her before, though they never held back. This time she is the storm. This time, she washes away the cheshire smile of Io Shirai.
With neck strained and confidence shaken, Io Shirai mounts an assault on her foe, a monster now awakened. Though met on equal footing at every turn, she isn’t going to give up her spot just like that. Her signature offense is fully on display here, right down to her godly missile dropkick from the top turnbuckle. She stops not there, but on the outskirts of the rings, in the stands of onlooking fans.
Such change in environment suits her ill, as Iwatani makes just as much out of the venue’s ribcage and dives from the heavens off a stairway balcony to Shirai. Somehow, someway, she survives this and staggers weakly through a twenty-count, beating it at seventeen. Right into the nest of an enraged animal. Dazed and crushed, she faces a hungry Iwatani who savors every taste of vengeance to satiate the heartbreak from months passed.
The match takes its toll on the women. A costly price to pay for relevancy and self-worth. This isn’t even a game of chess, a trial of psychology and mind games; this is two fighters, two eternal warriors living the truth of combat. They fight to withstand the other in this holy religion they share.
But that damn neck. That cursed neck forsaken by the god of war carries a dead weight on Shirai – her genius mind lobotomized and her wings of Icarus clipped. Her weakness shall not be forgiven, nor forgotten. Iwatani carries no sympathy and she targets that neck like it owes her 1,110,100 yen. I don’t know if that means a lot of money in Japanese, but I’m hoping it is, otherwise this is awkward.
No longer fighting with strength, intelligence, or charisma, Shirai instead persists on instinct alone, like muscle memory from who she is as a person. She’s fighting a different opponent now, not against Iwatani, but against the will to stay in this match.
Iwatani has long since proved she is on Shirai’s level and that she absolutely takes this seriously, that she lives for wrestling, that’s not the strings that are strummed during this song now. It’s a desperate crescend based on out of tune pianos and drums without the proper acoustics.
Shirai gains a brief reprieve and breathes again, borrowing from Kairi Hojo as she drops her elbow from the top rope and hold after hold she tries to rip victory from Iwatani, sailing from the majesty of her own moonsaults when even that fails.
She forgets one thing, that Mayu Iwatani is taking this seriously, and she’s fresher; she’s a fire burning, set to envelope and char all in her path.
A series of suplexes chips away at the armor of the once-proud Io Shirai until she cannot move. Mayu Iwatani gets the pin and is now the champion of the Red Belt. After all of that time, all of that heartache and struggle, she overcame the odds and she proved what she could do once she believed in herself.
Shirai congratulated her former friend, and asked her to defend it with her life, as she did during her reign. For now, Io had some things to take care of, and so began the process of Io Shirai’s end in Stardom and a new beginning in America.
It was in this finale that I found a tear sliding down my cheek and my chest tightened with emotion, a sensation I did not expect.
My Thoughts and Feelings
This section is being written in the aftermath of Io Shirai’s return at WWE’s SummerSlam 2022, under the new name of IYO SKYY. Initially it was thought that she would return to Japan, home to Stardom, and reunite to tell all sorts of stories with old friends and new foes. Maybe that is possible in the future, but for now, she has unfinished business as she has wanted to ascend to the main roster for some time.
I sought out to discover why Io Shirai was considered one of the best beyond WWE, and needless to say, I found out exactly why. She is an incredible performer and great at storytelling too. It’s no wonder why people want her back in Stardom. Yet, she’s where she feels she belongs at the moment, and at the right time, too. Following the departure of Vince McMahon, it still came as a shock. A Tokyo Shock if you will (Get it? Because that’s her theme- oh, okay.).
I’ve re-watched some old NXT matches of Shirai’s. She excelled at Wargames twice, she stood against RAW and Smackdown at the 2019 Survivor Series, where she was among the final three survivors of NXT, and she was in a memorable tag team called the Sky Pirates where she teamed up with long-time friend Kairi Sane.
The matches that stood out to me, however, were her bouts against Rhea Ripley in the Mae Young Classic (2018) and an episode of NXT weeks before Ripley’s main roster debut (2020), Shirai’s NXT Takeover Toronto bout (2019) following her heel turn, and of course the match with Sasha Banks at NXT’s Great American Bash (2020) as they main evented the first night in what resulted as a rare lead in the ratings against AEW during the Wednesday Night Wars.
Io Shirai is a talent that can and will be great regardless of where she goes. She could leave WWE and be great without having missed a beat, and she could stay and put on classics befitting of her calibre. She is just that good.
As we look to the sky, our hopes and dreams lie at what we set out to do, and excelling to do so. Io Shirai is that person.