IWGP Women’s Champion speaks
From their spot on the undercard of Wrestle Kingdom 14 to Historic X-Over, STARDOM’s presence within the NJPW sphere has rapidly grown in the last two years, with the IWGP Women’s Championship being the centerpiece. Crowned the inaugural champion, KAIRI will head to the Tokyo Dome to defend her gold for the first time, with undoubtedly more global eyes on the female wrestling space in Japan than ever before. Before Wrestle Kingdom, we sat down with the champ.
Mayu and I really was a Historic X-Over
–Let’s start by talking about the November 20 Ariake match for the IWGP Women’s Championship. With the history that you and Mayu Iwatani have, it really seemed like an emotional journey for the both of you.
KAIRI: I had a lot on my mind going into that match, definitely. When I stood opposite Mayu, all that emotion came flooding to me, and it brought a tear to my eye, for sure.
–You’re a qualified sports mental trainer, but the moment still got to you.
KAIRI: Haha, I’m not that stoic, really. That’s what really made me want to study sports psychology, but I tend to use what I learned to help other people around me. For me myself, we were in the main event in this new building, and the first ever crossover for NJPW and STARDOM. That’s a ton of pressure, and I’m not like the other STARDOM wrestlers that are on the road all the time. That makes it more of a challenge to keep myself physically and mentally in the zone.
–The day before that match you went the thirty minute distance over the Wonder of STARDOM Championship against Saya Kamitani as well, and the match turned out to be a very physical one.
KAIRI: I thought I was fully prepared for the two nights, mentally and physically. But then as I was training right before Osaka, I sprained my foot. My ankle was swollen up really badly, and the doctor told me not to wrestle. I got through the Osaka match which really helped me from a mental standpoint, but with Mayu the next day I was definitely worried.
–There was a lot riding on that match.
KAIRI: It’s hard to sum up. There was so much emotion before and after the match; with all the past I have with Mayu, Historic X-Over really was the right name for that event.
–Before the match, Mayu was quite brutally honest about not having liked you. How did you take that?
KAIRI: Back in the day, Mayu, Io Shirai and myself were called the Three Daughters of STARDOM. Things were tough then, to the point that we had so few wrestlers, it was a given that you’d wrestle twice on the same card. We were absolutely at rock bottom. After I left in 2017, I think Mayu had it in her head that she wanted to stand by STARDOM. I get that, and that’s where those words come from, but it only helped to fire me up. This is a fight, and the more stubborn minded we both were the better that fight would be.
–You both had talked about eliminating that five year void between the two of you.
KAIRI: It was a long match (25 minutes, 28 seconds) but it felt in the moment like three, that was how invested I felt. We both had a lot of pressure on us, but I think that turned into a plus.
–With Mayu on effective home turf, having stayed with STARDOM while you left and returned, did you feel that the fans were more on her side than yours?
KAIRI: I came back to STARDOM in March. There were a lot of fans that had stayed with me, and were supportive, but a lot of fans didn’t really know me, and there was a challenge sailing against the wind for a while. But I think part of the fun of watching KAIRI the wrestler is seeing how she adapts to those situations. That’s what I’m thinking of while I’m fighting in this spot, and I’d like to think that with Osaka and Ariake I’ve earned a few of those newer STARDOM fans over.
I’ve never been first before
–After that five year gap with yourself and Iwatani, did it feel familiar to tie up again, or was it more like facing someone completely new?
KAIRI: I think what the two of us had been through over the last five years is so completely different, and that really came through in the match. We’d both levelled up so much to be where we were, on that stage. I can’t speak for her, but that’s how I felt.
–So it was a motivating experience.
KAIRI: I think the younger wrestlers in STARDOM were watching, and I think there were a few people in the WWE locker room watching too. Mayu was proud of what she’d done in STARDOM and what she’d overcome and I felt the same way about my time in WWE, so it was a clash of those wills, I think.
–Was there a moment in that match that really sticks with you?
