Thanks to http://www.digits.com for their badass righteous free counters
Introduction to NJPW PPV 6/6/01
One of the enduring trends in Japanese wrestling is the theme of that which is familiar vs, that which is foreign. The first enduring repetition of this was in the early days of the puroresu industry, as the vast majority of wrestling in Japan revolved around the basic idea of Japan vs. the world, part of Japan's quest for a revival of national pride in the wake of the devastation of the second world war. In later years, while vestiges of this original idea remain in foreign "monster heels" like Vader and (though not necessarily as a heel) Stan Hansen, the expression of them has shifted to a more internal mode. The expression now is that of the Established Stars or Heroes vs. The Outsider, either in the form of a wrestler brought in and built up huge in a new promotion (i.e. Chosyu vs. All Japan) or in the form of co-promotion between various organizations, such as inter-promotional one-off shows between WWF, WCW, New Japan and All Japan, various multi-promotion shows done as tributes, shows organized by Weekly Gong and other magazines, and full on inter-promotional angles such as UWFi vs. New Japan (the inspiration for nWo vs. WCW). Recent events at the highest level of Japanese wrestling have further increased the value of this trend for successful promotion: for New Japan, business has been slow, and they have been looking for something to jumpstart the slumping promotion both creatively and at the box office; for All Japan and their offshoot Noah, the split in 2000 had left both promotions, and especially AJPW, desperate for talent to fill their shows and generate interest among the public. Thus, while Noah worked out something of a deal with New Japan's offshoot Zero-One, All Japan entered into a full on co-promotional deal with NJPW itself. AJPW's Toshiaki Kawada had been the outsider in New Japan who had begun the angle, trading high profile wins with Kensuke Sasaki of NJPW, and keeping his organization afloat with compensatory NJPW talent for AJPW shows in the later part of 2000 through the early part of 2001; but by June of this year AJPW had regained enough strength (and both companies had recovered sufficient interest in the crosspromotion) to stage an expansion of the feud to a larger portion of the rosters of both promotions. The 6/6/01 NJPW pay per view was to be the site of a 5 match series between the two promotions, at one time the two largest and most important in Japan.
That was hardly the only potential draw or point of interest for this show, however; the resurgent Keiji Muto, leader of the BATT (Badd Ass Translate Trading, no I don't know what it means either) faction, was to take on a previously unannounced mystery opponent; and IWGP champion Kazuyuki Fujita was booked to defend his title against New Japan's top in-ring heavyweight performer, Yuji Nagata. On the undercard, the BATT versus Team 2000 feud continued to simmer as Hiroyoshi Tenzan, Masa Saito, and AKIRA took on Jushin Liger, Taiyo Kea, and Jinsei Shinzaki. On paper, a fairly loaded show.
-My tape starts with some of those fun Japanese commercials, the ones where you're never quite sure what's actually being sold, and yet are strangely fascinated anyway.
-The pre-show. The announcers discuss the card, and we get interviews with several of the participants. Fujita! Nagata! IWGP title!
-Plausibly live from the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo.
-Announcement by the ring announcer of the card in general, and more specifically the Zen Nihon vs. Shin Nihon five match series.
1. Katsuyori Shibata/Shinya Makebe vs. Kenzo Suzuki/Hiroshi Tanahashi These guys are all the younger members of NJPW, inexperienced wrestlers usually featured in the opening match in order to allow them to build experience; in essence, they're prospects for the future. Of this crew, Makebe is probably the most experienced and most pushed, having tagged with Riki Chosyu on occasion, basically as Riki's designated job guy. He's probably also the best of this crew, at this point in time. Tanahashi and Shibata start, and do a reasonably skillful series of amateur-style holds and counters to a standoff; not quite as fluid or strong looking as they will be in a few years, but thoroughly acceptable. One thing about New Japan (and Japanese wrestling as a whole) is that the emphasis on legit amateur credentials among the performers means that even the youngest and most inexperienced wrestlers on the card hold a significant advantage over American wrestlers at an equal experience level in terms of fundamentals and fluidity of their moves; in essence, they simply appear to be more at home with the act of wrestling and being in a ring. Suzuki comes in, and he and Shibata commence striking on each other with Suzuki getting the edge. Makebe enters, and he and Suzuki do a "fighting spirit" sequence of partially selling each other's strikes in that good "I grit my teeth and endure the pain" way, as opposed to the bad "ha ha, look at how little this hurts!" Kevin Nash way. Tanahashi enters, and he and Makebe trade wristlocks. Shibata in, and he hits a nifty Russian legsweep-into-a-scissors anklelock type move that's broken in the ropes. They rise to their feet, and Tanahashi just sorta decides to stop selling at some random point and hit a body slam. Double team shoulderblock from Tanahashi and Suzuki, and Suzuki follows up with a spear (that's my boy!) and a crab hold. Before the spear, I barely recognized Suzuki; I hadn't seen him since the December 2000 NJPW PPV, and he's both physically larger and a million times better in the ring since that time; it's a pretty noticeable improvement for only 7 months, as he's much more fluid and has a superior sense of how to structure a match from then to now. He may yet be one to watch in the future, especially since he was working with Satoshi Kojima there, and only his inexperienced contemporaries here.
