This first entry comes with a blood warning. Both guys blade in the match, there will be blood.
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Back in June of last year, it dawned on me that I’d been subscribed to NJPW World for some time, yet I hadn’t really dived into the company’s history. I hadn’t taken note of the huge archive provided by the streaming service. So I made a pledge, a promise that one by one, I’d go back and watch these historical bouts. Finding out as much as I could about the surrounding stories in the process, to help piece it into NJPW’s history and slowly put together my knowledge of their past.
With NJPW’s ever growing expansion into the US, I’m assuming there are others who also fit into the bracket of ‘Interested, But Know F’ All’.
So this series is going to be a record of my attendance at the New Japan School of Professional Wrestling. A catalogue of all the matches thast have an impact on me or are goddamn interesting to look back on wearing our 2017 future goggles. And of course, maybe a deathmatch or two.
I orignally posted this column’s match analysis in LOP’s Column Forums about 7 months ago, but it’s a perfect representation of what I want this series to become. To truly understand the future you need to learn about the past. So I’ve dug this column up for the masses, and trust me, the match chosen is an absolute barnstormer.
I have to start this first NJPW Adventure entry with a thank you to AJ Styles. That man was the reason I ever decided to check out New Japan Pro Wrestling in the first place. After finding out he’d become the new leader of the Bullet Club AND IWGP Heavyweight Champion pretty much immediately after debuting, it became apparent the Japanese promotion might be taking the fella rather seriously.
At the time I wasn’t really enjoying the walk down my main wrestling avenue in WWE. Daniel Bryan was off with injury, Punk was 6 months removed, Reigns’ push was starting, Rollins vs Ambrose was hitting weird sex doll roadblocks, The Authority was becoming tiring, John Cena was champion again… So I decided to give the biggest Japanese promotion a try with their latest show. A show which just so happened to be the first night of the G1 Climax 2014 tournament.
A tournament of which I knew nothing about. However it is just a two group round-robin, so it’s perfect for someone who’s trying to pick up the state of play.
My first impression was mixed though, it was great to see guys I hadn’t seen compete in a while like DOC Gallows, Lance Archer, Davey Boy Smith Jr, Shelton Benjamin and of course Senior Styles. However, the company was in the middle of their Intercontinental Championship push for Bad Luck Fale, he beat Nakamura in an alright main event bout. Also ‘Air Guitar Man’ felt a little cheesy, high fiving all the fans in between strumming imaginary chords in time to a rock song. And I’d heard that man was their John Cena, New Japan’s top guy for years.
But, oh my, it didn’t take long for my opinion of those two Japanese superstars to change. Just seeing what Tanahashi and Nakamura could do in a ring, I was hooked. Haven’t looked back since. Of course all this means that my New Japan knowledge both starts and ends at G1 Climax 2014. And it turns out that company’s been around a while, so there’s rather a lot of stuff to work through!
So why don’t we slowly, one match at a time, get educated in the ways of the King of Sports. Starting with an absolute banger in the form of Yuji Nagata, the Tokyo Dome and a lot of blood…
But first, we have to talk about Antonio Inoki.
Inoki’s faux-MMA era really did a number on New Japan and today’s contest takes place right slap-bang in the middle of it. The Japanese legend saw the rapidly rising popularity of MMA and began to worry, it turns out this was one of the few things he was right about. His response to this was to incorporate semi-shoot matches into his shows, like special attractions or in some cases booking the top of the card like wrestling, but with the matches consisting of an MMA style. He’d hire popular MMA fighters to compete at the top, Bob Sapp being a prime example. MMA fighters in name, and it turns out not very good wrestlers in nature.