KAIRI: Mayu’s offense is always very precise, and she’s a real expert in carrying the match forward. That makes it hard to dictate the pace, and she’s such a good bumper that she doesn’t take the damage that most other wrestlers do. She keeps coming with that zombie mentality. She’s super tough.
–You looked shocked when she kicked out of the Insane Elbow that first time.
KAIRI: I can’t think of many times at all that anyone’s kicked out of that in STARDOM or WWE. It really hit me when she did- I might lose this.
–You perservered and won with a second elbow though, and it was NJPW Chairman Naoki Sugabayashi presenting the belt.
KAIRI: And (Takami) Ohbari thanked me for ending the event right. Those moments were when it really hit me that I’d done this.
–You ended the night with an Inoki style call of ‘1,2,3 Daa!’. Was that something you had planned on beforehand?
KAIRI: No, I tend to be better on the mic when I don’t think it through beforehand (laughs). I tend to try and read the room and speak from the heart. But I did think that if I were to close the show, I wanted to do something with everyone together, so I wanted to show my respect for Mr. Inoki. I couldn’t really do the ‘We are STARDOM!’ bit…
–I guess not as a freelancer.. to change the subject a little, you’re in an elite class. Bull Nakano and Lioness Asuka are both women that have wrestled in WWE/F and NJPW rings, but only you have won titles in both.
–It’s a real honour. Timing is everything as well- I just have to thank the god of pro-wrestling for giving me that chance. I’ve never been first in anything in my wrestling career, so it’s huge.
–It was a huge success of an event, and it seemed like there was an even bigger reaction to your win from overseas than in Japan.
KAIRI: You might be right. Not just from fans, but from the WWE locker room as well. ASUKA, Io, Shayna Baszler all sent congratulations, so it was great to have that reception even after I’d left that company.
–Any reaction from Shinsuke Nakamura?
KAIRI: He liked my post after I won! I know he’ll be in Japan on january 1 wrestling the Great Muta so I’d like to be there and take that in.
–There was another big reaction that night to Kenny Omega’s message challenging Will Ospreay. You had to be backstage standing by when that video aired, did you feel that added pressure on the main?
KAIRI: I’d get that in WWE a whole lot. Right before my match on a PPV there might be something big happening and the crowd being really hyped up. But I think I’ve been able to get over that from a mental perspective, I’m used to it. So I was able to focus on the match itself just fine.
–What did you say to Iwatani after the match?
KAIRI: We exchanged words in the ring, and a couple of texts afterwards. But I think we communicated enough in the ring, really. Certainly that’s where all those tears came from.
Tam’s passion is her most dangerous weapon
–So now how does it feel to be defending that title in the Tokyo Dome on January 4?
KAIRI: It wasn’t long ago at all that seemed impossible. I used to say to Io and Mayu that I wanted to wrestle in the Nippon Budokan one day and now here I am in a title match on the biggest possible stage.
–Do you watch NJPW much?
KAIRI: Oh yeah. I’ve bought a ticket to the Dome on January 4 several times. It was great to see Shota Umino challenge Will (Ospreay) in Ariake as well, it really feels like there’s new life being breathed into the main event scene in New Japan and that’s exciting.
–Have you interacted much with NJPW wrestlers?
KAIRI: I’d say hello to Okada or Tanahashi when they were in the US, and Will and I had a little conversation in English backstage at Ariake. But most of the time, even though we’re in the same line of work, I know how busy everyone is, so often those interactions are just hellos and goodbyes. I don’t want to intrude, anyway (laughs)
–This will be the first singles match for STARDOM on Wrestle Kingdom, after pre show matches and then last year’s tag match on the main card.
KAIRI: Yeah, that’s a huge responsibility. I’m happy to be in that spot, but it’s a serious situation for sure.
–And you’ll be facing the leader of Cosmic Angels, Tam Nakano. She promised ‘a special kind of hell’ for you when she challenged, and she’s been connected to you since you came back to STARDOM in February.