The crab is broken in the ropes and Makebe tags in, and he and Shibata work Tanahashi over for a bit with basic offense. The big flaw here: there's no transitions to speak of from one team being dominant to the next. And as I write that, now Tanahashi's on top with a single crab out of a cross armbreaker, a dropkick in the corner, and a snap suplex. German is blocked though, and Shibata hits a Shinzaki-esque flipping enzuigiri. And, magically, Shibata is back on top with no apparent discomfort from the offense he's sustained. He and Makebe do some moderately botched alternate striking double team offense, but Makebe loses a contest of striking to Tanahashi's flying chop off the ropes, and Suzuki comes in with a high knee and a vertical suplex on Makebe for 2. A side suplex is blocked however, and Makebe holds Suzuki for a Shibata leg lariat. Makebe's spear gets 2, and a twice-rolled German gets the 3 at 8:12 for Makebe and Shibata. If you had no idea who any of these guys were, but were familiar with the New Japan style, you would have known immediately from this match where this was on the card, and what each man's role with the company was. Everything about it screamed NJPW young guys, in that it had the amateur-based, strike intensive hallmarks of Strong Style, but at the same time it had the brutally basic movesets and slightly off psychology and pacing which identify the younger and more inexperienced members of the roster. In that, this match is a perfectly decent example of what it is, and a fun one if you're into seeing some guys who could be important three to four years from now for NJPW. But it's hardly must see, and really slightly below average on it's own merits. *3/4.
-NJPW vs. AJPW! NOW! (With English voiceover on the video package.)
2. Masanobu Fuchi (AJPW) vs. El Samurai (NJPW) That AJPW still is running with a shallow talent base is easy to see from Fuchi's presence in an important position on this card; while he can turn out a good performance from time to time, he's still a 50-something ex-comedy match guy, who has to fight against his own obvious lack of credibility to a degree. On paper, this ought to be ground based, given Fuchi's limitations and Samurai's advancing age; they shake hands to start, then circle each other warily. Fuchi strikes quick with a backdrop out of a side headlock, a shockingly early time in the match to utilize that maneuver; presumably, it's used to emphasize that Fuchi is still a threat despite his age. It gets 2, and Fuchi smiles smugly out at the New Japan crowd. He goes for the move a second time, but Samurai blocks with elbows to the head, goes behind, and hits his inverted DDT for 2 or so. He gets a ki lock, which Fuchi sells rather feebly; odd given the shoot-style influences on this show. Fuchi bails to the outside off the rope break and Samurai follows with a pescado, then throws Fuchi back in and hits a dropkick off the top for 2. Samurai is surprisingly active here, really working. He gets a cross armbreaker which Fuchi blocks by standing up and rolling Samurai into a headscissors. Sammy rolls Fuchi into a sitting position, escapes to a headlock, than gets reversed back to a headscissors. Back to a sitting position, and Fuchi drags Samurai across the mat by the head, scooting backwards. They break in the ropes, and circle each other. A waistlock is countered with a drop toehold by Samurai, and he moves into a camel clutch of sorts; snap mare, elbow to the face, and a chinlock. Fuchi fights out and applies a hamstring stretch hold which actually looks decidedly painful. He works the leg a bit with a bow-and-arrow of sorts, but Samurai reverses a suplex and hits a tornado DDT for 2. He comes off the top with a diving headbutt which misses, and Fuchi hits an enzuigiri and two backdrops for a 2 count. A third backdrop hits, a fourth, and still only 2; that's a rather excessive sequence there. A fifth backdrop, a sixth, a seventh, and that gets three. Just a match, really. About what you'd expect from two guys not in their prime but reasonably talented, given only 9:30 to work with. Not really deep or anything, but reasonably well executed in most areas. *3/4. The big knock on this is the ending backdrop sequence, which to me came off as overkill for the purposes of making New Japan's guy look very strong even in defeat, excessively so and in a manner which almost devalues that move. Fuchi does mic work post match and talks about All Japan.
3. Masahito Kakihara (AJPW) vs. Minoru Tanaka (NJPW) This is the second match in the 5-on-5 series, with All Japan up 1-0. Both men here are known as shootstyle workers, Kakihara from his days with UWFi and Tanaka from his pre-NJPW stint with Battlarts; Tanaka is also the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion, and considered by many to be among the best workers in the world today. The tempo here is fast from the get go; it befits the idea of worked-shoot, which mimics the "it can end at any time" faculty of true shoot and thus creates a psychological premium on speed and early effort, instead of a feeling out process and the conservation of energy over the long haul. And indeed, true to form, both men come out feinting with low kicks and short chopping jabs, designed to mimic legitimate striking techniques; they segue to shoot-style mat work, counter-for-counter, which produces a standoff. Back on their feet, they again emphasize the shoot-like aspect of the match as Kakihara lands a roundhouse kick to Tanaka's head, leveling him for a 2 count which is broken only by the ropes. They repeat the spot, reversing the roles, but as Kakihara kicks out at 2, Tanaka quickly transitions to a cross armbreaker, a beautifully fluid transfer which carries the air of utter reality, the lifeblood of effective shootstyle work. If NJPW is truly serious about going at least somewhat in the direction Inoki seems interested in taking them, down the path of making New Japan resemble something like a cross between traditional Strong Style and UWFi-esque worked-shoot, it will be workers like Tanaka who make the fusion succeed, because of their ability to understand that the essence of worked-shoot is a harmony of the appearance of reality and the necessity of entertainment. Tanaka possesses the fundamentals of mat wrestling and striking which allow his work to appear close enough to real, but also the showman's understanding of how to utilize those techniques in a way which is entertaining enough to compensate for the absence of the lure of true competition. Combine that with the artist's knowledge of how to craft a story in the ring, as Tanaka does, and you have a recipe for a truly great performer within this style, and indeed Tanaka is virtually unmatched as such, with perhaps only Daisuke Ikeda and Yuji Nagata qualifying as similarly gifted shoot-style workers. He is truly a joy to watch. And again he confirms my new-found love of him, as he batters Kakihara with kicks and beautifully performed, fluid transitions to submission holds; the way he trips and rolls Kakihara into an Achilles tendon hold is a personal favorite, as is the way he drags him back towards the middle of the ring as his opponent's hand strains for the safety of the ropes.
