Watch the Queens Conquer: King of Trios 2016 and the Joy of Pro Wrestling

The best part of pro wrestling, as a fan, is the pure joy you feel when your fave wins. When the story’s been told so well that you were never completely sure they were winning, and then finally there’s that three count or tap, and the wrestler whose struggles you’ve adopted as your own realizes their struggle is over. They rise to their feet, hand held aloft by the ref, overcome with emotions. And maybe you stand too, as you cheer—in the story I’m about to tell, we definitely stand—or maybe you’re on your couch, cheering at the TV, but the feeling is the same.

Chikara, an indie wrestling promotion out of Philadelphia, specializes in creating joy. I’ve subscribed to their streaming channel for about a year, and I’d been to a couple of their shows when they came down South back in the spring, but this was my first time at King of Trios, their annual three-day tournament. I went to King of Trios because I’d heard my friends talk so joyfully about it. I went because I’d watched the last few on video and felt some of that joy, but I wanted to be there this year to experience it firsthand. And it turned out I picked a good year to go.

The focus of King of Trios is a single-elimination tournament between sixteen teams of three, with winners receiving medals and the title King of Trios (or Queen of Trios, but we’ll get to that). So Night One consists of eight trios matches; that’s the opening round. Night Two has four trios quarterfinal matches spread out among other events. Night Three opens with the two semifinal matches, then features non-tournament action until the main event, which is the King of Trios finals. I’d love to talk about all sixteen teams that competed this year, but that would take this essay to the length of a novel, so I’m going to follow one team through all four rounds.

But first, let’s talk about Team Sendai Girls. They’re three women from Japan, representing the Sendai Girls promotion. This was their second King of Trios, and while they didn’t make it to the finals in 2012, they were a huge hit with fans, and their matches are remembered as some of the best in King of Trios history.

Meiko Satomura is the team captain, and in fact the founder of Sendai Girls and trainer of her two partners. She’s a classic joshi wrestler, of the type you might remember from late-90s WCW. In fact, she appeared once on Nitro in 1997, when she was only 17. She’s compact and muscular, and instantly commands respect. She’s fast and she hits hard, and her finishing move is a Death Valley driver, in which she lifts her opponent onto her shoulders and then drives them headfirst into the mat. Her ring gear is red trimmed in black and gold, and she enters in an ornate robe of the same colors.

Dash Chisako is a true rock-n-roll babyface, wrestling in ripped up T-shirts, cutoffs and so forth. Whereas Satomura is basically an unstoppable superhero, Chisako is a natural underdog, full of heart and a can-do attitude. Every time she climbs the ropes to fly, the crowd cheers, “Dash! Dash! Dash!” It may not be Full-Sail-clever, but it certainly crosses the language barrier. In 2012 the third Sendai Girl was Dash’s sister, Sendai Sachiko, but she’s since retired from the ring.

Cassandra Miyagi is the newest and youngest member of the team, and she’s a monster. Don’t get me wrong, she’s gorgeous and charismatic, but she’s literally a monster. She has a horn on her forehead (sculpted out of her own hair), and she slithers and slinks around the ring like something inhuman. She bucks her head up and down like an animal before charging her opponents, and spews mist from her mouth like a dragon breathing smoke. She doesn’t shake hands after matches, offering hers and then pulling it away every time.

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In the first round, the Sendai Girls fought Heidi Lovelace and NRG, a female star who joined forces with a male tag team to form a makeshift trio. Intergender wrestling is very normal in Chikara, but there was a moment early in this match when tiny Dash Chisako was knocked to the mat by NRG big man Hype Rockwell, and the audience reaction was so indignant that Rockwell—a babyface himself, it should be noted—looked out at the crowd in confusion, as if to ask what we expected of him. But Dash was soon back on her feat and taking Rockwell down with a series of headscissors and kicks, proving to anyone who still had doubts that she and her teammates could more than hold their own.

