Thanks to http://www.digits.com for their badass righteous free counters
There's been a great deal of quality wrestling so far this year, and to sift through to find the top match out of the accumulation of quality encounters might seem to be a difficulty. Yet one match seems to me to stick out head and shoulders above all others this year to date in conceptualizing wrestling as a storytelling medium and a forum for the presentation of human drama, and then carrying through with a compelling and forceful tale. That is what I consider to be the chief virtue to which a wrestling match may aspire in terms of artistic value. Of which match do I speak? Answers below….
After the dissolution of All Japan Pro Wrestling as it had been known, and the defection of all the native workers (and Vader) to the Noah promotion created by Misuharu Misawa, All Japan owner Motoko Baba (widow of the late legend Giant Baba) was faced with the difficult problem of how to maintain her now crippled company. The plan eventually put into practice involved a copromotional deal with New Japan, the Japanese equivalent to WCW and WWF working together (back when this wasn't a forgone conclusion, mind you =)). In October at the "Do Judge!" New Japan dome show, Toshiaki Kawada, the ace of AJ, had defeated cleanly the then-reigning IWGP champion, Kensuke Sasaki, clean in the middle with a high kick to the head in a non-title match. New Japan ran an angle following that match, in which Sasaki considered himself to be an unworthy champion as a result of his loss and vacated the IWGP title, which was to be put up for grabs in a tournament at the 1/4 NJ Tokyo Dome show, "Wrestling World 2001", traditionally New Japan's biggest show of the year. But before the top wrestlers in New Japan and All Japan could make it to that show, they first had this Pay Per view to fill; pay per view is still in its infancy in Japan, and thus the major events are usually the Dome shows shown on free television rather than the pay per views. The result is a show here low on major developments, but high on wrestling quality.
We kick off with a highlights package of the birth of the AJ-NJ feud, followed by the drawing of slots for the "Wrestling World 2001" singles title tournament. Included are a variety of interviews with participants, but given that I don't speak Japanese, let's move on. This is all basically Heat in Japanese.
1. Masa Chono/T-2000 Machine VS. Kensuke Sasaki/Strong Machine Apologies now that I don't know who the machines (the masked guys) are. Both are essentially generic and inoffensive, so it's hardly a burning question, yes? Sasaki is essentially a moderately descent worker known to rise to the occasion, though he's nothing special. He's essentially a roided looking power wrestler from the Riki Chosyu school: lots 'o lariats and a sharpshooter as a finisher (along with the Northern Lights Bomb- think Al Snow's snowplow). Chono is the coolest man on earth. Really, the black shades and Time Lord ring gear just rule everything to a ridiculous degree. Sadly, his work has never been the same after a massive neck injury (ironically, at the hands of Steve Austin) which essentially rendered him into the Stone Cold of Japan: a veteran who compensates for iffy physical condition through guile and careful match planning.
The match is essentially what you'd expect, a standard New Japan style heavy weight match with the emphasis on simple psychology and hard striking. Chono and Sasaki start and Sasaki dominates with the unstoppable power of 20 pounds of (possibly) injectible muscle, hitting a shoulderblock and driving Chono to the mat. Chono gets a chinlock off of a knuckle lock and they grapple on the ground, Sasaki hitting a scoop slam to break. More knucklelocking, and Sasaki hits the powerslam off the Irish (Japanese?) whip. Sasaki works the knee on the ground with a leg lock. Chono breaks and the Machines get into it on the outside. They tag in and…things…start…to…suck. Chopping. Headbutting. A DDT. Resthold surfboard. Mask ripping. This is like bad lucha, almost. Sasaki and Chono back in, they trade a bunch of ground based nothing focusing on Sasaki's knee. We hit the brawling on the outside, and no one here is Bruiser Brody. Back in for more mask ripping on Strong Machine, who makes a comeback with the double lariat. Saski comes in actually selling the knee, and now it's a big brawl. Superplex on Chono and a lariat, but a low blow and a Yakuza kick give Chono the STF (his finisher) on Strong Machine. Rope break. Sasaki clears the ring of Chono with a lariat, takes down T-2000 machine with the same, and a Strong machine diving headbutt finishes at 14:55. *1/2. Inoffensive and unessential, it was just sort of there to fill space on the card with a quasi-big time matchup of Chono and Sasaki. Nothing bad, nothing really especially good. An utterly generic New Japan heavyweight tag match.
