The pressure was on. 2021 was a groundbreaking year for Stardom, closing with two new top champions and near unmatched momentum. The worst of the pandemic had come and gone, and anything less than another stellar year would be considered a failure.
As expectations loomed and restrictions in Japan were slow to lift, Stardom opened its doors in unexpected ways. Two new sub-brands were introduced that broke the mould of what to expect from the company, and non-contracted domestic talent became a startling constant.
From the moment Risa Sera, Suzu Suzuki, and the rest of Prominence stepped foot in Stardom, the landscape changed dramatically. It felt like every month someone new and unexpected would walk through the curtains. While on the surface it made any number of dream matches suddenly possible, bubbling underneath was a narrative of invasion that would lead to the final show of the year.
It’s hard to argue with results. It was another record breaking year for Stardom in terms of attendance. Last year Stardom drew just over 47 000 fans for the year, comfortably setting their personal best. They blew that number out of the water in 2022, eclipsing their personal best by July. By the time Dream Queendom came to a close, Stardom had brought in over 90 000 fans for the year. An incredible achievement that coincided with them becoming the second biggest promotion in Japan for ticket sales, and by a comfortable distance too. Their domestic growth outside of the core touring areas (Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka) continued to grow, opening up options across the country. Globally the brand continued to gain recognition, penetrating the market through organic word of mouth and groundswell.
At the forefront of it all is the talent themselves. While the argument can be made that the main character across 2022 was Giulia – whose story reaches from the first show of the year to the very last – it’s been a very even year. Several wrestlers had an argument for being the best performer of the year: Syuri continued her dominance, Saya Kamitani rose to the pressure of being the Wonder of Stardom Champion and Mayu Iwatani reminded everyone she was one of the all time greats whenever she was asked to step up. Established stars delivered while up and coming talent asserted themselves.
This has always been where 2021 marked their debut in the legendary Nippon Budokan, and a year later they had the chance to share the stage with New Japan Pro Wrestling for Historic X-Over. 7000 plus people attended the event, a record for Stardom. Perhaps more importantly, not only did were they presented as equal to the men, but Mayu Iwatani and KAIRI got to close out the show with an emotionally charged Match of the Year candidate.
NEW TOYS TO PLAY WITH
The return of KAIRI marked a big moment for Stardom. The Pirate Princess brought with her years of experience working for the most recognisable company in wrestling, and she instantly felt like the biggest star in the world upon her arrival. While she is not a full time addition to the roster, she is a constant looming presence as a new big show approaches.
What is notable in all of this is that she rarely stole the spotlight, but merely enhanced it. KAIRI only main evented one of the shows she was on – the Historic X-Over show alongside Mayu – with most of her other matches serving as special attractions. She worked as an equal to the main event talent while serving as a litmus test to up and comers like Unagi Sayaka, Starlight Kid and even rookie Miyu Amasaki.
KAIRI wasn’t the only addition to the roster. The year kicked off with the introduction of MIRAI and Thekla, two wrestlers who instantly carved out a niche on the roster. MIRAI spent much of the year flirting with the main event scene, challenging for both top titles, winning the Cinderella Tournament and scoring key victories in the 5 Star Grand Prix. The Pirate Princess might have been the big name attraction, but the Fighting Princess has proven to be a valuable long term asset, living up to the hype that followed her after leaving TJPW. Meanwhile Thekla’s unique style and character work quickly won her over with fans. She was always going to bring a unique edge as the lone foreigner, but the Austrian native has never felt out of place.
Joining them a few months later would be the bruiser Ami Sourei, sliding in with Syuri’s new God’s Eye faction and finished the year out as the Future of Stardom Champion, a belt that it seems unlikely she’ll lose anytime soon. Rounding out the new permanent additions is Stardom-trained debutante Miyu Amasaki. The twenty year old is a long term project, but one that management clearly see big things from in the future. Debuting under her mentor Utami Hayashishita and then learning under AZM for the Tag League has certainly laid the foundations for her growth, and her future will be one to follow with great interest.