In fact, watching Miyagi take Rockwell’s hyperwheel neckbreaker and come out unscathed may have also been the point when the crowd was completely won over to this weird new Sendai Girl.

But seeing Heidi Lovelace in the ring with the Sendai Girls was really something special. Lovelace and Miyagi are like two variations on the same idea. They both wear tights with one bare leg, which is meant to be how you can tell they’re dangerous.  Fighting Chisako brought out Lovelace’s heelish side—everyone who follows Chikara agrees she’s on the verge of a heel turn—as she viciously worked Chisako’s leg. But in the end it fell to Miyagi to keep Lovelace out of the ring so Satomura could pin Race Jackson after a Death Valley driver.

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In the quarterfinals on night two, the Sendai Girls faced the Colony, a team of masked ants who are Chikara legends and the 2011 Kings of Trios. The ants went hard on the Sendai Girls, but the girls gave as good as they got. When Miyagi grabbed Fire Ant’s antenna, Silver Ant responded by grabbing Miyagi’s horn. The ants targeted Chisako’s leg, weakened the night before, and the girls targeted Silver Ant’s shoulder, taped up from an injury at a previous event.

The latter part of the match was a whirlwind of finishing moves and near-falls that had us all breathless from suspense. The Colony are heroes to Chikara fans—they’re almost literally superheroes, in fact—but there was never any doubt that the crowd was behind the Sendai Girls in this match. So the drama was heightened when it came down to Silver Ant and Dash Chisako in the ring, each targeting the other’s injury, but eventually it was Silver Ant who tapped, and the crowd erupted.

The Sendai Girls’ win on night one had gotten a big pop, but this time the stakes were higher. This was the point when we all knew, I think, that the Sendai Girls hadn’t just returned to remind us how great 2012 was. They’d come back to make 2016 even better. This weekend was about them.

Going into night three, there were three other teams remaining. Team JWP was another visiting trio of Japanese women: Command Bolshoi, Hanako Nakamori and Manami Katsu. The Warriors Three were the mythic heroes of Chikara: Princess KimberLee, a fighting princess who also happens to be one of the most impressive wrestlers on the indie scene; Oleg the Usurper, a huge barbarian who’s been known to kill dragons; and ThunderFrog, who’s both a thunder god and a frog, complete with a hammer nobody else can lift.

And then there were the Hexed Men: Hallowicked, Icarus, and Jigsaw. All Chikara veterans, and all former beloved heroes who have been corrupted by the influence of a dark god called Nazmaldun. They’re literally demonic, inhumanly brutal, and doing their best to destroy Chikara from within. They’re so brutal, in fact, that they’d already been threatened with disqualification by officials, both for attempting to remove opponents’ masks and for excessive brutality.

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The Sendai Girls met the Warriors Three in the first match of the semifinals. It was an explosive match from moment one, giving the impression that the Warriors knew they had to get this done quickly, because they’d seen what the Sendai Girls were capable of. There was a special magic whenever Oleg and Miyagi were in the ring together. Both agents of chaos, both dressed in purple and black with black around their eyes, they were like a matchup made in weirdo wrestling heaven. I’m usually the last fan to fantasy book hetero romance angles, but I definitely leaned over to my friend and whispered, “Oleg and Cassandra might fall in love.”

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But their chemistry was nothing compared to seeing Meiko Satomura in the ring with Princess KimberLee. They’re surprisingly similar in size and build, and two of the best wrestlers in the world today, regardless of gender. Early in the match, Satomura stood in the middle of the ring and gestured for KimberLee to join her, clearly wanting to see what she was made of. It was a hard-fought match, but ultimately, experience won out over youth, and Satomura caught KimberLee in a flawless armbar from which there was no escape, causing her to tap almost immediately.

Everybody loves the Warriors Three, but at this point we all knew it was the Sendai Girls’ day. And we all expected them to face the Hexed Men in the finals. The heroic guest stars versus the worst heels in the company (who are also some of the biggest stars in Chikara history) just seemed to make sense.

