Thanks to http://www.digits.com for their badass righteous free counters
of the Super Juniors III Commercial Tape
Those long-time WWF fans of you reading this likely remember the Coliseum releases, where the WWF would grab fistfuls of matches, usually either unbroadcast or rarely-seen, create some ludicrous theme to try to trick the audience into thinking that there was some sort of continuity at hand, and throw it all together with an AWFUL title. There were plenty of good matches, though, on those Coliseum tapes - matches that wouldn't be in circulation today without their presence on such epic titles as "Wham Bam Bodyslam" and such. Matches like Bret Hart's first title win in a superfluous match with Ric Flair, or the first (and only) Steiners vs. Harts match, or the Ricky Steamboat/Bret Hart match from the late 80s - matches of a high caliber - would be essentially lost. There aren't MANY Great Lost Coliseum Matches, of course - all of the really good stuff tended to happen on TV or PPV - and most of the ones that exist have Bret Hart in them, but there is some really great stuff out there.
It should come as no surprise, then, that there would be a lot of really, really great stuff on New Japan Pro-Wrestling's take on the digest tape, a series of tapes released under the Valis label only differentiable by their sequential numbers and content. NJPW was the fed where the beloved junior style of wrestling not only saw its genesis, but its apex between the years of 1992-1996, back when stars like Chris Benoit, Jushin Liger, Eddy "Black Tiger" Guerrero, Dean Malenko, and Shinjiro Ohtani were popping up show after show, supplanted by outside talent like TAKA Michinoku and The Great Sasuke. And their heavyweight ranks weren't doing so badly either; their contests weren't necessarily as technically brilliant as the juniors, but guys like Shinya Hashimoto, Keiji Mutoh, and Masa Chono were more than capable of putting on ***1/2+ matches with each other and watchable matches with just about anyone else.
1996, though, marked the end of NJPW's run as arguably the most diversely great federation on earth. Benoit, Malenko, and Guerrero had all left the fed the year before for ECW, and were currently plying their trade in WCW, trying their hardest to get over with the only key audience in the world that didn't eat them up with a spoon - the Americans. Liger, the innovator and best worker of the bunch, had been diagnosed with brain cancer, and, after contemplating retirement, returned to the ring, but was forced to tone down his style. The fed's working relationship with UWFi, which saw NJPW get quality matches with wrestlers like Naoki Sano or Nobhiko Takada but leavng UWFi so weakened that it closed its doors for good later in the year, no doubt scared off other potential partners from entering into working relationships with the fed needing something new.
But it wasn't like NJPW to let their years of dominance fade away. 1996 was the year that NJPW had three junior shows of note: the Sky Diving J, where eight different titles were defended, the J*Crown, where those same eight titles were unified, and the round-robin Best of the Super Juniors III, three matches of which are featured on this Valis tape. Of those three, the Super Junior tournament is the least-known, despite Eddy Guerrero putting on a show in the tournament en route to the finals. But that's because the Valis tape is the most common one going around, and it's unfair to judge a tournament - especially the typically psychology-intensive NJPW junior tournaments - on the basis of just three matches. All one can really do is judge those matches themselves.
So let's do that, hm?
