Simps Don’t Be Sad: AEW Women’s Eliminator Tournament Night 1

Last week, in reviewing the first match of AEW’s Women’s Championship Eliminator tournament, I said that it might be the AEW women’s divisions long-awaited breakout moment. This week, the tournament produced what might stand for the rest of 2021 as the best single unit of television produced under the banner of an American wrestling company.

There are positives and negatives to this fact, the first of which is this: Like when AEW’s Women’s Tag Team Tournament was sequestered to YouTube, there’s really no reason these matches couldn’t air on Dynamite, pre-taped or not. Actually, there’s one reason: In booking the first round of the American half of the tournament out over four weeks and the Japanese half in one night, it’s pretty obvious that the Japanese half is being shotgunned for the sake of getting the finalist to America in time to properly introduce them to the AEW audience and build to the finals.

I get it. There’s a pandemic, and flying someone out to the United States to lose in the first round and go home would eat weeks of that wrestler’s ability to wrestle due to the necessity of quarantine. And it’s hard to say how American fans would react to a pre-taped match with new-to-them wrestlers airing on a live show given how rare pre-taped matches (not like the Boneyard Match, but like DDP/Goldberg on Nitro or the Owen/Bulldog European Championship tournament finals) are, to say nothing of how much pressure there is to maintain an air of unpredictability when facing legitimate competition across the dial.

I don’t understand why AEW forces itself to book around complicated logistical nightmares, but the last time they did it gave us Cody Rhodes’ neck tattoo, and now it’s given us this: An hour of bright, sparkling Joshi on a YouTube channel that’s not for hardcore women’s wrestling enthusiasts savvy enough to type “吉田 万里子” into their search bar. I’m not too cool to admit that I’m not that hardcore. I stick with “Mariko Yoshida,” for one.

But I’ve also really fallen off on keeping up with joshi since Asuka signed with WWE in 2015 and was, by that point, pretty much just keeping up with her. 2015 would have been I saw VENY, when they were going by ASUKA. The last Aja Kong singles match I saw was against Sara Del Rey. My first Maki Itoh match? January of this year. Shameful, true, but it means that whatever my misgivings are about how AEW chose to run this corrective tournament, I get to reacquaint myself, at least for a couple of weeks, with the first style of wrestling that made me really love this sport/art as an adult.

This is an extremely long preamble, but seriously, watch this show. Whether you love joshi or only have exposure to it through outfits like AEW, it’s worth a watch. I’ve never said that of an entire wrestling show during my tenure at Fanfyte, so believe me when I tell you this.

Yuka Sakazaki def. Mei Suruga

Beyond advancing someone to a tournament final match at AEW Revolution, round one of the Japanese half of the Women’s Eliminator Tournament was saddled with the task of simultaneously reintroducing the AEW audience to some of the women who came through the promotion briefly before the pandemic, as well as introduce them to wholly new wrestlers. I was curious as to how they’d do that, whether the evening would be an interpretation of AEW’s American-indie influenced flavor of women’s wrestling, or if we were building to a potential clash of styles in the finals.

I’m glad that we’re leaving the American pace in America for the time being, though adjusting to the more measured, technical style of this match was a bit surprising given that the only hint of AEW about it was Excalibur’s commentary and the big AEW banner on the wall. Sakazaki was the victim of one of the women’s division’s more memorable angles from last year, when Brit Baker knocked out one of her teeth and applied the Lockjaw to her bloody mouth. She rules, but I found myself more captivated by Mei Sugura, who, as the less experienced, less powerful wrestler, had to rely on clever tricks, leverage moves, and her extremely versatile bridge. She didn’t just lock in complicated submission holds while in a high bridge, she transitioned to several different ones. Why anybody else bothers with bridges, I’ll never know. They were sadly not enough for her to take the win though, as Sakazaki picked up where she left off in AEW, winning in impressive fashion with her Magical Girl Splash, a 450 splash from the center of the top rope.

