With a little over a week left to go in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame voting period, this series will take us through each region of the ballot, break down the candidates eligible for the Hall of Fame this year and discuss their chances of making it in. We’ll start off first with the always fun “I Followed Wrestling in Japan” category which features a few notable first-time contenders, some old guards who may be on the cusp of getting in and many more.
45-year-old Jun Akiyama made his Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame ballot debut last year garnering 29% of the vote in a fairly loaded Japanese section. He’ll have a tough hill to climb to make it into the Observer Hall of Fame anytime soon. A deserving candidate based on a tremendous body of in-ring work both as a singles and tag competitor. Akiyama will need support in one of the other two criteria: historical influence and drawing power. Though he was in the main event of Pro Wrestling NOAH’s first Tokyo Dome show (July 10, 2004) and featured in top matches on two additional New Japan Pro Wrestling Tokyo Dome shows, much of his drawing power was on the backs of already established guys like Misawa, Kobashi and Kawada.
Akiyama may not have the historical significance at this point in his career to warrant a spot in the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame but he’s done tremendous work rebuilding the nearly-extinct All Japan Pro Wrestling. In his current role as president, booker and one of All Japan’s primary trainers, Akiyama has begun getting All Japan back into the forefront of the Japanese wrestling scene. There’s still a ways to go but if he gets All Japan fully back on his foot, Akiyama certainly deserves a lot of the credit.
Here’s a little snippet of what Dave Meltzer himself wrote last year about Akiyama and his Hall of Fame hopes:
“Very good for a long, long time. Great wrestler when motivated. My gut on him as a star is he’s below the level. Not a great draw. Total world title tenure is good, but below slam dunk levels. His strength is that he headlined a ton of major shows. Of guys in the last 30 years, nobody headlined more major shows who isn’t in. More of a steady performer, but he not only headlined in his own promotion, but was brought in by other groups for dream matches. But as a single, his dream matches weren’t like Misawa, Kobashi, Sasaki, Muto, etc. There are Jun Akiyama’s of baseball that are in the Hall of Fame.”
Dragon Gate legend CIMA makes his debut on the Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame ballot this year. A Dragon Gate original, CIMA came up through Ultimo Dragon’s Toryumon dojo wrestled in Toryumon until 2004 when the promotion separated from Ultimo Dragon and began it’s life as Dragon Gate. The 37-year-old CIMA is still an influential part of Dragon Gate and without a doubt one of (if not their) top stars.
CIMA and Dragon Gate burst onto the American scene in March of 2006 when representatives from the promotion participated in Ring of Honor’s WrestleMania weekend festivities. The highlight, a six-man tag with CIMA’s Blood Generation stable vs. Do Fixer, is still regarded as one of the best and most influential matches of the mid-2000s.
CIMA was an instrumental part in Dragon Gate’s expansion across the world including Gabe Sapolsky’s Dragon Gate USA promotion as well as DG’s ventures into the United Kingdom.
Dragon Gate is a polarizing promotion and voting will likely reflect this split. Dragon Gate fans, many of which asked Dave Meltzer to add CIMA to the ballot, will no doubt vote for him on his in-ring work and his historical influence as one of the primary pieces of Japan’s 2nd largest and perhaps most consistent promotion. Those who don’t get or like the Dragon Gate style may not think he’s a complete enough worker to warrant entry. Overall, I’d put his chances at fairly low.
George Gordienko was an accomplished wrestler beginning in the mid-40s all the until until 1976. He famous fought Lou Thesz for the NWA World Heavyweight Championship in both 1953 and 1955.
A number of Gordienko’s title victories took place in the Western Canada region including famous title wins in both Calgary and Vancouver. He also competed for Stampede Wrestling, where he won the promotion’s International Tag Team Championship. Gordienko wrestled all over the world, including the Middle East, Australia, India, and South Africa. Yeah, I’m not sure he’s in the Japan region, either.
As far as his chances of making it to the Hall, I couldn’t tell you. I just don’t follow conversations about him much and I don’t know much about him personally. Judging by the voting trends and the projections, it’s not looking good. He’ll likely fall back further or maintain the same 25% he’s received the past two years. His peak (39% in 2012) appears to be just that and I can’t imagine he ever eclipses that again.
Volk Han, or as he’s better known Magomedkhan Amanulayevich Gamzatkhanov. Yeah, nevermind, let’s stick with Volk Han, is one of the more intriguing candidates on this year’s Wrestling Observer Ballot. A sharp rise in voting after reaching new lows in 2010 have him on the cusp of getting in.
Some may not know his name and that’s because he did most of his work not as a pure professional wrestler but as a hybrid pro wrestler/MMA/shoot fighter in Akira Maeda’s famous RINGS promotion as well as other hybrid shoot/work promotions in early 90s Japan. If you’re unfamiliar with Han’s work, I’d suggest checking a recent look at his career by Place to Be Nation’s Dave Musgrave.
