Io Shirai is the NXT Women’s Champion, and the question has been asked, is she the best female worker in the world? That is a big statement; there are so many top-line talents in the world. However, she is one of the leading lights behind the resurgence of Joshi, put herself firmly on the international stage, and is arguably the most exciting talent on the WWE roster today. 

If you were going to pick a start point in the Joshi timeline for career advancement to start, 2007 wasn’t it. Joshi was not in a good place. GAEA and All Japan Women (the two major offices in the country) closed their doors in 2005. FMW went bankrupt before that, and JWP and LLPW became the last women standing out of the original Joshi companies. It was not a great time to be a rookie.

However, that is when Io and Mio Shirai made their debuts after training through High School. Mio and Io would form a young and energetic tag team that would work the independent scene, and the three promotions that would become the backbone of the industry in the next decade: WAVE, JWP and Sendai Girls. They would represent Team Makehen, a group made up of the trainees of Tomohiko Hashimoto.    

They worked for all the promotions that featured women in late 2000s including SMASH and Osaka Pro. in 2010 they would team up with Kana (now Asuka) to become Triple Tails where they began to pioneer self-promotion and gave Kana a base to develop her own promotional ideas that would greatly affect her career. Triple Tails would become a hot ticket as a faction as well as a promotional stable, and it helped push all three women’s careers forward. In 2010, Io announced her departure from the group to focus on a solo career and headed off to Mexico to wrestle for AAA.  

Overall she was incredibly successful in Mexico. As a Luchadora, she refined her aerial style, and developed into a big attraction, starting off as a masked wrestler Bibai Kasai and then returning to being Io Shirai. She won the Americas World Mixed tag team titles with all Japan regular NOSAWA; she had headline feuds with Faby Apache and other local female stars, and one Lucha de Asputas Hair vs Mask Match beating La Maléfica, in the final of a four-way.

While she was in Mexico she spent time at the local wrestling school, treating it as a proper excursion and developing her Lucha chops alongside her Joshi approach. That would become the key to her appeal. Her Mexico run would ultimately end in disaster, as both Shirai and NOSAWA were accused of transporting drugs across the Japanese border when returning home to Japan. 

The marijuana in question was attached to two picture frames given to them by fans, and both denied any wrongdoing. The pair were living together at the time and as it turned out, Takuya Sugi confessed to planting the drugs in return for a contract with AAA through agent Masahiro Hayashi. In any event, the Japanese prosecutor did not press charges. It could have been a death knell for Shirai’s career. Drugs charges in Japan are widely seen as career-ending issues, especially for women. Though attitudes have changed, even five years ago, Shirai considered retirement. 

But when she got back to Japan a new promotion was setting its sights on bringing back the glory days of Joshi. Rossy Ogawa started World Wonder Ring Stardom in 2011 from the ashes of NEO Japan Pro Ladies Wrestling. He took with him their High Seed title and its perennial champion Natsuki☆Taiyo, as well as the last ever WWWA Champion Nanae Takahashi.

When Takahashi started, she was a big name freelancer in an evolving pond. Takahashi was the Word of Stardom Champion and matriarchal figure in the company, but clearly her mojo was only going to get the company so far. She would drop the title to Alpha Female, Jazzy Gabert in March of 2013. After a two year ascent through the ranks, Shirai would challenge for a belt that thanks to canny TV exposure, YouTube versions of the TV show (not exactly legal, but highly watched), and both Takahashi’s run as champion and the headline news of a Joshi belt won by a gaijin, had become the championship to watch in Joshi wrestling.           

Shirai had come through the challengers at just the right time. Stardom was not ready for a homegrown champion just yet. Mayu Iwatani was not a finished project, but she looked like the woman most likely and Kairi Hojo was barely gaining traction two years into her career. Shirai was given the task of building on the work Takahashi had done. The rub of beating the Kimura Monster Gun’s Alpha Female got the show off to a running start. Gabert had looked dominant in her destruction of Takahashi, and over the next ten defences, she set about redefining the title, and how World Wonder Ring Stardom was viewed worldwide.

First up would, Yoshiko, the young thug who was making a name for herself and was considered a rising star. Next, it would be Kyoko Kimura, leader of Monster Gun and mainstay wrestler on the Joshi scene. She was dispatched with aplomb, the former Champion Takahashi challenged for the belt on Stardom’s 100th show. In a thirty-minute barnstormer, Shirai took the win at 29:59 of a 30:00 match. This was turning into a special reign. She offered up her next title show to JWP’s perennial Ace Arisa Nakajima. Nakajima refused the title shot until she had regained the JWP Openweight Championship.

Once Nakajima regained her title, she challenged Shirai in a Winner Takes All match on December 29th, 2013. The match would go the full thirty minutes, meaning both champions would retain, but the title match was state of the art. Shirai was rewarded with the company MVP award for 2013. Stardom’s other singles champion Natsuki☆Taiyo the High-Speed titleholder would be the challenger next as the company moved in 2014 with Shirai clearly at the helm. She issued an open challenge to anyone from the wrestling world, accepting all international challengers.

Cheerleader Melissa would answer the call, the then-SHIMMER Champion had brought a sense of calm professionalism to the SHIMMER title which was exactly what Shirai was trying to do with the Stardom title. They were well matched but Shirai took the definitive victory over her North American foe. Continuing the North America theme she would successfully defend against Star Fire at Lucha Fan Fest 7 in Mexico City. Babyface youngster Takumi Iroha, who had been in a thorn in Shirai’s side costing her the Five Star GP final the year before in the group stages, was next and was dispatched in a star-making performance.

Iroha would be leaving Stardom for Marvelous in the coming months and Shirai gave her a wonderful going away present. Getting her over in front of a partisan Korakuean Hall Crowd. However, there was one glaring omission in the Joshi world from Shirai’s star-studded CV. After defeating Iroha she took out her own cell phone, in the middle of the ring and made The Call.

The call was to Meiko Satomura, a woman she had defeated on April 6th at a Sendai Girls event. Satomura was the biggest draw in Joshi and widely considered to be the best professional wrestler on earth. The total package, a 19-year pro, veteran of the Monday Night Wars, and widely the best all-around package of trainer, promoter and wrestler in the business. If Shirai wanted her reign to mean anything, she had to beat Satomura when it mattered. On July 10th, 2014, they tore Korakuen Hall apart in one of the most violent and high-risk title matches in years. Reminiscent of the GAEA matches where Satomura had made her name, it defined the Shirai reign.

She had set the record for defences beating Takhashi’s seven with her tenth defence against Satomura, but she would lose to Yoshiko on August 10th 2014. 

Shirai helped define what Stardom would become, but the title reign would pay a heavy toll on her mental and physical wellbeing. The strain on the body to have those type of matches is incredible and to do it, month in, month out against the very best in the world is incredibly difficult. She moved down the card in the coming months, however by Autumn of 2014, she would have a whole host of other responsibilities thrust upon her. However, that is a story for another day.    

Pictures and video courtesy of World Wonder Ring Stardom