Stardom has made a habit of continually growing their roster, but what really stood out in 2022 was not the addition of new permanent members, but the influx of non-contracted talent that made their mark inside the Stardom ring. Some were one off appearances, like Rina Yamashita at Stardom in Showcase, but others became familiar faces that felt at home on the roster.
It all started in February with the shock arrival of the freelance deathmatch troupe Prominence. Led by joshi legend Risa Sera and the prodigal Suzu Suzuki, the group became a constant presence throughout the year, culminating at Dream Queendom when they held aloft the Artist of Stardom Championships . Like Takumi Iroha a year prior, Risa and Suzu enjoyed strong runs in the 5 Star Grand Prix, with the latter coming agonisingly close to making the final.
After Prominence was Colors, making their presence felt in a less violent manner and joining up with the Cosmic Angels. By the end of the year their leader SAKI had become a staple, joining in both the 5 Star and Goddess tournaments to close out the year. JTO’s Tomoka Inaba aligned herself with God’s Eye (along with Nanami) while Haruka Umesaki unofficially joined Oedo Tai and claimed the semi main event of Dream Queendom, challenging Saya Kamitani for the Wonder of Stardom Title.
This near invasion of outside talent led to Dream Queendom: with 5 of the 6 top matches featuring talent not signed to Stardom. It wasn’t a theme you could have expected in January. Yet as the year unfolded, so did this vision.
This vision was enacted through the spin-off branded shows: New Blood, which served to highlight up and coming talent both from their roster and outside of it, and the crazy Stardom in Showcase that tapped into the wilder side of the roster – a gimmick heavy show that bounced between the hardcore and silly.
Both shows live in a kind of semi-canonical world to the mainline shows. What goes on at these evwnts don’t actively bleed into their usual touring schedule, but it’s also where groups like Neo Stardom Army were introduced and Tomoka Inaba was officially welcomed into God’s Eye. It’s like Neapolitan ice cream. You can enjoy each flavour of wrestling separately, but together they form Stardom.
They have been an interesting experiment that provide something different. For fans clamouring for the days of Costume Change Battle Royals and Masked Fiestas, the Showcase events provide a similar avenue. You might not have thought you wanted a ‘Judo’ match, but then Mayu Iwatani came out with her signature tail tucked between her gi and orange belt and you realise what’s been missing in your life.
New Blood meanwhile has proven to be an incredibly valuable spotlight on the independent joshi scene. Presented as a free Youtube show, it has introduced the audience to a whole host of new talent. It’s where Inaba, Umesaki, and 666’s Ram Kaichow all first made their mark in Stardom before progressing onto the main shows. Meanwhile talent like Aoi, Chie Koishikawa, and Chan Yota all got to introduce themselves to a wider market.
It is primarily a ‘developmental’ show, giving chances for some of Stardom’s up and coming talent to shine, but the regular additions of higher level wrestlers like Starlight Kid, MIRAI, and Suzu Suzuki has served to boost the show’s strength, in particular when the latter two faced on in a 15 minute draw. Still, where its long term value lives is in the oppourtunities. The December show gave Ami Sourei and Ruaka a rare main event spot, while Lady C had the chance to wrestle a legend in Nanae Takahashi and put forth arguably her best match yet.
This is what makes Stardom’s 2022 unique compared to previous years. There was always the odd wackier show or a surprise guest working the odd show, but this year both of those elements were turned up to eleven. Mei Suruga rocked up, won a battle royal and challenged for the High Speed Championship. Stardom held their first ever cage match, then held their second ever cage match immediately after it. They brought the ladder match back and added the ability to raise or lower the prize as part of the stipulation (when they weren’t knocking it out of the sky).
While the in-ring action has been as strong as ever, it feels as though Stardom and its wrestlers have been able to let their hair down a bit, have fun and revel in their successes. The foundations of a Stardom under Bushiroad has been established, and now there is a chance to experiment a bit more and build a more complete promotion. If you needed proof of this, just look at Bear Maika. Still, it has never taken away from the incredible in ring quality.
