Welcome back! This is the third and final part of my Stardom primer.

In it, we’ll take a look at the major stories of the second half of 2017 and the first few months of 2018, and then give you some things to look for as we progress throughout 2018.

2017-2018 in Review 

Toni Storm – Champion

2017 was an incredible year for Toni Storm in Stardom. She continued to defend her SWA World Championship (and has set a record number of defenses of any championship in Stardom), and she captured both singles tournaments, the Cinderella Tournament and the 5*STAR Grand Prix. All of this set her up to face Mayu Iwatani for the red belt in what I was expecting to be something Storm’s come to be known for in Stardom: a quality time limit draw. Unfortunately, an injury suffered by Mayu in that match forced a referee stop and gave Toni the title, making her only the second foreigner to hold the World of Stardom Championship.

She has only defended the belt twice, and only once under the Stardom banner (on a show in Taipei). The other defense occurred in RISE in the United States. Storm is on record saying that she doesn’t truly consider herself to be the champion until she defeats Mayu legitimately.

Io Shirai vs. The World

In November of last year, perhaps the most dominant women’s wrestler on the planet got her hands on gold once more. Io Shirai defeated Yoko Bito for the Wonder of Stardom Championship, and has kept up a brisk defense schedule ever since. Thus far, her defenses have fallen into one of two categories – defenses against a variety of foreign talent (Kelly Klein, Chardonnay, and Nicole Savoy) and defenses against Queen’s Quest stablemates (HZK and Momo Watanabe)

Ever since losing the red belt to Mayu Iwatani and taking time off to recover from injury, Io has taken a step back from center stage. Regardless, she is perhaps the most imposing Wonder of Stardom Champion ever, and a threat to everyone in the company. She’s also a firm reminder that the Wonder of Stardom Championship is no one’s Intercontinental Title.

The Ballad of Tam Nakano

After a match on a GPS show against then-Oedo Tai member Viper, the unit put the full-court press on Tam to join their ranks. After defeating Natsuko Tora to enter the 5*STAR Grand Prix and competing in the tournament, Nakano officially became a member of Oedo Tai, fitting in well as a member of the unique family that Oedo Tai has become. Unfortunately, an injury sidelined Tam soon after, but her constant presence at ringside (and the Tam Cam) kept her in the spotlight.

With Nakano in their fold, Oedo Tai cemented their shift from badass heel foreigner unit to dancing tweeners. Sumire Natsu also joined the group, making Oedo Tai five strong in their ongoing war with Queen’s Quest, a war exacerbated by Viper earlier leaving the group to join Shirai’s faction.

This war culminated in a five vs. five elimination battle, with Momo Watanabe and Tam putting their unit membership on the line. Nakano battled her best, but Momo’s experience advantage ended up being too much for her. Queen’s Quest won – meaning Tam would have to leave her newfound family.

The split seems to have done both sides a world of good – Tam has fallen in with Mayu Iwatani and the Stardom Army, while Oedo Tai, minus their good-hearted moral compass, seem to be drifting back towards their rudo roots. Nakano is arguably the closest thing to Yuzuki Aikawa since, well, Yuzuki Aikawa, so her story is likely to play a major role in Stardom going forward.

The Future is Served

Throughout Stardom’s recent history, the company has a reputation of being top-heavy. That is changing – with the likes of HZK, Jungle Kyona, Hana Kimura, and Momo Watanabe leading the charge. But behind that four-woman vanguard is a deep lineup of young talent looking for their opportunity. Konami is only twenty-one years old and has three years of experience to her name. Natsuko Tora has carved herself out a solid spot with Team Jungle. AZM has grown by leaps and bounds since joining Queen’s Quest. And behind these three are the rookies, such as the Starlight Kid, Hanan, Ruaka, and Shiki Shibusawa. This depth has led to the formation of the Future of Stardom Championship, which is currently being contested in a tournament. With three more rookies set to debut in March, Stardom’s roster is growing in ways that it hasn’t in a very long time.

