RondaRousey.com’s Wrestler of the Week series profiles significant wrestlers from the past and present.
Some wrestlers come to WWE as virtual unknowns looking to make the first big accomplishments of their careers. RondaRousey.com’s Wrestler of the Week, recent NXT signee Io Shirai, is about the furthest thing from that. Shirai signed with WWE after 10 acclaimed years in the Japanese women’s wrestling scene, winning singles and tag gold and earning the nickname “Genius of the Sky” with her exciting high-flying ability. Before she undoubtedly starts racking up accomplishments in the world of WWE, let’s go over what Shirai has already achieved.
Io Shirai made her pro wrestling debut in March 2007, at the age of 16 alongside her older sister, Mio. She wrestled part-time until she graduated high school, then committed fully to the world of professional wrestling. The Shirai sisters worked as a tag team, starting in joshi promotions like JWP Joshi Puroresu, Ice Ribbon, Meiko Satomura’s Sendai Girls’ Pro Wrestling, and Pro Wrestling Wave (where they won their first championship titles). Their popularity soared, gaining them guest spots in the typically all-male All Japan Pro Wrestling (AJPW) in 2008 and Pro Wrestling Zero1 in 2009. The sisters soon took their act international, working for AAA in Mexico under masks as Oyuki (Io) and Kaguya (Mio).
In June 2010, the Shirais’ infamy spread further when they formed the stable Triple Tails with Kana—the wrestler now known in WWE as Asuka—joining her in NEO Japan Ladies Pro Wrestling. The trio performed in Wave and Smash—again supporting Kana—and held their first self-produced event in February 2011. After tearing it up all over the Japanese independent scene for a little over a year, Io Shirai announced she was leaving the stable to pursue a singles career. She wouldn’t wrestle with her sister again for over three years.
After leaving Triple Tails, Shirai made the new promotion World Wonder Ring Stardom her home. She debuted in August 2011 and announced she had officially signed with the company in March 2012 at a self-produced event celebrating her fifth anniversary in wrestling. After another year in which she formed the popular “Thunder Rock” tag team with Mayu Iwatami, Shirai finally won her first title in the company when she defeated Alpha Female (now NXT UK’s Jazzy Gabert) to win the World of Stardom Championship, the promotion’s top title.
By the time she left Stardom in 2018, Shirai was by far the company’s most accomplished wrestler and widely regarded as the best female wrestler in Japan. She had won all four of their singles championships, as well as their tag team and trios titles. Between 2015-2017, she also had become the first person to be voted top female wrestler in Japan by Tokyo Sports three years in a row.
In addition to awards and titles, Shirai had had awesome, acclaimed matches with Arisa Nakajima, Meiko Satomura (in both Stardom and Sendai Girls), Mayu Iwatami, Kairi Hojo (now NXT’s Kairi Sane), Momo Watanabe, and Shayna Baszler. Shirai, Iwatani, and Hojo worked internationally—including wrestling men on Lucha Underground—as “
Shirai’s first WWE appearance was at a June 2018 house show at Ryogoku Sumo Hall, where she announced she had signed to NXT. But first, like her friend Kairi Sane before her, she would compete in the Mae Young Classic. In an interview before the tournament, she made her WWE goals clear:
“I show you I’m best in the world in this ring. It is very simple. I am top in Japan. Next target, to be the best in the world. I’d like to fight Sasha, and I want fight Charlotte Flair and Asuka. I will show you my style, Io Shirai style. I will change female pro wrestling world.”
By making it to the finals of the Mae Young Classic, Shirai made even more pro wrestling history just months into her WWE career by performing on the company’s first all-female pay-per-view, Evolution. Though she lost to Toni Storm, her confidence and in-ring skills over the course of the tournament won her the hearts of the audience.
Less than a month later, Shirai made her NXT debut in heroic style when she and Dakota Kai saved Sane from an attack by Jessamyn Duke and Marina Shafir during her NXT Women’s Championship match against Shayna Baszler. On NXT TV, best friends Shirai and Sane’s “Sky Pirates” tag team gained immediate popularity, with Shirai pinning Baszler in a six-woman tag team match to win the Pirates and Bianca Belair a win over three of the four MMA Horsewomen. It seems like it must be only a matter of time until she returns to her gold-strapped ways in WWE. Even the company admits that with Shirai, “the sky truly is the limit.”