Thanks to http://www.digits.com for their badass righteous free counters
The series marches on! Time waits for no man! Be in the ring!
The announcers - plus Hiro Saito - open the show by holding up an nWo t-shirt and talking about it a lot. Saito looks exactly as interested as me (1).
1. Hiroyoshi Tenzan/Hiro Saito/Marcus Bagwell vs. Riki Choshu/Kensuke Sasaki/Satoshi Kojima Ah, pre-godhead Tenzan and Kojima...back when Tenzan was the World's Best Giant Yoshinari Ogawa With Mongolian Chops, and Kojima was the World's Best Hiro Saito. In other words, back when they sure weren't enough to carry ANYTHING to a decent match, let alone Choshu, Saito, or Bagwell. The match is JIP, but it doesn't really feel like anything's being lost in translation; they don't really build to any moves, just kinda do gradually stronger moves -and I mean GRAD FUCKING U FUCKING ALLY, because the move that gets the pin is a powerbomb - without any real rhyme or reason. Tenzan, for instance, kinda does some stuff, then does a bunch of Mongolian Chops, then slams Kojima and hits a diving headbutt and...yeah, that's about really it.
What is worth noting, however, is the stiffness. You gotta love puroresu for the stiffness; this is essentially nWo Japan Match 56a, formulaic as all shit, but the stiffness of it makes it at least piques the interest. Kensuke Sasaki, for all the shit he got back in the late '90s, sure wasn't afraid to take Tenzan's HEAD off with a clothesline, and Choshu chops pretty hard for a man who looks like he ate three Negro Casaseses. Does it make it compelling? No; there's nothing there. But hell, considering that the second- and third- best things about this match were that Buff was only in it long enough to have his pose mocked by Kojima (2) and that the FREQUENT cutaways to the nWo ( ) didn't really make me miss anything, well, I'll ride the stiffness pony to the end of the line. 3/4*
2. Masa Chono/Scott Norton vs. Shinya Hashimoto/Manabu Nakanishi Y'know, for a match where arguably the second-best worker is 1997 Manabu Nakanishi - when in reality, a match where 2002 Nakanishi being the second-best worker isn't exactly a compliment - there are Moments of Worth in here. For the most part, the pacing was pretty good; one team could be firmly in control of the match, but it never got to a point where it felt impossible for the other team to make a comeback (probably a consequence of Chono, since he USED to be a god at that kind of thing back in the day). I can also appreciate it - even if I don't necessarily like it - when a match breaks from formula, which is why I raised an eyebrow in Pleased Surprise when Norton didn't tap out to the Rack while Hashimoto brawled with Chono on the outside. And of course there's the hair. God, the hair. (4)
Which is not, of course, to say that any of the above made this a GOOD match. Hell, at times it was barely watchable, although Hashimoto did his best to chop chunks out of his opponents' chests and into my heart. The problem is that - and this really isn't news to anyone - the other three guys in the match weren't...very...good. Chono by this point was FIRMLY embedded in his "I can no-sell death" phase; he stayed upright for two Nakanishi charging shoulderblocks and popped right up after a third, and later on he sprang to his feet WAY too quickly after a wheelbarrow suplex that sure looked like it became an Accidental Driver '97 midway through. And then of course you've got Scott Norton, the stick by which all other contemporary Useless Bag-Of-Crap gaijin are measured these days (5), throwing stuff that looks really, really, REALLY sloppy AND dangerous. His strikes here are like polar opposites of Hashimoto's; whereas Hash's stuff looks like he's not causing any more than the absolute minimum amount of pain to make his strikes look credible, Norton's just swinging for the fences - either lariating his opponents in the chin or throwing shitty strikes REALLY hard at parts of the anatomy that don't make that slapping sound (6). Worse, his strikes are arguably better than his actual wrestling moves (all four of 'em); with those, it just looks like he's grabbing and dropping his opponent. I mean, when you've got an opponent in an Argentinian backbreaker and you drop him into a shoulderbreaker, there's a RIGHT way and a WRONG way to do it. Norton just looked like he let go of the backbreaker and nudged Nakanishi forward a little, resulting in an out-of-control moment. You be the judge.
