Io Shirai (c) vs Shayna Baszler
World of Stardom Championship
taped 02/23/2017, aired 02/26/2017
Korakuen Hall, Tokyo, Japan
(reviewed 12/08/2017) One word you’ll hear a lot in wrestling, especially from dumbasses like me, is “narrative”. “Narrative” is just a college boy way of saying “story”, with a “story” being one of the things people look for in wrestling. What that story entails and encompasses can vary wildly, from a long-running soap opera drama in spandex to the newest installment in a rivalry to a self-contained struggle of character to how the tactics and strategies of two people unfold throughout a match.
That latter description is what I want to tackle here. Usually when you hear people talk about strategy-driven narratives, it tends to revolve around some sort of body work: wrestler A has a bum leg, wrestler B injures their head halfway through the match, wrestler C targets their opponent’s arm to mitigate a big move, etc etc. Usually it’s fairly two-dimensional story, though a lack of ambition or complexity does not necessitate a bad match. Here, with Io and Shayna, we have a fairly complex match that contains a number of shifting strategies that supplies a hell of a lot of exciting joshi action all the way.
Through the entrances and opening moments of the match we have two dynamic characters established: Shayna is a big, cocky invader with lots of shoot experience and Io is a fiery queen of all things Stardom. Shayna, in a show of sportsmanship, extends her hand as the match starts, but Io smacks it away and goes right to work with a few forearms. Shayna tries for a sleeper but Io is immediately able to roll over and pin Shayna’s shoulders to the mat to force a break. The former fighter then attempts to go after Io’s arm, but the champ is able to slip free until Shayne finally applies her size and strength advantage to open her opponent up for a bevy of arm work. She continues along this path, eventually locking on the sleeper she attempted earlier when Io backs her into the corner and allows Shayna to apply a mean elevated variation of the move. Her cockiness gets the best of her, though, as she gets in a big shouting match with the referee and allows Io to make a comeback with some of her breathtaking highflying, most notably a nutty crossbody off the corner post to the floor.
The dive weakens Shayna and Io capitalizes with a chair to the back. This would be a good time to mention the selling from these two women, which is sort of impeccable. As soon as each element is introduced (Io’s arm early on, Shayna’s back about a third of the way in) it becomes an important part of the match that remains relevant the whole time but never becomes obnoxious. There’s no convenient bursts of adrenaline and likewise there’s no fits of pain over the slightest provocation. They both sell their respective injuries throughout the remainder of the match, occasionally making rash decisions that hurt themselves in order to win, and it’s one of the best examples of selling adding to a match that I’ve ever seen.
To illustrate that, back in the ring Io climbs the ropes for a move. Shayna quickly scales the ropes to cut her off with a middle rope gutwrench suplex, which she’s able to float through for a second gutwrench suplex, a variation on one of her usual spots. I loathe “suplex off the top into a second move” spots but this one was done about as perfectly as it could be (brief pause between the two moves, big selling afterward from both women) and it serves to add a wrinkle to the narrative surrounding Shayna’s back. While the move takes a lot out of Io, it takes even more out of Shayna, who moves notably slower throughout the rest of the match. They both take a while to regain their bearings afterward, with the fervid Io initiating a strike exchange that ends poorly for her when Shayna starts kicking away at her arm.
The match continues into the third act, constantly referencing the building blocks that brought it there. Shayna’s diminished speed opens her up for a bridging German suplex but she’s able to pick away at Io’s arm to escape. She returns to the sleeper that she tried at the beginning and that brought her success before but it’s not enough to keep Io down. Shayna gets in another fight with the referee that allows Io to take control of the match once more. A moonsault to the back hurts Shayna in a big way but also damages Io’s bum arm. Shayna reverses the subsequent pin attempt into a kimura, attempting to bridge up with it for maximum efficiency, but her back can’t take the pressure. She tries to transition into a cross armbreaker but Io is able to take advantage of the positioning to slip into a high angle cloverleaf that basically finishes off Shayna. She’s able to torque at Io’s arm in a bit of a wristlock, but the champ maneuvers her way into a cross-armed German suplex and finishes Shayna off with a moonsault.
Gosh this is great. You hear people describe wrestling as chess matches sometimes and this is one of those matches where I think it actually applies instead of being a goofy cliché. These women have game plans and apply them directly, with each hold being answered with a reversal, each spot being answered with a counter. It unfolds naturally, avoiding the sort of convoluted inauthenticity I see in so much of wrestling these days. Through it all, the match manages to remain compelling and thrilling, with my only real complaints coming from the fact that maybe they didn’t do enough in the end. But shit, I’ll take this near-perfect 16 minutes over a 20 minute match that gets bloated at the end. Fabulous stuff here, make sure you see it.
HOW DOES THIS COMPARE TO SHAWN VS TAKER FROM WM25: To their credit, Shawn and Taker certainly weren’t trying to have a chess match. What they had instead was a match with no deeper strategy, where any damage done only lingers long enough to result in a hammy reaction shot. This joshi match feels like two people leaving an impact on each other with their actions and being forced to reckon with the consequences. I’ll take that any day over the same finisher kickouts I’ve been seeing for years.
VERDICT: Better than Shawn Michaels vs The Undertaker from WrestleMania 25