2. Hiroyoshi "Astro Mullet" Tenzan VS. Yutaka "What the Hell is THAT!?" Yoshie The nicknames are mine =). Tenzan has the grand uncle of all mullets, a two foot long whopper with the top flat toped and the edges all around died blond. The sides are shaved. Yoshie has this indescribable…thing…on his head that's virtually worth the price of the tape itself just to see. It's as if his head were in the grip of a fuzzy albino starfish. This is truly the match up of the strangest hair in wrestling.
Basic story of the match is that Yoshie sucks horrifically, and Tenzan's actually good, hence the match evens out at around "passable". It's standard New Japan heavy style, hard strikes like Tenzan's Mongolian chop mixing with basic holds and quick-start pacing. Headlocks-and-shoulderblocks start punctuated with Tenzan's trademark headbutts and Mongolian chop. Both guys do the manly warrior spirit no-sell thing, and Yoshie takes over with his horrid girth-based offense. Fat Legdrop! Chinlock! Think Rikishi with even more ridiculous hair and a bit less flab. Tenzan gets back on top with headbutts, including one to the groin. What's Japanese for "Whazzaaapppp?". Stomps. Kicks. Boredom. Chops. Yoshie takes over off the last of those but is felled by a nefarious low blow. Tenzan headbutt gets a two count. Tenzan gets the best of an exchange of Mongolian chops, but falls victim to a suplex reversal. Spinning heel kick for Tenzan. Not much happening here. After a year Tenzan misses the flying headbutt and Yoshie takes over, getting his inverted figure-four finisher. Tenzan rope breaks and kicks out of a nifty followup spinebuster. Yoshie responds with a truly hideous German suplex, dropping Tenzan right on his head. Oi, that'll kill brain cells. It gets 2 2/3. Yoshie hits an inverted powerslam and transitions to the inverted figure-four, which Tenzan rope breaks. Tenzan breaks Yoshie's momentum with the Mountain Bomb and takes over, hitting a diving headbutt for 2 and ¾. Tenzansault misses, and Yoshie hits an obese Thez press, than a German suplex for 2 ¾. He locks in the inverted figure-four for the third time and gets the tap at 13:87. Front part was dull and meaningless, back end was good but lacked flow and build to the leg submission, and the most interesting thing about the match was the hair. **
3. Michiyoshi Ohara VS. Kendo Ka Shin Behold the wreckage which is the career of Kendo Ka Shin. His gimmick of shoot-style junior went down the tubes after Ryan Gracie mauled him in PRIDE, killing his offense and thus his career deader than a doornail. This lasts all of 3:08 as Ohara hits the chokeslam for the win. Blah. DUD. Next.
4. Satoshi Kojima VS. Kenzo Suzuki Kojima is, along with Nagata, Tenzan, and Iizuka, one of the best young New Japan heavyweights. Suzuki is apparently a rugby star signed by New Japan, and Kojima has been deputized to make him look not bad. Good may be a reach. Kojima's in the Orange, Suzuki in the blue. Suzuki plays midget Goldberg to start, getting a quick 2 ½ off a spear. You'll be reading that again. Kojima bails to the outside and regroups. Back in and Suzuki controls with really basic stuff- slam, stomp, armdrag, headlock. They do the chop trade and Kojima wins- chinlock. More basic stuff from Kojima, keeping it simple for the kid. Suzuki chinlockery into a headscissors, and I'm having no trouble typing while I watch, and I am by no means a touch typist. Kojima headlock give him control, and he hits a blind charge/flying elbow for 2. Suzuki gets the ab stretch, countered with an Ace crusher, countered with a spear. Another spear. Backdrop. Get the sense Suzuki is limited? DDT, no cover, front chancery, DDT, and Suzuki misses the kneedrop. Kojima goes after the knee with a drop kick, dragon screw, and a figure four. Lot of holds in this match to kill time, given Suzuki's limited offense. Figure four is broken and Kojima talks trash, and takes another spear. That's four. Kojima counters with an evil lariat for the win though at 9:40. Nothing bad, but Suzuki is greener than you can imagine, and Kojima really had to dumb down his offense for the kid. He has the athletic talent though, and he didn't blow anything. A modicum of psychology, decent work, nothing offensive, **3/4.
