It’s that time of year again folks: Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame season. To some, this is one of their favorite times of the year, and to others, it’s the most dreaded. This year features a great crop of candidates in the Japanese pro wrestling section, many of whom all have very legitimate Hall of Fame cases. In this piece, we are going to make use of a tool originally posted to the WrestlingClassics message board called “The Gordy List”, by user JDW, to evaluate many of these wrestlers. This list has been used in prior years on this very website to argue the cases for wrestlers like Sting and Brock Lesnar. You can read all about The Gordy List in the original forum post, but basically it’s a set of criteria based off of a similar concept used in the baseball hall of fame called the Keltner List. Let’s quote JDW himself on how the questions are laid out:
“It’s grouped into areas of drawing power (questions 1-3), working (4-8), value to promotions (9-11), additional performance success (12-14), titles and honors and fame (15-17), additional miscellaneous positives or negatives (18-23).
Many of the questions are compound. Obviously is one is “the best worker in the world”, they also were the best worker in their country and in their promotion.
One thing to keep in mind when thinking about “best”. This is looking at a period of time, rather than one match popping a big buyrate, or one sixthmonth period where Luger looks like a top worker because Flair and Steamboat are carrying him. That’s not to say it’s five years, or ten years either. But this is the Hall of Fame, and one is looking for true positives rather than fluke ones to pimp up a candidacy.”
The wrestlers we’re going to evaluate with these questions are as follows (along with their previous percentage total from 2018, remember it needs to be 60% to get in):
I’m leaving out a few candidates that I simply have not watched enough of their promotion, style or era to evaluate (and Hayabusa). I’m also leaving out the team of TenKoji, both because as the only tag team they would be hard to evaluate here and because I don’t think they really have anything resembling a case. All the wrestlers here do have cases to one form or another, so by breaking it down with these questions let’s see if we can’t identify who are the strongest of these candidates. Let’s get started!
Were they ever regarded as the best draw in the world? Were they ever regarded as the best draw in their country or their promotion?
Most of the first group of questions are on drawing power, which in my opinion at least is the most overvalued category in the current Observer awards as it almost seems to be treated as an override of any other categories. But even with that said it’s for sure an important category to any pro wrestling hall of fame and one we have to talk about. None of these wrestlers could conceivably be called the best draw in the world. Kota Ibushi for sure was the biggest draw in DDT, who helped take what once was a small indie into legendary buildings like Sumo Hall and the Budokan. CIMA was also the biggest draw in Dragon Gate, and you could see it in the collapse of the promotion after he left. Calling any of these wrestlers the biggest draw in Japan is probably a stretch, and I think most would agree that Naito and Omega, while big draws in New Japan, have never quite eclipsed Tanahashi and Okada (though both undoubtedly sell more merchandise). Ibushi and CIMA grade okay here as the biggest draws for smaller-scale companies, the rest of the men don’t have much to show for this question. Meiko Satomura, however, is a huge draw at the lower level of joshi, with most of her headlining matches popping numbers above the promotion’s level not just in her own company of Sendai Girls but also during frequent guest appearances for other promotions. She at least would have a strong case for biggest female draw in Japan, so I would add her to that list with Ibushi and CIMA as legitimate drawing cards for lower-level companies.
Were they ever an international draw, national draw and/or regional draw?
Nearly the entire list looks good by this criterion, as nearly all of them have a history of being strong draws when used on top. Akiyama’s position here is perhaps least well understood, but in his primary years as the top heel in NOAH he drew plenty of strong houses, culminating in headlining one of NOAH’s only two shows at the Tokyo Dome. The only person on this list who you’d probably just say wasn’t a draw at all is Tomohiro Ishii, although he’s also never really had an opportunity to headline.
How many years did they have as a top draw?
Akiyama I would put from around 2000 to 2007. CIMA was a huge part of Toryumon Japan drawing better than other Japanese indies immediately and you could say he still pops small houses during his guest appearances now, but if you want to define a peak let’s say 1999 to 2014 or so. Ibushi let’s say 2009 (the first year he headlined Sumo Hall for DDT) to present. Ishii obviously gets an N/A here. Naito from 2016 (LIJ takes off and he headlines Sumo Hall with Okada) to present. Omega you can make an argument for 2010 or 2011 (he and Marufuji’s match at Ryogoku in 2010 was definitely a drawing match even if he didn’t headline), but if you want to be conservative you could say 2012 when he and Ibushi headlined the Budokan for DDT for the first time. He did have a lull in the middle where he was just a junior in NJPW after first leaving DDT, however. Meiko has been drawing houses in Joshi for quite literally two decades. And finally, Akira Taue was obviously a huge part of All Japan’s entire 90s peak. He meant far less to NOAH than Kobashi or Misawa which I think has been part of his issue getting over the hump here, but he still did well in occasional title challenges. His own GHC title run was very shortlived, only lasting 78 days.
Were they ever regarded as the best worker in the world? Were they ever regarded as the best worker in their country or in their promotion?
