Go Go! 2020 #4: Flupke's Top 5 Matches of 2020

Choco Pro - Ice Ribbon - NOAH - OZ Academy - Tokyo Joshi Pro

Somehow, against all the odds, pro wrestling was still good this year. Global lockdown might have stifled the medium in some quarters, but not everywhere - if you knew where to look, you could still find stars being made, sagas playing out, and experimental ideas being trialled in response to new limitations. Here then are five of the biggest in-ring (or on-mat) successes from a year like no other.

5) Yuka Sakazaki v Mizuki

7 November, Tokyo Joshi Pro, Tokyo Dome City Hall

For a while now - maybe since Miyu Yamashita’s era-defining title reign ended last Spring - a lot of my interest in Tokyo Joshi Pro has focused on the mid-card, and the question of when and how the new generation are going to unseat the three or four decorated old originals that have held sway since the company was running out of idol venues in Akihabara. TJPW’s first big show of 2020 was headlined by an encounter between the two oldest and most decorated of these originals, but it was the match between perennial underdog Maki Itoh and slow-burn prospect Hikari Noa a little further down the card that really stole the show, as I’d suspected it might. While Sakazaki’s run on top wasn’t bad by any means - her second Korakuen Hall title match against Yuki Aino was really a forgotten gem from that middle portion of the year - the thing that kept me coming back was the idea that a charismatic bunch of understudies (Noa, Mina Shirakawa, Natusmi Maki, Mirai Maiumi, Yuki Kamifuku, Suzume) were poised, waiting for their chance to make a significant dent on the old order.

Then this match happened, and I was left with no choice to accept that the company had saved their very best for the main event of their biggest show of the year. It’s hardly surprising that a match between these two experienced workers and long-time partners would hit the heights, but even so, even on third rewatch, I’m in awe of just what a feat of attention to detail this is. When Mizuki states in the opening promo that she needs to turn her love for Yuka into hate if she’s to stand a chance of winning, she makes sure to follow that up by covering her ears to Yuka’s undeniable good-time banger of an entrance theme. When Yuka suffers an unfortunate wardrobe malfunction in the match-opening grappling exchanges, the two commit to working around it, which not only reinforces Mizuki’s “show no mercy” gameplan, but also confirms Yuka’s ultimately game-winning technical superiority, as she fights her way up into a mount which immobilises her opponent for long enough to fix the botched tailoring.

And so it goes on. There’s a strike exchange down the finishing stretch, which is something that happened in pretty much every main event title match in Japan this year, but few others will have taken the time to explicitly contextualise it within the character dynamic of the two wrestlers like Yuka did here - the champion initiates the exchange by extending a sportsmanlike hand and pulling Mizuki to her feet, only for Mizuki to refuse the gesture of fair play on offer and fire up screaming. In the final flourish of the match, when Yuka goes to the ring apron to hit a Magical Girl Splash but finds her opponent still just about stirring, she simply delivers the move to Mizuki’s back before she can get upright, and follows it with a Chicken Bastard Splash for good measure.

The match bubbles along for the duration of its 25+ minutes without anything feeling forced or unnecessary; when high spots arrive - and there are some amazing spots here that are exactly the sort of thing you should save for your very biggest platforms - they always feel like part of the flow, always feel in keeping with the style and motivations of the characters in question, always feel like creative solutions to real, pressing problems. Yuka retaining here was a surprise to many, and feels like a clear statement on the part of TJPW management that her prowess as a champion is now equal to that of any other champion in company history (which, realistically, means Miyu). But they didn’t need to tell us that - this match showed it beyond reasonable doubt. I still hold out hope that one day Hikari Noa and Mirai Maiumi will crack the main event scene, but in the meantime I’m more than happy for the Enjoy Girl to take as long as she needs.

4) Go Shiozaki v Kazuyuki Fujita

29 March, NOAH, Korakuen Hall

All I ask of big match wrestling is that I have a clear sense of the stakes of the encounter, and the feeling that little things carry weight towards the final outcome. The idea that a rogue body movement or even a misplaced facial expression might betray one of the participants in the final reckoning. Being invested in the result of a match helps with this - in June I wrote about how willing a match one way or the other often means paying more attention to body language and the small transitions that bring about bigger momentum shifts. But even so, when a good 75% of main event title matches start in more or less the same way - cagey circling, lock-up, brief display of ultimately inconsequential matwork - it can be hard to tune in to this degree.

