Previously on the Best and Worst of Stardom: There has never been a Best and Worst of Stardom before! I’m doing this one-off Best and Worst of Stardom’s empty arena show, the amazingly named No People Gate, because the reason this show had no audience, COVID-19, is the same reason I don’t have anything to review in the first half of this month. As far as I know, this is not the beginning of a regular Stardom column on With Spandex, just an article about a unique and very accessible wrestling show.
What Was No People Gate And Why Were There No People At It?
The coronavirus outbreak has led to the cancellation of many wrestling shows in Japan, especially in the first two weeks of March, a time period in which the Prime Minister called for the cancellation of public events. Some companies still ran their shows but offered refunds to people who couldn’t go because of the outbreak. New Japan Pro Wrestling scrapped shows and streamed some talk show-style programs with wrestlers. Other companies combined creativity, public-health-consciousness, and still having wrestling matches in their responses to the situation and held no-audience shows.
The DDT family of promotions embraced this the most and has held several empty dojo shows already, including Tokyo Joshi Pro Wresting’s one-day tournament for free barbeque, which you can watch the first hour of on YouTube here. World Wonder Ring Stardom – the biggest women’s wrestling company in Japan, the promotion where Io Shirai and Kairi Sane spent most of their pre-WWE careers, the promotion WWE tried to buy and Bushiroad actually bought in 2019 – is so far the only promotion to hold a no-audience show in a regular wrestling venue (Korakuen Hall) during this time, and they put it all on YouTube for free.
This was a smart way for Stardom to keep the goodwill of existing fans and potentially attract some new fans. For those who have been watching this promotion on Stardom World, it was also just about the weirdest possible way to finally get to see a live broadcast of a Stardom show. You can watch the event in its entirety here:
Now, with the show’s background out of the way, here’s the Best and Worst of Stardom No People Gate.
Best: Joshi Thunder Liger
(Subheading used with permission of @AHROOMEE, who came up with it!)
A minor highlight of No People Gate was Jushin Thunder Liger sitting in on commentary, the show’s biggest connection to its brother in Bushiroad. I don’t speak Japanese so I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I loved his enthusiasm. The shockingly tan retired wrestler seemed so sincerely into the show with his immediate enthusiasm for Death Yama-san and Natsu Sumire, acting psyched to catch Mayu Iwatani’s wristband, and responding to her “Good evening!” after the main event. Liger came off like a genuine fan and helped warm up the odd atmosphere of an empty Korakuen Hall.
Mostly Best: The Three Skins Of Saya Iida
No People Gate kicked off with a low-key, mostly comedic opener. I don’t think the battle royal bad for what it was, but it did make me wish the show was opening with something with higher energy. However, I appreciate that it took the audience straight to the deep end of the pool of the potential weirdness that is an empty arena show. Welcome to No People Gate! Here’s Death Yama-san and our 4-foot-9 standout rookie!
Along with Natsu Sumire’s shenanigans, surprise guest Mima Shimoda, and some quality normal wrestling between Konami and Tam Nakano, the battle royal’s biggest highlight was said four-foot-nine standout rookie, with Saya Iida going full Mick Foley and entering the match three times as herself and winning the thing.
Super Strong Saya Machine calling out Natsuko Tora was initially a confusing moment, but their ensuing singles match worked well for both of them. It made Tora, the new leader of Oedo Tai who it turned it was not actually having a title match later, look cool, and showed Iida putting in a good effort in the stage of her career that’s all about putting in good effort and mostly losing so it’ll be more satisfying when she starts winning more often.
Worst: Arisa Hoshiki Is Canceled
The most disappointing part of this show was the part of it that didn’t happen: the Wonder of Stardom Championship match between Arisa Hoshiki and Natsuko Tora, which everyone thought was still going to happen until No People Gate was already underway. This was a really promising match, especially because the champ, Hoshiki, has been on a hot streak lately, and an increasingly murderous one. But she apparently couldn’t participate in the show at the last minute and that’s why that short match between Tora and Iida happened.
Without Hoshiki vs. Tora on the card, this show that could easily draw new viewers to Stardom didn’t have a substantial singles match in the typical Stardom style.I have plenty of positive things to say about the lumberjack match, but it’s worth pointing out it wasn’t the type of thing Stardom does very often. So if you watched No People Gate out of curiosity and want to see a more normal present-day Stardom one v. one match, I’d recommend Arisa Hoshiki vs. Tam Nakano from last year, Hana Kimura vs. Giulia, Mayu Iwatani vs. Takumi Iroha, or a Momo Watanabe vs. Jungle Kyona match.
Best: Squad Girls
The first scheduled, non-comedy match of the night was Tokyo Cyber Squad (Hana Kimura and Jungle Kyona) vs. Donna del Mundo (Giulia and Maika) and it was both a cool match on its own and one that introduced a promising next step in the TCS vs. DDM feud.