5. Jushin Thunder Liger/Shinya Makabe/Minoru Tanaka VS. Super Delphin/Tsubasa/Takehiro Murahama My first ever tape review and I get to do play-by play for this. Bad call, Brendan. Liger, of course, is the God of juniors, one of the best of all time. He's been slowed by injuries (broken leg, brain tumor, etc.) but can still hang with the best. He's also got the OMNI-AWESOME alternate all-black with silver trim outfit here, putting him within reach of Chono on coolness quotient. Minoru Tanaka (fluorescent green trunks) may be the best junior in the world today, able to hang in a Battlarts (his original fed) style pseudoshoot or a highflying spectacular. Makebe's young, and his chief virtue is the fact that he doesn't suck. Team Osaka pro is shepherded to ringside by the strangest costumed wrestlers I've ever seen. Delphin is still costumed to look fish-like, though despite his goofiness he's quite the worker. Tsubasa (in the mask) is decent, while Murahama is a revelation here to me, since I never watch Delphin's Osaka pro outfit from which his team originates. Murahama is like a miniaturized Tanaka, adept in all phases of the game and damn fun to watch.
Both teams mix it up before the bell. Tanaka and Murahama start, going shootstyle with the leg kicks and takedowns, mount position and attempted cross-armbreakers and knee bars. Murahama gets a stiff leg kick and they reset. Tanaka takes control with a suplex and a kneedrop for 2. Delphin in with Makebe. Criss-cross sequence ends with Delphin in control after a dropkick, but Makebe hits a spear to break it up. Tsubasa in, and team NJ holds him outside for a Liger baseball slide dropkick to the face. Liger controls on Tsubasa, working stiff with hard chops and elbows. Tsubasa hits the headscissors and teases a highspot before pulling back. Makebe in, than Tanaka, controlling Tsubasa. He breaks for the corner and tags Delphin who hits a Tsubasa-boosted Tanaka with a dropkick. Murahama with a dropkick to the face of Tanaka in Delphin's camel clutch. Tsubasa in with the Eddie G. senton. Tree of woe dropkick on Tanaka by Murahama. Quick change double team offense by team Oasaka pro, until Tanaka breaks with a second rope dropkick on Murahama and tags Liger. Liger cleans house with shotei's (palm thrusts) and backbreakers, but takes an Owenzuigiri from Murahama. Complicated sequence in which team Osaka pro tricks Makebe into shotei-ing Tanaka, than lures them both into a Tsubasa flying body press. Triple dropkick on Liger, and Delphin hits a body press to the outside. Next comes Murahama with a Sasuke-style somersault plancha, which is the point at which I realized he kicked much, much ass. Tsubasa with the crash and burn moonsault press to the outside. Inside Murahama gets 2 ¾ on Liger, and follows up with stiff kicks and an over-shoulder arm breaker. This is *really* good stuff, all very crisp. Murahama gets a key-lock on Liger, and team Osaka pro storm the ring to prevent the save, but Liger makes the ropes. Liger hits a shock powerbomb for a breather, and tags Makebe, who powerslams Delphin for 2. Rolling Germans for 2 ½. He misses the dropkick and gets DDT'd and backdropped for 2. Delphin hits the tornado DDT and charges with a shotei, which hits for 2 before the save. Tanaka in to whoop on Tsubasa, but the save is made off a knee bar and Tsubasa hits a super hurracanrana and the Eddy G. face rake, followed by the ugliest…thing…off the top I've seen in a while. Pier-6 to the outside, leaving Tanaka and Tsubasa inside, and Tanaka hits a brutal missile dropkick and a northern lights suplex for 2 ¾. A rolling northern lights into a cross armbreaker finishes at 16:88, and team New Japan gets the duke. Stupendous match, with nifty selling of submissions, high-energy work, awesome highspots, stiff shots, good psychology relating to working of bodyparts/wearing down of a particular opponent, and a little story told about Tsubasa being the weak point of his team. An interesting mix of shoot-style submission maneuvers and lucha-inflected highflying, which somehow hangs together logically. The only downside was Tsubasa's occasionally iffy work. It's all good here: ****1/4.
