Q&A: Io Shirai on ‘NXT TakeOver: Vengeance Day,’ Her Championship Reign and More

Few wrestlers in the business today possess the physical skills of the high-flying Io Shirai, who defends her NXT women’s championship at “TakeOver: Vengeance Day” on Sunday.
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WWE's Io Shirai in the ring with the NXT women's championship

Io Shirai defends the NXT women’s championship on Sunday at TakeOver: Vengeance Day in a triple-threat match against Toni Storm and Mercedes Martinez. The reigning champion since June, the 30-year-old Shirai continues to find ways to elevate her work in NXT.

Shirai’s work over the past year has been magnificent, shining especially bright in a bout this past summer against Sasha Banks. Shirai is upholding an incredibly high standard, as the women of NXT have produced some of WWE’s most compelling in-ring content over the past five years. Sunday marks an opportunity to build two new opponents, with an emerging star in Storm and an established veteran in Martinez.

Speaking through a translator, Shirai connected with Sports Illustrated to discuss her run with the belt, a potential match for WrestleMania 37 and her two TakeOver opponents.

Sports Illustrated: You have had a phenomenal title reign so far. What are you most proud of during this run with the belt? And what is one area where you want to improve and make even more special?

Io Shirai: I am so proud to be the champion in what is considered one of the most talented women’s divisions in NXT history. The fact that I have been able to defend my title against a series of skilled challengers in such high-level matches has been a great experience for me. I fully intend to defend my title in an effort to raise the brand profile of NXT and its women’s division by continuing to have quality matches week in and week out.

SI: What do you respect most about Toni Storm and Mercedes Martinez?

IS: Despite Toni’s young age, she has already experienced and accomplished so much in this business. It is not easy to travel around the world, compete in different promotions and stay on top wherever you go. Toni has managed to do that wherever she has been, including NXT.

And Mercedes Martinez, I feel a lot of veteran confidence with Mercedes since she has had the longest career among the three of us. The fact that she came to NXT for title shots proves she is still very hungry, and not just satisfied with being here or what she has done in the past.

SI: There are elite names and reigns of the former NXT champions. You will have been champion for 253 days entering TakeOver. Is your goal to become the longest-reigning champion in the history of NXT, surpassing Asuka?

IS: I find it very interesting that in Japan the number of title defenses are emphasized and here in WWE the number of days is important. So this is the first time I have realized I will be NXT Champion for 253 days. The days are easy to understand and count, but having quality matches against whomever I am facing matters more to me in the end because it will make me a better performer.

SI: Is Mayu Iwatani your greatest rival? That rivalry was incredible, and all five of your matches against each other meant so much. Would you like to defend your title against her at a TakeOver?

IS: Yes, Mayu Iwatani is certainly one of my greatest rivals. If we ever have the opportunity to compete for the title at an NXT TakeOver, I am confident we would put on a great show. It is definitely a dream match for me.

SI: Would you like to compete this April at WrestleMania 37? Would you defend your title in a match against Meiko Satomura?

IS: No question about it. WrestleMania is the grandest stage we have in this business and I have always wanted to compete under that spotlight. A match with Meiko Satomura is another dream match for me. Fortunately she has joined NXT UK, making it a real possibility now. I am so excited.

SI: Damian Priest told me recently that you are the most talented wrestler in the world. Who do you believe is wrestling’s most talented performer in the ring?

IS: That was very nice of him to say, so thank you, Damian. My definition of talented is how much a performer can attract others to what they are doing. So I would have to say Rey Mysterio. I watched him when I was younger and that was when I knew I wanted to be in a WWE ring one day. And now after a long journey, here I am.

SI: What is the biggest difference between wrestling in Japan and the United States? And what is the biggest difference in daily life between the two continents?

IS: In Japan I was fighting for Japanese fans. Now I am not only competing for U.S. fans but for fans around the world, which gives me an even greater sense of responsibility. And when it comes to my daily life here and in Japan, everything is much bigger here. From the land to travel distances to the food and houses, everything seems bigger here than in Japan.

SI: What are you seeking to prove this Sunday at TakeOver?

IS: I always want to prove that NXT has the best women’s division in sports and entertainment. I have no doubt the match on Sunday will be great. Hopefully it will reach new people who may not be as familiar with us and we can create some new fans. You will not want to miss this.

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