Here’s what Dave wrote last year about Han’s chances:
“Pure workrate candidate. He and Kiyoshi Tamura in the ring were the best shoot style workers. Given he came in with no training, he adapted fast, and he was very popular in Japan. It was a short period of time, but there is a reason he gets a lot of support. He was that good, and he was the No. 2 guy in a successful group for several years.”
Given that the bulk of Kimura’s professional wrestling run came in the early 50s-60s, there’s not a whole lot I can personally add to the discussion. He had a famous shoot fight with Japanese legend Rikidozan and helped form IPWF (International Pro Wrestling Force), the very first Japanese promotion to feature Lucha Libre wrestlers.
Satoshi Kojima & Hiroyoshi Tenzan
One of the biggest surprises on last year’s Observer Ballot was the inclusion of this tag team. No, it wasn’t because the five-time IWGP Tag Team Champions weren’t deserves but rather that the individual parts (Kojima & Tenzan) may be more valuable and have a better chance at the Hall of Fame than their collective team. It’s particularly notable in the case of Hiroyoshi Tenzan who’s run atop New Japan cemented him as one of NJPW’s legends.
Regardless, this regular tag team since 1998 is a fun inclusion to the ballot but has absolutely no chance of ever making it in. Outside of their five reigns with the IWGP Tag Belts, TenKoji has done little of note and have spent the past few years stuck in a very bland division. Here’s what Dave wrote about them last year:
“While past their primes now, Kojima & Tenzan showed in G-1 that they can still go on certain nights, and Kojima has looked good most of this year. As singles or a team they are similar. Both very good, had world title runs, but their primes were when business was down. They had a record five reigns as IWGP tag team champions (although Tenzan had a similar number of reigns with Masahiro Chono), and Kojima held the Triple Crown and IWGP championship at the same time. The feud between the two over both belts at the same time helped business a lot during a bad period for both groups. Still, the guys like Kojima, Tenzan, Nagata and Akiyama were not the breakthrough level stars of their predecessors like Muto, Hashimoto, Chono, Sasaki, Misawa, Kawada and Kobashi due to coming up when television wasn’t as strong. And also, as good as both were in their prime, and Kojima was great, they were missing that ingredient that is the difference between very good significant star for a long time and all-time legend.”
There’s just simply not enough on the resume for them to be legit contenders. Look for them to fall off this year.
I wrote extensively about Nagata’s Hall of Fame case last year and little has changed from my conclusion:
“I don’t think there’s anyway you can make a rational case for Yuji Nagata as an Observer Hall of Famer. He has a solid resume, was one of the longest reigning IWGP Heavyweight Champions and is a respected member of the New Japan roster, is that enough to rank you among the all-time greats? I don’t think so”
Though the projection has Nagata making a huge leap, I don’t see it happening. 2015 was another lost year for Nagata, who outside of main eventing one New Japan show, did little of note. He seems like the type of guy who had a storied, HOF-level career but outside of being someone we’ve heard of and a guy who main evented a number of New Japan shows, there’s just not enough there. Nagata is a two-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion, two-time Tag champion, 2001 G1 Climax Winner, 2000 and 2010 G1 Tag League winner and lastly New Japan Cup champion in both 2007 and 2011. The hardware is there, but there’s little else that makes him stand out from the pack.
This is going to be an interesting one as the King of Strong Style, Shinsuke Nakamura makes his Wrestling Observer Hall of Fame ballot debut.
At only 35-years-old, Nakamura has already amassed quite the resume. He’s a three-time IWGP Heavyweight Champion, four-time IWGP Intercontinental Champion, one-time tag champ and winner of the 2011 G1 Climax and 2014 New Japan Cup. His work in recent years has been of particular note including his this year’s G1 Climax final against Hiroshi Tanahashi and Wrestle Kingdom 9’s show stealer vs. Kota Ibushi. He also won Wrestler of the Year in last year’s Wrestling Observer Newsletter. This is of particular interest as nearly every winner of said award has found their way into the Hall. To date, Nakamura and 2006 Wrestler of the Year Mistico have won the award and not be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Does it happen this year for Nakamura? I don’t know.
Personally, I wouldn’t vote him just yet as I think he has a few more years to build on his resume and make it a slam dunk if and when it happens. Whether I vote for him may not matter though, there’s a good chance Nakamura gets the necessary % of votes to be inducted. He’s transcended Puroresu over the past few years and has become an international phenomenon in the world of wrestling — even the most casual, strictly United States wrestling fans know the guy. In my mind, he’s not deserving just yet but my opinion may not matter on this, look for Nakamura to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Mike & Ben Sharpe
The original gaijin, Mike & Ben Sharpe has a great case for the HOF and judging by recent voting trends, we could see them going in soon. The duo is most known for traveling to Japan in February of 1954 to team against Rikidozan and his partner at the time (also a WON HOF candidate) Masahiko Kimura.
