There are updates to this article, originally published on Wednesday.
On Jan. 20, I published a column calling out Kenny Omega for his fragility in handling the AEW women's division. As if he was purposely trying to rile up fans of women's wrestling like myself, he explained that well over a year into the division's existence, that they were (still) taking "baby steps".
That didn't sit well with me, and I proceeded to write an article not only to point out that AEW women are ready, but pitching an idea that a 16-woman tournament should be held to determine the #1 contender for Hikaru Shida's AEW Women's Championship.
Later that night, AEW announced a 16-woman tournament to determine the #1 contender for the AEW Women's Championship...
While the idea of a tournament doesn't take an incredible amount of thought, I would be flattered if my humble column was the catalyst to quickly throw this together -- especially after the pathetic women's segment on this week's Dynamite. Leyla Hirsch and Penelope Ford had a solid match, but the fact that so little is being done with the division was really getting on my nerves. Especially when this match served as background fodder to continue a men's feud.
I even joked that AEW spent more time booking Sammy Hagar's Cameo appearance than they do the actual women's division...
It's unlikely that Tony Khan and Kenny Omega are reading this, but if they are -- what's up? Need a women's talent scout? I'm only an accomplished, award-winning writer (J.B. Mandrake is a pen name -- not my real published name) with two decades of women's wrestling fandom under my belt. Just saying...
The point of this column, however, is to guess who will be in and out of the sweet 16 participants of this eliminator. The bigger question is the actual format of the tournament. With the graphic shown during Dynamite, it's clear that some Japanese talent will be involved in the tournament. However, the graphic almost makes it look like it will be made up of half Joshi wrestling competitors and half AEW competitors.
This would be a mistake, if such is the case. While I love Stardom and Tokyo Joshi Pro (assuming this is where the overseas talent will come from), I know that the casual fan probably has no idea who Riho was before becoming AEW Champion, or who current stars like Mina Shirakawa, AZM or Konami are. This would especially become a booking mistake if one entire side was all-Japan, and held in Stardom. Again, most fans may not go out of their way to tune into these matches one way or another.
So I am making the assumption that Khan and Omega will not be bring 8 Japanese women into this tournament. Besides, it's much easier to fly out 3 or 4 wrestlers and have them quarantined for two weeks (as is routine for PAC when he makes an appearance) than 8.
Stardom's Mina Shirakawa has trained with Thunder Rosa in Japan in the past, so there's an easy connection. I would guess that Mina would be on her way over for a tournament. I am also banking on Riho making her return to AEW in this tournament. Update: While I initially had Bea and Konami coming over, they are currently booked in a tag match on Jan. 30 to defend their Goddess of Stardom Championships. So I am counting them OUT.
It looks as if AEW's own and Ice Ribbon Wrestling co-founder Emi Sakura has announced via Twitter of her interest in this tournament. In addition, Yuka Sakazaki was unsuccessful in her Jan. 4 match against Rika Tatsumi for the Tokyo Joshi Pro Princess of Princess Championship. So with Yuka no longer shooting for a championship, this frees her up for the tournament. I also think there's a chance Emi brings with her a talent from her own Ice Ribbon Joshi promotion, specifically, top-star Risa Sera who was trained by Hikaru Shida.
In addition to THAT, though it's a very small and likely insignificant sign -- Mina did "like" a post of Twitter mentioning her by name for this tournament. Stardom announced in late December that she is out of action for two months due to a broken nose. So depending on when the tournament takes place, Mina could make a first round appearance if rumors that AEW Revolution might be pushed back to early March rings true.
With that, I NO LONGER see Kenny shooting for Tam Nakano, who holds the Artist of Stardom Championships (trios tag) with Mina Shirakawa as part of the Cosmic Angels. Other hot names in the promotion right now like Wonder of Stardom Champion Giulia and World of Stardom Champion Utami Hayashishita are much too valuable to let go right now, so I would be surprised to see them make the trip to the States for this.
