The WWE hasn’t exactly been shy in recent years as they’ve scoured the globe for the best and most exciting talents. From the NJPW raid, the CWC and indie darlings turned superstars like Owens, Zayn and Joe, never before has such a wealth of talent performing inside a WWE ring. But it appears the hunt isn’t over. In the latest Wrestling Observer Newsletter, the following report was included:
“Both Io Shirai and Kairi Hojo have gotten offers to start in WWE in 2017 in the last week or two. Both told Stardom management about it this week. Shirai said she was going, and said that she was called by Shoichi Funaki. Hojo was contacted by Shinsuke Nakamura and Simon Inoki. Hojo at first didn’t make a final decision and there is some question if she can pass the physical because she’s had two major concussions in the last two years. In July, when WWE ran at Sumo Hall, Hojo was introduced to Nakamura through Simon Inoki, who knew her because they had worked together when Hojo did an IGF tour. Nakamura pushed to Hojo that she’d do great in WWE. Hojo most recently told the Stardom office that she’s interested in going to WWE. Stardom officials believe Shirai is gone for sure, but they are working to keep Hojo and Hojo then said she’s not sure what she’s going to do.”
This might not be news on the level of AJ Styles finally making it to the WWE, but if you give a damn about women’s wrestling, you should be paying close attention to this developing story. Because if you’ve never seen Io Shirai or Kairi Hojo wrestle before, when you change that you’ll be in for a treat.
To put it simply, Shirai and Hojo are two of the most talented female wrestlers in the world right now. For the past few years they’ve been tearing the house down with World Wonder Ring Stardom, better known as just Stardom. And alongside Mayu Iwatani, are often referred to as the ‘Threedom’, the three talented stars who have helped make Stardom one of the premier Joshi federations in Japan (Joshi is the term for women’s wrestling in Japan).
There has been plenty of speculation that the WWE are looking to put on a tournament similar to the CWC in early 2017 that will be centred around the women’s division, and along with names like Evie, Santana Garrett and Candice LeRae, the Threedom were at the top of fan’s most wanted lists. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the WWE have had them on their radar. But truthfully, the news that Hojo and Shirai might be joining the company full time is rather surprising.
WWE haven’t exactly been shy about looking to Japan for top notch talent in recent years. Just look at the list of guys they’ve acquired from the Far East: Kenta/Hideo Itami, Asuka, AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Gallows and Anderson, Akira Tozawa and Kota Ibushi (ok, Ibushi is freelancing, but he’s been on the WWE network precisely 100% more than I ever expected).
Of that list, most of them have been handled pretty well. And when you consider how former Japanese wrestlers have been used, things are far more promising for the current batch. At least inside the yellow ropes of NXT, it’s fair to assume that Shirai and Hojo would be treated with the respect their talent would warrant. The women’s division, which has been in a state of rebuild since it was decimated by the main roster call-ups of the Four Horsewomen, Alexa Bliss, Nia Jax and Carmella, would be instantly replenished with main event level talent.
The question is ultimately this: Can Io Shirai, Kairi Hojo (and hell, even Asuka) thrive on the main roster of Smackdown or Raw? We still don’t know how the WWE will handle these Japanese stars outside of NXT – the closest we got was Hideo Itami in the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal. It feels like Nakamura and Asuka will both get strong initial pushes, but we’re still to see how a Corpus Christi-esque crowd will handle the unique styles of these superstars.
They will be the litmus tests for stars like Shirai and Hojo. Both Nakamura and Asuka have strong and charismatic characters who can succeed with limited microphone time, where their accents may cause problems. If they can succeed, then not only will the WWE be more comfortable pushing the others, but other Japanese talents who might be wary of the WWE system might see it as a possible destination.
Regardless, there are several upsides to the two of them. First of all, they’re damn talented in the ring. And if nothing else, the prospect of Shirai or Hojo facing off with Asuka should be enough to excite any fan of wrestling. Both are comfortable working the stiffer Japanese style, so we might also see Asuka hold back a little less than she might be with some of the other wrestlers. But they’re also adept at high flying and more traditional forms of wrestling, so even if they have to cull their moveset a bit, they’ll still be able to put on a show.
Secondly, they’re both still young. Kairi Hojo is 28 and Io Shirai is just 26, meaning that even with the physically demanding style they have been wrestling they potentially have quite a few years left in them for WWE to make the most of. And if we’re being honest, they’re both rather attractive – and even if the focus is more on the wrestling now it’ll never hurt for a female wrestler to be easy on the eyes.
The report makes it seem that Io Shirai is all but destined for the WWE. Kairi Hojo though is a bit more up in the air. The concussions she’s received in recent years is a real concern. But the report also had a bit more to say on the situation:
“There is a belief that Hojo doesn’t want to go to WWE so much as prove she’s better than Shirai. Among the fans, Hojo has always been No. 2 to Shirai because Shirai is considered the better wrestler of the two, even their hardcore Stardom fans like Hojo more. It’s been pushed to Hojo that if she stays, she’ll be the No. 1 female wrestler in Japan, but if she goes to WWE, that will never happen, and that because Shirai is the “bigger star” and better looking in WWE’s eyes along with being a better wrestler, that she would never surpass her going there.”
The question becomes simple. Does she follow Shirai to the WWE, and maybe try and outperform her on the bigger platform, or does she stay with Stardom and cement a legacy as the new undisputed star of Stardom? The claim that she could never outshine Shirai by joining her in the WWE is likely a bit of posturing from a company desperate to keep her, but history is far more likely to shine brighter on someone who succeeded in the WWE than if they only succeed in a small promotion. If Hojo wants to prove she’s better than Shirai, her best bet might be in America.
But where does that leave the Stardom promotion if two of their big three disappear? Obviously the 23 year old Mayu Iwatani, the sole remaining member of the Threedom, would claim the top spot by default. They also have some up and coming talent in Momo Watanabe and Jungle Kyona. But while New Japan Pro Wrestling survived the WWE talent raid and ended up perhaps better than ever with the rise of Naito and Omega, it seems far less likely for Stardom, whose burgeoning talent will struggle to fill such big shoes. Joshi is ultimately still a niche sub-genre of an already niche product that is professional wrestling. Stardom was making ground beyond Japan with the popularity of the Threedom, and losing two of them will be a massive blow, even if it’s not necessarily a death sentence.
Even if all this ends up being for naught, it shows that the WWE isn’t willing to rest on the talent it already has. Despite sitting on perhaps the most impressive pile of talent in the company’s history, it still yearns for the type of wrestler who can draw in the kind of attention that the Hogans, Rocks and Austins of the past were able to. And as women’s wrestling proves to be more viable, the fact they’re targeting brilliant wrestlers rather than brilliant bikini models is great news for the future of the division.
And if nothing else, the WWE will get the best elbow drop in the business.