5. Manabu Nakanishi VS. Osamu Nishimura Penthouse, meet outhouse. Here we have the absolute worst of the New Japan heavyweights on display, as worthless Ape-man Nakanishi and pointless uncharismatic Nishimura square off in a match over nothing. Trust me: possible steroid abuse and a torture rack are not all Nakanishi shares with Lex Luger; he's just as bad a worker. The world ages as this seems to go on forever, despite the fast foreward, and I see an endless blur of restholds and crappy strikes. Rome rose and fell in the time it took Nakanishi to finally rack Nishimura for the tap, or perhaps it just felt that way. DUD, and don't stop the tape other than to check out Nakanishi's gorilla impression. What do you mean he always looks like that?
-Tatsumi Fujinami video package.
6. Tatsumi Fujinami VS. Koji Kanemoto Kanemoto is the stupendous junior, Fujinami is the dinosaur. Really, he's been around since the 70's. Kanemoto attacks before the bell and hits a slam and his trademark twisting second rope senton. Fujinami bails. Mat wrestling sees Fujinami hold the headlock until rope broken, and Koji controls vertical with stiff kicks and chops. Fuj back to the mat with the arm bar and a bow-and-arrow. Chinlock. Scintillating. Headscissors, but not flying, ohhhh no, not from Fujinami these days. Koji gets a headlock of his own and a cross armbreaker, which Fujinami no-sells. Stiff mounted strikes from Kanemoto, and now a kneebar. Rope break. I'm typing almost every move here folks. Kanemoto with stiff kicks and a knee bar, which Fujinami no-sells. Guess old Fuj hasn't watched much PRIDE. Koji with stiff kicks, but Fuj gets the dragon screw. Body slam and Fuj come off the top with what probably would have been a knee drop in about 1984 or so. It misses. I'm about to cry as Fuj no sells another kneebar. He's supposed to be tearing your knee ligaments you old bastard! Can't you even grimace!? Standing Kanemoto strikes, but Fuj retaliates and drives Koji out. Kanemoto back in, Fuj out, and Koji hits the tope. Sweet. Fuj…wait for it…no sells and comes back in, and tries for the trademark dragon sleeper. Koji retaliates with another no-sold knee bar. AHHHHHH! Striking. Koji goes for the moonsault, but Fuj blows the spot and doesn't move fast enough, and thus NO-SELLS THE MOONSAULT. Please make the bad old man stop. Figure-four gets the tap for Fuj in 10:34, as Koji does an absolutely amazing sell job of fighting against his own desire to tap, before finally submitting. An annoying match carried entirely by Kanemoto, as Fujinami proves his utter worthlessness in the new millennium. Go home old man, you're a Japanese Hulk Hogan in the ring. **1/2. What the point of having ancient old men squash and no-sell all over talented juniors is, I don't know. Ask Riki Chosyu.
-Kawada video package.