To be sure, Kakihara responds with his own shootstyle offense, close in knee strikes and a brutal leaping high kick to the head which secures a 2 count. He's not as fluid as Tanaka, but excellent in his own right. He's got nothing to match the beauty of Tanaka's flying armbar though, which allows the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight to regain control. Note that structure; while the techniques utilized are shootstyle (and, as Kakihara's no-selling of the followup missile dropkick emphasizes, those are the only techniques permitted to be effective in the match) the structure is fundamentally representative of Strong Style, quickly flowing exchanged periods of domination and offense, a flow that is rarely, if ever seen in a true shoot. In essence, while the performers utilize the appearance of shoot to legitimize their offense in the eyes of the public, they entertain those same fans by relying on the proven structures of old-style professional wrestling. A nice German suplex and a high kick net Tanaka a 2 count, but his flurry of high kicks trigger a nice bit of pro-wrestling psychology mixed with shootstyle, as Kakihara protects his head from the blows with his arms, enough to recognize the kicks as they come and counter one into an Achilles tendon hold of his own. Very oddly, Kakihara chooses to follow up on the rope broken knee hold by busting out a tornado DDT; on the one hand, shoot psychology says "working a limb" is almost meaningless in the pro-wrestling sense of that phrase, and thus it makes sense to not necessarily stay with the leg; on the other, Kakihara chooses this moment to break with shoot psychology and bring in pro psychology, yet does it in a manifestly illogical way by those criteria. An odd moment in the match, to be sure. The give and take between these two philosophies continues though, as Tanaka's pro wrestling backslide is countered with a Fujiwara armbar and then a cross armbreaker, broken again in the ropes. One of the great advantages of shoot-style is the rope break rule, which is again used effectively here: these holds, in a true shoot, mean a virtually certain end to the match, yet they can be utilized in non-finish situations within shootstyle because of the omnipresent possibility of a rope break; the key to retaining their legitimacy as finishers and with it the appearance of quasi-legitimacy on which shootstyle depends, while utilizing them as such, is for them to be sold as death, with wild scrambling for the ropes, grimaces, cries of pain. Both men excel at this, Tanaka in particular, and it's part of what makes them both so good and this match so much fun. Sadly, it ends all too quickly, as the man from All Japan hits his STO-like Kaki cutter for the win in only 6:20, and the 2-0 AJPW lead in the series. I am rather mystified at the purpose of putting Kakihara over the IWGP titleholder was, considering Tanaka hardly needed a new opponent, given his unsolved business with Liger and others. The match itself is as good as 6 minutes or so of shootstyle can be, as both men excel at the intricacies of a difficult form. ***.
4. Mitsuya Nagai (AJPW) vs. Takeshi Iizuka (NJPW) Nagai is Kakihara's regular tag partner, another practitioner of the worked-shoot style, and one of the best in-ring performers in All Japan. Iizuka is a solid, solid upper midcard heavyweight, regular partner of G-Egg Yuji Nagata (a faction recently disbanded) and a perfectly decent Strong Style worker. There's a small bit of backstory here, as these two met with their respective partners in a tag match in February of this year at the NJPW "Power Max" PPV, pulling out a ***-***1/2-ish match. This is also the third match in the Zen/Shin Nihon series, and probably the strangest. They work well to start, exchanging holds and throws on the mat and maneuvering for submissions, with Iizuka working the knee; but at about five minutes in, the first sign of something being wrong appears. Nagai is throwing kicks and knees at Iizuka in the corner, and several of the shots appear to catch the prone man unawares; he's visibly hurt by them and nearly knocked cold, not in a pro-wrestling "I'm selling this" sort of way, but apparently legitimately. They struggle on with the match for another few minutes, but Iizuka is just gone, presumably concussed from the first flurry of strikes. A second barrage of kicks knocks Iizuka out cold in the corner, and the match ends at 7:58, giving All Japan the victory in the series with three straight wins. The knockout was completely legitimate, as Iizuka is carried from the ring, not yet to return to action for New Japan as of G1 Climax 2001, from which he was just removed in favor of Minoru Tanaka. The incident also obviously screwed the booking, as Iizuka logically should have gone over here to make it 2-1, and keep the heat on for the subsequent matches. Match itself was basically unratable because of the early finish, but what was, was about *1/2.
5. Mike Barton (AJPW) vs. Manabu Nakanishi (NJPW) Here come the powerhouse types. Barton is the ex-Bart Gunn from the WWF, with everything that implies about his skill level; American fans probably best remember him for knocking out Steve Williams in the Brawl For All, and being legally murdered by Butterbean at Wrestlemania XV. Nakanishi is one of the most pushed, though not best, of NJPW's young heavyweights; he's essentially a mediocre power wrestler of the type Riki Chosyu seemed to develop an unhealthy fascination with late in his booking reign, as guys like Nakanishi and Yutaka Yoshie received substantial pushes in his last few months and years in power. Nakanishiberg kicks things off with two spears, then a stiff headlock which Barton breaks with left-handed jabs to the obliques and a backdrop. Barton nails the lefty gut punch, and Nakanishi rolls to the floor gasping for breath and generally doing a shockingly good sell of Barton's big offensive hook; Barton taunts him from inside the ring. Very, very NJPW-ish quick start with simple moves and hard strikes, which actually underlines the similarities between the WWF style Barton is most familiar with and Strong Style. The match settles down from the quick start, into a pattern of Nakanishi working the left arm to counter Barton's power and using spears and lariats, Barton using left-hand power shots (again sold well by Nakanishi, who appears to be reay to puke after a gut shot) and basic offense, and both men doing the "fighting spirit" no-sell of each other's strikes. Nakanishi gets the torture rack early, but can't fully apply it and so drops down into a backbreaker drop for 2. After a counter, Barton actually hits a flying elbow for 2; a spear reverses the tide, and Nakanishi gets 2 off a couple of lariats. Barton ducks a third and hits the Ace crusher for 2, and tries to follow up with a wild left that misses, allowing Nakanishi to reapply the stiff headlock. Barton tries to break with a backdrop again, but Nakanishi sees it coming and executes a stiff bulldog for a 3 count at 4:42. Well, I never thought I'd say this of a Manabu Nakanishi vs. Bart Gunn match, but had that been five minutes longer it might have been pretty darn good, since both men were working better, and smarter, than usual. As it was, it was a very basic but short Strong Style power match, with all the right ideas for such. *1/2, but better than that sounds, and much better than it had any right to be.