Match 1: Masa Chono/Kensuke Sasaki vs. Keiji Mutoh/Hiroshi Tenzan
Chono and Sasaki, the heels, jump Mutoh and Tenzan before they even get to the ring, tattooing them with chairshots all the way. I mean MURDERING them with chairshots. Especially Mutoh. He gets the FUCK beat out of him. I emphasize this because Mutoh's quick to no-sell them the moment that they get in the ring, nailing Chono with a quick burst of offensive moves (most notably a facebuster that sees him set up a chair and then step off of it, driving Chono's face into the ground). Keiji Mutoh, world's greatest Rock. Hell, the assault so barely fazed him that he's taunting the heels after they bail and start hurling chairs at him. It's really just a standard tag match, only the engine behind the drama isn't so much well-set-up sequences, it's more escapes from submission moves and dramatic kickouts. In defense of the match, there's some good stiff work, especially from Tenzan, who's not afraid to kick Chono REALLY hard. It's also weird how the match is seemingly constructed so that the STF would logically be the finishing move, but when Chono locks it on Tenzan, it's broken pretty easily. The match then changes gears REALLY quickly, with Chono's Yakuza kick being the important move. First, when Chono misses it and Mutoh gets tagged in, the finishing sequence starts to come together - Tenzan locks a jujigatame on Chono and Mutoh catches Sasaki's kick in a Dragon Screw leg whip - but then, while Mutoh's distracted with Sasaki, Chono cheats his way out of a German Suplex attempt and nails the Yakuza kick for the win. In between "all that action" there were a few judicious-looking clips, but the action didn't look like it was anywhere above *1/2. This was during the time where Mutoh was toning his work down more and more, putting the emphasis more on "drama" than on "continuity", and when Chono realized that he was a popular guy and didn't need to work as hard as he used to. A damn shame, too.
Match 2: Shinya Hashimoto/Tatsumi Fujinami vs. Kazuo Yamazaki/Takayuki Iizuka
I believe that this is one of the holdovers from the UWFi vs. NJPW feud, but don't quote me on that. This match isn't technically "good", but it's largely entertaining, mostly due to the little things. By "little things" I mean things like the way the selling sets up the story - Hashimoto's kicks are sold more than Yamazaki's in their opening exchange, which establishes him as the Bad Mother Fucker in the match. Those "little things" can also be quite amusing; take, for example, the noise emanating from the ring when Iizuka and Fujinami are in the ring together. If you've ever watched South Park and heard the "hup-hup-hup"-type noise that the soldiers or FBI agents make whenever they descend en masse onto somewhere, that's what you're hearing. But mostly, those little things are so important because the match is pretty listless. The strikes are the key point at hand, which is cool because it means we get some built-in psychology (Hashimoto and Fujinami predominantly work the legs of Yamazaki and Iizuka to counteract their kicks) and some STIFF work (watch Hashimoto club the FUCK out of the UWFi boys). But it also means that the prostyle boys are a sliiiiiight bit out of their element, leading to some sequences that don't come off as entirely logical. I'm specifically referring to the sequence where Hashimoto has Iizuka in a front facelock, and hits him with some wicked kneelifts, then drops him without going for the DDT (his big move). Ordinarily, that's the type of mistake that SHOULD mean a transition or the end of a match, but here? Nothing. Additionally, they compensate for their unwieldy performance by almost thrusting the UWFi boys into the face roles, with the big hot tag being made by Yamazaki. The ending sequence is cool, if nonsensical; Iizuka nails Hashimoto with an overhead Tazplex, but turns around and gets caught in one of Fujnami's Fujiwara armbars for the tap. I mean, it wasn't an actively BAD match, and I certainly can appreciate all that clubberin' stiffness by Hashimoto, but this pretty much was what it was, which in wrestling terms means about *3/4.