And of course there wasn't anything being built to, either; the closest the match came to a storyline was when Norton and Chono took over on double teams - because They Are A Unit - or when they hit like two successive moves to Nakanishi's nuts. And when Norton didn't tap out to the Rack - which doesn't do the credibility of the move any favors - any structure the match did have fell apart; the ref just let the match go. And I'm talkin' DOWNtown, too; if you'd think I got pissed when the ref stopped keeping the action in the ring to the two legal men, imagine how happy I was when there was a *run-in*, from MORKUS ALEXANDER HANDSOME STRANGER I HATE BUFF MOTHERFUCKING BAGWELL of all people. GOD I hate the nWo. NOTHING to see here. This is exactly the type of match you've gotta hate if you review tapes - not very good, and eminantly forgettable. 1/4*
3. Koji Kanemoto/Shinjiro Ohtani vs. Jushin Thunder Liger/El Samurai As a match, this is just a total spotfest, and a dramatic, exciting one at that; part of the reason they moved from wrestling-driven wrestling to character-driven wrestling was simply because it allowed more people to have more involving matches, as evidenced here. The key is looking to see who stands out the most - in this case the I Am A Big Dick Koji Kanemoto, who hits the highest-end highspots of the match (the run-up-the-ropes moonsault) AND gets to be a Big Cock Old-School. Ohtani was pretty captivating too - but then again this is Shinjiro Ohtani in 1997, during the month in which he was at his I Am A Big Expressive Dick peak, so there you go. Notice, though, that though his moves are fired-up, they're unilaterally the same level of fired-up (7), so when he hits the springboard dropkick to clear the ring, it doesn't really matter any more than the bootscrapes earlier in the match.
In contrast, the faces just kinda show up. It's a frequent problem I have with Liger; having grown so used to the intricacies of the AJPW totem-pole style booking, I'm REALLY starting to get fed up with Liger's inherent drama being "YOU ARE WRESTLING JUSHIN LIGER". Here, his mask doesn't just contrast from Koji and Ohtani's overexpressive faces; it neuters him; when he starts to recover from the beatings he takes, it looks bland rather than specific. The BIG difference between Liger Doing This In 1997 and Liger Doing This In 1994 as far as I can tell is the opposition; whereas in 1994 - hell, even in 1996 facing Eddy in the BoSJ final - there was always an element of diversity, partly because Liger was as diverse a wrestler as has ever trod the sod (8), but also because his opponents were exceedingly multifaceted. Of course, it's only fair to say that his opponents up to then were a murderer's row of junior wrestlers (9), but note how fundamentally differently they could - hell, DID - wrestle. Eddy Guerrero, for instance, didn't HAVE to wrestle in his weird stretch-you-good-then-drop-you-on-your-head style; sometimes he'd work a very highflying style, other times a striking-intensive style. And fuck, it's not like Shinjiro Ohtani or Koji Kanemoto are tomato cans; they're great workers, and 1997 was their peak year.
But watching this tape - and let's put the cards on the table here, I bought this tape for the Liger vs. Ohtani/Koji feud - the thing that jumps out at me in terms of the WRESTLING (10) is how fundamentally similar the heels are. If you look closely enough, the only thing different between them is their working strategies - Koji works a match in a very opportunistic way (i.e. he'll basically try to keep it even and wait for the face to slip up so that he [Koji] can go on an offensive flurry), whereas Ohtani is very methodical and strike-oriented. And although on the surface that SOUNDS like a big difference, the overall result isn't that significant, since Liger and Samurai sell pretty much identically for both Ohtani's build and Koji's flurries. The irony here is that all the pieces are there for a really deep, cross-stylistic match - even at this point Ohtani was well-versed enough in juniors shootstyle to have a Perfectly Fine Match with Kazushi Sakuraba at the Skydiving J (11), and Koji had worked in Mexico and under the Tiger Mask hood before assuming his I Am Dickhead, Hear Me Roar persona - but Liger's selling hurts the chances of this match actually being "good" by removing all those elements. It's frustrating, but in a very unusual way; watching it through the ultracritical lens results in frustration from the match self-destructing. You see all this talent, all this potential, all these wrestlers peaking at the same time, and one little element screws it all up - and there you go. And the worst part of all is that they know it and acknowledge it - why else, for instance, would Koji get the pin off a bridged Tiger Suplex - a move obviously steeped in the persona of Tiger Mask - if they didn't want to play up how versatile everyone was?
It kinda sucks that this is undebatably a "good" match. The execution is pretty much spot-on; counters are consistently fluid throughout, strikes are for the most part convincing, the pace of the match is controlled and logical, moves have significance, the personae are expressed through WRESTLING...but it just feels monochromatic. I think what I saw of this match would work a kajillion times better as a singles match (12), but what I got here was as close to stale as this division ever got during this time period, and definitely frustrating as hell. **3/4
4. Tatsumi Fujinami/Kengo Kimura vs Keiji Mutoh/Junji Hirata (IWGP Tag Title) I kinda liked seeing this match follow the Juniors Shoulda Coulda Woulda match, because it illustrated precisely how deep the problems with the work in NJPW were at this time.
Everyone - myself included - bitches and moans about Samurai no-selling the poison frankensteiner in the BoSJ final of '97, and with good reason; it's aesthetically atrocious and logically horrible. But it's not like that's the only instance where that happens; no-selling finishers is RAMPANT in NJ at this point. The funny thing is that you only tend to hear about it in terms of the juniors. When, as here, heavyweights start no-selling what the context of the match dictate as death, you never even know for sure that it happens until you see it on the tape.
