Published on August 16th, 2019 | by Ian Goodwillie0
The Rise, Fall, and Possible Redemption of Asuka
Japanese wrestler Asuka has become somewhat of an afterthought in the Women’s Division and we take a look at her rise, fall, and possible redemption.
The vast majority of wrestlers have a similar moment in their childhoods, one where they hold up a homemade belt in the mirror and declare themselves WWE Champion. Even wrestlers today who are devoted indie veterans or steadfast members of another promotion like New Japan Pro Wrestling would be hard pressed to convince a fan that they didn’t grow up wanting to stand in the middle of Vince McMahon’s ring at WrestleMania with the gold slung over their shoulder.
Wrestlers from all over the world aspire to be part of the WWE and fight hard for that opportunity. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out as they, or the WWE, planned.
A prime example of this is Empress of Tomorrow, Asuka.
Kanako Urai was a ring veteran with 11 years and multiple championships under her belt when she signed with WWE’s developmental brand, NXT. Once there, she started wrestling under the name Asuka and embarked on what would become one of the most dominant NXT runs in the history of the brand.
Frankly, describing her NXT run as “dominant” might not even do her justice.
Asuka reigned as the NXT Women’s Champion for a record-setting 510 days, a reign that ended due to a collarbone injury. Asuka also maintained an undefeated streak that lasted for two years, six months, and two days across 276 matches on both NXT and the main roster, a streak that was ended by Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania 34. She has consistently been lauded as one of the best workers in the WWE, if not all of wrestling, and is respected deeply by her peers and fans.
If you don’t know anything about wrestling and read that last paragraph, you’d think she was a pretty big deal in WWE. And you’d be wrong.
Since losing to Charlotte Flair at WrestleMania 34 on April 8, 2018, Asuka has become somewhat of an afterthought in the Women’s Division. Bad booking has crippled the career of a competitor that gave her all to the WWE and deserved much better than her current status. But her problems did not start at WrestleMania.
The 2018 edition of the Royal Rumble, an event that takes place months before WrestleMania and plays a key role in defining its main events, was historical in the wrestling world. First, it was the first-time female performers got their own Royal Rumble match, which Asuka deservedly won. Second, it was the pay-per-view where Ronda Rousey officially joined the WWE, stepping on Asuka’s celebratory moment at the end of the show.
This is not going to turn into a screed against Ronda Rousey. She is not personally to blame for what happened to Asuka at all. But the fact stands that Asuka winning the first Women’s Royal Rumble took a backseat to Rousey walking out and pointing at a WrestleMainia sign.
Fans didn’t know it but this was an ill portent of things to come for the Empress.
For the next several weeks, Asuka continued to dominate the competition and win, building up to her match with Charlotte Flair. Fans expected WrestleMania 34 to be Asuka’s coronation. Instead, Asuka lost, her streak gone and any momentum she had in the WWE with it. And since then, she has drifted further and further into irrelevance, not somewhere as talented as Asuka deserves to be.
It should be noted that she had some success. She quite unexpectedly won the Smackdown Women’s Championship during a triple threat ladder match against Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch. But after winning the belt, Asuka rarely got TV time and rarely defended the belt. She unceremoniously lost the championship to Charlotte Flair as part of a build up to the triple threat match at WrestleMania between Flair, Becky Lynch, and Ronda Rousey. The winner of that match got both belts. Asuka got left behind.
This led to the Twitter hastag, #AsukaDeservesBetter, which is still frequently used in online conversations about her WWE status.
There are three factors at play in her career. First, the minds booking the main roster storylines don’t always seem to know what to do with talent from NXT. There has long been a theory among wrestling fans that Vince McMahon is somewhat resentful of Triple H’s NXT talent, preferring to put over his chosen talent on the main brands whenever possible. But that’s idle speculation at best, and the recent appointments of Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff to respectively manage the RAW and Smackdown brands would head that off if true.
It’s more likely that the writers have too much talent, not enough time, and allegiances to existing wrestlers to manage. Regardless, Asuka is not the first NXT juggernaut to be wasted on the main roster and she won’t be the last.