Match 3: Dean Malenko vs. Tokimitsu Ishizawa (BoSJ match)
Hey, look, a BOSJ match! Malenko - well, you probably recognize his name, but you wouldn't recognize his wrestling here. You think he's fast and fluid now? JE SUS CHRIST. You have no idea how fast and fluid the man can be. There should be a school of wrestling devoted entirely to thinking like Malenko in terms of transitions, because in this match, I watched him transition from a simple leg grapevine to a friggin' ROMERO SPECIAL so fluidly that I was stunned at how legitimate the uber-goofy lucha submission move looked. Ishizawa, who you probably know better as Kendo Ka Shin, or as the guy who got his ass kicked by Ryan Gracie at Pride 10 (a show I should review from a wrestling standpoint - it's THAT GOOD), does his best to keep up, but Malenko's so good at this point that it's almost a detriment to work with him. There was one segment about midway through the match where they were working some chain wrestling, and Ishizawa was busting out some moves at a pace that would have been perfectly acceptable with anyone else in the world, but he just gets DUSTED by Malenko. Both guys come with attack plans - Ishizawa focusing on the arm in order to hopefully make an impact on the Cloverleaf, and Malenko on the leg in an effort to reduce Ishizawa's kicking ability - whenever someone's heavily shootstyle-influenced, kicking will be an important part of their offense, so it's a fair game plan. And early on, they establish that if Ishizawa gets a move locked on, the only way out is to spend a lot of energy getting to the ropes. It's surprising how much psychology's present in a match that, thanks to Ishizawa, loses focus about three-quarters of the way through. Specifically, after Ish gets smoked by Malenko in the aforementioned chain wrestling section, he decides to take the approach of European-uppercutting the HOLY HELL out of Malenko. From there, one more reversal (Malenko's Cloverleaf attempt gets turned into a cradle), then a step-armbar and tap in about nine minutes. This wasn't actively good or memorable or anything, but it sure was deep, and it sure didn't suck. Call it **1/4 and move along.
Match 4: Chris Benoit vs. Mr. JL (BoSJ match)
Why look, it's Jerry Lynn wrestling in a mask in Japan against Chris Benoit! The laws of probability, history, and nature ensure that this match will certainly not suck, a fact reinforced by the fact that Benoit takes it upon himself to start chopping the holy hell out of Lynn. I mean, when the sound of chops is making me cringe on like a second-or-third generation tape, Jerry Lynn got chopped HARD. It's the start of a delightful trend that would continue throughout the match: Benoit throwing BOMBS at Lynn, and Lynn taking it like a man. But really, don't get fooled by the names or the stiffness: if these two got the same eleven minutes today as they got back in '96, they'd have one HELL of a match. This one's just kinda prone to flurries, especially when Lynn's on offense: he'll do a REALLY quick sequence of moves, then pace for three or four seconds, then do another quick sequence, etc. I think it's really attributable to Lynn, who had the moves and the crispness, but didn't have the sense of timing that he'd later develop. Here, he just seems off a step, telegraphing his moves pretty obviously (like when Benoit goes for a top-rope backdrop and Lynn pretty obviously telegraphs his mid-air floatover), which makes the match seem a lot less fluid than it should. Of course, today Benoit's not NEARLY the worker he was in '96, so there's that too. In the defense of Lynn, he does bust out the lucha moveset, including the headscissors takeover and the hand-hold run-the-ropes frankensteiner. And while he may not be polished at all the intimate facets of wrestling yet, he's at least competant at 'em. He's willing to dive HUGE (run-up-the-post dive into the second row), sell HUGE (making Benoit's top-rope superplex and Wildbomb look particularly deadly, not that the Wildbomb needs any outside help to look deadly as a shotgun blast), and brawl pretty well, including one particular segment where they go into the crowd and two Impressionable Japanese Schoolgirls fulfill every stereotype known to Western man and giggle furiously, palms clapped to faces, as Benoit makes his way back there. Chris Benoit, International Stud. Benoit's role, aside from controlling the flow of the match and deciding when and where transitions would take place, was to play the gaijin rudo role to a T, which he, in fact, did. His main weapon was his wide variety of suplexes (only one of which was German), leading up to the Dragon Suplex that he nails Lynn with for the pin and win. ***, which is disappointing in a way - it's JERRY LYNN vs. CHRIS BENOIT in JAPAN - but considering the timeframe, not too shabby.
Match 5: Black Tiger vs. Jushin "Thunder" Liger (BoSJ final)
And again, we get a godhead match. BT, for those of you who skipped the intro, is better known as Eddy Guerrero back before the car crash and the WWF and all that crap. He was riding high at the peak of his game, a period which stretched from 1994-1997, back when any time he felt like it, he was arguably the best junior worker in the world, and ALWAYS top-ten period. Liger, in the meantime, had toned down his moveset as a result of the aforementioned cancer. The big question was whether or not Eddy, who had had a legendarily disappointing match with the Great Sasuke - in 1996, back when Sasuke was arguably at the top of his game too - at the Skydiving J show earlier in the year, would be back to true form against the nu-Liger, or whether or not he'd be up to the task?