Emi Sakura def. VENY

Yes, Emi Sakura beat VENY, but so far VENY is the winner of the whole tournament. Their ring gear? Incredible. Their arsenal? Astonishing. Everybody who won last night had prior experience in AEW. Given that Sakura had a PPV championship match, a VENY win would have been appreciated, especially given the whole “AEW brings its fans wrestlers they wouldn’t necessarily see” spiel at the top of the show. I’m not trying to take anything away from Sakura—she’s great! She deserves to have a match on American television where Jim Ross isn’t calling her Amy!

But VENY was hot fire, y’all, from their extremely strange forward roll through one of Sakura’s early strike attempts to the heat with which they countered a la magistral cradle into a basic pin. This was just a YouTube show in a small, largely empty venue, but VENY wrestled like they knew this was a big moment for them, displaying beautiful form on a number of moonsaults. Grace, y’all. They were so good that I was crestfallen when Sakura won, trapping VENY in a dragon sleeper to the point that they nearly passed out, then finishing them off with a Tiger Driver. After the match, VENY slapped Sakura rather than pay the winner respect, which took some of the sting out of not getting a second easily accessible VENY match next week.

Ryo Mizunami def. Maki Itoh

I was also hoping for an easily accessible Maki Itoh match next week, but instead we were given a tease as to her star potential outside of Japan (that potential is massive, by the way), and a reintroduction to Ryo Mizunami, who was last seen at AEW’s first event, which belongs to the category of events so recent but so long before the pandemic that they’ve vanished from my memory. Mizunami is great, though. Were it not for the couple of weeks I’ve spent watching Maki Itoh matches, I would have been rooting for her on the strength of her lariats alone.

The disparity of size between the two came into play early, with Itoh mock crying when she took an invited forearm and bouncing off of Mizunami’s shoulder without Mizunami throwing a shoulder tackle. Itoh kept firing back though, utilizing a variety of DDTs and headbutts, including one to Mizunami’s lariat arm. That made Mizunami shift from the lariat to a spear, and she trapped Itoh in a rolling head and arm triangle after she kicked out. That submission is one of the best I’ve seen close out a wrestling match in a minute. Outside of a double headbutt spot that was too slow to really buy into, both women hurled themselves into this match with abandon and killed it. Would I have liked an Itoh win? Sure, but I’m not exactly complaining. I love Mizunami’s style of wrestling, and I love how it matches up with the rest of the field. It’s classic, hardhitting heavyweight stuff, and Itoh was a willing ragdoll. My favorite match of the night, and one of AEW’s best so far this year.

Aja Kong def. Rin Kadokura

Look at Aja Kong’s piledriver. Just look at it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about individual wrestling moves lately, and so far as piledrivers go, Kong’s is among the most beautiful ones in history. You can think of something like a piledriver in two ways: Narratively, it’s something that should plausibly knock the air out of someone enough to score a win; physically, it’s a bump that holds obvious, tangible risk. Kong’s looks violent—here, that violence is aided by Kadokura’s trying to swing out of it—the way she sits out makes it look like her opponent is falling through a trap door head first. But it’s also incredibly safe. Kadokura bounces out of it and lands as if she’s been thrown across the room, but it’s all shoulders on thighs, plenty of clearance between the canvas and her head. Clean and elegant masquerading as dirty and brutal. An S-tier piledriver.

Kong broke out the piledriver pretty early, but I could go on about it and her for a long time. Her presence is unreal, still, after a career that’s spanned three decades. Watching her step forward through Kadokura’s early strikes? Goosebumps, y’all, something a lot of huge male wrestlers would do well to study. The object of any match against Aja Kong is to outlast her early onslaught of bombs, and Kadokura gave it her all. She didn’t get a ton of offense, but she slipped or kicked out of a ton of Kong’s signature bombs, eating an impressive amount of punishment while trying to stick her with big shots when she could. That was something of a theme of the night, as the younger, less experienced women gave their more experienced peers their best shot and fell short. But this is the match where that was most expected, and it still delivered.

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Colette Arrand

Colette Arrand is a minor transsexual poet and nu-metal enthusiast.

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