Right at the beginning of lockdown, employing a trick long known to artists from other media, Go Shiozaki and Kazuyuki Fujita produced exactly what I look for when I watch big title matches, by doing…nothing. Or nearly nothing. It’s not just that the first act of this match essentially becomes an thirty minute-long staring contest. Certainly, there was tension in the idea that one of these two men would have to be the first to concede defeat and actually volunteer to start things off, a tension which rises the longer they’re forced to stay still, alert and composed. But there’s more - some way into this passage of gripping inaction, the match lost any last lingering sense of normality. Anything that happened from this point - the point where the stand-off had come out the other side of boring, funny, boring again, funny again and boring again - would be basically unprecedented, unpredictable, and invested with a weird sense of adventure. That extends to the tiniest of gestures - watch closely as Fujita finally, briefly, breaks the deadlock by sidling over to the neutral corner, and see the way Shiozaki gears up for the fight ahead, only to have to force himself back into neutral when Fujita still refuses to engage. You can feel all of Go’s frustration, pride and resolve, in a tiny shake of his arm.

Of course, once the second half of the match really hits its stride, we move beyond gestural minimalism into a kind of baffling anarchism, with Fujita chugging hand sanitizer and kicking lift doors, and then on to a more conventional finishing stretch where Go the heroic babyface emerges stoically victorious over the Inokiist bully. These more “normal” sections of the match aren’t immaterial, but they only serve to reinforce the incredible performance of stoic heroism Go manages to pull off in the parts of the match where “nothing” is happening. A true Ace, ready to take on all comers, Go wins one of the most bizarre mind games in wrestling history, holding out patiently for over thirty minutes and forcing his opponent into the humiliating position of having to make the first move. This “nothing” is utterly suffused with feeling - with hate, with contempt, with steadfastness and grim determination. In a gesture which echoes my favourite film of the year, Naoka Kusano’s Domains, extreme formal minimalism becomes a vessel for almost boundless tension.

It’s tempting to imagine how surreal this would have been as a live spectacle were there an audience in the building, but I suspect that this match couldn’t have existed in any form other than the one it took in reality - any crowd noise would surely have dissipated the tension and the concentration, even leaving aside the prospect of riots breaking out from people who’d paid to see a fight. This match was a singular statement issued in response to the limitations placed on pro wrestling in 2020, and arguably stands alone in men’s wrestling as an example of a company taking those dire circumstances and building something totally radical and unexpected out of them. Now that it’s been realised once it can only ever be parodied, not repeated in earnest. But it’s a match which begs other wrestlers who consider themselves artists of the big match main event to raise their game and find new ways to make all the pieces matter.

3) Mayumi Ozaki v Saori Anou

28 August, OZ Academy, Yokohama Bunka Gymnasium

Like Shiozaki/Fujita, this was a big main event title match that adopted a weird structure, committed unflinchingly to its own bit, and emerged transcendent. The set-up is fairly straightforward - Anou is a junior member of big boss Ozaki’s stable and wants to challenge her for supremacy on the biggest stage; she even comes down to the ring dressed in all-white gear, in a clear display of opposition and defiance to Seiki-gun’s usual vampish palette of blacks and reds. It’s after this grand entrance that things start to get weird, as Anou endures over ten minutes of brutal offence from Ozaki and her entire cast of goons without once getting a single shot in.

Anou’s pristine white gear becomes stained almost immediately with her own blood. She’s hurled into railings, kicked in the head by some gang members while others throttle her with a chain. There’s a segment where Ozaki has her chained by the throat and just keeps reeling her in to wail on her. It’s overkill in the way that Shiozaki/Fujita is overkill - that’s to say, what initially feels like an aberration quickly becomes something more interesting, more emotionally and psychologically complex. Anou comes dressed like a crusading angel but there’s little thought of justice once things come to a head; throughout the first act, Anou endures her punishment as if that were precisely what she was hoping to get out of this match.