7. MAIN EVENT: Toshiaki Kawada & Masa Fuchi VS. Yuji Nagata & Takeshi Iizuka. Come sit by the fire children, and watch the masters at work. Kawada is the best wrestler alive. Nagata is the best of the new generation of New Japan heavyweights, Iizuka carries his own weight, and Fuchi, old man Fuchi, relegated to comedy matches for years and years, is about to do something amazing. In his excellent review of this match at www.deathvallydriver.com, Dean Rasmussen pointed out that this is, at heart, Fuchi's match. With the very survival of the company he helped build on the line, he has to become a soldier once more, to take the place of those who turned on what he helped create, who stabbed his dreams in the back and forced him out of comfortable reflection on a lifetime of achievement, to stand once more at the frontline, shoulder to shoulder with one of the successors he nurtured. What Nagata and Iizuka face is the very soul of All Japan, the ultimate dedication to the tradition for which All Japan was famous. The psychology here is brilliant; the crowd is quite aware of the position of Kawada and Fuchi, fighting for the survival of everything they helped create in their professional lives. They are aware that Fuchi is long since past the point at which even his own company considered him anything above a comedy worker. And what's more, Fuchi is aware of their understanding of his situation, and he uses it in the match, utilizing the only methods he knows that will transform him into a legitimate threat. Kawada's story of fighting spirit here is poignant enough, as he fights with everything he has to preserve his life's work; but Fuchi's is utterly beautiful, as he weaves seamlessly the stark reality of All Japan's downfall and the perception of his own deficiency into the fabric of the match, blending work and shoot in a way a Vince Russo never could have conceived of. Kawada is the paladin, the defender of the faith; but Fuchi is the still beating heart of everything his company has meant.
The referee pats down the contenders before the contest, an anachronistic touch which fits perfectly. New Japan wrestlers surround the ring, including Jushin Liger and Kensuke Sasaki. Iizuka and Fuchi begin, and the crowd is already nuclear. Fuchi stalls to begin, sizing up Iizuka. Tie up on the ropes and Iizuka shoves Fuchi. Fuchi stalls in the corner again, playing with the crowd's expectation of his immanent failure against the young lion Iizuka. Again. Tie up and Fuchi gets the headlock, off the ropes and a shoulderblock puts Iizuka down. Scoop slam. Headlock takedown, twice, and Kawada breaks a sleeper on Fuchi; he is the student protective of the old master. Brawl in the ring puts Iizuka on top, and the hate is palpable as the wrestlers fight each rope break. Fuchi to the outside, stalling. On the apron, stalling. Back in and Iizuka takes over, mat sequence ends in a draw. Face off. Fuchi with a wastelock, in comes Nagata with stiff kicks to the legs of Fuchi, and here's Kawada in now to protect his teacher. Amazing amateur-style mat sequence, with an air of utter reality between Kawada and Nagata. Draw. Face off standing.
And Kawada stretches. With the smallest gesture, the timing of a signature stretch, Kawada communicates more pure contempt for an opponent that a thousand Triple H promos. Nagata goes apeshit, assaulting Kawada with kicks until the ref pulls him off and out of the corner. Kawada back with his own stiff kicks and chops and a derisive foot push to the head. They trade brutal elbow smashes, and Kawada wins the exchange with a kick. Nagata fires back, driving Kawada to his knees. Fuchi in, and Iizuka. Fuchi to the knee with a knee breaker and a deathlock. STF from Fuchi. Rope break. And then: Fuchi cheats. Not in an underhanded way, but in the most glorious way possible; Fuchi places Iizuka across the second turnbuckle and stands on his throat, glaring out at the audience and imperiously directing the referee to restrain Nagata. In an instant Fuchi makes it clear that he will do, proudly, whatever it takes to carry his own weight as a true threat, whatever it takes to win. No longer is he the potbellied, shrunken old man who walked to the ring; now he is once again the warrior he was in his prime, fighting again for glory. It's beautiful, in it's way. Kawada in on