Second is the Goldberg effect. Back in his WCW days, Bill Goldberg had one of the most impressive undefeated streaks of all time. But, like all things, it came to an end. The problem with building a wrestling character around a streak is what to do with that character after said streak ends. That streak is often the dominant trait of that individual performer and when it’s gone, their character founders. It happened to Goldberg and it happened to Asuka.
The third factor is a lot more depressing, and that’s Asuka’s ethnicity. Asuka is from Japan and Japanese wrestlers who have done well in NXT in recent years have not done as well on the main roster. Shinsuke Nakamura, another dominant Japanese performer, won two NXT Championships, moved to the main roster, won the Men’s Royal Rumble in 2018, and went on to face AJ Styles at WrestleMania 34. He also unexpectedly lost his match and has floundered since. He had a brief, uneventful US Championship reign which saw little TV time. His current Intercontinental Championship reign is looking the same.
Why is this? A frequent theory is that there are people backstage that don’t want champions with thick accents or whose first language isn’t English cutting promos. And if you can’t cut a promo, you don’t get TV time. That’s not something that can be proven or disproven but given the attitudes of some of the…well, let’s just say “old school guys” back stage, no one would be surprised.
In lieu of an actual storyline, both Nakamura and Asuka have found themselves thrust into impromptu tag teams that went nowhere. Nakamura’s tag partner, Rusev, has disappeared from the WWE with little sign of return after a barely notable partnership. Asuka has had multiple fruitless tag partnerships and is currently teamed up with Kairi Sane, yet another dominant Japanese performer who was a champion in NXT. Their partnership came out of the blue when Kairi was abruptly called up to the main roster and has led to little TV time. And when they do appear, they usually lose. Hell, SummerSlam just came and went without any appearances from Asuka, Sane, or Nakamura, their Intercontinental Champion. He didn’t even get a kickoff show appearance.
Kenta, the Japanese wrestler known as Hideo Itami in WWE, recently left the company after a lackluster run. Part of his problem was injuries but creative also never seemed to know what to do with him when he was healthy. He’s already fairing much better in New Japan. And Akira Tozawa’s 205 Live run hasn’t been all it could be, either, though the entire Cruiserweight Division isn’t given the respect it deserves. One can’t help but wonder what will happen to NXT performers Io Shirai and Kushida when their inevitable main roster call ups happen. Will they get a chance to excel? Or will their stars fade like too many of their compatriots? And how long will it be until many of these Japanese stars follow Kenta home?
But all is not lost for Asuka. There is a chance to something amazing with her on the main roster. This is just a suggestion from a fan who might watch too much wrestling.
Bailey is the current SmackDown Women’s Champion, and she is, coincidentally, the wrestler Asuka beat for her NXT Women’s Championship. Now is the time to call up Shirai, then partner her with Sane and Asuka as a heel faction. Shirai and Sane can chase the Women’s Tag Championships currently held by Alexa Bliss and Nikki Cross while Asuka goes after Bailey. Make them dominant heels that take the all the gold at Survivor Series through nefarious means. Then, Ember Moon, another incredible female performer, wins the Women’s Royal Rumble 2020 which leads to her facing Asuka at WrestleMania 36. From a storyline perspective, this would be outstanding as the Asuka/Ember Moon feud in NXT was cut short due to Asuka’s injury. It would finally bring closure to that story.
Asuka winning that match at WrestleMania could be the exact moment of redemption she needs. And Ember winning would be a huge moment for someone with incredible passion and talent for the industry. Really, there’s no wrong choice in that potential winner’s circle.
Simply put, Asuka deserves better as do Akira Tozawa, Kairi Sane and Shinsuke Nakamura. Hopefully, the WWE has learned from their mistakes with Kenta/Hideo Itami and fixes how they utilize their Japanese performers before Io Shirai and Kushida make their way to main brand.
And if they haven’t, WWE officials will get to watch the great matches these superb talents put on in New Japan Pro Wrestling, Ring of Honor, and All Elite Wrestling.