In the age of social media and instant opinions, everyone is a critic, everyone has a voice, and the hottest takes are often the most negative ones. It is rare for a pro wrestling event to completely avoid the snarky scorn of jaded fans and armchair bookers, which is often a well-earned fate, but just as often is done because, well, that’s just what wrestling fans do. They complain.
Maybe it was low expectations. Perhaps it was the one-off nature of the show, or the lack of familiarity of some of the wrestlers. Or maybe the show was just plain good. Whatever the reason, the Genichiro Tenryu Retirement Revolution FINAL was the victim of virtually zero real-time negativity. It was an all too rare feel good night where everybody watching was enjoying themselves and having fun. No over analyzing of the booking, no burying of the workrate.
So is it possible that part-time Tenryu Project, not Dragon Gate or CMLL or New Japan or WWE, ended up hosting the best show of the year?
By the end of the night, there would be no doubt.
The company did cheat a little, bringing in an eclectic hodgepodge of company aces, legends, Tenryu’s pals, sleazy indie stars, and sleazy indie (not) stars, some of which the most hardcore puro fans around would have trouble identifying. This collection of misfits, superstars, and loose skinned senior citizens combined to produce a show that was an old timer’s day, a tribute to Occupation of the Indies, and a loaded all-star show all at the same time. The show started off light and fun, but by the end of the night, the matches got very nasty, and it produced some moments that can only be described as a snuff film minus the murder. All this before the main event.
After watching Genichiro Tenryu stiff, drop, beat, and potato the next ace of Japan in the main event, Kikutaro’s innocent comedy routine four hours earlier felt like it actually took place four days earlier. In a match that set the table for the Fire Pro random button nature of the event, Ricky Fuji (and his magnificent fringe), who looks like that embarrassing uncle you have who was in a hair metal band that opened for Ratt that one time in 1986 and refuses to give up the dream long after the rest of his buddies moved on to become productive adults (and if you think that’s meant as an insult to Fuji, oddly, it isn’t), teamed with Sanshiro Takagi, the man who runs DDT and does a cosplay Stone Cold act, to defeat Kikutaro and The Winger, the masked W*ING veteran who has yet to find a sleazy indie he hasn’t managed to work for.
A ridiculously wacky ten man tag (featuring wrestlers from ten different promotions, including Jushin Thunder Liger and such household names as Shigeno Shima, Gurukun Mask, and Yasu Kubota) started with Onryu’s powder gimmick causing a very audible and non stop (as in, for the entire duration of the show) coughing fit for one unfortunate ringside observer, and ended with Dragon JOKER, the only native Tenryu Project wrestler in the match, losing and (voluntarily) unmasking as Yuya Susumu. Susumu explained that if Tenryu’s career would cease to exist on this night, then so would the career or Dragon JOKER. We hardy knew you, Dragon JOKER. As in, seriously, we very literally hardly knew you.
Wedged between the opener and the ten man was a really good joshi tag that almost took itself a little too seriously for this undercard, like the guy who does take out slides and barrels over the catcher in beer league softball.
KAI looked like the unfortunate result of Dean Ambrose swiping right on Aja Kong at 4:00 a.m., rocking the requisite jeans and dirty tank top street fight gear plus war paint, teaming with the older than dirt Great Kabuki and Buki to take on the older than that dirt Great Kojika, Toru “Not Takashi” Sugiura, and death match legend CRAZY MONKEY Jun Kasai (CRAZY MONKEY is an incredible nickname, so it gets the ALL CAPS treatment from me). That grimefest couldn’t sniff the filth that was Yoshinari Ogawa & Kendo Kashin defeating NOSAWA “out of the question” Rongai & Dragon Gate’s resident deep drunker Kenichiro Arai, which may have been the filthiest, grimiest match in the history of wrestling. I felt like I caught hepatitis just watching it.
There was a match with a lot of kicks, and match with a lot of ass based offense (from the original Ass Man, Shiro Koshinaka). This was an undercard loaded with variety, and nothing was less than fun.
Fun time was over, and loose whimsical fun was replaced with sheer, nasty brutality.
