Willow Strong

On May 24th at NJPW Resurgence, Willow Nightingale shocked the wrestling world by defeating Mercedes Monè to become the inaugural NJPW STRONG Women’s Champion. After the fact, we’d come to learn that Mercedes Monè was supposed to win the title but after suffering a broken ankle, Mercedes flipped the script mid-match and made the call to put Willow over. Despite the fact that Willow wasn’t chosen by NJPW to be their champion, her win feels anything but hollow. On the contrary; Taking the whole of the events into perspective, this was an all-time perfect wrestling moment only made possible through serendipity.

Before I dig in, I just want to give a real quick “Get well soon!” to Mercedes.

Forbidden Door 1.5

It was an incredible night for women’s wrestling. Over a month ahead of AEW x NJPW Forbidden Door 2, NJPW treated fans something of a bite-sized Women’s Forbidden Door PPV, with a 4-woman tournament featuring wrestlers from 4 different promotions: Mercedes Monè (NJPW), Willow Nightingale (AEW), Momo Kohgo (STARDOM) and Stephanie Vaquer (CMLL).

Stephanie Vaquer

I had never seen Stephanie Vaquer… Hadn’t even heard of her… But within minutes it became clear why she had been chosen to be in this spot. I’ll credit Mercedes for bringing the spotlight but all credit goes to Vaquer for showing out. As AEW’s roster continues to grow (some may say ‘bloat’), I’m more and more hesitant to ever say I’d like to see AEW sign someone because of how it pushes other wrestlers down the card but should Vaquer ever become a free agent, she’s an easy pick up for me.

Momo Kohgo

In the other semi final, my worlds collided, as STARDOM and AEW went head-to-head. Momo Kohgo, admittedly not all that over in STARDOM as far as being someone who wins matches, represented her company very well here. A good story was told of Momo’s fighting spirit not being enough to overcome the mountain of momentum that is Willow Nightingale.

Main Event

The main event of Monè vs Nightingale, before the two even touched, was so rife with historical significance and sentiment, the arena rightly erupted into spontaneous celebration at the ring of the bell with a long sustained standing ovation. Merecedes and Willow merely sharing a ring was too consequential a moment for even the women themselves to get between as they stood in opposite corners, doing nothing, soaking it in.

This was, in Willow’s own words (and words I’d echo), the most prolific women’s wrestler of her generation, Mercedes Monè sharing the ring with an AEW talent. Larger than that, it was women’s wrestling being the draw for, headlining, and main eventing a global platform. And even larger than that, two women of colour being at the centre of it all. This was awesome.

Peak Willow

Willow was at her most Willow-est in this match. The Pounce she delivered (and Merecedes sold) was probably the best I’ve ever seen from her. But it wasn’t all high impact offence as Willow, also being just a pure pro wrestler, bends Merecedes in half with an agonizing looking Boston Crab. I love this version of Willow. In the back of my mind there’s always been a tinge of worry that Willow will invariably be normalized by way of her sunny disposition being a factor she must “overcome” in order to perform. I don’t want that. Every wrestler gets pissed off. I love Willow the way she is. Sure, go ahead and shift her mood to “determined” but I never want to be reminded of Bayley refusing to use a kendo stick in a match where she was permitted to use it (WWE Extreme Rules 2017 vs Alexa Bliss). 

Questioning Reality

I will concede that this was as stilted and ugly a wrestling finish as it gets. Willow, in a match where I just said she hit her best Pounce ever, hits the best Doctor Bomb of her career (or as far as I’ve watched), absolutely obliterating and folding over Mercedes. And if this had been the actual finish, that would have been a beautiful way to end it. Instead the referee stops the count at 2.5, claiming Mercedes’ shoulder came up off the mat despite everyone clearly seeing she hadn’t moved. So we do it again, this time with the referee wisened up and Willow gets the win.

There may not be a better observable example of the phrase “time stood still” than the seconds immediately following this match. Willow’s look of shock and disbelief matched our own. Did that really happen? I’m glued to Willow’s expression, looking for a clues. After an agonizingly long pause that felt like minutes, her music hits. It’s still washing over us. It appears to be washing over Willow! Is this real?! Mercifully, Willow smiles and resets our grasp on reality. Indeed, she has won! Let’s celebrate.

Mask on

The referee in ceremonial fashion hands the belt to Willow, who must now dutifully celebrate this moment appropriately. There was no script for this, she’d call it in the ring. We’re led to believe that actors are constantly being told to “use that feeling” to get the most out of a performance. Willow just goes all in with the shock and elation she’s feeling in her post-match speech. She was wonderfully earnest and heartfelt. At the risk of repeating myself; She was Willow at her most Willow-est.

Where From Here?

For me, this raised two questions: What does NJPW now do with Willow? What does AEW now do with Willow?

For NJPW, do they want to immediately “course correct” and take the belt off of Willow in favour of Kairi or someone else from STARDOM or will they move forward with Willow as the centrepiece of this division? Will they want an eventual rematch between Mercedes Monè and Willow Nightingale? Her first title defence will be fascinating.

Tony Khan, meanwhile, just had a superstar-level elevated uber babyface drop into his lap. Willow just beat Mercedes Mother Fucking Monè! Why couldn’t she beat any woman on the AEW roster? Why couldn’t she beat Jamie Hayter? Why couldn’t she beat Jade Cargill?! Willow was put into the tournament as a fan favourite but ultimately beatable challenge for NJPW’s top draw. But now everything’s changed. AEW’s fans already love her. There may not be a better time to strap the rocket to her back.

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