KAIRI: Right. Tam came into STARDOM just as I left, and we hadn’t had any contact. But when Io came over to WWE I asked her about Tam and she said ‘she’s a lot like you’. That put her on my radar.
–March 26 this year in Ryogoku, you teamed with Iwatani against tam and Sayaka Unagi.
KAIRI: I kind of got a sense of what Io meant when she said we were similar. She really wears her heart on her sleeve. She has this cute, pop idol like look, but a really violent fight style, and that contrast is what makes her really appealing. She certainly had the guts to come out and challenge me right away like she did, and I think she’s the ideal person for the spot.
–She has some very varied offense.
KAIRI: And she’s good in each area. Her suplexes have great form, her strikes are powerful and precise. And she’s more dangerous on the outside than you’d think. She’s scary- she has that combination of ability and confidence.
–I get the impression she’s very different to, say, the WWE style of wrestler.
KAIRI: Right. WWE matches are usually built around a more limited number of moves, since the goal is to bring your opponent down while bringing the TV audience in. I think this is really going to be about who dictates the pace, and Tam is good about doing that as well. But I think her biggest weapon is passion.
–That special kind of hell comment.
KAIRI: She’s scary, you know (laughs). Last year she was in a lot of match of the year votes from the STARDOM fans, and I think that’s proof of how emotionally invested she gets into her matches. If she has any sense of jealousy, or negative emotions, she’s able to turn that into strength and power, and use it against her opponent.
–It seems you’re really analytical when it comes to Tam. I see you’ve been reading her autobiography as well.
KAIRI: I wanted to see what she’s really like, and where all that passion came from. I read the whole thing in a day. I think what really struck me is that she’s not one to let things go. She won’t reset and move on; she absolutely has to let all that emotion out before she can do that.
KAIRI: She’s an emotional whirlwind. But in a positive sense as well. It’s not just negative emotions turning to anger with her, she can take the love for the fans and wanting to repay them for their support to exactly the same extremes.
I want kids in the audience to watch and want to become a wrestler
–Just like you had to wrestle in the main event in Ariake right after Osaka, here Wrestle Kingdom is preceded by STARDOM’s big Ryogoku card on December 29, where you face Utami Hayashishita.
KAIRI: No rest for the wicked (laughs).
–Utami was also in the tournament to crown the first women’s champion and said she wanted to test herself against the first title holder.
KAIRI: It’s going to be a tough match, no doubt, but I’m excited for it. She has this real perfect balance of heart, body and technique.
–She has a powerful approach in ring.
KAIRI: But I’ve been in the ring with powerful opponents in the past, and I know I can’t stumble right before the Tokyo Dome. Hopefully I can carry that momentum into the New Year holidays- I’m certainly not going to be taking any time off from training over New Year’s.
–You’re really focused.
KAIRI: I am, not just for me, but to take this chance to contribute to the wrestling world, to help more people see how fun this all can be. I think the more experienced I’ve gotten, the more I’m able to take a step back and think about that kind of thing.
–And do you think that with the global name you’ve grown that you’re able to grow the status of that championship as well?
KAIRI: Right. I think I have to. The more people that know about this title, the better that is for all of STARDOM, and all of NJPW as well. With my US experience, I think that’s definitely doable.
–You weren’t just active in the US for WWE.
KAIRI: Yeah, I’ve been on tours of the rest of Asia, all through Europe. I want to take this thing with me to just as many countries.
–So you take the responsibility as champion pretty seriously.
KAIRI: Of course, absolutely. That’s what I’m here for. I know NJPW run a lot of events overseas as well, and I definitely want to represent as champion on the world stage.
–So, any final messages for the fans heading into January 4?
KAIRI: There’ll be a lot of people in that Tokyo Dome. Lots of people will be seeing me for the first time. I think you’ll see a showy entrance, and then a match that will contrast that completely. I’d love to have a match that has kids in the crowd watching and wanting to become a wrestler, and then act on their dreams. I’m excited myself to see just what I can do on a huge stage opposite Tam and I hope the fans are too.