Io Shirai: Wrestling’s Best Kept Secret (For Now)
"...I feel confident in saying that Io Shirai is the best female wrestler since Manami Toyota"
In recent times the WWE has signed a lot of independent wrestlers, from up and coming talents such as Noam Dar and Cedric Alexander to well traveled, well respected veterans such as AJ Styles and Shinsuke Nakamura. In my humble opinion though, as great as those wrestlers are, very few of them have the pure wrestling talent and upside of Io Shirai.
Io Shirai made her debut in March 2007 at the age of 16 while still in high school, teaming with her older sister Mio Shirai. She wrestled part-time until she graduated. Upon graduation she decided to become a full-time worker. During this time she continued to team with her sister and the two worked as freelancers, wrestling for a wide variety of Japanese promotions including JWP Joshi Puroresu, Pro Wrestling Wave and Sendai Girls Pro Wrestling.
Towards the end of 2008 the Shirais wrestled for one of the biggest promotions in Japan, All Japan Pro Wrestling. In early 2009 they followed this up with a short stay in Pro Wrestling Zero1, a company that was not known for showcasing women’s wrestling. This level of exposure this early in their careers showed the high expectations that was held for them.
In April 2009 the Shirais captured their first titles, the spectacularly named Totally Lethal Wrestling World Young Women’s Tag Team Championships, by winning a tournament. Shortly after this, Io was given her first singles title shot where she came up short against Misaki Ohata. The Shirais, along with Gami, ended 2009 by winning Pro Wrestling Wave’s Captain’s Fall Six Person Tag Team Tournament.
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In June 2010 the Shirais were joined by Kana, who is now known as Asuka in NXT, to form the stable Triple Tails. During the preceding year they wrestled mostly six person tag matches. These included matches in Smash, where they wrestled in intergender matches, even picking up a win over a team containing Tajiri. Triple Tails also ran their own shows and it was after the third of these, in August 2011, that Io Shirai left the stable to pursue a singles career.
After leaving Triple Tails Shirai made Stardom her home promotion.
Around the time that Triple Tails was formed Shirai made her first trip to Mexico to continue her training. This is a common practice among Japanese wrestlers looking to broaden their horizons and further their development. Shirai traveled back and forth between Japan and Mexico from 2010 to 2012 before an unexpected incident temporarily put an end to that arrangement.
On May 23rd 2012 Shirai, along with then boyfriend Kazushige Nosawa, was arrested on suspicion of trying to smuggle marijuana into Japan upon returning from Mexico. The drugs were hidden inside paintings that the couple said were given to them by fans. In July of that year Takuya Sugi, who wrestled for AAA in Mexico, confessed to planting the drugs. According to Sugi the liaison between AAA and Japan, Masahiro Hayashi, had offered him a contract extension in return for the act. Hayashi, by all accounts, had a grudge against Nosawa.
Upon being acquitted of all charges Shirai returned to Stardom to continue her career. This is where she established herself as one of the best female wrestlers in the world.
Shirai won her first championship in Stardom on April 29th 2013 when she defeated Alpha Female for the World of Stardom Championship. Shirai held the title throughout the remainder of 2013 and was named as the MVP of Stardom at the end of the year awards ceremony.
In May 2014 Shirai defeated Natsuki Taiyo for the High Speed Championship to become a double champion. In August of that year Shirai lost the World of Stardom Championship after holding it for 468 days and making 10 successful defences. She made up for this quickly though by winning the 5Star GP tournament that started later that month. Shirai ended 2014 by becoming a double champion for the second time when, along with Mayu Iwatani and Takumi Iroha, she won the Artist of Stardom Championship, the company’s version of 6-person tag titles. This led to her winning her second MVP Award.
In February 2015 Shirai lost her High Speed Championship in her third defence and in April was then stripped of her Artist of Stardom Championship due to an injury to Iroha. This left her without a title for the first time in 2 years. This didn’t last long though as just 4 weeks later she teamed with Iwatani again to win a tournament for the vacant Goddess of Stardom Championship, their version of the tag titles. 11 days after she had won that title Shirai became the first wrestler ever to win all 5 of Stardom’s championships when she defeated Nikki Storm, now Nikki Cross in NXT, to win the Wonder of Stardom Championship.
Shirai spent the rest of 2015 defending her titles, which included her first title defences in America as part of Stardom’s first US tour, until she lost her Wonder of Stardom Championship to Santana Garrett in a match that also saw Garrett’s NWA World Women’s Championship up for grabs.
Once again Shirai didn’t have to wait long to gain another title. Only a month in fact, as she defeated Meiko Satomura in an excellent match to become the first ever two-time World of Stardom champion. Performances of this standard meant that she was voted as joshi wrestler of the year by Japanese sports newspaper Tokyo Sports.
Shirai started off 2016 like a house on fire. First she defended her World of Stardom title against Kairi Hojo, who is also WWE bound, and then became a triple champion when she reclaimed the Artist of Stardom Championship, this time with Mayu Iwatani and Kairi Hojo.
In April of that year Shirai, Iwatani and Hojo traveled to America once more, this time the trip included an appearance in Lucha Underground. The three of them competed in a gauntlet match against Pentagon Dark with Shirai, who wrestled as Hitokiri, picking up the win with a Canadian Destroyer. This was followed up by a European tour on which Stardom debuted a new title, the SWA World Championship. Shirai was victorious in a tournament to become the inaugural champion. This meant that she held 4 of the 6 Stardom titles concurrently.
During the second half of 2016 Shirai lost 3 of her 4 titles leaving her with only the World of Stardom Championship. Shirai and Iwatani set records with the Goddess of Stardom Championship for both longest reign and most defences. In December Shirai defended her World of Stardom Championship against Iwatani in one of the best matches to take place anywhere in 2016. She was also awarded both the Stardom MVP Award and joshi wrestler of the year by Tokyo Sports for the second consecutive year.
In January 2017 Shirai claimed her 3rd Artist of Stardom Championship while teaming with HZK and Momo Watanabe. In February Shirai made the eleventh defence of her World of Stardom Championship in a great match against Shayna Baszler. This broke her own record for most title defences.
In March Shirai commemorated 10 years in wrestling with a special event and a week after that took part in a WWE tryout. This tryout was meant to be kept private but it was accidentally featured on WWE.com. This forced Shirai to confirm that she had been offered a contract.
Between April 9th and May 6th Shirai was stripped of the Artist of Stardom Championship, won the vacant title and then lost it again. On May 15th it was reported by Dave Meltzer that Shirai had accepted a contract from WWE.
It hasn’t been confirmed when Shirai will be joining WWE but an educated guess can be made that she will debut in the upcoming WWE Women’s Tournament. If this is the case, expect her to go deep into the tournament, maybe even winning it. Before she debuts she will have to drop the World of Stardom Championship, which she has held for over 500 days.
At this stage in her career a move to WWE makes perfect sense, as she has done everything she can in Stardom. The consistent quality of her in ring output is only surpassed by a handful of wrestlers, regardless of gender, and at this stage I feel confident in saying that Io Shirai is the best female wrestler since Manami Toyota. The future is both intriguing and exciting and I look forward to seeing how it plays out.
Io Shirai vs Meiko Satomura – Stardom Year End Climax 2015
Io Shira vs Mayu Iwatani – Stardom Year End Climax 2016
Io Shirai vs Kairi Hojo – Stardom The Highest 2017