6. Toshiaki Kawada(AJPW) vs. Satoshi Kojima (NJPW/Team 2000) This was the premier announced workrate match, as Kawada is by universal acclaim the best wrestler in the world, and Kojima is one of the best of the New Japan heavyweights. This is also Kawada's return match after a several month layoff for the purposes of arm surgery; as a result, he looks tentative at times in the match, though not to a significantly problematic degree. Nicely enough, that's something that gets worked into the story of the match. Both men come at each other hard out of the gates, into a strong collar-and-elbow tie up. Break, and Kawada does his taunting stretch; "I'm not worried about you in the least, and I'm not even warmed up yet!" it seems to say. Kojima makes him break it with a quick feint, establishing early the psychology that he's going to go straight at Kawada, and isn't in awe of him in the slightest. A second tie up gives Kojima a side headlock, a hard shoulderblock off the ropes, a stomp, and a rolling senton on the mat. He runs halfway down the entranceway, then hurls himself over the top rope back into the ring with a somersaulting shoulderblock on Kawada; then, to be a dick, he does Kawada's little stretch. Fabulous. The work itself is basic high impact/simple NJPW stuff with the usual quick start, but Kojima's little stretch taunt and his mannerisms sets up a subtextural storyline of his wanting to prove himself the equal of Kawada, All Japan's ace; it's worth keeping in mind that Kojima is not considered among the top NJPW heavyweights, and is in fact the third man from the top in Team 2000 behind Chono and Tenzan. Kojima goes for a third tie up, but Kawada decides to try something different, commencing with the stiff kicking all over Kojima's body to take control; but a Kojima Dragon screw leg whip and dropkicks to the knee further establish his resiliency and ability to hang with Kawada, in essence that the first sequence was no fluke. He goes for a leg grapevine, but Kawada forces him into a chinlock on the ground and recommences his kicking; but again, a Dragon screw breaks up his offense, and allows Kojima a figure-four. The psychology of body part work is clear here, as are the elements of storyline development: Kojima is able, clearly, to hang with Kawada; and beneath that, hints of the ideas that first, NJPW guys are more familiar with Kawada's offense and likely to see it coming, and second that Kawada isn't as sharp as he could be coming off the layoff, allowing Kojima to break up what ordinarily would be offensive sequences for him. The figure-four is broken, and Kawada manages to come back against Kojima's standing strikes with chops and kicks of his own; this sequence is notable for being slightly slow and off-timing. Kawada continues the nice use of parallelism of the match, hitting a running kick from halfway down the entranceway, similar to Kojima's earlier shoulderblock. A kneedrop gets 2 inside, before Kojima turns he tide with a jawbreaker. Back on offense, he gives Kawada a working over with sharp strikes and a flying elbow for 2; a "fighting spirit" no-sell contest is won by Kojima with a dropkick, and he moves to a sit-out spinebuster off the ropes for a 2 count. So far this has been virtually all Kojima, underlining the elements of Kawada's rustiness and Kojima's aggression in the storyline of the match. Kawada fights back off the mat with his kicks, and works up to his trademark leaping high kick to the head; but Kojima sees it coming (there's that bit of the story again…) and blocks it with his forearms. Kawada's sell job of this is not to be missed, as he slightly winces and seems a bit unsteady on the leg as he rises to his feet, selling the earlier leg work without overselling it. It's a subtle sell job, which suggests the effectiveness of the earlier leg-targeted moves without overdoing it, allowing for nuance and differing degrees of damage to be portrayed; the leg has been injured, but not crippled. Kojima misses the follow up lariat, fights off Kawada's German suplex attempt, reverses for a try at his own, but gets caught with Kawada's flipping, twisting enzuigiri.
As a transition from the section of Kojima's dominance to the second part of the match, this sequence is marvelous. Kawada doesn't suddenly go back on offense, throwing punches in Rock-like fashion; he has to first get separation from Kojima with his kicks, allowing him to clear his head; then, he has to out think and out wrestle him in the struggle for the German suplex, finally allowing him to hit a sufficiently devastating move to stop Kojima in his tracks. As an added dimension, Kawada hits that move only on the second attempt at it; he knows what move it will take to put Kojima down, and he keeps trying for it until he can connect. He fires back at Kojima with a high kick in the corner, a brutally stiff lariat for 2, and the Stretch Plumb for 2 ½.. Kojima tries to fight his way out of a backdrop, but Kawada drags him back from the ropes and hits a slightly blown snap backdrop, putting Kojima down on his head. He tries another backdrop, Kojima blocks it, then blocks a Kawada lariat and turns it into a Koji cutter. The level of offense utilized by both men is slowly escalating, from the opening strikes to signature spots and head-first throws, an important stylistic element. He follows up with an awkward super Koji cutter for 2 ½, then a Michinoku driver; he's throwing every big spot he has at Kawada, in an effort to get rid of him. He tries for the old NJPW standby, the Big Ass Lariat, but Kawada kicks his lariat arm (a great looking spot), hits two lariats (which Kojima "fighting spirit" no-sells, drawing a grudging look of astonishment and respect from Dangerous K) and goes for a third; but Kojima lariats the lariat arm and hits his own massive lariat, flipping Kawada over and drawing a 2 ¾ count which everyone in the building thinks is the finish. Budokan Hall is going insane at this point, which is amazing considering the drama of the AJPW vs. NJPW 5 match series was blown. Up first, Kawada hits two massive head kicks and a brutal backdrop which puts Kojima down hard and fast on his head. Both men stagger up again, Kojima with a lariat, Kawada with a leaping high kick, and Kawada hits his stuff powerbomb, drawing 2 ¾ only; Kojima is gone at this point, selling like he's borderline unconscious. Another leaping high kick finally kills him off at 15:15.
