Twenty years ago today, April 16 1994, New Japan Pro Wrestling hosted a tournament that would forever change the landscape of North American pro wrestling. NJPW invited 14 wrestlers from FMW, WAR, Michinoku Pro, CMLL, and SPWF to compete in a one night single elimination tournament. This event has been highly regarded amongst wrestling fan circles and Dave Meltzer himself referred to it as “The most incredible single night of wrestling ever.”
Three major wrestling promotions from North America were seeing a changing of guard within their organizations. WWE was in the midst of a steroid scandal that led to Vince McMahon being put on trial and seeing potential jail time, thus forcing the WWE to rely on “smaller” superstars that were no longer the larger than life superheroes we saw in the 80s and early 90s. WCW was about to begin their own “Hulkamania” era after signing the biggest free agent in the history of pro wrestling, Hulk Hogan along with other former WWE superstars — Randy Savage, John Tenta, Brutus Beefcake, Jim Duggan, and more. All the while, ECW was turning “Extreme”, paving the way for the future of pro wrestling by showcasing their “hardcore” matches and developing a cult following for fans seeking out an “alternative”.
If you retrospectively watch the 1994 Super J Cup you will see names you recognize from WWE, WCW, and ECW’s mid-to-late 1990’s and into the next century. Names like Chris Benoit, Eddie Guerrero, Taka Michinoku, The Great Sasuke, Dean Malenko, Jushin Liger, Hayabusa, and Shinjiro Otani.
It would become apparent that the head of ECW, Paul Heyman, was the first to have his finger on the pulse of the junior heavyweight craze that was setting Japanese puroresu on fire. 1995 ECW saw the emergence of Benoit, Guerrero, and Malenko who gave the blood thirsty barbed-wire crazed ECW faithful some classic and new age technical wrestling to sink their teeth into. Case in point, a match that saw Eddie Guerrero successfully defend the ECW Television Championship against Dean Malenko that aired on ECW Hardcore TV 394 days after the SJC94. These blood craving fans sat in their seats in awe as Malenko and Guerrero painted a picture of technical wrestling on the wrestling mat as if they were Picasso or Rembrandt. You go back and watch that match (available on the WWE Network in the vault section of ECW Hardcore TV or on Eddie Guerrero’s last WWE DVD release) and you will see these normally rabid fans become patient and polite watching spot for spot, applauding the magic that Malenko and Eddie Guerrero were creating.
Six months after the Super J Cup, Paul Heyman would take Chris Benoit and turn him into “The Crippler”. Heyman was known for taking wrestlers and highlighting their strengths to the moon while hiding their weaknesses. In a match vs. Sabu at November to Remember ’94 Chris Benoit gave Sabu one of his signature suplexes and resulted in breaking Sabu’s neck. Heyman took this and turned it into a classic ECW storyline — turning Benoit into this cold and calculated “crippler”. Heyman used pre-taped/heavily edited segments of Benoit cutting promo’s with this new persona. Heyman was smart enough to minimize Chris Benoit’s time on the microphone, thus hiding his weakness of not being a good promo, all the while highlighting his incredible in-ring work. Heyman was planning to make Benoit a heel with a long run of holding the company’s World Championship until WCW signed Benoit as part of a talent exchange with NJPW.
WCW was busy trying to recreate Hulkamania in 1994 complete with Hulk Hogan taking on the “monster of the month” PPV after PPV until WCW just lumped all of these monsters into one stable “to end Hulkamania”. By 1995 the WCW fans were growing sick of Hulk Hogan and the watered down repeat feuds from Hogan’s WWE days. WCW president Eric Bischoff took action. Not only did Eric Bischoff take a NJPW storyline and make it his own (the nWo) Bischoff also called upon Sonny Ohno as an international representative to help bring in NJPW talent to WCW. This was the first step in creating a strong undercard to compliment the WCW’s main event scene that would soon be consumed with the nWo vs. WCW storyline.
Eddie Guerrero, Dean Malenko, and Chris Benoit joined the ranks of WCW and gave the fans a look into the future of great in-ring wrestling consuming the mid-card of WCW. In 1995, WCW took their biggest and most prestigious PPV, Starrcade, and turned it into a WCW vs. NJPW affair. For seven matches WCW wrestlers went up against NJPW wrestlers in a best-of-7 series to crown which promotion was superior. Chris Benoit, Jushin Liger, Eddie Guerrero, and Shinjiro Otani from the famed ’94 Super J Cup all wrestled that night at Starrcade. These four men were responsible for the two best matches of the night, further proving how influential the Super J Cup would become.
In 1995, WCW would continue this trend of stealing the best talent that competed in the Super J Cup. Chris Jericho and Ultimo Dragon joined the returning Chris Benoit, Jushin Liger, and Shinjiro Otani as participants in the 1995 Super J Cup. Jericho and Ultimo Dragon would go on to make their WCW debuts in ’96. The SJC95 also had an exhibition match pitting Rey Misterio Jr. vs. Psicosis. After Paul Heyman realized Eric Bischoff was stealing his technical wrestlers, Heyman pursued Lucha Libre. Misterio Jr. and Psicosis were Heyman’s first two targets. Their stay was short lived in ECW, because you guessed it, Bischoff saw this and brought Misterio Jr., Psicosis, and a plethora of other lucha libre stars to compliment Benoit, Malenko, and Guerrero to create the best undercard roster of workers North America pro wrestling has ever seen.
