And so it’s come down to this. With Kimber Lee and Allysin Kay installed as Discovery and Breakout Star of the Year respectively, it’s time to unveil the winner of our main Year End Award. To be honest, it’s been a strange year in that there are a number of contenders for the award, really depending on what criteria you use to determine what makes a “Wrestler of the Year”. Let’s take a look at some of the top contenders.

If you consider your Wrestler of the Year to be the one who elicited the most emotion from the crowd, then you may well choose SHIMMER Champion Saraya Knight. Her late career renaissance has been incredible, and was topped this year by winning the SHIMMER Championship, and reviving her long-simmering rivalry with Cheerleader Melissa. Nobody can hold a crowd in the palm of her hand like “Sweet” Saraya, and she’s taken that momentum with her throughout the calendar year. On a similar note, the WSU Champion Jessicka Havok (last year’s Breakout Star of the Year) has managed to create and foster a very fervent fanbase in a year that has seen her win the WSU Championship (twice), and compete for (amongst others) Crossfire, NCW:FF, ACW & Shine – winning plaudits everywhere she competed. It’s a shame, really, that with the transition of ownership in WSU, Havok only had one appearance in her “home” promotion in the second half of the year. Havok & Knight had achievements in 2012, but arguably the person who has had the most personal achievement in 2012 is none other than Emi Sakura, who started 2012 with absolutely nothing, having left Ice Ribbon in late 2011. From nothing, Sakura ends 2012 promoting her own shows in both Thailand & Japan (under the Gatoh Move banner), a regular gig in JWP and owning the oldest joshi belt in Japan (the JWP Openweight Title) and Europe’s Pro Wrestling EVE Title concurrently. From the outhouse to the penthouse, Sakura went from nowhere to become one of joshi puroresu’s most important names. And then, of course, there’s the dark horse pick – which for us this year was “Rate Tank” Kellie Skater. Skater started 2012 in Japan, and returned from the Land of the Rising Sun a much improved grappler. She had career-best performances in SHIMMER (such as Kana on Vol 48 and Yumi Ohka on Vol 50), had two outstanding matches with Evie back at home, and made a believer out of EVERYBODY in the Eagles Club that she was going to beat Saraya Knight for the SHIMMER Championship at Vol 51. In fact, had Skater won the title that night (or even the NCW:FF International Championship in Montreal the following weekend), there’s a great chance she could’ve won this award. Kudos to an outstanding year to all of these women.

However, for the sake of this award, we have chosen to take the term “Wrestler of the Year” quite literally, and recognise quite simply the best in-ring competitor of the year. Bar none.

Step up, Ayako Hamada.

On the next edition of the Women of Wrestling Podcast (going up on the site tomorrow) with WSU promoter Drew Cordeiro, SHIMMER promoter Dave Prazak and NCW:FF promoter Stephane Bruyere, it was the Quebec native Bruyere who basically summed it up best.

“All of my ten favourite matches I’ve seen this year, there’s six of her. That’s six out of eight she did at SHIMMER, and six of them are in my top ten favourite matches [...] She’s just amazing. She’s the best right now. When we talk about quality of matches, there’s nobody that can top what she can do. There are a lot of great wrestlers – we know Mercedes Martinez, we know LuFisto, we know Cheerleader Melissa – those are really, really great wrestlers and they had good years, but none of them had the year Hamada had this year.

He’s not the only one to notice that. In fact, I turned to Lee at one point during the October SHIMMER tapings and asked him “When was the last time Ayako Hamada wasn’t in the best match on a SHIMMER volume?”. There was no immediate answer forthcoming. There have been times when the needs of the storyline outweigh match quality (I seem to remember Ayako Hamada & Ayumi Kurihara vs The Knight Dynasty last year being “disappointing” because the storyline of the dissension/breakup of the Knights was more important than letting all four go all-out, and to some extent the comedic elements of Hamada/Kurihara vs Regeneration X from Vol 45 this year had a similar “not entirely serious” element), but when Hamada is turned loose, she produces the goods with an alarming regularity.