Iizuka, and he works the knee half way into a half crab, then stomps on Iizuka's head, then into the full half-crab. Bow and arrow. And now Fuchi, with a look of utter disdain on his face, is standing on Iizuka's throat while he's still in the bow-and arrow. Fuchi and Kawada do the quick tag offense, working over Iizuka. Quick brawl, and Kawada hits the leaping kick to Nagata's head. Fuchi crotches Iizuka on the top rope. Brawl on the outside, Kawada and Nagata, Fuchi inside boot-choking Iizuka. They switch, and Fuchi crotches Nagata on the railing. Kawada gets 2 on Iizuka off a kneedrop. Nagata pounds the mat in frustration. Iizuka fires back in the ring on Fuchi with elbows. Double team offense by Fuchi and Kawada, stiff kicks. Fuchi remains dominant on Iizuka as the match settles down into a standard tag formula. Quick tags Fuchi and Kawada, working over Iizuka. Nagata breaks up what he can. 2 for Fuchi off a backdrop. Suplex reversed and now both Iizuka and Fuchi are down. Kawada in. Iizuka fight back tooth and nail, but can't escape Fuchi and Kawada's machine-like precision. Iizuka finally knocks Fuchi from the ring and makes the burning tag to Nagata, who faces off in a duel of brutally stiff strikes against Kawada. Nagata wins with a series of leaping high kicks, which net him 2. Kawada hits a leg sweep to break up the pounding, and he hits the DANGEROUS BACKDROP for 2 ½. Stretch Plumb! Nagata is trapped in the center of the ring! He inches slowly towards the ropes, but Kawada drags him back. After an eternity Iizuka breaks the hold. Kawada gets two off it. Kawada goes for the stuff powerbomb, but has to break to high kick Iizuka away. The New Japan contingent shows their solidarity, giving up their bodies for each other and for victory; Iizuka knows the stuff powerbomb means The End. Iizuka buys enough time for Nagata to break the powerbomb up, and Nagata kicks Kawada in the leg.
Stiff kicks to the leg send Kawada down, and Nagata gets the Nagata lock! Kawada goes for the ropes, but like he pulled back Nagata in the stretch plumb, Nagata pulls him back. Fuchi breaks the hold. Iizuka runs the length of the ring and destroys Fuchi with an elbow, and now Kawada and Iizuka lay waste to each other in the center of the ring with stiff kicks, and Iizuka hits the EXPLOIDER! Kneebar on Kawada! Nagata lock on Fuchi! Kawada screams in agony and forces himself towards the ropes, but Iizuka pulls him back. The crowd is Nuclear. Finally Kawada breaks with punches to the head. Iizuka pulls up a groggy Kawada for a German suplex, but Kawada goes heavy and counters with a torqueing kick to the head. Fuchi dropkicks Iizuka's knee, backdrops him, backdrops him again for 2 ¾. Fuchi with a choke sleeper, on Iizuka, Kawada with the stretch plumb on Nagata, all four men putting everything they have left into every move. The holds are broken. Iizuka blocks a Fuchi backdrop and shoulderblocks himself into a double knockout. Double tag. And Kawada and Nagata, the focus of so much hate, simply stand toe to toe and brutalize each other with punches and kicks, as the bell rings to signify the end to this war, and a thirty minute draw. *****, for near flawless work and a beautiful story. This match is like reading a great short story, with characters and motivations clearly and concisely sketched and drama introduced, developed to a climax, and resolved purely within the confines of the match.
The first two times I saw this match I thought it was a five star classic; but this time it may also be among my favorite matches of all time. The story of this match is like a deep, dark, pool, with the bottom out of sight. Every time I watch this match I see more of the story, the contempt between Nagata and Kawada, the pride they take in defending their companies, the defiant heroism of Masa Fuchi, the desperation not to lose, the hatred revealed as in the final minute as the gladiators abandon the hope of victory simply to brutalize each other. This may be the deepest match I've ever seen, and the closest to true athletic poetry. This is what wrestling should always be, what it can be at it's best: true art.
Every fan should see the main event of this show. This gets my highest recommendation, because this is wrestling as the art it should be. Get it NOW.
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