If you’ve been following my series about the best wrestlers of the decade, you might think I’d give the honorific to the Okada/Shibata match that cut short the resurgence of Katsuyori Shibata’s career, but if there’s anything you should know about me as a critic, it’s that multiple things can exist as the best, simultaneously. In closing out the decade, I looked for wrestlers who defined their place and time and stood outside of it in ways that can’t be quantified by star ratings. That’s why I didn’t write about Okada or Tanahashi or dozens of other wrestlers who had a brilliant run over this vast, arbitrary stretch of years, days, hours, and minutes. It’s also why I’m writing about this match from an eight year old CHIKARA show as being the best of that same time period, despite literally thousands of other candidates, despite the possibility that better matches exist.
To me, none do. Here’s why.
In 2011, quality women’s wrestling was not so easy to come by in the mainstream. You couldn’t turn on Raw or SmackDown for a predictably good, important match, and NXT was still a show where folks like Daniel Bryan had to run obstacle courses to win Michael Cole’s approval. If you wanted to watch good women’s wrestling, you had to follow independent promotions like SHIMMER and torrent joshi shows the minute they hit the servers, or hope that the joshi guy on your wrestling forum had the Megaupload links necessary to see promotions like JWP, Sendai Girls, and Ice Ribbon. In 2011, you were either in that loop or you weren’t. I was the play-by-play announcer for Absolute Intense Wrestling’s women’s division, and in my estimation, Sara Del Rey was the best professional wrestler in the world. I was very much in the loop, and while I didn’t make it to Kingsport, Tennessee for this match, I did throw down the $20 necessary to see this match as quickly as possible.
A seven year veteran at the time, Kana had just made her American debut the week before, going 3-1 against Lufisto, Mia Yim, Cheerleader Melissa, and Del Rey. In CHIKARA, she beat Jessie McKay (now the IIconics’ Billie Kay) before her rematch against Del Rey, who spent much of her year in the promotion wrestling men in the 12 Large tournament to establish the company’s first singles champion. A few months before this match, I was in the front row at the ECW Arena, watching Del Rey beat Claudio Castagnoli in a match I’d probably be writing about in this space were it not for how critical this one is to my perception of women’s wrestling in this country. But the stakes here are clear: Kana already holds a victory over Del Rey, who, the night before, was eliminated from the tournament to crown a champion in CHIKARA. How could Kana not be confident? How could Del Rey not have a massive chip on her shoulder? How could this match be anything less than great?
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Well, to answer that last question, here’s this: Earlier in the show, the middle rope broke, and the bottom rope was moved up to replace it. Think about the design of a wrestling ring, how literally every part of it is designed to function as a storytelling device. There’s what exists between the ropes, of course, but you can just throw a bunch of mats on the floor and call it a wrestling match. What makes a wrestling ring is the shape given to it by the ropes, the turnbuckles, the apron, and the liminal spaces between those elements and whatever keeps the fans out of the ring.
While the ring ropes look like a limiting factor, something that creates a boundary, what they actually do is expand the space available to wrestlers by introducing the possibility of moves that rely on running or springboarding off of them. If you take that away, you’re making the ring smaller. If you make the ring smaller, the wrestlers in it need to be able to work a style that works with close quarters. In 2011, Sara Del Rey and Kana were top tier technical wrestlers, adept at striking and submission wrestling. Compromised though it was by the broken rope, they turned an incomplete ring into an asset, wrestling a brilliant match that turned simple moves into potential match ending scenarios by virtue of there not being a rope to grab or drape a leg over. If you’ve watched GCW’s Bloodsport shows (particularly the match between Minoru Suzuki and Matt Riddle from the first one), you know how this can look, but in 2011 you had to be a massive dork to be into Pancrase, UWFi, or RINGS—the kind of shoot-style wrestling this match most closely resembles—and while you have to be a dork to get into indie wrestling, I can’t imagine too many people in the crowd in Kingsport were popping Volk Han compilations into their DVD players every day.
