Close your eyes for a moment and let your imagination recreate AEW’s Buy In prior to Revolution one more time. Britt Baker has just walked out of the tunnel in preparation for her tag team match against Thunder Rosa and Riho, and we await her inevitable announcement that her loyal sidekick, Reba, will not be able to compete. One of a few surprises teased for the show, predictions for this spot have been notably fewer than those of the other two, but still this position matters a great deal. Could we be seeing an All Elite Wrestling debut? Could we be about to witness the arrival of a certain Impact Knockouts Champion to provide her dear friend an assist? Or would it be someone else entirely? Someone few suspected.
As Reba and Britt expertly executed their emotional plea and explained the lengths to which they so painstakingly had to go to ensure Reba’s health was properly cared for, the tension in the room hit that sweet spot and we would soon find out who AEW had lined up to partner with our good doctor. Although just amid the Buy In, this surprise would go a long way in setting the tone for the entire show if executed correctly. Would there be buzz or silence? This was a big show, so who would it be?
Then her music hit and the cutest in the world burst through the heel tunnel like a lightning bolt of energy and cuteness! I don’t know about y’all, but I popped BIG. Part of me had been wondering if perhaps this could have been Thea Trinidad’s spot, though debuting with Britt after no proper tease would have made little sense, though would still have been a fun surprise anyway. Another part of me thought the Impact Knockouts Champion, Deonna Purrazzo, made even more sense due to her friendship with our favorite dentist outside of the ring and Impact’s failure to send anyone else to Jacksonville other than the Good Brothers since their historic partnership with AEW was first announced. I would have been excited for both of those options, but with Maki Itoh my excitement was something else entirely.
Admittedly, joshi wrestling is something I’m only just becoming more familiar with, only having just dipped my toes into Stardom during AEW’s women’s eliminator tournament. So, for me, I was introduced to Maki Itoh, other than simply vaguely knowing of her, during their first-round broadcast on YouTube. From a charisma standpoint, I was sold on her before she even stepped foot in the ring. A smile that warmed my heart and a voice that played well for what I assumed was merely a gimmick (I found out later that she was indeed a performer!), piqued my interest and sold me on someone who had a little more than everyone else. That’s big in a business that demands something special from those who wish to succeed in such a unique niche.
Watching her in the ring only sold me more on what a special talent this girl indeed was. The performative aspect of joshi wrestling took me a moment to appreciate, but now that I do, I cannot seem to get enough of it. Between her facial expressions and the constant emotion that she exhibits between the ropes, she has my complete focus from the moment her music hits to the moment she leaves the arena. She doesn’t just earn your attention; she immediately demands it.
I admit, beyond my admiration for her character work and the undeniable talent she has in addition, I may have myself a bit of a crush. But who could blame me? If I have learned anything in the weeks since Maki Itoh first graced an AEW sponsored screen, it’s that collectively as a community, we all stan this girl. That sprawling impact on an entire fanbase is not something often seen. We’re a passionate people, sure – sometimes frustratingly so, in fact – but for everyone to come together in support of one woman most of us had only just been introduced to is something unique. That speaks volumes as to how incredible a job she’s done with her character, with her ring work, and with her presence beyond both of those things.
In an age like we exist now, social media is everything. It’s almost inescapable. Fans are constantly monitoring Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram for news, screenshots, updates, and more from their favorite wrestlers. Some of them interact more with fans than others, but that in and of itself doesn’t ensure success. Because simple interaction doesn’t guarantee a connection. What Maki Itoh does that so many others don’t is constantly make those connections, and she does so by mirroring the work of another. Not all connections have to be good ones to be memorable and appreciated, right? AEW’s resident infuriating heel, Maxwell Jacob Friedman, is constant proof of that.
While MJF walks no line, because there is no one stupid enough to require him to do so, Maki Itoh does. She plays a heel, calling out fans, waving middle fingers wildly about, and crying when she doesn’t get her way in the ring, but by doing all of these things, she’s actually far more loved and adored than she is hated. She’s a new age heel that transcends those typical roles we’ve all become so accustomed to – a perfect fit for the All Elite “grey area” character mold. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that she lives up to every bit of her popular moniker. She is the cutest in the world after all, and who could realistically hate that?
So, she plays with the heels in the ring, confounding the good guys we all love and frustrating them to no end. We cheer because we love her, even if we don’t quite understand why, and the whole of wrestling normalcy is thrown on its head for the entirety of the match. All because one woman captivates all of us through an adorable smile and a personality that shines brighter than the lights above her (except Eddie Kingston, who simps for no one). It’s a wild dichotomy to witness and take part in.
During the Buy In, while I knew I would enjoy the match with four incredible women guiding a masterpiece, I found myself in an awkward position. Cheer for the good guys, and a personal favorite and someone I admire a great deal, Thunder Rosa, OR turn the tables and cheer for the girl who had taken up residence in my heart like she had so many others throughout the community. Now, I’m fully capable of throwing aside heel/face roles and just hoping for a solid match. Many of my favorites are in fact “bad guys” (Looking at you, Max…). But in Maki Itoh, we have someone who makes us feel feelings and allows us to escape into a fantastical world where she rules, all while simultaneously tricking us into forgetting she’s as evil and as underhanded as they come. But again, she’s the cutest in the world…so there’s that.
In fact, her aura doesn’t exist just among pro wrestling fans. Backstage Maki Itoh is perhaps crushed on even more and is definitely appreciated on an entirely different level among her peers. We’ve seen this wonderful reality on Twitter and have even been witnesses to the adorable flirtation between the Dark Order (namely John Silver, because who else?) and her on Being the Elite. The wild literal joy on the faces of each member as she walked into their lair with both middle fingers raised high in the air was a moment that gave me literal butterflies in my stomach, because somewhere I want to believe that’s how she introduces herself to everyone. In a perfect world, right?
The future of Maki Itoh in All Elite Wrestling is unclear. I would hope both parties would do all in their power to continue such a glaringly successful relationship. The pandemic clouds the outlook of this a little, as does Itoh’s permanent residence outside of the United States. But, despite all of this, something tells me we haven’t seen the last of the cutest in the world. It must just be the beginning. She has a whole nation of brand-new fans to tease and toy with after all.
I don’t know about y’all, but the cutest in the world can call my television screen home anytime she pleases. You’ll just have to excuse my heart shaped eyes when she does.