Fujiwara looks like such a badass here. This is a match built as a battle of Saito’s striking and kicking and Fujiwara’s submissions, and Fujiwara just overwhelms Saito with his badassery. Early on as they’re making their first moves he checks Saito’s kicks and then just explodes with brutal chokes, making great use of Saito’s gi and surely making whoever his judo coach was proud with sweet collar chokes. Saito takes the gi off but Fujiwara then just uses the belt to choke him even more violently, really the whole match is just a sweet Fujiwara showcase, Saito has really nice kicks and body blows, and he busts Fujiwara open with punches to the forehead, which just results in Fujiwara rising up like a vampire and headbutting the hell out of him, as well as often just brushing off Saito’s kicks. Fujiwara also basically no-sells Saito when he goes to argue with his second instead of paying attention to Saito and totally super rekts him when he fakes being stunned by body shots to lure Saito in, and Saito takes the bait like a faithless fool. A little bit too one sided to reach “greatness” but a great time to be had watching it. What are ratings anyway? ***3/4
I can’t stress how much I love the commentary from the crew who filmed this. People tend to put japanese crowds on pedestals and draw comparisons to theater and whatnot, but this is an excellent reminder what you hear is just the collective sum of all the noise and that many people in the crowd have small talks like “what the hell is that idiot doing taking so long to make his entrance”, yelling “kill him” and what not. The match is pretty much perfectly laid out. So much is accomplished in so little time. Choshu’s inital flurry is amazing and sets the manic pace of the match-his offence looks great as is, but him busting out a Dropkick when after taunting for a Lariat was both a great shocking moment and a nice way to put over how big of a threat Hashimoto was to him. The way Hashimoto came back was absolutely stellar-he pretty much bulldozed through Choshu after taking his best shots and kicked him out of the ring. This could’ve easily come off as Hashimoto just totally no-selling and then an that awkward period which follows after a wrestler gets sent outside the ring, but he smartly sold during and after the comeback in a way that still somewhat protected Choshu’s offence and logically filled the “empty” time. Once Choshu got back into the ring Hashimoto had already recovered, and he started laying on one of the most memorable beatings in a wrestling match I’ve ever seen, completely dismantling Choshu with brutal kicks, Choshu sold it like an action movie star on death watch, and just as I’d start to think they’re running out of ideas something incredible like Hashimoto’s spin kick, brutal arm ddt or a Choshu comeback attempt would happen. Choshu throwing the towel out of the ring was a beautiful moment of machismo, pride and stubbornness, and it’s hard to imagine a better puchline to such a great spot than immediately getting beaten out by a brutal spinning heel kick. While already marvelous, you do see Hashimoto isn’t a *completely* formed worker by this point, as thoughts of repetition never even once entered my mind during some of his later matches which also have large control segments of him pretty much doing the same thing over and over again. some of it was probably how many variations of simple moves he came up with, and that’s the only thing preventing me from labelling this as nearing perfection. ****3/4
A fun little match featuring some of their “best of” spots, but nothing great. Sabre’s matwork is too loose for him to leave a big impression in control and his pastiche of jiu jitsu and Johnny Saint spots has reached a point where, at least in this match, it wasn’t flashy enough to impress with style or legitimate enough to impress with sheer danger and pain. Almost every big spot here was recycled from a big match these two have had previously, and even when there was something new it lacked in execution (I loved the idea behind Ibushi’s palm strike, but he chest slapped Sabre and Sabre sold it like he hit him in the jaw, it looked ridiculous. You want to see that same spot done right, watch the first Misawa vs Kawada match, there’s a kick which at first glance actually looks like it hit the neck/jaw and Misawa’s selling is of course a thousand times better). Maybe the biggest problem of the match is that lacked the glue to connect everything. There wasn’t a strong dynamic-Sabre going toe to toe with Ibushi in stand up when his offence looks so much worse in that department was ridiculous, they were more focused on getting in counters than getting over a struggle and actually milking the holds, even the finish felt abrupt in that regard, Ibushi just picked Sabre up and slammed him. I still enjoyed Sabre putting on some wacky holds and the little input Ibushi actually got in, but this was disappointing. ***
I’m not sure how my taste in wrestling managed to change so quickly, maybe it’s the insane GWE-related amounts of wrestling I’ve watched, but last time I watched this match wasn’s so long ago, maybe a year or two ago. I thought it was good, this time I thought it was absolutely marvelous. Super Strong Machine trips Maeda as he’s entering the ring and attacks him, that whole angle was so great and really puts into perspective how amateur a lot of angles even major promotions do cime off. Maeda does a disgusting blade job, so naturally you need a million people to hide it well, and the commotion a pre-match attack causes is the perfect opportunity for that. All you really see is Maeda eating shots and the ringpost and by the time he gets up he’s just covered in blood, it’s insane. Maeda falls down as he enters the ring and sets the stage for the match. Maeda is on the verge if defeat the entire match, as Masa Saito just nuked him with Suplexes and Lariats. They cool it off with a Boston Crab and while the crowd senses Maeda isn’t losing to such a hold they use it to transition to Maeda’s comeback, as Maeda pushes Saito off him by going backwards. From then on it’a a matter of life and death, and they pack so much neat stuff into the finishing stretch it feels kinda redundant to name every singLe thing done and why it worked. Saito’s punches could’ve been better, but that’s just nitpicking. ****