What that means is that Sara Del Rey vs. Kana feels wholly unique in a way that’s impossible to quantify. The match, and both women, stand just outside of space and time. I’ve written about this sensation before, but there’s a difference between a WrestleMania or a Sakura Genesis and a crowd of 200 people in a National Guard Armory. It’s harder, I feel, to stand out in a smaller venue, a setting that’s been engineered to provide small crowds with outsized moments they’ll remember forever. The broken rope works against that engineering. The way Del Rey was nerfed in the tournament the night before works against that engineering. Main event or not, this is just a match on a show that’s buried in the archives, excavated for YouTube without much ado.
I’m putting the spotlight on this match not just for what it was, but for where we are now, in a future where one of its participants is a main player and the other is regarded as an architect.
In a lot of ways, Sara Del Rey is one of the most important wrestlers of her generation. She was, for a long time, the measuring stick for American women’s wrestling, and given the number of times I heard her compared to Kris Statlander this year, she still is for many. I don’t know how the WWE Performance Center works and won’t pretend to know to what level the change of tone for NXT’s women’s division falls at her feet, but she signed with the company as a trainer in 2012, a little after Sasha Banks and Charlotte Flair, and a little before Bayley and Becky Lynch. It’s hard not to trace the evolution of the NXT Women’s Division to her signing on as a trainer.
In 2014, NXT ran its first TakeOver, the match between Natalya and Charlotte for the vacant NXT Women’s Championship effectively reset the division. The belt was never booked below semi-main event status on TakeOvers, never as anything less than a featured attraction. When Bill DeMott was fired from his position as head trainer of the WWE Performance Center, Del Rey was promoted to assistant head coach. That was September 2015. A month later, the 30 minute iron man match between Bayley and Sasha Banks marked the first time women headlined a WWE pay-per-view event. Beyond all the Historic, First Time Ever hype behind the iron man match, all of this happened subtly until the Women’s Revolution arrived on the shores of Raw and SmackDown. The same TakeOver event featured the NXT debut of Asuka.
Comparing 2011 Kana to 2019 Asuka, it’s kind of weird how great she’s been, how consistent her greatness is. Sponsored by X-Box 360 due to her career as a programmer, wearing a fashionable for the time coif due to her owning a hair salon, Kana’s something of a wrestling polymath, someone who could have done something else and succeeded, someone we’re lucky to have. This match is a microcosm of everything that makes her so good. Her submissions. Her strikes. The way she kicks Del Rey so goddamn hard that her kickpad flies off. She’s the smaller wrestler, but she’s just as brutal, just as mean as her opponent. Watching Del Rey try to figure her out is something else. A lot of matches have “feeling out periods” where everything is back and forth, holds exchanged, strikes avoided. This match makes Kana a literal puzzle, a trap you need to get caught in before you can figure it out.
Del Rey is at the other end of the technical wrestling spectrum. There’s nothing subtle about her: She’s just so damn good. In rewatching this match and in writing this article, I find myself wondering if I’m attributing so much of WWE’s changed attitude about women’s wrestling to her because otherwise I’d have to grapple with how sad I am that there’s another universe where seven more years of Sara Del Rey matches exist.
When Del Rey signed to WWE, Stardom was in its infancy. The women who comprised the second wave of NXT’s women’s division, your Ruby Riotts and Ember Moons, were just starting to break out. Watching her wrestle Kana years before she became Asuka, I can’t help but be haunted by who she didn’t wrestle, by how much I’d love to see her, seven years later, wrestle someone like Statlander or an old rival like Mercedes Martinez, to say nothing of Meiko Satomura (who she wrestled in 2012), Io Shirai, Kairi Sane, and too many others.
It’s odd that a match as complete as this feels like a tease, but wrestling is all about the space between what’s known and unknown. To that end, what I know is this: Sara Del Rey was one of the best wrestlers in the world in 2011, and Asuka was one of the best wrestlers in the world in 2019. That they met twice, let alone at all, is a testament to how good, how inventive indie wrestling promotions sometimes are. That this match is as good as it is as much a testament to the unpredictability and beauty of live performance art as it is to the skill of the women who managed to make an otherwise normal night of professional wrestling worth remembering forever.