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31 Days of Wrestling (12/26/18): The Storm in the Sky

Welcome to the 31 Days of Wrestling, ladies and gentlemen. Once again, we're at that point where we take a look back at the past 11 months of pro wrestling (and as much as possible, the last month as well) and cherry-pick one match for each day of December from a list of bouts that defined the year in our beloved sport. Most matches will be good, while some may not be; what matters is that they helped build the perception and reputation of the kind of wrestling 2018 produced for us.

The year that was has seen great changes in the presentation of women's professional wrestling. One may argue that Becky Lynch is the most popular Superstar in the WWE today. Or that the true breakout star of sports entertainment is Ronda Rousey. Or that Asuka vs. Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania 34 may be the most significant match this year in professional wrestling (having written that review myself, I admit to being biased).

And then there was the Mae Young Classic.

In many ways, the MYC can be seen as the platform by which the WWE presents the next generation of women in professional wrestling. The lack of advertising and promotion around the MYC—as Rie Takumi pointed out in her review of Satumora/Martinez—makes it the best-kept secret of the WWE. Last year's MYC final between Kairi Sane and Shayna Baszler parlayed itself into a storyline in NXT; while certainly left wanting, Sane vs. Baszler did more than it could as the beginning of a new dawn in women's professional wrestling. Toni Storm vs. Io Shirai, though, could be a rivalry to watch out for in years to come.

Toni Storm is one of the most popular emerging talents in the WWE women's roster for a reason: she has all the skills necessary to be the future of the business. At the young age of 23, Storm shows amazing athleticism and in-ring finesse that even veteran wrestlers struggle with. Having honed much of her skills in the rings of Europe and the United Kingdom—along with a stint in Japan—the former inaugural PROGRESS Women's Champion was one of the strongest contenders in this year's MYC.

At some point in her decade-long career, Io Shirai was considered one of the best wrestlers in the world. A multi-time champion in World Wonder Ring Stardom, Shirai was considered its standard-bearer and the heir apparent to a decades-long legacy of Japanese women's professional wrestling. Like many before her, Shirai was a dazzling aerialist, whose command of the ring revolved around her lightning-fast offense, inspired by lucha libre and joshi puroresu, and was arguably the top contender for the 2018 MYC.






To say that Storm vs. Shirai is an important match in the WWE's canon of women's wrestling matches is an understatement: it is a match that presents both women as the stars to watch out for, and the future flag-carriers of women's wrestling. In a match that could have been a play between Storm's technical grappling and Shirai's rapid-fire offense, it instead unfolded as a total adrenaline rush.

There are those who say that women's wrestling tends to over-rely on spots and other calls to be successful, but this match argues that it isn't: whether it's Shirai's use of leverage and the 619, or Storm's counter-wrestling and brutal suplexes, every hold and strike was presented as something meaningful. Throughout the ten-or-so minutes that Storm and Shirai battled, they were equals: for that match, they showed the world that whatever hype and build-up that preceded them was not only well-deserved but real. That no two women deserved to be in the MYC finals more than they did, and no two are more prepared to carry the future of women's wrestling than they are.

In the end, it was a mistake that cost Shirai the MYC victory, as perfectly-placed knees—and a Storm Zero for good measure—clinched the victory for Storm.

In a not-so-distant past, a match like Storm vs. Shirai would have been unheard of: in wrestling eras gone by, it would have gone the way of a poorly-executed women's battle royal, or an evening gown match at most. But in this match, "star" wasn't just written all over both Toni Storm and Io Shirai: in that stretched instant, no matter how brief it was, both Storm and Shirai proved themselves the best wrestlers in the world.

***


31 Days of Wrestling is Smark Henry's way of celebrating the matches that helped define wrestling in 2018.

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