However, that wasn’t all. The other side of the coin was New Japan’s most popular wrestlers would compete in professional MMA bouts, top guys against top guys. Guess what happened? The MMA athletes completely DESTROYED the wrestlers, utterly ruining the wrestler’s credibility in the process. One such wrestler was Yuji Nagata, seen as the ‘Ace’ of NJPW in the early 2000s. He was forced to compete in MMA contests that he had absolutely no place being in, he was up against professionals who had been training for years. Inoki was a freak athlete who had incredible bouts against the likes of Muhammad Ali, but not everyone is an Inoki or Lesnar calibre warrior. Turns out having your tops wrestlers get beaten up by MMA fighters wasn’t the best move.
In this time New Japan took a massive nose dive. I don’t have the stats for 2004’s Tokyo Dome extravaganza, but 2005’s figures really do help paint the picture on how badly New Japan were doing at that time. Named ‘Token Festival Wrestling World’, according to the Wrestling Observer the event drew NJPW’s smallest ever Tokyo Dome attendance of 25,000, with only 10,000 paid tickets. Sheesh.
MMA fighters at the top of card against wrestlers in shoot-matches was not working, but that doesn’t mean when given the chance the pro wrestlers themselves weren’t able to tell incredible stories. Inoki may have been making questionable decisions, but there were still some damned talented wrestlers on that roster. Like WWE today, we may complain that the creative side sucks, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some incredible wrestlers on their roster. Trust me, this match is a gem.
LIFE OR DEATH FIGHT
Yuji Nagata vs Kensuke Sasaki
I came into this match with absolutely zero knowledge of this feud’s existence. But my God, these two truly made me believe they hated the other with a burning passion. From the first second they started beating the living bajesus out of each other, stiff slaps, punches, headbutts. All accompanied by yells and screams whilst staring directly through their opponent’s eyes. I had no idea what they were fighting about, but I could tell they jolly well weren’t friends.
So why were they fighting?
Kensuke Sasaki was a 2 time G1 Climax winner (1997 & 1999), as well as a 3 time IWGP Heavyweight Champion. His first run came after ending Shinya Hashimoto’s legendary 489 day reign in 1997, and he went on to beat Masahiro Chono and Keiji Muto in his first two title defences. Beating the Three Musketeers in his first three title matches? Fair to say NJPW was strongly behind Sasaki in the late 90s.
HOWEVER, in 2002 Sasaki had a dispute with NJPW and followed his mentor, Riki Choshyu, over to his new World Japan promotion. Short story even shorter, financial tensions between him and Choshyu grew and grew until Sasaki pulled out of the promotion. World Japan never made it out of that ‘Japanese Indie’ bracket and eventually just faded away without a whisper.
Seriously, Choshyu appeared on a NJPW show in late 2004 and everyone just went, “I guess World Japan’s done then.”
In late 2003 Sasaki made his GRAND RETURN to NJPW, however things had changed in his absence. He had left whilst Antonio Inoki’s hard on for MMA was still rising, but by the time he had returned the thing was fully swinging. Guys like a blonde Minoru Suzuki and the new Three Musketeers: Shinsuke Nakamura, Hiroshi Tanahashi and Katsuyori Shibata, had grown as the apparent future of the promotion. Also in that time, one man had officially risen as the number one guy and become the ‘Ace’ of New Japan Pro Wrestling. That man was none other than Yuji Nagata.
When Sasaki returned, he wasn’t exactly welcomed back with open arms. Fans treated him as a kind of defector, a traitor of sorts. Kensuke Sasaki fully played to that, his character pretty much immediately became a traitor heel. Which is when Yuji Nagata stepped up to him, got in his face and confronted him about his betrayal of the promotion. I guess it would be a similar feeling to Daniel Bryan (theoretically non-injured of course) stepping up to a returning CM Punk.
And viola, the stage for the Life or Death Fight in the Tokyo Dome was set. New Japan’s Ace vs the man who betrayed the company.
As I said earlier, these two went at each other with straight fire from the second that bell rung. Nagata trying to mix in some more traditional suplexes, Sasaki more of a brawling offense. After slapping each other in the face for a full minute, they transition to stiff kicks and lariats. Assuring everything escalates pretty damn quickly.
