Tsukasa Fujimoto (c) vs. Tsukushi Haruka - ICE RIBBON 04/24/2021

with manami toyota in attendance of course

This was for Tsukasa Fujimoto’s ICExInfinity Championship. If you want the full backstory to this one, check out my review of their tag title challenge as a team.

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A huge portion of wrestling performance is based in storytelling, but when it gets down to its purest form, all I really care about is what happens in the ring.

So let’s talk about what happened in this match between the ropes. In terms of the actual wrestling work, no contest in joshi wrestling has matched the pure perfection in execution of everything these two were trying to do. I joked at the start of this match that we’d see a lot of “dropkick-based offense” between these two former Dropkickers; that is exactly what we got early on. Even that little attention to detail proved that everything Fujimoto and Tsukushi set out to do had a purpose.

The little things put this one over the top. Fujimoto stopped a Tsukushi headbutt in its tracks but fell victim to one over ten minutes later. Tsukushi stomped and stomped and stomped early on but couldn’t hit the diving stomp until the very end.

God, everything in this match was so cool! Tsukushi continues to innovate when it comes to cradles and pinning predicaments, this time somehow backing into an O’Connor roll-up alongside stealing her opponent’s Tsukadora. She’s a superstar worker, and her closest Western analogue may weirdly be Darby Allin, another diminutive, reckless worker whose matches never seem to follow any sort of identifiable pattern.

The closing sequence of this match was spectacular, but the best part had to have been that Tsukushi convinced the entire Korakuen Hall crowd (and me) that she was going to win Ice Ribbon’s top title on a simple running dropkick.

And then, with Manami Toyota in attendance, Fujimoto retains with the Japanese Ocean Cyclone suplex bridge – the only move Tsukushi didn’t see when they were partners in their tag title challenge just two weeks prior. That storytelling isn’t intensely clever, and it doesn’t even really subvert expectations, but it’s beautiful, and that’s not a word I use to describe professional wrestling often.

Tsukushi, my favorite woman’s wrestler in the world, will likely get another ICExInfinity shot later this year, either in Yokohama in August/September or at RibbonMania in December. She will probably win the championship then. But it will be very difficult for these two to top their performances from tonight. This wasn’t just women’s wrestling at its finest, this was wrestling period at its finest. There have been better, more thrilling, more gruesome, more emotional matches, but I can’t recall a more perfectly worked one this year.

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And you know what’s absolutely crushing about this match? This incessant, unabating pandemic has dipped its fingers in the fates of Japanese wrestling once more, leading to a second wave of cancellations and no-fans shows nearly a full year after fans returned. It’s cut off the AJPW Champion Carnival. It will likely affect NJPW Wrestling Dontaku. It’s ruined the end of STARDOM’s Cinderella Tournament. And Ice Ribbon will be forced back into their dojo.

It gets me thinking about things outside of wrestling, when wrestling is meant to be my escape. I think about things like how these morally bankrupt pharmaceutical companies have the fucking nerve to negotiate with governments about the correct price for vaccine shipment contracts, when every single second those negotiations occur, the chances of death rise. I think about the ghoulish Bill Gates’ obsession with artificially constructed ‘intellectual property rights’ that, according to a voting bloc of developing countries in the WTO, cause an “artificial shortage of vaccines.” A pandemic is bad enough; a preventable one is inexcusable.

I lived and died with Tsukushi in this match, as I tend live and die with the fans when I watch wrestling. That’s been taken away from me again. Cherish the moments when you care about a wrestler’s success so much that it genuinely excites you when they win and pains you when they lose, because without attendance, none of it really matters. Beyond this unbelievable title match, on the same show I watched 18-year-old prodigy Suzu Suzuki wrestle as good a deathmatch as we’ve seen from anyone all year against the legendary Masashi Takeda. Suzu donning the crimson mask in front of no fans at the Ice Ribbon dojo? Takeda committing acts of assault to exactly zero reaction? They’re just not worth the effort.

And for that, effort is the story of Ice Ribbon. The undercard generally works so hard to entertain the crowd, to the point that when wrestlers don’t try, they stand out like a sore thumb. And the main event wresters outwork even them. Risa Sera practically kills herself to sell tickets. Maya Yukihi essentially worked handicap matches as tag champion with Maika Ozaki. Hiragi Kurumi’s pained expressions feel so real that you’d be understood for sympathizing with the monster.

But in Ice Ribbon, two wrestlers define “effort” better than anyone: Fujimoto, the ace of the promotion, and Tsukushi, the underdog who probably had to outwork even Fujimoto to move back up the card after a scandal that’s best left in the past. When the pandemic finally ends, they will get a chance to translate that effort into tickets, merch sales, and a white-hot crowd; knowing that that might not happen for a while made me appreciate these two so much more.

(****½)