Even when she does start to fight back, Ozaki shuts her down with relative ease - laughing, before taking to the top rope to hit a senton directed squarely at Anou’s legs. When Anou begins to pose problems, POLICE, Mio and the others are always at hand to shut her down. Anou asserts herself more and more with each passing minute, but it rarely feels like she’s got the upper hand - just a stay of execution. And yet, this is a career-defining performance for Anou, and a match which, by the time the closing sequence comes into view, with Anou and Ozaki both struggling to their feet, hands full of each other’s hair, maniacal, blood-stained grins on each of their faces, reaches a level of emotional crescendo that few matches in this era of joshi wrestling ever reach. That’s because, at heart, this is not a story of a challenger trying to topple an Ace, but one of a devotee trying to prove her worth to a cult leader.

A few weeks after this match took place, I went to an exhibition of kimonos at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, and learned about the practice where brides in Japan traditionally begin the wedding ceremony dressed in white, before changing into a bright colour (often red) once their new family allegiance is confirmed by law. Dismiss it as a fan theory if you like, but there’s something very resonant about this as pertains to this match - Anou ends this match a more respected member of the Seiki-gun family than when she went in, and this act of bonding and binding is visually represented by the staining of her pure white gear red. In Ozaki’s twisted, inverted morality, Anou is ennobled and sacralised by her suffering, and earns something more precious than a title belt - she earns the right to stand alongside Ozaki, as a fellow fiend. The lines between love, hate, violence and solidarity are thrillingly blurred - even if it’s delivered in large part through chair shots, strangulation spots and kicks to the groin, it’s rare that wrestling offers us something so profound.

2) Suzu Suzuki v Tsukushi

20 September, Ice Ribbon, Korakuen Hall

As much as Suzu Suzuki’s first ICE x Infinity Championship defence is a match whose idea appeals to me massively - and I wrote at length about this just after I’d watched it for the first time - there’s also something about it which just calls out to me on a gut level, maybe more than any other match on this list. It’s one of the closest things that 2020 has to something in the vein of those Ohata/Nakajima Regina di WAVE title matches from 2018; which is to say, it’s a match where the movements on display just continually hammer away at the big button in my brain labelled “happy with pro wrestling”. It’s a match that feels like a big important main event but where, unlike many such matches, the two competitors consistently give each other almost no separation or time to breathe or think. It’s put together with a level of invention and intuition and chemistry that only a pair as deeply entwined as this could manage.

It’s the strike sequence that comes just before the finishing stretch that really seals the deal - the way Suzu, the ascendant rookie, grows in confidence throughout the ordeal, and the way Tsukushi, the embattled veteran, fires back with an equal mix of anguish and self-assurance. The fact that it takes Suzu three German Suplexes to put her mentor away, one more than the two she needed to win the belt from Maya Yukihi the previous month, is the icing on the cake - it’s an indication that this is a title reign that intends never to go easy or go backwards, but to continually build on what’s come before. It’s matches like this that got me into joshi wrestling, and it’s matches like this that have topped my Match of the Year lists year after year. Seeing Suzu rise and rise and rise from a charismatic rookie with bags of potential to the latest avatar of 2015 Io Shirai - the wrestler that’s ultimately responsible for the words you’re reading right now - has been a very satisfying process indeed.

This is a match that tells a classic, engaging story of a junior-senior rivalry, tinged with real world emotions. It’s a landmark first defence of a title that never exactly felt insignificant, but which could come to assume an even more central place in the joshi landscape under its current incumbent. It’s an economical epic, neither too slow nor too fast, neither too spartan not too overstuffed. It’s packed with feeling, and it makes me feel the way I want wrestling to make me feel. It’s perfect, and on any normal year it would have topped this list. But 2020 was not a normal year.

1) Pencil Army (Lulu Pencil & Emi Pencil) v Tropical Calamari (Chris Brookes & Yuna Mizumori)

11 November, Choco Pro, Ichigaya Chocolate Square

2020 was a year that called for extraordinary measures. More than any year in living memory, it was a time where finding the right kinds of entertainment to consume, the right way to while away the time, became urgent - a matter of health and sickness, if not life and death. Distraction and escapism, delivered according to a reliable routine, became key - if you could stay sane indoors in these drastically reduced circumstances you were not only safeguarding your own mental health, but the physical health of everyone around you. Emi Sakura’s vision for Choco Pro goes beyond these concerns, but at the moment it arrived it felt like a godsend, a radically original new kind of wrestling presentation designed especially for the pressing demands of our present moment.