Championships and Tournaments
2022 has been a good year to be a champion, less so to be knocking on the door to glory. Title changes proved to be a rare commodity. Hanan and AZM both set records with the Future of Stardom and High Speed Championships respectively, while the World and Wonder of Stardom Champions took on all challengers, with only Syuri faltering in the final days of 2022.
Even the Artist of Stardom championship, once notorious for bouncing around teams like a hot potato, enjoyed strong reigns and stable champions. The Cosmic Angels set the precedent as they entered the year as champions, and then MaiHimePoi and Oedo Tai continued that trend.
The Goddess of Stardom Tag titles felt more volatile by comparison despite only changing hands one more time. It was a tale of two halves, with FWC dominating the scene (with a minor roadbump provided by Black Desire) before meltear took over until their loss to 7Upp. Tam and Natsupoi nearly won the Tokyo Sports Tag Team of the Year Award despite only being a team for half the year. That was how strong they proved to be.
It was little surprise that Syuri, whose momentum and dominance carried her to the top spot of both the PWI Women’s Top 150 and the Tokyo Sports joshi MVP, proved to be an unbeatable titan at the top of the card. While her opening months were overshadowed somewhat by Saya Kamitani, it wasn’t long before Syuri reminded everyone just how good she was. Importantly, she fought a range of matches: a bonafide Match of the Year candidate with Giulia, the emotionally charged battle with Tam, the short but violent war with Risa Sera, working against the pure strength of Himeka, or heavy hitting confrontations with Momo Watanabe. Syuri was an adaptable champion who continued to cement herself as one of the best in the world.
The fact that Syuri wasn’t the indisputable top champion for 2022 is a testament to just how good Saya Kamitani has become. She had made great strides in 2021 but once she was entrusted with the Wonder of Stardom Championship she turned it up another level. It was through this reign where the Saya Kamitani style was really developed. Twenty minute wars that combined the passion of past champions with her more acrobatic style.
Lost amidst the top two champions is AZM, whose second reign as the High Speed Champion has been even better than her first. It began with her incredible title win over Starlight Kid in February – a turbocharged battle that drew global attention for their incredible frenzied display. A couple of months later she nearly bested that with her match against Mei Suruga. She has come to define the style, and at a minimum you know you’re in for an entertaining match. Special mention should go to her match with Momo Kohgo, a wrestler outside of the typical High Speed mould but ended up being far better than it had any right to.
While most belts have enjoyed standout years, the SWA title is the one exception. From its birth the belt has struggled to establish a place in the company, but the pandemic challenged its very existence. 2022 saw Syuri drop it in order to focus on her Red Belt and then Mayu Iwatani relinquished it in order to focus on her IWGP Women’s Title match (which she lost). When a belt is vacated twice in a year because the champion is more interested in another, it is hard to revive its value. The Title is currently still on the shelf, and it might be for the best. Especially with the creation of the IWGP Women’s Championship
The full plan for the gorgeous new title remains to be seen. For now the plans are for the title to be defended at New Japan shows both in and out of Japan, with a one off defence on a big Stardom show or two. What becomes of it in 2023 remains to be seen, but things certainly started off on the right foot with an incredible match between Mayu Iwatani and KAIRI to crown the first champion, and a certain American Boss waiting in the shadows.
It’s not just championships that were on the line. Stardom have always used their two major tournaments to raise the stocks of someone on the cusp of the next level, and 2022 was no exception. MIRAI was no stranger to the title scene throughout the year, but it was the Cinderella Tournament that really established her as a future star. Everyone who has won the Cinderella has gone on to win either the White or Red Belt, so it’s likely a matter of when and not if for the Fighting Princess.