The curved bones and sunken chest cavity of Yoshiaki Fujiwara (which make him look like he could collapse into a pile of dust at any time), who at 66 wasn’t even the oldest man (Kojika, 73) or the second oldest man (Kabuki, 67) on the show, slapped a smirk right off of Minoru Suzuki’s cocky face, and the fight was on was on. Like Koshinaka before him and Riki Choshi after, Fujiwara worked like a man twenty years younger (so basically, like an aging middle-aged man), taking a beating and selling his ass off, with the fans in the palm of his hands. And just when grumpy brawler Big Murakami got a little too cocky with his beatdown of the old man, in a perfectly timed moment, Fujiwara caught Murakami in his famous arm bar, and with Suzuki being held at bay by ‘ol melty face Yoshihiro Takayama, the spry 41-year old youngster Murakami (the youngest man in the match), was forced to tap. Fujiwara, who looked about as athletic as RAW era Mae Young at Wrestle Kingdom some ten months ago, had no business looking as good as he did here.
When Akitoshi Saito doesn’t stink up the joint, you really know a card is running good. Saito teamed with Big Japan’s Ryuichi Kawakami, who fought through what may or may not be a torn ACL (reports vary, but it’s an injury he’s been battling for months), in a hard-hitting losing effort to Riki Choshu & Tomohiro Ishii (who was originally trained by Choshu & Tenryu).
SUWAMA and Kazuyuki Fujita, with a super intense pre-match staredown and wild, stiff brawling, teased a future singles match. With his own blood dripping from his chin and what was probably a combination of everybody’s blood covering his hand as he held the mic, the man known as Iron Head challenged SUWAMA to a New Year’s Eve shoot fight. SUWAMA did not outright refuse, but did consider the challenge disrespectful to Tenryu. The subplot of this tag bout, with one member of perhaps the best Japanese tag team of the decade (Strong BJ) on each side (Yuji Okabayashi paired with SUWAMA, Daisuke Sekimoto with Fujita) was hardly treated as secondary, as the fans were into all of their exchanges. Okabayashi beat Sekimoto with the Golem splash, the same move he used to defeat him for the BJW Strong Heavyweight title in July.
And then, Tenryu.
First came Kazuchika Okada, the IWGP champion, but not quite yet the new ace (that will come in January). With Gedo at his side, the chosen one looked confident, strong, cocky. Young.
Tenryu. The old ace. The charisma was still undeniable. A hot crowd all night, even hotter for Okada, they were now molten for the legend.
The staredown. Okada’s youth, confidence, and that ever-present hint of arrogance. Tenryu’s stare came with a subtle smirk. A smirk that said “You fool. I’ve beaten Jumbo. Choshu. Muto. And now I’m going to beat you.” This epic moment, along with Okada’s post match bow, will be far more remembered than anything that happened in the actual match.
Tenryu’s performance, in many ways, was no surprise. Anyone who had watched Tenryu over the last year or so knew he was physically shot and running on an empty tank. His offense looked like it couldn’t break eggs. He couldn’t run the ropes. He dropped Okada on his head on a botched powerbomb. With nothing left in the 65-year old holster, he ditched the worked strikes and used the only weapon remaining in his arsenal, and did the only thing his body could still do to give the new ace something to overcome. He couldn’t allow the new ace to look weak against a weak old man. So he beat up Okada for real.
Okada took the beating. He also delivered a beating back, with hard dropkicks that forced Tenryu to bump like he hadn’t bumped in ages. Okada flew and reeled and bounced for Tenryu’s slow, weak looking attacks. He absorbed Tenryu’s stiff jabs and kicks to the face. His effort earned the respect of the crowd, which booed him early, but by the end were cheering both men. Aside from a brief sequence where Tenryu’s body simply couldn’t keep up with his mind, slowing things to a literal crawl, you would have never known that one of the participants was a completely broken down man pushing 70-years old. Okada, with the pressure of being the one chosen to send a living legend and one of the greatest wrestlers to ever walk the Earth into the sunset, while being legitimately beaten and accepting that it had to be that way, calmly took control of the match and completed one of the greatest carry jobs in wrestling history. This gutsy performance ensured that Tenryu went out the right way. And after the inevitable Rainmaker—a Rainmaker that was the symbolic first of the two final steps that will complete his ascension to the undisputed new ace of Japan—after Tenryu had fallen for the final time, he bowed. And then he immediately left. His job was done, and it was no longer his stage.
This was far from Okada’s best match. It may not have been his best performance. But it was no doubt the most important performance of his career.
Okada handled himself with poise, he saved the match when it was on the verge of falling apart, and he sent Tenryu out on a high note. The official coronation is a few months away, but on this night, more than any other night, Okada truly became The Ace. And the old ace, with nothing left but charisma and guts, was gracious enough to allow it to happen and smart enough to know how to make it look good. No heel authority figures. No whining about booking minutiae. No over analyzation of workrate. It was beautiful. It was symbolic. It was everything we love about wrestling.
Two aces, doing the honors for each other.
The old ace. And the new ace.