Then something surprising happened in the second semi-final match. Team JWP gave it their all, and were holding their own, but then Manami Katsu found herself trapped in the ring with all three Hexed Men. One by one, they each performed their finishers, and then pulled her up off the mat as they were about to get three-counts. When Icarus picked her up after a pedigree and was setting her up for a Blu-ray, the ref had had enough. When Icarus ignored his warnings, the ref called for the bell and the Hexed Men were disqualified for excessive punishment, taking Team JWP to the finals.

Before we get to that match, let me talk about some implications. Chikara is a U.S.-based promotion, and we now had two Japanese teams in the final. Most of the Chikara roster is male, and two all-women teams were going to the final. Everyone who cared knew that the Warriors Three and the Hexed Men would have plenty of time to go on being the heroes and villains of Chikara’s ongoing narrative, but on this day we were going to celebrate these amazing performers who’d traveled around the world to be here. And the crowd was 100% on board. The Sendai Girls had won our hearts, but Team JWP was great too, and the prospect of seeing them face each other in the finals was more exciting than anything we’d expected that weekend.

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And of course the match was a barnburner. Command Bolshoi, the masked captain of JWP and a 25-year in-ring veteran, went in with a take-no-prisoners approach. Hanako Nakamori and Manami Katsu, the latter still selling her beating at the hands of the Hexed Men, were a pair of hard-hitting soldiers in Bolshoi’s army. There was a moment when Bolshoi was in the ring with Cassandra Miyagi, who hadn’t even been born when Bolshoi started wrestling, when the older woman slapped the younger’s face. It didn’t even seem hard enough to be a wrestling move, and Miyagi didn’t sell it as one. It was more like a deliberate show of disrespect. It was Bolshoi telling Miyagi that she sees her as a child who doesn’t belong in that ring.

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It’s possible I’m just a mark for Meiko Satomura looking strong, but my favorite moment in the match was when she had Katsu in a hold in the middle of the ring, and Nakamori ran in to break it up. She kicked Satomura in the back, but not only did she not break the hold, Satomura turned her head to Nakamori and roared. Literally roared. Nakamori kicked her again; she roared again. Another kick, another roar, and the hold on Katsu was still unbroken. Only when Nakamori kicked higher and caught Satomura in the back of the neck did it end the hold, and even then Satomura was right back to her feet.

I said before that the Sendai Girls had won our hearts, but when I rewatched the match on video, I realized there was a “J! W! P!” chant dueling with the “Go Team Sendai!” chant that I was a part of, and almost as loud. So perhaps the crowd was more split than I remember. And that’s awesome, because as much as I wanted the Sendai Girls to win, I like knowing Team JWP knew they had fans too. And it was such a long back-and-forth match that there was plenty for fans of both teams to enjoy.

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But Meiko Satomura, real-life Wonder Woman and perhaps the greatest wrestler in the world, caught Manami Katsu and performed her Death Valley driver, while the monster in her service, Cassandra Miyagi, desperately held Command Bolshoi out of the ring. There was a three count and Team Sendai Girls became the 2016 Queens of Trios. As the bell rang, we all jumped to our feet cheering and clapping. Senior Official Bryce Remsburg presented Satomura, Chisako, and Miyagi with their medals as streamers and confetti rained down on the ring. Then Satomura gestured for Team JWP to come back into the ring, and all six women held their raised hands as the crowd chanted “Queen of Trios! Queen of Trios!”

I could talk about intersectional feminism in wrestling, and believe me I will at the drop of a hat. I could talk about booking and in-ring storytelling. I could talk about showcasing visiting performers instead of just using them to get your talent over. I could talk in great detail about everything Chikara did right at Queen of Trios 2016. But at the end of the day, at the end of that long weekend of wrestling, it all came down to how happy we all felt to see the Sendai Girls win. At the end of the day, I’m in wrestling for the joy, and that was the most joy it’s ever given me.

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