Former Cinderella Tournament winner Giulia had her sights on an even greater award: The 5 Star Grand Prix. A favourite the previous year before injury ended her run early, she was the easy choice to win this year. It was predictable, but it was also the right choice, and she proved her worth with an absolutely stellar tournament run. The story of Giulia’s fall from grace and ascent back to the top concluded in one of the more incredible women’s matches you will ever see. They wrestled a great match in March, but that was just practice for what they would go out and accomplish on the final show of the year. Stardom, Syuri and Giulia all saved their best for last.
Eight years after winning the Goddess of Stardom Tag League with Kairi Hojo, Nanae Takahashi managed to do it all over again with Yuu. The Neo Stardom Army didn’t excite a lot of people when they were introduced, but the duo put on a great showing throughout the tournament, eventually defeating AphroditE in the final and claiming the Goddess Belts from meltear. The duo will return for the brand new Triangle Derby tournament that will kick off the new year, teaming up with Yuna Mizumori. Just like 2022, the tournament is split between Stardom regulars and outsiders. Thanks to Mina Shirakawa the touring foreigners are now back, with Xia Brookside and Mariah May joining the fold. Now there’s a tournament for each season in Stardom.
Conclusion, Awards and 2023 Predictions
Once again Stardom have put forth an incredible year, building upon the momentum established over the past 18 months and only continuing to cement themselves as one of the must see promotions in wrestling.
The question is: where they do they go from here? They should continue to grow, solidifying their position as the second biggest promotion in Japan and continuing to push the boundaries of what kind of venues they can run. With NJPW’s Wrestle Kingdom featuring cheering again, the hope is that Stardom will soon follow suit. While every other promotion has experimented with attendance restricted cheering events, Stardom has remained focused on maximising attendance. The decision has certainly paid off, you just have to look at their record numbers, but the overall presentation will benefit immensely from a crowd that can cheer and vocally support their favourites. Many of these wrestlers have never had the chance to be cheered inside a Stardom ring yet!
Their domestic focus has definitely served them well during the pandemic, but now that travel is more or less back to normal how do they approach the immediate future? The global interest is definitely there, yet shows with English commentary dropped compared to 2021. Major story points are still being communicated through fan-translations rather than official media, and as they’ve grown to become one of the more notable promotions their streaming service and PPV model now feels outdated and restrictive compared to its contemporaries. The domestic market is and should always be the main priority. However if Stardom fail to capitalise on the organic hype growing abroad, they may limit the kind of growth that could await them.
The past few years has featured historic levels of growth, tripling their attendance since Bushiroad took over. Their biggest challenges are now behind them and they have an incredibly strong platform as they prepare for the new year. Women’s wrestling is once more proving to be a must see attraction just as it deserves to. Like when 2022 began, the momentum is high and the pressure is once again on to deliver on the hype.
Wrestler of the Year: Syuri
Runners-Up: Saya Kamitani, Giulia
It’s one thing to win Wrestler of the Year, it’s another to go back to back. There were high expectations on Syuri after an amazing 2021, but she was up to the challenge. Saya’s first few months were stronger, but by the middle of the year the World of Stardom Champion began to remind everyone why she is so revered. Top tier title matches back to back to back filled the middle portion of the year, and then she really started to separate herself with another fantastic 5 Star GP performance and that final match of the year.
She had more expectations and pressure than anyone else on the roster, and she delivered. It wasn’t as perfect a year as 2021, but that doesn’t detract from the 2022 she had.
Match of the Year: Giulia vs. Syuri (December 29, Dream Queendom)
Runners-Up: Tam Nakano vs Saya Kamitani (March 27, Stardom World Climax: The Top), KAIRI vs Mayu (November 20, Historic X-Over),
I hope you didn’t try and sneak in your Match of the Year selections before December 29th, because days out from 2023 Syuri and Giulia put on a wild and furious war with one another. Whether it was the brutal high spots, the furious exchanges or just the raw passion and emotion on display, the final Stardom match of 2023 proved to be its best. This will go down in the history books as an all time classic, put forth to people as proof of what Stardom and indeed wrestling is capable of.