Fantabulous match here, and an easy ****. They do a nice job with their plotlines, using them to structure the match: the opening section depicts an aggressive Kojima, looking for respect, and a tentative Kawada, coming off downtime for an injury; and thus the opening minutes are devoted to Kojima's dominance. As things progress though, Kawada's experience and resiliency allow him to turn the tide as he regains his usual form and by the end, both men are simply throwing everything they have at each other, big move after big move, trying to end the match. Organized as such, it keeps Kawada strong with a win, while also putting Kojima over HUGE with a strong and near-dominant performance vs. All Japan's ace.
As with most of Kawada's NJPW work, this match has the interesting quality of being a mix between the slow build towards the big spots of AJPW and the quick opening and strike orientation of NJPW; it is, in fact, a skillful synthesis of the styles. In his first match in NJPW, against Kensuke Sasaki, Kawada came up with the perfect way to blend the differing elements of the native styles of the two biggest Japanese promotions: there's a quick opening filled with strikes, as per the basic New Japan formula; but that opening is designed to partially take the place of the matwork and feeling out process of the AJPW formula, allowing a retention of that style's drama-creating build towards the biggest spots. Here, as an example, the flow is from the opening shoulder blocks and kicks, very New Japan, into the matwork section (which in itself has the AJ-ish grapevine, and the NJ-isn figure-four and dropkicks to the knee) up to larger moves like the super Koji cutter and the stuff powerbomb. It's a marvelous and logical amalgamation of the two styles, allowing simultaneously for easy access, excellent and deep storytelling, stiffness and execution, and great drama, all without the excessive head dropping which plagued late-'90's All Japan or the shallowness with is the occasional bane of Strong Style. And it's essentially the sole creation of Kawada. Another reason why he's the best wrestler active in the world today: he's having a fundamental impact on what wrestling is, for the better, demonstrating a way for pro-wrestling to have great innate drama and excitement in Japan without the insanity of head dropping, ridiculous highspots, or the borrowed and somewhat false drama of shootstyle.
7. Team 2000 vs. BATT (Badd Ass Translate Trading) For T-2000, it's Chono, Tenzan, and AKIRA; for BATT, Taiyo Kea of AJPW, Jinsei Shinzaki, and the unaffiliated Jushin Liger; the plotline before this was "will Liger join BATT?". Kicking it off is the typical off-the-rack brawl-to-start (the only one of the show; compare and contrast to any WWF PPV for an interesting non-parallel), which makes sense because of the personal nature of the feud. Inside the ring Chono goes rudo, first hitting a cradle piledriver on Liger (which Liger essentially no-sells) and then ripping at his mask, as the others brawl around the outside. Things quickly settle into the standard formula tag, with BATT working Chono over on the mat and with basic offense, kicks, stomps and the like. Liger executes Tenzan's Mongolian chop, then gives him the finger; the crowd pops big for that. Kea does it as well, but Chono hits the Yakuza kick off the ropes to get himself some air and a tag to AKIRA. Speaking of AKIRA, he is the maybe the best non-pushed wrestler in New Japan as he has an absolutely ridiculous surfeit of both athleticism and charisma, flipping all around and taunting Kea on the outside from the ring. He and Kea do a nice running sequence, which Kea wins with an arm drag; so AKIRA brings in Tenzan, who is NOT HAPPY. He demands Shinzaki, and gets him; so he then executes first Shinzaki's uppercut strike, then his own Mongolian chop. Very nice spot; Tenzan is truly one of the best of the NJPW young heavyweights. He and Shinzaki go back and forth a bit, with Chono breaking up the rope walk once before Shinzaki sees him coming on a second attempt, and kicks him off before executing the move. Liger and Tenzan go back and forth, with more Mongolian chopping from Liger. This is all very formula Strong Style tag, with quick tags and a lot of striking from all involved, interspersed with signature spots; I write "go back and forth" a lot because it's basically just striking from all involved. BATT work over Tenzan, before mullet man gets AKIRA in to work over Kea's leg. Chono in, and now it's T-2000 working Kea over with an eye towards the knee. Kea finally hits a DDT on Tenzan to beak, and Liger comes in to hit two shoteis and a plancha onto Tenzan on the outside; Liger looks pretty darn good here, quite energetic. Back inside, a powerbomb on Tenzan from Liger (a move Tenzan had blocked earlier, when he was stronger; nice psychology) and a frog splash gets 2. Brainbuster gets 2, broken by T-2000, but Tenzan gets a break with a spinning heel kick. He chops Liger down, but the diving headbutt misses. In come AKIRA and Shinzaki, and T-2000 work over Shinzaki with a Chono Yakuza kick and a diving AKIRA splash gets 2. BATT fights back, and twin diving headbutts from Liger and Shinzaki set up a Kea diving splash for 2. Shinzaki's praying powerbomb gets 2, broken up by Tenzan. Everybody brawls around ringside, as AKIRA hits a rana on Shinzaki for 2; this match has absolutely nothing in the way of transitions or flow at this point. Mandara Hineri sets up the straightjacket hold, modified with a knee in the back, for the submission at 16:53. Bleh, sorta. Not a bad match, just a nothing special take on a basic formula NJPW tag. A few cool spots (the finish, notably) and a modicum of psychology, but nothing to speak of in the way of flow or transition after a certain point. Average, which is less than I'd hoped for given the talent. **. Liger and AKIRA were the two best here, and I'd love to see a match between them at some point if I hadn't already seen one from a decade ago, when both were physically fitter, which was nothing special. Liger shakes the hands of BATT after the match, but claimed later he wasn't really joining the faction.