To wit – Ayako Hamada vs Kana on SHIMMER Vol 50. If there was a better technical match in women’s wrestling in 2012, I’ve not seen it. In our review of the day, I described the match as “Near flawless pro-wrestling” and “Match of the day by a long way” – which meant it beat out Ayako Hamada vs Kalamity from Vol 49, which I had previously described as “Match of the Volume for Vol 49″

I still remember standing in awe in April at the taping of SHIMMER Vol 47, when Hamada & Kurihara defended their SHIMMER Tag Team Titles against the daredevil masked team of Ray & Leon. I wasn’t alone. The entire Eagles club was raised to their feet for the closing minutes of the match in a near euphoric state, watching practically perfect pro-wrestling. In the review of that day, I described the match as both “match of the weekend, without a shadow of a doubt” and “One of the best matches I’ve ever seen live.” On that same weekend, Hamada & Kurihara had the best match of the first day of tapings (defending against Kalamity & Hailey Hatred on Vol 46) and were involved in the four way tag team title match that saw Courtney Rush & Sara Del Rey pick up the SHIMMER Tag Titles. Hamada’s part in that match may have been less important than the developing Courtney & Sara story, but chalk up Hamada being part of *another* “best match on a SHIMMER Volume” match.

Outside of SHIMMER, and we’re cheekily including mentioning this in the “December to December” rule of eligibility for voting, the only other Stateside matches that Ayako Hamada competed in in the last year were at Chikara’s JoshiMania events last December, headlining two of the three nights in matches described by our correspondents on scene as “one of the most physical matches I’ve seen, man or woman” (Hamada vs Aja Kong, Night 2) and an “incredible match” (Hamada vs Del Rey, Night 3).

2012 saw Hamada return to full time work in Japan, where she has made WAVE her most regular home. Unfortunately, as with a lot of puroresu this year, joshi footage has been particularly rare in surfacing in the West – but she spent much of the year either wrestling with (or against) regular tag team partners Ayumi Kurihara (with whom she defended the SHIMMER Tag Team Titles against Misaki Ohata & Hiroyo Matsumoto in a cracking match at Joshi4Hope in Febuary in Shin-Kiba, and had a singles match against in August at WAVE’s Fifth Anniversary Show) & Kana (the Japanese edition of Hamada vs Kana happened in WAVE in July, before the two teamed together for the Dual Shock Wave Tag Tournament in the second half of the year), and was Yumi Ohka‘s opponent of choice for Ohka’s birthday show in March.

Writing this article, and knowing how passionate women’s wrestling fans can be about their favourites, I imagine there are some people who saw Ayako Hamada winning our award and being surprised at the choice. Indeed, when we put out some tweets & facebook messages in recent weeks gauging opinions and generating a bit of buzz about the 2012 awards, Hamada wasn’t even mentioned. I think that’s simply because Hamada is a no-fuss wrestler – she doesn’t engage the fans via social media, she doesn’t particularly mix with fans at SHIMMER afterparties, and she doesn’t really try to create a hype machine around herself (unlike her partner Kana, for example.) Ayako Hamada simply arrives at the building, wrestles better than *ANYONE*, and leaves. It’s refreshingly simple, and in some ways she would probably win the award for most underappreciated wrestler of 2012 as well, considering what she adds to a show. On tomorrow’s WOW Podcast, SHIMMER promoter Dave Prazak explains that Hamada is actually by now the single most important ingredient in a SHIMMER show.

“If you were to take any one wrestler off of the SHIMMER shows and try and imagine what the shows would have been like, match quality wise, no-one would impact the shows more in terms of taking away the best matches than if Hamada were not there. And the fact that she was there, and had those great matches, makes her the most important person on the shows, and wrestler of the year. That’s my opinion.”

Ours too. It’s about time Ayako got the credit she deserves for being one of the world’s most stellar performers. In our opinion, no other female wrestler can point at a higher quality body of work in 2012 than Ayako Hamada, and it is with great pleasure that we award her our “Wrestler of the Year” award for 2012. Bring on 2013!

– Stew Allen

Ayako is well-deserving of this award! She is a very nice person and is a global living legend whose popularity is unmatched anywhere she goes.

I think Kana/Hamada should be the match of the year. 2nd place would be Ray/Leon vs. Kurimada at the SHIMMER Volume 47 taping.

Ayako Hamada vs Kana was amazing and probably should be match of the year. If you did not see it live you are in for a real treat on Shimmer 50.

On a side note, I have a soft spot for Rhia O’Reilly. You all should show her love too.