Q&A: Io Shirai on Her Pursuit of the NXT Women’s Championship

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Io Shirai looks to take the next step in her climb to stardom this Sunday by winning the NXT Women’s Championship.

Known in NXT as “The Genius of the Sky,” Shirai reached incredible heights in Japan. By the time she signed with WWE in 2018, her list of accomplishments included two runs as World of Stardom Champion, an elite women’s promotion in Japan. The 30-year-old Shirai, whose name is Masami Odate, worked for Stardom since its inception in 2011, and during her time in the promotion, was named top women’s wrestler on three different occasions by Japanese daily newspaper Tokyo Sports.

In addition to wrestling in Japan, Shirai also honed her craft in Mexico. She has had some memorable matches since signing with WWE, but still seeks her elusive breakout moment. That could happen this Sunday at NXT TakeOver: In Your House when Shirai wrestles Charlotte Flair and Rhea Ripley in a triple threat match for the NXT Women’s Championship.

In an interview with Sports Illustrated, Shirai, whose answers were translated from Japanese, discussed her decision to sign with WWE, her experience living in the United States and what we can expect this Sunday at TakeOver.

Justin Barrasso: You have traveled a long distance and worked across the globe before arriving in NXT. Why is WWE the right destination for you? What do you want to accomplish in NXT and WWE?

Io Shirai: A few years ago, many people started saying I was one of the best wrestlers in the world. I was competing in Japan and had received every award and accolade possible for a female in the industry. That was when I really started thinking about competing and proving myself on WWE’s global stage, which is the biggest in our profession.

My main goal is to let the world know WWE has the best and most competitive women’s division in professional wrestling. We are just as dedicated, athletic and talented as the men, and I think what we can do with our platform is a beautiful thing. I have a very special opportunity to change how fans view women’s wrestling and I plan to use my abilities to do so.

JB: You are no stranger to championships in wrestling. What does the NXT Women’s Championship mean to you?

IS: It’s hard to fully explain what the NXT Women’s Championship means to me personally. It is proof that you are one of the best performers in the world, and after I win the title, the world will know who I am.

JB: Your fighting spirit is unlike anything else in pro wrestling. What motivates and inspires you in the ring?

IS: Everything I do is for our passionate fans. They motivate me to be the best performer I can be, and I always want to give them the best match possible when I am in the ring. It is more than just wins or losses for me. I always want to find ways to entertain and excite them whenever I am competing so they can leave with a memory that lasts a lifetime.

JB: What do you respect most about Charlotte Flair?

IS: I know how hard it is to be on top and remain in that spot. It may look glamorous from the outside, but it is a huge responsibility that cannot be taken lightly. I have nothing but respect for Charlotte, and for the mental toughness she has shown throughout her career in WWE to remain as one of the top female performers.

JB: Rhea Ripley has an entirely different background, but you both share an incredible passion for pro wrestling. Can you describe what it is like for you to share the ring with Rhea?

IS: The great thing about Rhea is that our in-ring styles are so different that it almost feels like a chemical reaction every time we get in the ring together. She raises my game and is able to push me to limits I did not know I was capable of. I am excited to think about all the possibilities when we face off this Sunday.

JB: What has been the most exciting part of living in the United States? And what do you miss most about living in Japan?

IS: Whether I was wrestling or not, I have always been interested in living in the United States and learning English because my mother grew up in New York when she was a child. That being said, meeting all the great people and making new friends has probably been the most exciting part of living here.

The thing I miss most about living in Japan are the convenience stores. You can always find all sorts of sweets made by pastry chefs that are very inexpensive and they are open 24/7.

JB: The news of Hana Kimura’s death was heartbreaking and extended far beyond the wrestling world. What would you like the world to remember about her?

IS: Hana was one of the most talented female wrestlers in the world, and I was looking forward to watching her grow to see how far she could go. I will always remember her smile that would brighten up any room she walked into. It is so important that we all love and treat each other with respect.

JB: What can we expect to see during your TakeOver match this Sunday?

IS: Fans should watch our match at In Your House this Sunday because it will showcase three of the best female athletes the world. We all bring a little something different to the ring with our stylistic approaches, and when you have the NXT Women’s Championship on the line, anything can happen. Fans who watch will see me become the champion, beginning a new chapter in NXT history.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.