The influence argument is off the charts for the Sharpes. They are the trailblazers for North American and foreign wrestlers to make their mark on the Japanese wrestling scene. This, of course, led to an influx of gaijin talent throughout the 70s, 80s, 90s and into the present. Their influence is still being felt today as many of the top stars in numerous Japanese companies are foreign-born.
It’s just a matter of time for the Sharpes. I don’t know if it’s this year but it’ll be soon. These dudes are Hall of Famers.
One of my favorite wrestlers in the world but not a Wrestling Observer Hall of Famer. There’s time though, he’s currently leading an invading group (Suzuki-Gun) into Pro Wrestling NOAH. If the blowoff of said feud results in a gigantic house and the turnaround for NOAH’s business, a lot of credit needs to go to the invader’s leader Minoru Suzuki. Until then, he just doesn’t have the chops to hang with the rest of the field. (Though his chops are very good in the ring!)
Suzuki was the co-founder of Pancrease, one of the very first MMA organizations in the world so the influence argument, particularly in this Hall of Fame could be made for Suzuki. The drawing record? It’s just not there as he slots in just behind Naomichi Marufuji and just ahead of Takeshi Morishima in terms of 10k+ crowds where he was in a heavily-featured match.
The in-ring argument may be his best as not only was Suzuki an accomplished fighter (29-19) but he has two Wrestling Observer Match of the Year awards under his belt: 2012 vs. Hiroshi Tanahashi and 2014 vs. A.J. Styles. The former was also rated five stars by Meltzer.
In my heart of hearts, Suzuki isn’t a Hall of Fame and I wouldn’t be shocked to see him fall off the ballot. He has a chance to add to his resume in the next few years but it’s hard to come up with a scenario where he suddenly becomes a good candidate. Sorry guys!
Tamura made his name in Japanese shootfighting promotions like the original Japanese UWF and its successor group, UWFI. He was also the very first RINGS champion but struggled when the company moved towards real, non-worked MMA fights. Tamura wrestled/worked a style that I don’t find particularly engaging or interesting but there’s no doubt he was good at it. As far as his HOF chances? They look bleak. Here’s what Dave wrote about Tamura and his chances now and in the future:
“Tamura came close to getting in when his career was still alive. He’s the classic case of time hurting someone because his career ended and his style died. He doesn’t have the big box office stats on paper that helps the older candidates, only a bunch of in-ring doing stuff that nobody does today. As a worker, within his style, he was the best. And he was a star, did reasonably well in MMA, and was protected poorly in booking. He gets votes, but he’s no longer a strong candidate to get in based on the last few years of elections.”
One of the most shocking results from last year’s ballot was the insanely low percentage for All Japan Pro Wrestling legend Akira Taue.
Taue’s resume speaks for itself, he’s a former AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion, a former GHC Heavyweight Champion and has fourteen five star matches to his name. Taue is a two-time Tokyo Sports Fighting Spirit award winner (1992 & 1996) and won their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.
One of the pillars of AJPW during its peak, Taue ranks 13th all-time in 10k+ houses with a match in the last third of the card.
The criticisms of Taue can be seen in what Dave wrote about him last year:
“Back on the ballot. Taue was a star who headlined a lot of big shows, and was involved in some of the best matches of his era. While he was the fourth wheel in some of them, he had great singles matches at times. The negative is in Japan, he’s not seen as a star the level of Hall of Fame guys. His retirement paled in comparison of interest to guys like Muto or Chono, let alone Kobashi. He had more great matches, mostly tags, of anyone not in. He had a one year nostalgia run in NOAH, but most of his NOAH career was just as a guy who used to headline working the mid-card comedy oriented matches. When he just retired, it was a retirement ceremony not like a Hall of Famer but like a star a level below.”
Fair criticisms but I’m not sure they are entirely founded. Having gone back and watched a lot of Taue, there’s plenty to like from his style. Yeah, he may have been the worst worker in many of his famous tags with the likes of Kawada, Kobashi and Misawa but is that really a slight? Being the fourth worst guy in that pocket isn’t a bad thing at all. The thing you have to look at with a guy who’s career was so heavily influence by those around him is his ability to take down a match — did Taue ever actively make those matches worse? Were the matches worse because he was in them? I say no. I think he fit right in and gave the matches a much different and sorely needed dynamic.
To Dave’s final point about his retirement ceremony, yeah, you could have some questions about his historical significance behind a fourth or fifth wheel.
I don’t know. Taue is a guy I’ll probably wrestle with until the final moment I submit my ballot. Initially I say yes but if I got at or near 10 (maximum number of votes), I may leave him off. With that said, his 16% total in Japan last year is shockingly low for a man of his resume. Look for that number to rise this year and if he doesn’t get in, continue to rise until he eventually finds his way into the hallowed Hall.