8. Keiji Mutoh vs. Mr. X Mutoh enters first, to really nifty theme music. For those who don't know, he's well into "Stone Cold Mutoh" territory at this point, bald and sporting a goatee. Entering second is…Hiroshi Hase, Mutoh's ally in BATT, dressed in a white version of the black tights Mutoh wears. Both men are in shockingly good shape here for men their age, especially Hase who has a regular gig as the equivalent of a senator that prevents him from wrestling regularly. From the start, the vibe of the match is obvious: the two men are friends and allies within storylines, but old rivals by history; so the match is one in which both men no doubt have a burning desire to prove themselves better, yet the wellspring of that desire is professional pride, not personal animosity. The conduct of the match then must of necessity be technical, focused tightly on the questions of which man is superior at the art of wrestling, as opposed to brawling or fighting, and which man in the end has the greater will to win.
They circle each other to start, watching, looking for an opening. It's the little things which capture your attention at first: the way they search for openings and grapple with their hands, feint and look for shots, sprawl to avoid those same. Hase yells something to the crowd, and draws a big pop. Part of the object they're pursuing here is clear already: to create a match with its grounding in old-school technique, drawn from the basics of amateur wrestling and the desire to create a match with the appearance of plausible reality. Everything for the first 10 minutes or so is mat-based, as each man seeks to simply out-wrestle each other, and come out ahead in the balance of exchange of holds and throws, reversals and counters. They work headlocks, knucklelock bridge spots, leglock spots, as Hase tests the strength in Mutoh's bad knees; 8 minutes in is the first time Mutoh even feints a major move, a dropkick to the knee, which misses. The hallmarks of this section are intensity, believability, an air of reality; the picture is of two men utterly focused on each other, straining at every nerve to counter each new attack, probing for a weakness, testing each other's skill and heart. 9 minutes in is the first time either man runs the ropes, as Hase rolls under a Mutoh leapfrog, and each man misses a drop kick simultaneously. Hase scuttles away backwards on his belly, a movement reminiscent of the peculiar movements Muto adopts in his Great Muta gimmick; both men eye each other knowingly, and the match breathes, given time and space to develop.
10 minutes in comes the first strike, as Mutoh buries his shoulder in Hase's stomach on a rope break of a Hase armbar. Hase responds, moving with his opponent up to the next level, matching his intensity. Mutoh gets the best of that exchange, and at around 11 minutes he hits the first major move, and first real independent spot, of the match: his power elbow drop. He goes for a cover with a kimura assist, but Hase shifts on the mat to keep his shoulders up, something rarely seen in modern wrestling. Mutoh shifts to a short arm scissors and controls Hase on the mat for what to many fans would seem an eternity, most likely. Yet both men have the ability, as men like Flair and Hart, their close American contemporaries and near counterparts had, to make this struggle on the mat seem important; to put forward by their subtle movements and body language that they are at all times struggling, wrestling even while still, searching for the next opening, the next counter, the next opportunity. At 12 ½ minutes, Hase breaks out of the scissors and drapes Mutoh's leg across the second rope, crashing down on it with his full weight and testing again the strength of the knee, as he threatened to do earlier. Again he does it; the hold Hase switches to is rope-broken, but he wrestles Mutoh down from his feet with an ankle pick, and maneuvers him into a leg grapevine. Mutoh attempts to counter with a cross armbreaker, returning to the arm, but Hase locks his hands to counter and rolls to his stomach, forcing Mutoh into an awkward position which forces a break of the hold and allows Hase to return his focus to the knee. He does to with two elbowdrops to the knee and a return to the grapevine. Mutoh rolls Hase out and over to his back and holds his shoulders down briefly with his legs for a 1 count. Hase retrieves the grapevine briefly, but both men roll to the ropes. The hold is broken at 15 ½ minutes in. Again, both men face off standing, watching each other for a sign of weakness.
Hase gets a headlock takeover, Mutoh gets the headscissors counter. An ordinary spot, but an important one; it's one of the first "standard pro-wrestling mat spots", and as such is different from the other preceding matwork. Out of it Mutoh shifts to a headlock, and this triggers a rope running sequence of shoulderblocks and duckunders, Hase rolls through a Mutoh leapfrog, but this time Mutoh simply swats away the Hase dropkick without attempting one of his own. The match makes two important changes here. First, the headlock/headscissors spot triggers a change in style, as the match shifts forward towards modern pro-wrestling, with all that implies in the way of moveset, flow, and elements like rope-running, and away from the mesmerizing and unique matwork (within the modern context) which formed the basis of the match and filled the first 16 minutes of the contest. Secondly, the first mistake of the match by either man is made, as Hase assumes too much and Mutoh takes advantage of his mistake for the first real opportunity either man has had from the other so far. A dropkick to the knee connects, twice, then a trademark Dragon screw leg whip, then another dropkick to the knee, then another Dragon screw, and then finally the figure-four. The sequence is the first extended offensive opportunity for either man, flowing naturally out of the first mistake by either man, but it fits into the storyline of the match so far: Mutoh launches his attack at one body part, testing it for a weakness, and testing Hase himself with a submission hold directed at the point of attack. Both men roll to the ropes, and the hold is broken; Mutoh dropkicks the knee again, then again, then another Dragon screw, then the figure-four again, testing for sure whether an assault on the leg might be an avenue to victory, a way to break Hase down. It is no more successful this time, as the hold is on for an even shorter period before Hase rolls to the ropes. Mutoh dropkicks the knee again, but Hase doesn't leave his feet this time; Dragon screw hits, but as Mutoh tries the figure-four Hase rolls him up for a 2 count. The story adapts and evolves here, as not only is there the psychology of a man seeing a move coming and thus being able to counter it, but there's the deeper element of Mutoh returning to the same moves again and again, forcing Hase to prove that they can't beat him. That's part of the inner structure of the match, as each man will only move to the next level of offense when he is sure that the other man cannot be beaten at the current level. As they return to their feet, Hase connects on his own pair of dropkicks to the knees, then places Mutoh in the tree of woe and dropkicks the knee from that position twice. He gets his own figure-four, testing Mutoh as Mutoh tested him. The hold is rope-broken, but Hase quick breaks and reapplies it, continuing the parallelism and invoking a rarely-used bit of logic. Hase learns from Mutoh's mistake, though, and when the second figure-four is broken he doesn't try for a third, but instead goes for his giant swing; when that is blocked, he turns instead to a sharpshooter. Mutoh rope-breaks the hold, and Hase kicks the bottom rope in frustration. He stays on the knee with stomps, driving Mutoh to roll to the floor for safety.