In a word, yes; yes he sure as hell was up to the task. This is precisely the type of match that Steamboat and Flair would have wrestled if they were junior workers and still able to go in 1996. The whole match is built around the story that Liger's playing with a definite, planned-out game, indicated by all the counters and reversals that he pulls off and his focused attack on BT's arms and shoulders to counteract the Black Tiger Bomb (elevated crucifix powerbomb - think Razor's Edge, I guess), but Eddy, playing it by ear, cheats like a MOTHERFUCKER to try to find an opening and capitalize on it. But that story wouldn't work without the tecnico/rudo roles being played to perfection by both men. Even before the bell rings, they're working on it. Liger's playing to the crowd, Eddy's slamming him to the ground and stepping on his face. But the Flair/Steamboat comparisons run deeper than that - watch how Eddy oversells to get Liger's offense over as even more deadly...all in the first five seconds. He even works in the begging-off and the screaming in the holds. It's CLASSIC Flair. And Liger's playing Steamboat by keeping it relatively simple; he's not really trying anything fancy for the most part - and definitely not anything fancy that would run against his meticulous plan. Both guys are also ROLLING when it comes to crispness - they're throwing moves that look totally legit. And when they fuck up, like when Liger goes for a leg scissor takedown and gets Eddy's torso instead of head, they know how to cover, which Liger does by NAILING BT with the best backbreaker I'll ever see. Eddy's so much better when he doesn't have to worry about his opponent getting pissed because he's working too stiff, but the star of the Stiffness Circus here is Liger, who CLOCKS Eddy with his rolling kicks and chops, all before planting him with a released German suplex that has to be all-time top-five as far as released Germans go.
So the real storytelling crux has to be how they handle the MISTAKES. After all, without a good mistake, the match looks like a eithr a Liger squash or a BT fluke. And they come up with a few good ones. First, post released-German, Liger underestimates BT's reserve, so his move gets countered and he gets PLANTED with a brainbuster. But then BT, thinking he can put it away, goes for the frogsplash, but it's WAY too early for that, so Liger gets out of the way, does a few moves, and goes for the diving headbutt, but it's way too early for THAT, so we're seemingly stuck in the endless cycle of Samsara until someone hits a highspot. And that someone is...Liger, who hits a frogsplash, which is a SLAP IN THE FACE to Eddy, who, if you didn't know, uses the move in tribute to his dead former tag-team partner Art Barr. And worse, it's a really, really bad one, too, probably the worst-looking move of the match. The two stay pretty much even, with Liger barely keeping ahead of Eddy, until he goes for his third rolling kick of the match, which Eddy dodges, and subjects Liger to a WICKED Black Tiger bomb. And at this point, Liger's pretty much jelly anyway, but Eddy, seeking revenge for Liger's pitiful frogsplash, picks him up, puts him on the top rope, and FLATTENS him with a top-rope brainbuster. One, two, three, ladies and gentlemen, your Best of the Super Junior 1996 winner: Eddy Guerrero. A FANTASTIC fucking match. ****1/4 It could have hit ****3/4, but it suffered from a lack of significant build, which meant that the crowd wasn't as into it. It went at a great pace, but I think that if they'd been given five more minutes to have an opening segment instead of just going balls-out into it, it would have been a classic. As it is, it'll have to settle for being merely great.
Is It Worth It?
It depends. The only iron-clad thing that you need to see is the BT/Liger match, and I'm sure it's on a comp SOMEWHERE (or if not, it'll likely show up on RC vol 3). But really, all of the BoSJ stuff is pretty decent, if unspectacular. My gut reaction is to say that you probably could live your whole life without seeing the first three matches. But search out that last one. It's QUITE great.
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