Don’t Overlook Mio Momono For Wrestler of the Year

I don’t claim to be an expert on joshi. Along with lucha libre, it’s one of the bigger blind spots in my wrestling fandom, so I do what I can to try to actively seek it out. This year especially, I made a much greater effort than before to seek out joshi matches that got buzz online or, more importantly, were recommended by those that I trust.

The results of this effort were rather interesting. One of my main takeaways was that not much in STARDOM interested me. With only a handful of exceptions, much of what got hyped in STARDOM this year left me cold. There’s a certain spark I find to be missing in much of what they do, and that keeps me from returning to their product too often. It also doesn’t help that the cloud of Bushiroad’s involvement with the company looms over everything they do.

The corner of joshi that really caught my eye in 2021 was the interpromotional feud between Marvelous and Sendai Girls. It’s a rivalry with deep historical roots. The president of Marvelous, joshi legend Chigusa Nagayo helped train the co-founder of Sendai Girls, Meiko Satomura. Both also have deep ties to Nagayo’s now defunct joshi promotion GAEA, where Satomura built her name early in her career.

It was through this rivalry that I discovered Mio Momono.

First thing to get out of the way, her theme song is a bop. Watch even just one of her matches and you’ll be stuck humming “M-I-O, M-I-O, M-I-O…” to yourself for days. (Editor’s note: this song, and a surprising amount of joshi theme music, is on Apple Music.) My first exposure to Mio and the song was on the January 10thRoad to GAEAism event hosted by Sendai Girls where Mio wrestled in a 7-on-7 gauntlet elimination match. She survived multiple members of the Sendai Girls roster, with her theme song playing after every victory. Easy way to etch it on the mind forever.

For much of the calendar year, Mio Momono found herself positioned as one of Marvelous’ top stars in the battle against Sendai Girls. With Marvelous’ ace in Takumi Iroha injured for much of the year, Mio was the one to step up and carry the banner for Marvelous and she made the most of the opportunity.

In the entire rivalry against Sendai Girls, Mio Momono shined as a wrestler who could believably take the fight to anyone in the ring while still playing a believable underdog when need be. Even among her peers, Mio’s shorter stature means that she’s well equipped to bump and sell for larger opponents. When paired with Chihiro Hashimoto especially, Mio embodies the underdog babyface spirit incredibly well. But her size belies a fiery tenacity that adds a furious energy to all her matches.

Mio Momono’s In-Ring Work

When Mio gets going, there are really few better than her on the scene. She’s a nonstop ball of energy that pushes onward constantly. Her work fits in rather nicely with the more high-speed style of joshi matches that involves a lot of running the ropes, dropkicks, and flashy pinfall combinations.

Because of that she works nicely in multi-person settings such as tag matches or three-ways. It’s in those settings where her flashiness stands out best as she’s incredibly adept at stringing together some fantastic offense capable of felling multiple people at once. Her more fast paced and high-flying offense never looks contrived in execution. It flows with the rest of the action seamlessly, demonstrating Mio’s excellent timing and ring awareness. Just look at her three-way against Mei Hoshizuki and Rin Kadokura on January 18th or her tag match teaming with Starlight Kid against Mei Hoshizuki & AZM on July 19th for some of the best examples of this.

There’s another side to Mio’s ring work that really helps to round her out as a performer though. When push comes to shove, Mio Momono can throw hands with the best of them. The high stakes of the Marvelous vs. Sendai Girls rivalry made the perfect platform for her to showcase this. When in the ring against someone like DASH Chisako, one of the hardest hitting women in wrestling, Mio doesn’t once back down.

When Mio throws a dropkick, she’s trying to kick her way through another woman’s soul. Her forearm shots to the sternum thud wonderfully, she really makes a show of putting her whole weight behind each shot. And when things get especially nasty, Mio can throw a real mean shoot headbutt as well.

GAEAism

The centerpiece of her year, and perhaps the best performance to solidify her case, was the main event of the GAEAism Decade of a Quarter Century show on June 13th. This match represents the apex of the Marvelous vs. Sendai Girls rivalry with each promotion being represented by three women in an elimination six-woman tag.

Mio teamed with Mei Hoshizuki and Rin Kadokura against the Sendai Girls contingent of Chihiro Hashimoto, DASH Chisako, and Mika Iwata. The match moves at a quick, thrilling pace that never lets up until the field of competition is whittled down to just Mio Momono and Chihiro Hashimoto.

The final stretch of the six-woman tag plays out like its own little singles match with Mio throwing everything possible at Chihiro to try to take the woman down. At one point, she grabs a cross armbreaker on the Chihiro and wrenches with her entire weight. I’ve often found that submission attempts are a real hard sell in the pandemic setting, especially in Japan where fans can’t chant to encourage the wrestler in the hold. In this instance though, I thought Mio’s desperation in the hold was able to overcome that obstacle. The lady looked like she was trying to snap Chihiro’s arm off.

The final stretch is a great display of the chemistry that Mio and Chihiro had developed together through all their encounters building up to the GAEAism main event. Mio is just such an excellent babyface in the moment that every moment gets infused with a powerful sense of stakes and drama. When Chihiro grabs a waistlock and deadlifts Mio’s feet off the ground, Mio’s desperate, flailing attempts to escape the oncoming German suplex create absolute sympathy.

Correct Your Ballots

It’s a fantastic performance in one of the best matches of the year, and a real case maker for Mio Momono. In fact, despite being on the shelf for the last quarter of 2021, she still has some impressive volume when it comes to very good to great matches wrestled this calendar year. It’s all those frantic and fun build up tags leading to the GAEAism main event that fill out her resume, but there’s flashes of strong work in other settings as well. She has the May 14th match against DASH Chisako and the July 11th Sendai Girls World Title match against Chihiro Hashimoto to show her abilities in big-time singles matches. She also has efforts in more compact matches like her June 1st match against Miyuki Takase in the Catch the WAVE tournament. Wherever Mio Momono ended up in 2021, she was often the highlight of the match she was in.

I think that’s the defining factor in the case for Mio Momono. In all the matches I saw her in, she always came across as arguably the best wrestler involved. Her presence helps elevate any match that she’s in. She was one of the key players in a major interpromotional feud, and in general, she was the most naturally compelling and entertaining woman in Japanese wrestling all year.

For those of you constructing year end lists, be sure to check out her work. Until you have, I’d write those Wrestler of the Year lists in pencil instead of ink.