Show of the Year: 5 Star GP Final Night (October 1)
Runners-Up: Flashing Champions (May 28), Gold Rush (November 20)
For the second straight year the final night of the 5 Star Grand Prix has proven to be appointment viewing. Unlike most shows there’s a sense of tension strewn across the card as several matches have implications on deciding the Final, and even when those finalists are telegraphed (like this year) the drama adds to each relevant match.
The overall quality of matches on this final night just stood out, and even on a card full of singles matches they each felt different – either due to matchups, personal rivalries or the story surrounding the match. Yes Giulia stood out with two incredible matches, but even beyond her involvement you had Maika and Himeka facing off for the first time, Starlight Kid trying to get that key win over Mayu Iwatani, and Momo Watanabe and Hazuki continuing to try and find out who hits harder. A truly spectacular event that enjoys a bump from the overarching story for Giulia.
Most Improved: Mina Shirakawa
Runners-Up: Mai Sakurai, Maika
Flashes of Mina’s potential were shown in last year’s 5 Star GP. With the right opponent, like a Momo Watanabe, Mayu Iwatani, or Himeka, she shone brightly. However it wasn’t consistent, and a disappointing White Belt challenge seemed to bring her back down to earth. She had a quiet start to the year, but once again she showed up for the 5 Star GP. This time though it didn’t matter who she faced – consistently delivering strong matches against a variety of opponents.
Her momentum was quelled after an unfortunate injury, but it came after a career best performance when she once more challenged for the White Belt. Mina now knows who she is as a wrestler, finding her niche as a striker who can change levels and target the leg. On top of that, she doesn’t need to be ‘led’ like she used to. She had the character work down pat, now she knows how to execute inside the ropes.
Best Moment: The Moneyball breaking at Gold Rush
Runners-Up: Bear Maika, Koguma jumping off the top of the inflatable slide
Stardom’s position as the pinnacle of women’s wrestling in 2022 can kind of give the impression of a super serious promotion that is all about the grappling. Of course, once you dive in you realise how fun it can all be. It’s often according to plan, but sometimes the funniest things in life are when things go wrong. As was the case when Hazuki kicked the ladder into the low hanging moneyball at the Gold Rush Main Event. The impact burst open the sphere, sending the gold, money and jewels crashing to the ground as 6 women stood in shock. The match was crazy enough, but this one mistake created true magic.
Who to watch for in 2023: Tomoka Inaba
Runners-Up: Starlight Kid, Mina Shirakawa
It might seem weird to include a non-contracted member as the one to watch in Stardom for 2023, but truthfully I believe she’ll become a full time roster member sooner rather than later, following the trajectory of former JTO member Maika. She is fast becoming ingrained into the roster and feels perfectly placed underneath Syuri in God’s Eye. The perfect mentor to unlock her style, and one who is now no longer burdened by the top title.
At only 20 years old it places her right in the golden spot. A young promising talent who will be forced to sink or swim alongside other similarly aged prodigies like Starlight Kid, AZM and the ever present Suzu Suzuki. I don’t see her winning any major titles, but an Artist of Stardom run as a part of God’s Eye and potential runs in both the Cinderella and 5 Star GP tournaments will go a long way to setting her up as a core part of their future.
ONE match to watch from each month:
- January: Mayu Iwatani vs Giulia (January 29)
- February: AZM vs Starlight Kid (February 23)
- March: Tam Nakano vs Saya Kamitani (March 27)
- April: AZM vs Mei Suruga (April 29)
- May: Risa Sera vs Syuri (May 28)
- June: Natsupoi vs Tam Nakano (June 26)
- July: Syuri vs Tam Nakano (July 24)
- August: MIRAI vs Suzu Suzuki (August 11)
- September: Giulia vs Mayu Iwatani (September 11)
- October: Giulia vs Suzu Suzuki (October 1)
- November: Mayu Iwatani vs KAIRI (November 20)
- December: Giulia vs Syuri (December 29