2018 Preview

The Return of DreamSlam

One can never accuse Rossy Ogawa of a lack of ambition. The DreamSlam name is known for two All Japan Women’s Pro Wrestling shows in 1993 that are considered by many to be the pinnacle of joshi puroresu. They featured a great deal of cooperation with other companies and drew large crowds. Nearly fifteen years later, the name returns for a trio of Stardom shows in late March and early April.

To some, this may be sacrilege. To me, it’s a statement of intent. Stardom has weathered a lot in the past few years and come out on the other side in a far stronger position than many might have assumed.

The company has actually released the cards for the Dream Slam shows since I started writing this piece – there is less outsider participation than I expected, but the cards themselves are loaded for bear. It’s a testament to the company in 2018 that it can produce a pretty loaded triple shot without going outside Stardom.

The Red Belt

The immediate future of the Red Belt is clear: Mayu Iwatani will challenge Toni Storm for the belt that she lost due to injury. What happens in that match, however, is a little less clear. Toni Storm has not dropped a fall in Stardom in a very, very long time, but if there’s anyone who can beat her, it may well be the Icon of Stardom coming to reclaim her title. A thirty minute draw isn’t out of the realm of possibility either, and would be a result that would keep the belt in Toni’s hands.

Regardless of who emerges with the championship, a difficult 2018 awaits them.  Challenges from the winner of the Cinderella Tournament and the 5*STAR Grand Prix are inevitable depending on long the champion reigns, and the roster is increasingly full of dangerous competitors. Kagetsu looms as a potential challenger from Oedo Tai, and there is a growing stable of young, hungry wrestlers who haven’t yet received an opportunity at the red belt and would very much like to win it on their first try.

And then there’s the elephant in the room. Io Shirai, Wonder of Stardom Champion, and the longest reigning red belt holder in history, who never got a rematch after Mayu Iwatani took the belt from her in June of last year.

What’s the Next Surprise?

Perhaps no wrestling company on Earth has perfected the out of nowhere surprise like Stardom has. Yoko Bito’s return was a huge story that came virtually out of nowhere. Saki Kashima has followed in Bito’s footsteps, making her return to the Stardom ring after several years away. Who could be next?

Or maybe the next big surprise won’t be a wrestler. Stardom’s US appearance was a huge shock when it happened, as was the debut of Stardom World. Of course, some of Stardom’s surprise factor is due to it being a Japanese company and having less general information available to us, but Stardom’s good for a shock or two at least every year. What will 2018’s next one be?

Unit Warfare 2.0

Stardom in 2012 was defined by unit battles, with four units warring for supremacy throughout most of the year. Don’t look now, but history may well be on the verge of repeating itself.

Oedo Tai remains a force to be reckoned with, and is perhaps even more dangerous as a leaner, meaner four woman band after losing Tam Nakano. Tam herself has fallen in with the Stardom Army, which seems increasingly likely to congeal into a formal unit. Team Jungle’s full-time roster members may well be part of that army, but the Jungle lineup is very formidable when Yoneyama and Matsumoto are around. And then, of course, there’s Queen’s Quest, five women deep when Viper is on tour and boasting the best women’s wrestler in the world and two of Stardom’s hottest prospects.

Throw in the foreign contingent competing as Stardom World Selection, and you have no shortage of alliances to compete for the top spot in the company. This could well mean a resurgence for the Artist of Stardom belts, which have been held primarily by Queen’s Quest in various permutations for quite a while.

I Just Read Thousands of Words in Three Parts and All I Get is Thanks?

If you’ve read this far, congratulations! You’ve made it to the end of all three parts of my Stardom primer. It’s been a pleasure to write this, and thank you for reading.

The question now becomes “what’s next?” The answer to that is “longform Stardom writing!” I have a couple of pieces in mind – so watch this space (or my Twitter account) and you’ll get a good idea of what’s coming next.

Until next time? Take care, everyone!