Like the very next minute, Sasaki tries to lock in a submission but Nagata scrambles to the ropes. Which enrages Kensuke and he takes the fight to the outside, throwing poor Blue Justice into the guard rails and hitting him over the back with a GODDAMN STEEL CHAIR! From the initial slap to the first chair shot, the match has been going 2 minutes!
And on that second minute mark, is where we get our first blade job! As Nagata counters a chair wielding Sasaki by kicking the mid-swing chair into his head. Sending the former Power Warrior conveniently flying under the ring to perform the job. So 2 minutes in and we already have blood! Attitude Era fans would have been ecstatic.
With so much happening in the first two minutes, what do you think happens next? Well if you had guessed Nagata suplexes his rival and starts headbutting the bleeding wound, you would be right! So that’s the third minute, what could possibly happen in the fourth one? That’s right, Kensuke can’t be the only one bleeding! Nagata’s head, meet ring post. It’s your turn to blade under the ring!
This is where things properly get a bit gory. Nagata’s blade job isn’t Eddie Guerrero facing JBL bad, but that doesn’t mean the stuff wasn’t squirting out. Hooray, violence! I swear, I used to watch some ECW barbwire matches on Dailymotion as a teenager and I’d be relatively fine with it. But watching this match now as an adult, the gore gets me a bit. Like the violence is too much for me. Damn you PG WWE! Making us cheer for Unicorn horns and guys in bunny/bear costumes.
As the match needed more order, I guess, the fight gets taken into the ring. More headbutting bleeding heads! Which leads to a mini headbutt battle! Then the fifth minute is entirely stiff slaps, the two enemies hitting stronger and stronger with each consecutive strike. Nagata having to wipe the dripping blood from his nose as Sasaki holds his noggin in place for what could be the 50th headbutt of the match already.
Where could this match escalate to next? Sasaki decides to hit Nagata with a big move and just go for a 10 count victory. Lovely heel tactic, whilst Nagata lies in the middle of the ring with a pool a blood expanding under his head. Unfortunately this doesn’t work for Sasaki, which turns out to be definitely worse for Nagata. As Kensuke decides to bite his blood gushing forehead! Holy shit. That was… yeah, that was lovely.
The final quarter of the match is Sasaki hitting one big move, waiting for the ten count, rinse and repeat. Selling a) how tired Sasaki is getting and b) how worn down Nagata is becoming. Which escalates into Blue Justice eventually countering his foe and locking in the Nagata Lock IV for almost 3 whole minutes! Yuji Nagata donning the crimson mask, more blood pouring out every time he yells whilst applying more pressure. Eventually, with Sasaki being held over a pool of his own blood, the referee calls for the bell.
You very rarely see matches end with a single submission applied for 3 minutes straight, even rarer to see it work when it is done! I thought this match was paced absolutely perfectly. From the stiff strikes, to the outside brawl, to the blade jobs, the 10 count attempts and finally the big submission.
The whole thing made me feel like I had just watched two guys legitimately beat the living shit out of each other. For me, this is the kind of match which is perfect for a bit of blood. Because to me that one aspect added so much in selling the bitter animosity the two felt for each other. It made every move feel that bit more impactful. Every headbutt got a bigger reaction, every slap, every suplex.
As long as you’re fine with a bit of blood, I’d 100% recommend this match, an amazing example on how to sell animosity. Coming in at just over 12 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome either. Two guys just going at each other for the entire match with no rest bite. It didn’t really feel like a wrestling match, more like a genuine fight.
Side Note: I always find it interesting to look at the Young Lions around ringside when watching these older matches. In this match I spotted: Rysuke Taguchi, a bald Yoshi-Tatsu, Toro Yano, Hirooki Goto & Togi Makabe. All on most New Japan shows nowadays!
Any recommendations for NJPW matches I simply need to see would be welcome. That doesn’t guarantee I’ll cover them, but I’ll at least tweet about watching it.
See y’all later this week for Worst Case Scenarios for the WWE Royal Rumble!