Kimura and Giulia started feuding at the end of last year, leading to a singles match on Stardom’s last show of 2019, and their hate is clearing still alive. But though Kimura looks like a star in this match and everyone plays a substantial role, Kyona comes out of it with the biggest standout performance after she gets the win over Maika with her always awesome Kinniku Buster.
The post-match segment sets up that Kyona vs. Giulia will happen at some point in the future, and I’m into the idea of that match and of these factions continuing to feud. The fun, cyberpunk established-in-Stardom army so far have had good chemistry with the very serious outsiders (Guilia a newbie from Ice Ribbon; Syuri, who wasn’t on this show, a freelancer and MMA fighter; Maika from Taka Michinoku’s Just Tap Out.) Kimura and Giulia still feel like natural arch-enemies, and if the angle continues long enough to include Konami and Kyona having matches Maika and Syuri as well as Giulia, it could provide some of the most exciting stuff in Stardom this year.
Hayte Me Now
The biggest upside of the Goddesses of Stardom Championship match was its aggression and its biggest downside was that I can’t really watch Bea Priestly matches, sorry! Her look and persona are so off-putting to me that I usually just skip them.
There are a few reasons I just reject this wrestler even though I acknowledge she is increasingly good at doing wrestling moves. Part of it is that we’re about the same age and it’s disconcerting that when I watch Priestly it feels like I’m looking at someone who stopped processing non-wrestling culture when we were in middle school. I think if she showed pictures of the hair, makeup, and entrance gear aesthetics she’s going for to someone other than who’s doing them for her now it would help a lot, but it’s mostly a persona thing. It’s the thirteen-year-old’s concept of edge, that she calls her running knee the “Bea Trigger,” and that the “Top Gaijin” continued to be used as a nickname for her on American TV as if “I am the self-proclaimed best non-Japanese wrestler in a Japanese wrestling company” makes any sense in that context.
Anyway, the only reason this isn’t the bitchiest Stardom match review of all time is that it turned out to really be a review of why I regretted pitching this article as soon as it required me to watch and think about Bea Priestly. The match was fine!
Best: Go Ace!
The background of the No People Gate main event match is that Saki Kashima and Mayu Iwatani, the World of Stardom Champion, used to both be in the babyface faction Stars, but Kashima turned on Iwatani to join the heel faction Oedo Tai, so now they’re having a non-title grudge match about it with the other members of Stars and Oedo Tai as lumberjacks. The gimmick ends up supporting the match in the ideal way the gimmick part of all gimmick matches should, by heightening the drama, changing things up, and enhancing an otherwise quality match rather than attempting to cover for a weak one.
Part of why the lumberjack part of this match works so well is the way it fits the personalities of these factions. Lumberjacks are usually supposed to just keep the wrestlers in the ring, but if Oedo Tai gets the chance to beat up one of their enemies outside of the ring with no consequences, they’re going to do that! And while Oedo Tai would obviously be great at empty arena brawling, Stars, the most standup babyface faction, would kind of suck at it, and they do here, despite trying their best and making a few in-ring saves.
While her friends aren’t that much help outside of the ring, Iwatani shines in that environment, both as a high-flyer with those crossbodies outside and as a real-life crazy person when she rolls down an entire flight of stairs. Mayu vs. the bad guys is just as good in the ring, giving us moments like throwing Kashima over the top rope with the Running Three because screw you, lumberjacks, and her persevering through interference.
Meanwhile, the straightforward, one-on-one wrestling in this match ties everything together. Kashima isn’t on Iwatani’s level and she still looks more like she’s actively trying to fit in with Oedo Tai rather than a natural part of the group, but that all fits the story of the match, and her underlying aggression makes it work even though she’s a strawweight. One of Stardom’s biggest strengths is that you almost always feel like the wrestlers are trying to win matches and/or hurt each other, and you see that in this main event.
Of course, while Kashima isn’t on Iwatani’s level. Mayu’s on a plane above most wrestlers. She more effectively embraces being a small person, always selling big moves like they’re destroying her and fueling her comebacks with borderline crazy energy. Her toughness shows more conventionally in her brutal-looking (and sounding) kicks and moments like that delayed tombstone piledriver when you can see she’s really going for the kill. Her persona, as well as her wrestling skill, fits her Ace position. She seems uncorrupted, not so much like a child but like a well-written version of Superman – a character the viewer can admire and root for without them being necessarily “relatable.”
No People Gate ends with Stardom’s world champion wishing good evening to YouTube and rows of orange seats and it’s a charming and weird conclusion to a charming and weird show. For those who were already Stardom fans, the show was an entertaining one-off event that set up promising angles for the future and will fuel requests for more live broadcasts, and among curious people just checking out the show, I think it could easily make some new fans.