But as he tries to renter, Hase meets him with a stiff kick to the head, sending him into the railing on the floor. Hase then follows up with a pescado, sensing that with the sharpshooter having failed that the next level of offense would be required. Back inside, the adaptation is clear as Hase hits a top rope dropkick, then kips up; all of a sudden, the high flying aspect of the former IWGP Jr. heavyweight champion's arsenal is engaged, ad Hase smiles at the roar of the crowd, and gives Mutoh a knowing wink. And Mutoh? As Hase comes off the ropes, he's right there with him at the next level, hitting a Mutohcanrana into a quick cross armbreaker, which Hase sells like a champion. Mutoh dropkicks the arm, twice, then reapplies the cross armbreaker. The arm work both references the earlier stage of the match, and parallels Hase's attempt to win with a second submission move, the sharpshooter. Hase breaks the hold in the ropes, but Mutoh's on top of him with the side backbreaker, perennial set up move for Mutoh's old, rarely used high flying moonsault finisher. Hase senses it coming though and catches Mutoh on the top rope, throwing him off with a half-German-suplex, half-urenage throw; it's the first major impact spot of the match, and Hase basks in the approval of the crowd.
From this point on, the testing aspect becomes streamlined; there are no more fronts of offense to open, so the question becomes: which man can hit his moves more often and harder, and draw more effectively on his knowledge and fighting spirit, to put the other man away? Hase picks Mutoh up and puts him down hard with his trademark urenage, a half hour into the contest. A German suplex gets 2. A Dragon suplex gets 2 ½. A jumping piledriver gets 2 ½, but Mutoh blocks a running high kick with a Dragon screw. A second rope dropkick attempt misses, but a second Dragon screw connects. This time, Mutoh nails the top rope drop kick, after a sort of queer head-fake. In the corner, Mutoh simply punches Hase in the mouth, and puts him up top. But as Mutoh goes for a super rana, Hase catches him and drops him on his skull with a top-rope powerbomb for 2 ¾. Northern lights gets 2 ¾, two urenages get 2 ¾, but a knee drop from the top misses as Hase makes a big mistake. Dropkick to the knee from Mutoh, and again, Dragon screw, and another figure-four; in context, and odd but somewhat logical move as Mutoh would have needed time to recover from Hase's onslaught. Hase blocks another Dragon screw with a short knee to the head, and hits a German suplex for 2 ½. Urenage, and this time the knee hits for 2 ¾. That's one of the few sour notes to the match, as Hase should be unable to execute that move after the damage his leg has sustained. Northern lights gets 2 ¾, but a second attempt is blocked with knee strikes and a rolling kick. Mutoh then hits a backflipping knee strike to the head, which I've never seen or heard of him doing before or since, and follows up with the Shining Wizard, kissing his fingers as the referee's hand falls a third time, securing him the win at 39:07.
Up until the final section, I was ready to give this ****1/2, and call it the second best match I'd seen this year after the 2nd Judgment PPV main event tag, and narrowly beating out Hoshikawa vs. Marufuji from the first Zero-One PPV show (go read James' review! NOW!). Sadly, the bad selling from both men, the use of a top-rope powerbomb as just another move, the abuse of large spots by Hase, and a general breakdown of the flow all within that final section forces me to cut it down to ****1/4. But, what a four star and change match! Stylistically, it's a unique attempt to combine old school matwork and VERY slow build with modern high tech spots like the top-rope powerbomb and urenage; flow wise, it's almost All Japan-ish in the matwork-to-medium spots-to BIG SPOTS evolution. Storyline wise, it works on several levels. As rivals, the desire is there from both men to prove themselves the best; as allies, the unspoken subtext is each man testing the other, seeing just what sort of mettle the man across the ring has, probing his will, his ability, his fitness as a match for themselves. The slow build and transition from each level of offense to the next is an easy story to follow, but put in the context of their relationship it creates a deeper meaning, and allows each man to say something essential about his character. That's really as much as I can ask from my wrestling. The psychology was impeccable until the end, the work qualitatively excellent, the story engrossing, and at 39 minutes plus, much of that mat-based, it never dragged for me as I watched it and never once did I reach for the fast forward button. That is a true standard of excellence. The rest of BATT enter the ring to check on both men afterward, Mutoh and Hase hug, and BATT takes pictures on the rampway.
-WE'RE NOT DONE YET!
-Antonio Inoki comes out to ringside in a neck brace, announces that the now clean-shaven Tadao Yasuda has cleared his gambling debts (or so I hear), and then assumes a ringside seat.