Given the newness of the format, what was surprising about Choco Pro, as it continued to play out in the months following Japan’s initial period of lockdown, was just what a classic corpus of pro wrestling television it became. Even with a relatively tiny cast of characters, stories were developed which spilled over from the live broadcasts and into the talk shows that filled the rest of the weekly schedule; a stray word or glance after a match on one weekend might have blown up into a full-fledged feud by the next. And what’s more, these storylines were often linked - there’s a straight, unbroken line which connects Yuna Mizumori’s embattled rise to season 1 MVP to the birth of the Emi Pencil character, to the similarly embattled arc Mitsuru Konno underwent in season 2, and then on to the angle for which this match was a blow-off, the saga of Lulu Pencil’s lost hat.

Even if the details and the presentation style resonated with that characteristic Emi Sakura quirkiness, these angles were always built around the most basic, raw stuff of pro wrestling storytelling. Mizumori feels underappreciated and wants to leave her mark by running through the roster. Konno finds herself at odds with the boss and wants to show that her vision of pro wrestling is stronger. Lulu forfeits a key part of her identity in striving to reach the main event (oh Icarus!) and is forced to fight The Devil himself to get it back. The twists and turns of the “go home” match for this main event - Brookes reeling in Lulu with the promise of friendship and her trademark hat back if she first betrays her mentor, only to contemptuously remove the offer from the table once the deal looked done, because that’s what The Devil does - were closer in kind to the episodes of Monday Night RAW I used to watch as a 10-year old kid than to anything else. And as we all know, the wrestling that makes you feel like a 10-year old wrestling fan again is the best wrestling of all.

The groundwork for this match was beautifully laid by Lulu and Brookes in their previous two encounters, but there was also a medium-term aspect to this build - Lulu’s gradual transformation throughout 2020 into a wrestler for whom self-belief is paramount - and a long-term aspect too. Rewatching this match, it’s striking how much Brookes and Yunamon have to throw at Lulu in the hopes of getting her to say “I Quit” a feat which they crucially never manage to accomplish. In her first exhibition match, Lulu dropped eight falls to Yunamon inside three minutes, including tapping out to a wristlock. Here she lasted 32 without once giving up the ghost, only conceding defeat when her partner and mentor threw in the towel on her behalf. You can see the expression on Emi’s face when Brookes locks Lulu in that decisive Manji-gatame - she knows that Lulu won’t escape this, but what she doesn’t know right away is that her protégé has become pathologically averse to quitting, marking a full 180 degree turn on the gimmick that brought her into the wrestling world. It’s a sad ending, but it’s one that rings with a note of hope for ever and for everyone - if even Lulu Pencil can believe in herself to this degree, then you (yes, you) can too.

They say about the golden age of The Simpsons that the show’s brilliance is based on its relentless overlapping of gags - no sooner has one belly-laugh finished than you get another one. There’s an analogy here with the best Ichigaya Chocolate Square matches, of which this is one - there’s always something going on here, a maximalist backdrop of nonsense against which the stuff that’s of greater narrative purpose can shine. So many glimmering details stand out on rewatch. The way the camera pans away from the left-hand windowsill while Brookes is suspending Lulu from that weird winch that comes into play every now and then, so that when they pan back her flailing, hanging figure catches you fully off guard. The way the incredibly loud clanging of Brookes’ head off a table turns a slow, silly spot into a moment of roaring slapstick. The way Yunamon sings “got no hat!” while Brookes is taping Lulu’s legs together. The spot where Emi Pencil traps Brookes’ toes under a table, which is both extremely Tom & Jerry and also precisely the sort of thing the Pencil Army need to be doing if they want to win this match. The way the introduction of pencils as a weapon obeys the classic rule of foreign objects spots - Brookes is the one that introduces the stationery, so he’s the one who ends up getting stabbed with it.

I could go on, but really there’s one moment here that stands out above all others - the moment where Brookes reunites Lulu with her hat in the hopes it might get her to quit, and the moment where Lulu still refuses. It’s a formulaic bit of pro wrestling gimmickry, pure sentimentality, but so are all of the best moments in wrestling history, and it gives me shivers every time I think about it. There were other emotional crescendos throughout the four seasons of Choco Pro that have taken place this year, but this still felt like a culmination - the ultimate vindication of that first principle of Sakuraism, staying true to yourself. I could point to no more classic examples of the hokey, heartstring-tugging art of pro wrestling storytelling anywhere this year; and classic, hokey and heartwarming was precisely what was needed in this disorientating, destabilising time.