1997 saw WWE jumping on the bandwagon of high-flying/technical undercard matches. Some would argue this was too little too late as best of the talent a promotion would need to have a thriving junior heavyweight division was already wrestling in WCW. WWE would create a talent exchange, of their own, with the Japanese promotion, Michinoku Pro. WWE previously had M-Pro mainstay, Jinsei Shinzaki, wrestling regularly as “Hakushi” through ’94 and ’95. In 1997, WWE would bring two participants of the SJC94 with M-Pro founder, The Great Sasuke and M-Pro veteran, Taka Michinoku to spotlight their debuting “Light Heavyweight Division”. Taka and Sasuke would proceed to have an awesome “hidden gem” of a match at WWE’s PPV “In Your House: Canadian Stampede”.
There have been reports that WWE had all intent to make The Great Sasuke the first WWE Light Heavyweight Division Champion and were going to build the division around him. Until Great Sasuke allegedly told Japanese reporters that he was going to win the WWE Light Heavyweight Championship and refuse to defend it in the USA and threatened to only defend it in Japan. The WWE immediately fired The Great Sasuke and moved on to put their new championship around the waist of the young Taka Michinoku. One would have to speculate that this hurt WWE’s new relationship with Michinoku Pro and possibly their ability to bring in other M-Pro talents that could have helped the Light Heavyweight Division thrive. The WWE’s Light Heavyweight Division was almost stopped dead in its tracks after losing The Great Sasuke and having to instead rely on wrestlers such as Scott Taylor and Brian Christopher.
WCW was smart enough to bring in the SJC94 talents such as Malenko, Benoit, and Guerrero as well as SJC95 talents such as Jericho, Ultimo Dragon, Rey Misterio Jr., and Psicosis, but what worked against them were their well-documented backstage ego’s. Veteran heavyweights Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash had all of the backstage power and saw these junior heavyweights as nothing more than “vanilla midgets” and gave them no credit for the drawing power that WCW garnered.
WWE took full advantage of this. WWE was going through a dark period of business in ’93 – ‘97, the first time Vince K. McMahon felt in danger of actually going under completely. This was due to his main event talents all jumping ship to WCW. Hogan, Nash, Scott Hall, Randy Savage, Lex Luger etc… All of WWE’s biggest drawing main eventers of the last 15 years were taking their fan base’s over to WCW. WWE did the only thing they could and started building new stars. What better place to look than the talented undercard of WCW that were all disgruntled for not being given their much deserved shot at main eventing. Over the course of 1999-2003, WWE signed SJC94 and SJC95 talents — Benoit, Malenko, Guerrero, Jericho, Mysterio, and Ultimo Dragon. Jericho was the first to make his debut with a series of “End of the Millennium” countdown vignettes in the fall of 1999. Benoit, Malenko, and Guerrero debuted in the WWE as a heel stable “The Radicalz” with ECW alum Perry Saturn.
Dean Malenko went on to win the WWE Light Heavyweight Division title and attempted to add some much need prestige to the title after parody/comedy act, Gillberg, held the title for over a year. The WWE had given up on the Light Heavyweight Division far before Malenko made his WWE debut leaving Malenko to fight an impossible battle of building the division back up. Benoit and Guerrero would go on to have the most success in North American Pro Wrestling of all of the SJC94 participants. This would culminate in one of the most emotional victories and one of the greatest endings of a pro wrestling show ever at WrestleMania XX. Twenty years after Hulk Hogan took the WWE to the promise land in the main event of the first ever WrestleMania, we saw Chris Benoit reach the pinnacle of everything he had worked for when he defeated Triple H and Shawn Michaels to win the World Heavyweight Championship and closed the show being rained on by confetti with Eddie Guerrero embracing him after he, himself, had been victorious in winning his WWE Championship match earlier in the night.
Amongst these 14 wrestlers they accounted for the following:
- 4 ECW TV Championships
- 2 ECW Tag Team Championships
- 6 WCW Cruiserweight Championships
- 3 WCW Tag Team Championships
- 3 WCW TV Championships
- 5 United States Championships
- 2 World Heavyweight Championships
- 1 WWE Championship
- 2 WWE European Championships
- 6 WWE Intercontinental Championships
- 8 WWE Tag Team Championships
- 3 WWE Light Heavyweight Championships
- 1 WWE Hall of Fame member
In addition to that there were 22 WrestleMania or Starrcade matches that took place after the SJC94 (WWE and WCW’s premiere PPVs) that included at least one if not more of the 14 wrestlers from this tournament.
The 1994 Super J Cup has been a highly touted and revered event. If you have not watched the SJC94 and you think of yourself as a wrestling fan then please seek it out. To get a feel for the endurance that a wrestler has to go through to wrestle two or three matches in a single night and to watch the story unfold of a gaijin overcoming the odds to defeat the best Japanese talent out there, it is best to watch the tournament in one sitting. The matches have been talked about to death, but if you don’t feel like dedicated 3 hours to watching the whole event in one sitting then the following matches are must see’s:
- SJC94 Round1: Jushin Liger vs. Hayabusa
- SJC94 Quarterfinals: Wild Pegasus (Benoit) vs. Black Tiger (Guerrero)
- SJC94 Quarterfinals: Super Delfin vs. Gedo
- SJC94 Quarterfinals: The Great Sasuke vs. El Samurai
- SJC94 Semifinals: Wild Pegasus (Benoit) vs. Gedo
- SJC94 Semifinals: Jushin Liger vs. The Great Sasuke
- SJC94 Finals: Wild Pegasus (Benoit) vs. The Great Sasuke
That is seven of the 13 matches that night that are “must see”; the other six are very good. Do yourselves a favor, if you have seen this or not, celebrate the 20th year of one of the greatest pro wrestling events ever produced. Watch it and look back at what these 14 wrestlers put together that would influence and change the course of North American pro wrestling forever.
Thank you for reading, I would love to hear your thoughts on the SJC94 by commenting below and/or tweeting me @LuchaNerd on Twitter. Follow me there while I live tweet anytime I am watching wrestling, or talking about other things in nerd culture!