-Kazuyuki Fujita/Yuji Nagata video package
9. Kazuyuki Fujita vs. Yuji Nagata This is for the IWGP heavyweight title, and Fujita is the champion. He built his reputation largely as a shooter in Pride with wins over Mark Kerr and Ken Shamrock among others, and was put into this position in NJPW largely as a result of that success. Nagata is the best heavyweight in New Japan, and had been put over several "shooters", and even a few shooters, to build him up for this match. The logic here is the typical Inoki one of using a wrestler to put on a good match, and a shooter to give a wrestler a rub. Following Nagata out to ringside is Jun Akiyama of Noah, who then takes up a ringside seat near Inoki; this was part of the slow dance of negotiations around the idea of Noah/New Japan cross promotion, specifically of a Nagata/Akiyama matchup in the future, which is still expected to happen. Nagata is seconded by Kenzo Suzuki since Iizuka was in no condition to do the job' Fujita appears, to Inoki's music, with both the current IWGP strap and the earlier old-school model, given to him by Inoki supposedly as a sign of Fujita's role as his heir as a "legitimate" champion of sorts. Or something. A credit must be paid to Riki Chosyu here, as scheduling this match, sure to be high-impact shootstyle, right after the previous one is a great bit of booking sure to make this one come off well as a change into a much more immediate and high impact style. Both men are wearing Pride-style shootfighting gloves, for the greater appearance of reality.
After a staredown, both men commence quickly, as in a shoot, with all the usual elements of a shootstyle match: Nagata attacks with hard kicks to the legs, both men attempt hard amateur-style shots, and once he gains Fujita's back on a single leg takedown Nagata goes immediately for the choke, a sure-fire match ender in a shoot. As such, the psychology is successful at achieving its primary goal of presenting the appearance of full legitimacy, allowing the audience to suspend disbelief; as well, the same psychology of entertainment created by the rapid use of "surefire win" moves, with legitimacy sustained by the rope break, is in full evidence as Nagata's choke is broken in the ropes. Here though, unlike in Kakihara vs. Tanaka, the intent is to completely portray a shoot; whereas that match was loose enough to allow for Kakihara's tornado DDT, here the grappling is all amateur-based jostling for position, the guard is employed on the ground, and the most "pro wrestling-ish" moves are the spinning heel kick (beautifully sold as a near-knockout by Fujita) which gives Nagata his first big opening, and the backdrop suplex he follows it up with for a 2 count.
Fujita bails on outside off that one. Back inside after a moment, Nagata gets a double amateur underhook standing, and both men struggle with great realism for the leverage advantage. Fujita manages to get a back trip to take Nagata down, and he lands punches out of the full mount; again this could well mean the end of a true shoot fight, but the rope break "saves" Nagata; perfect shootstyle psychology, supported by both men's ability to portray realism. And I mean both men; I've bad-mouthed Fujita in the past, but he puts on a legitimately good performance here even in areas like selling where Nagata can't carry him. Put back standing, Fujita counters a low kick with a hard shot, which Nagata in turn counters with a double underhook, turned quickly into an excellent shootstyle belly-to-belly suplex; it appeared that Fujita barely went up for the move at all, forcing Nagata to muscle him up and over and making the move appear very realistic. Nagata goes, logically, for a cross armbreaker which Fujita counters by locking his hands, stopping his arm from being fully extended and subject to damaging pressure. Fujita manages to force Nagata to drop the hold and gains the side mount, from which he throws knees to Nagata's midsection. Knees on the ground remain vastly over in shootstyle, thanks to their role in Kazushi Sakuraba's shocking quick loss to Vanderlei Silva at Pride 13. Nagata rolls to the ropes to escape, but takes a brutal knee to the midsection as he goes, necessitating a breather on the floor.
Back in, and Nagata controls with standing knee strikes, allowing him to hit a front scissors guillotine choke; in addition to this being a legit shoot submission, it also happens to be an alternate finisher of Jun Akiyama, and thus functions as a sort of challenge/foreshadowing of that collision; it's an excellent spot. Akiyama no-sells the importance of the move on the outside, but the camera turned to him for a reaction shot immediately, getting the point across anyway. Fujita escapes the choke and rains down punches from the mount, before trying a cross armbreaker. That doesn't go anywhere so Fujita hooks the choke, but Nagata slips out and applies an odd double leg submission which resembles him being the victim of a body scissors. That too is broken. Here is revealed part of the inherent limitations of shootstyle when it's calibrated to resemble exactly a shoot; since no body part can really be worked on, matches have a tendency to become long series of near-tap, near knockout spots with little in the way of story or psychology to tie them together. Such is somewhat the case with this match, sadly. Nagata hits a series of kicks (his best weapon in this match which consistently gets him the advantage when employed, a nice bit of psychology) which result in a simulated knockout for a 2 count only, an inherently somewhat unrealistic spot. Nagata hooks a choke, then a cross armbreaker, both of them broken in the ropes. A BIG-ASSED release German suplex is half no-sold by Fujita, who hits a spinebuster and the choke headlock he's used to win several Pride matches, which, guess what, is broken in the ropes. Nagata comes back with kicks but is stunned by a Fujita punch, then becomes the victim of Silva-esque knees to the head down on the mat. And, as is the wont of shootstyle, those get the knockout win out of nowhere essentially at 10:57; if we can have the Dusty finish and the Russo finish, I want that officially known as the Silva finish, since it keeps cropping up. Well. On the one hand, there were a lot of the psychological elements which help create good shootstyle, several nice suplex spots from Nagata, stiffness, and good selling from both; on the other, way too much of it was "armbar, rope break. Choke, ropebreak", the sort of staggering from one spot to the next with little story which is the bane of the realistic end of shootstyle. Still, the fundamentals were there and the work was good, so it gets love from me: ***1/4.
-Our announcers wrap it up.
The Bottom Line
Hell of a show, among the best NJPW PPVs, along with the December '00 show and the 1/4/01 Tokyo Dome show. Embracing a real range of styles and performers, from shootstyle to old-school mat based and from Toshiaki Kawada to Minoru Tanaka to Masa Chono, it's a show that really ought to have something for anyone who has an interest in Puroresu. It'll never be known as an all time classic due to the lack of important events, but match by match the quality stacks up with any other show this year, and it's a decent contender for Show Of The Year, though not a probable winner. I'd give it a good strong recommendation, though it's not "must see" if you're only a casual fan. In essence, it's a fun snapshot of New Japan these days, with great wrestling in places.
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