I soured a little on this match, still thought it was really good, but more despite the 1 counts and the million forearm exchanges than because of them. I think they got over the dumb masculinity of Shibata really well even when sequences would get more complex. The most memorable sequence was the one where he trapped Ibushi in the corner, forearmed him to set up the dropkick, then went for it but Ibushi followed him to the corner and elbowed him. Then, Shibata just bulldozed through Ibushi, and went right back to forearming Ibushi, but Ibushi followed him to the corner, this time kicking him and “stealing” the Dropkick from Shibata. And I think that doing what they did, with Shibata instantly getting up, getting in Ibushi’s face, murdering him in the corner and upgrading his combo by adding various stomps and facewashes made for a better choice than revenging it later in the match. A no-sell spot isn’t really that big of a deal in a crash and burn match like this. Shibata grabbed at Ibushi’s leg several times in the match, and even hit him with a wicked counter forearm earlier in the match, making that damned slap an extremely fitting final transition, and I loved the contrast between Shibata’s hand basically going through Ibushi’s hand and Ibushi’s wacky kung fu punches that came moments before that. ***3/4
I think they made a mistake here by not making the control segments at the beginning even longer. Like when Okada grabbed a Chinlock and then rammed a Forearm onto Tiger Mask W’s back, you could feel the crowd was slowlly coming alive, and that really felt like a moment where Hayes and Gordy would cut-off the comeback attempts a couple of times, maybe give the faces a little shine before doing so, and gradually increase the heat by teasing the crowd more and more. Here, they just did some stupid cross-chop and Tiger Mask W was in control moments later, and even when he got all of his stuff in they still had time to do some heatless back and forth. If you’re going to have a pedestrian first half of the match, make it so that it serves a purpose in the layout of the match, and it’s not just because the match has to go 25 minutes. The second half ruled-it was nice to see Okada display a more aggressive side of him, and it’s always a joy to see Ibushi’s shootboxing background come into play. The slaps, head stomps and punches ruled as expected, but big spots also ruled, the top rope Tombstone tease was a perfect response to the Springboard Frankensteiner that has become a staple highspot in any bigger Ibushi match, and the top rope Tiger Driver was an unexpectedly satisfying pay-off. Even if the Red Ink may be the dumbest submission ever, and his Elbow Drop a classic example of how how sometimes focusing on form too much isn’t such a good idea because you might lose impact, I think Okada did a relatively good job of adapting to Ibushi and bringing the fight to him. ***1/2
I am going to give this a big fat no on the “best match ever/five star match” hype it’s getting, though unlike many of the contemporary New Japan matches that do get that same hype I did think it was a great match.
The opening matwork varied. I liked that they continued it after the first (few) strike exchanges, that and the bigger use of submissions is one element of the match that really reminded me of 80s New Japan classics that went even longer. The MMA matwork they opened with wasn’t very good. Shibata just moved from position to position, not really attempting anything, while Okada looked as uncomfortable as he did the last time someone tried to do the same thing against him (Nagata in a G1 match). You could explain that with Shibata projecting his dominance or whatever, but I don’t find it very interesting to watch wrestlers do nothing or move from one nothingnes to another. The WOS matwork was cool-a nice touch of Shibata picking it up new techniques in his run as the british champion. Then there was the headlock, which, happened, and they moved onto strike exchanges, the sequences you’d expect from them and occasional holds. Okada heeling it up was amusing, and it basically allowed him to stooge for Shibata’s strikes a bunch, and caused the best part of the match, which is Okada stubbornly trying to match Shibata and geating beat up over and over again. It’s been a long time since their 2012 G1 match where their incompatibility caused them to have a subpar match that consisted of a million forearms, a dropkick and a rainmaker-but they still give nods that Shibata is “different” than the usual Okada opponent, as Okada has to work to get moves like his flapjack and the diving elbow drop it, while it’s usually a given that he’ll hit them. There are no nearfalls-they milk Shibata’s submission for all they’re worth (and both Okada and Red Shoes deserve credit for their work there). Props to Okada for holding for Shibata’s leg to prevent his figure four from reaching maximal efficiency, that was a cool detail, as was Shibata grabbing hold of Okada’s arm in the Octopus Hold so Okada couldn’t escape. Shibata refusing to go down after being hit with the Rainmaker was probably the most iconic moment of the match- so much attention has been given to that move, with everyone having a counter to it, everyone avoiding it, and Okada winning with it over and over again with it despite it all. It’s not like it’s some super dangerous move, it’s just a convoluted Lariat, making a fitting no-sell that much sweeter. The ridiculousness of them building drama over holding hands could justly be attacked as a wrong turn in New Japan style, but it’s here and it isn’t going away, and it was used about as well as it could’ve here, with Shibata giving Okada a does of his own medicine by constantly laying into him while using it, only for that same trick to be what started Okada’s comeback victory.
So there was a lot going on to say the least. I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if folks who are generally predisposed to disliking New Japan style thought this match was average or even bad. I’m really open to symbolism in pro-wrestling, and it’s probably why I liked the match as much as I did, but I really don’t see anything *all time great* about the match. There are plenty of matches with better beatdowns, better comebacks, more focus in the matwork and more cohesion in interwining the matwork and the rest of the match, matches where the dominance of one wrestler doesn’t telegraph the comeback and so on. Aaaaaaaaand……….even in a match where he gets beaten up all the time I still get annoyed by Okada’s stupid offence and feel like he’s getting in too much. ****