Here, for instance, Fujinami eats a whole boatload of death - in the order that Hirata did 'em, a bunch of lariats, a diving headbutt, a moonsault-headbutt double-team dive, and then a bitchin' bridged keylock suplex that I thought was SURE to end the match - but still kicks out. And while you can rationalize it if you really want to - this being an IWGP tag title match, it makes kinda-sort-I-guess-so-in-retrospect sense that they'd burn finishers here - ultimately that just doesn't add up.
What it says to *me* is that the company's in a bad way. When a wrestler kicks out of a finisher, he/she's doing it to build up his character - i.e. Kenta Kobashi is a badass for taking the Tiger Driver '91 and kicking out, El Samurai is a badass etc etc - at the expense of the wrestling. Now that's all fine and good if you want to use it sparingly to make things different; a diverse product is always better off (13). But here, it's all up IN NJPW's card. And people wonder why NJPW started feeling static by the time the millenium changed; it's because the product was monotone. In 1994, they had Mutoh to jump up from stuff, but they also had Liger to sell stuff Right Good, they were bringing in Sasuke to jump around and be cray-zay, they had Hashimoto to bring the old-school strongstyle...hell, even in 1996 they had the We Are Giant Penises movement in the juniors to counterbalance the matwork-intensive UWFi feud.
But there's more specific problems at hand, too. Killing a finisher is a GREAT way to pop a crowd - and if you need any proof, just take a listen when Fujinami kicks out of the aforementioned keylock suplex - but it's most effective in small doses. When, on the other hand, you kick out of like five credible finishers in a row, you either burn out the crowd or condition them to expect very little else. Take a look at Toshiaki Kawada's use of the stretch plum in 1993 and then in 1999 - in '93, he'd actually get wins with it, while by '99 nobody tapped out to ANYTHING in AJPW. Here, it's the same thing; early on, when Hirata was charging in to help out with some lariats, the crowd popped, but it was a mild pop; later on, when Fujinami kicked out of the keylock suplex, they blew up. Isn't it a smarter business choice to go with a product that's going to make the audience pop consistently rather than at the big spots?
Of course, if you're going to talk about breaches of structural conduct, there's Keiji Mutoh for you. I've gone on record repeatedly as calling Kenta Kobashi a "dramatic" wrestler as compared to a "classical" wrestler - by which I mean that he's the kind of guy who'll pay attention to character before structure. Man, if he learned it from anyone, he learned it from Mutoh; watch as Mutoh pops right up from a rolling snapmare to give Kimura a solebutt; hell, watch him not even tag in to hit the MOONSAULT. It's stuff like that that enables the finisher tomfoolery; if you don't convey any respect for the idea of wrestling, then the audience sure as hell isn't either (14).
What's unfortunate about all of this is that Hirata actually looks to be doing his best to put on a decent match: his selling's all pretty credible, his strikes and moves are convincingly painful-looking, and he's actually got a sense of timing. Of course, he's never actually put into danger in the match; mostly he just gets in and plays Casa del Fuego, but in terms of that, he does it quite well. And there's no shame in being the best possible CMLL The Killer; there's no shame at all in being solidly unspectacular. Hell, in matches like these, being solidly unspectacular can make you look pretty damn good.
Basically, he's the only one playing an effective role in the match; he jumps in, does his stuff, and that's about it. Everyone else is either caught up in their character (15), and in the case of Fujinami and Kimura, they aren't even doing it well, unless of course their characters are (C)rusty old men who don't know how to wrestle. It was REALLY hard to tell them apart, because neither hits a Fujinami signature move, and both are in black tights, and the camera never cuts in for a closeup; seriously, the only way I finally figured out which one was Kimura was by virtue of him moving an awful lot slower, and assuming that since Fujinami's still working today, he'd at least be more mobile (16). Ultimately I guess it doesn't matter; what interested me here wasn't who won - since like I said, I got these shows for the junior matches, and anything above and beyond is just a nice bonus - but what they were doing. Here, they were riding one of the Apocalypse's horsemen.
I dunno. I'm sure I'm going into too much depth for a * match that in the long run is possibly the least-interesting title change of All Human Time, but there's stuff here...sorta. I guess what I'm trying to say is that when your tag belts are around the waists of the two old guys (17) and that's not the problem, well, there you are.
Again, as with last week's show, there's no real burning reason to run out and pick it up. It's nice to have for continuity; all bitching aside, the Koji/Ohtani vs. Liger feud is quite fun to watch, and even in terms of the work being done there were some good performances put on in shitty matches (Hashimoto, Hirata). Just don't expect too much from it; as interesting as a "This is where the company was in February of 1997" document as it is, that doesn't make it a good wrestling show.
Be a killjoy.
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