Updated likely Joshi Wrestlers: Emi Sakura | Yuka Sazazaki | Risa Sera | Mina Shirakawa | Riho -- 11 Spots Left --
Britt Baker | Big Swole | Nyla Rose | Shanna | Anna Jay | Tay Conti | Penelope Ford | Abadon (8 Spots Taken -- 3 left)
With Deeb holding the NWA Women's Championship, I don't see a need for her in the tournament. However, a featured matchup with Shida in the weeks surrounding the tournament would be a welcomed contest. Allie has been in the background for seemingly her entire time with AEW, even in spite of her impressive 11-3 career record. But it just doesn't seem like they want to do much with her. Reba is an absolutely blast, but not on the same level competition-wise, and Jade Cargill hasn't even had an official match yet in AEW.
Thunder Rosa SHOULD be in, but I don't see her maintaining a consistent tournament schedule with her continued work with Mission Pro Wrestling. I think she's a great addition to AEW, but a name of her caliber would have to do deep in this tournament.
On the Bubble
Leyla Hirsch | KiLynn King | Red Velvet | Leva Bates | Ivelisse | Diamante
Ivelisse and Diamante, while women's tag team cup winners last year, aren't technically signed to the company. It doesn't mean they can't participate, but beyond an occasional appearance on Dark, we don't see much from these two anymore.
We just saw Leyla Hirsch on Dynamite Wednesday night, so chances are good for her. She continues to be impressive in the ring, and promoted the tournament on Twitter. She SHOULD be in.
While I have a lot of love for King, I don't know where she fits here, unless there are less Japanese competitors. Otherwise, I would like to see her involved. This goes for Bates as well. With Velvet wrapped up in a feud with Cargill I can actually see her having a spot only for Cargill to rip it away for storyline purposes.
Jordynne Grace | Rosemary | Tenille Dashwood
I just don't see why they wouldn't tap into at least one or more of this wonderful roster. Why not have one of these athletes go deep into the semifinals?
Tessa Blanchard | Taya Valkyrie | Kris Statlander
An appearance by Blanchard automatically means she goes deep -- to the semifinals at the very least. I don't think she would win this tournament, but having a rising star like Shanna go over her in the finals would be something worth thinking about. In the case of Taya and her recent departure from Impact, I don't see her signing with AEW, as it seems too perfect to head to WWE to be with her husband, John Morrison.
In the case of Statlander, I don't think she would be given the go to return to action by the time this tournament starts. If Statlander is ready to go, however, push her to the finals. But for this column, she will be assumed injured and out entirely.
Final three in: Leyla Hirsch, Jordynne Grace and Tessa Blanchard.
This is an ultimate "holy shit" scenario, but I still say it's worth the risk of bringing in Tessa Blanchard for absolute star power. However, I am not backstage in Jacksonville, so I honestly do not know the intricacies of how much heat on Blanchard there may be. I know Ivelisse would likely be on her way out if Blanchard were to sign, as they have real-life heat -- but Ivelisse isn't signed as is.
Bottom line is that you need to do what's best for business. While it may alienate some of the roster, that means signing Tessa Blanchard.
Predicted Final 16 Participants:
Predicted Final Four:
Britt Baker | Tessa Blanchard | Shanna | Riho
While I previously advocated for Shanna winning (and I still think she very well could), it's almost too tempting not to have Baker defeat Shanna (or Blanchard) in the finals of this tournament. Let's face it, Baker is "the face" of this division, and she should be the one to dethrone Shida at some point in 2021.
But you can make cases for Shanna, Blanchard, and even Grace as a way to further an AEW/Impact crossover women's feud. If Baker goes out early due to interference from Thunder Rosa to continue their feud, I would love to see Anna Jay into the Final Four as a Dark Order Darkhorse.
Overall, while tournaments are done a lot in professional wrestling, this one is much needed. The AEW Women's Division needs to feel important, and quite frankly, it hasn't for some time. So while cliché, this is a case where holding a tournament will highlight some of AEW's best and brightest women's talent. I'm looking forward to seeing how this unfolds, and I will adjust my predictions based on official participants.