Now we’re into workrate stuff so here’s where things get a little more interesting to me. As far as this list goes, I think many people would have regarded Kenny Omega and Meiko Satomura as best in the world at some point (which would also answer yes to the next two questions for them as well). The rest of these wrestlers probably fall just below that level: Akiyama and Taue were both behind some giants of their eras, although I’ve seen plenty of people argue they were both ahead of Misawa, Kawada and Kobashi at various times. Naito has more of a cult following, and though I personally would regard him as the best in New Japan I think most would probably put at least one of Omega, Okada, Tanahashi or maybe even Ishii ahead of him. The same goes for Ibushi in New Japan, though he for sure would have been considered the best in DDT while he was there. Ishii is a very interesting case- was he best in NJPW, Japan, or the world in the last five years? I think some might argue all three for him honestly, especially after one of his G1 runs had just ended, but he also doesn’t get as many opportunities to shine outside of the G1 as other wrestlers in the company. CIMA in DG is another interesting one: I think lots of more casual fans probably considered him the best in the company, but he doesn’t have a huge notable list of epic singles matches as you’d probably expect if you’re looking at it from afar, and many of the more hardcore fans would probably at least put Masaaki Mochizuki ahead of him for pretty much all of his run there.
Were they ever the best worker in their class (sex or weight)? Were they ever one of the top workers in their class?
Honestly, this question seems very redundant to me after the last one, but all of the wrestlers listed here seem like “top workers in their class” to me. CIMA is maybe the weakest here with again a lack of big singles matches, but he’s been one of the best tag and trios workers of his era.
How many years did they have as a top worker?
This question is where Meiko Satomura really shines, as she’s been a top worker for over two decades; her match with Sareee this year received widespread acclaim (and is my current MOTY), so she’s still going strong here in 2019. She easily has the best longevity here. Jun Akiyama is right there with her, however, as he too has been a top-level wrestler for over two decades. It feels like he’s finally slowed down a bit in the last year or so, although he had an amazing run in the Champion Carnival just last year so we’re still talking fairly recently. CIMA maybe has never quite been a top-level worker, but I would put his peak at around 1999 to 2015, so fairly long as well even if he’s right below that level. Ibushi would be around 2008 to present, so putting together quite the resume. Omega probably about the same, maybe starting a little later depending on what you think of his pre-DDT indie work, but he was having great matches far before he came to NJPW if you look at his All Japan junior heavyweight stuff. Ishii really didn’t do much until 2013, so you’re talking 2013 to present for him. Naito I think you can go back to at least 2011, though I think a lot of people don’t consider his pre-LIJ stuff to be top-level work. Finally, Taue I would put down as a consistent top-level wrestler from around 1992 through 1997, so perhaps a touch shorter than many of the people on this list (I’ve seen others argue he had a wider peak, however).
Were they a good worker before their prime? Were they a good worker after their prime?
Here’s where the Observer habit of putting people on the ballot a little too early comes back to bite us a little because I think a lot of these wrestlers are still in their primes. If you want to say older wrestlers who are still active like Akiyama and Meiko aren’t, they both probably deserve a lot of kudos here since they’ve continued putting on occasional incredible performances after their primes were over. Both were also great as rookies as well, with Akiyama in particular considered maybe the fastest learner of all time, so that’s another point in their favor. Ibushi was already a good wrestler very early on even just as a high spots guy even before he entered his prime, and the same probably goes for CIMA. I haven’t seen enough of Kenny’s early indie stuff to comment there. Naito was a good tag wrestler in Team NO LIMIT before he started his singles run, and if you want to consider his prime later than I do (around 2015 when the LIJ stuff started), I think he had a lot of great matches pre-LIJ as well. Taue, as mentioned, wasn’t used heavily in a top role in NOAH, but he would occasionally show up with great performances after most would have considered his prime already over. Ishii is probably the guy who does the worst with this question, as he was pretty much just a guy for a long time in his career before suddenly breaking out.
Did they have a large body of excellent matches? Did they have excellent matches against a variety of opponents?
Again, if you’re looking for a lot of excellent singles matches CIMA really comes up short here. The rest I think would answer both these questions yes pretty easily, although maybe if you wanted to make an argument that a lot of Akiyama and Taue’s best matches came against the same few opponents I could definitely see that.
Did they ever anchor their promotion(s)?
CIMA (DG), Ibushi (DDT) and Meiko (Sendai Girls) for sure did. The rest I think you would be hard-pressed to answer yes for.
Were they effective when pushed at the top of cards?
All three I just mentioned were definitely effective top draws for their respective promotions, and Kota Ibushi has added to that by being a strong draw when used on top by New Japan. Omega and Naito have both done very well as headliners there as well. Akiyama was very effective as a top heel but less effective at being the absolute top guy (although you could argue he didn’t get enough opportunities there as well, at least not until the promotion was already well on its way down). Taue was effective as a top guy and partner for Kawada, although again never had long runs truly on top, just very short runs with the main title in both AJPW & NOAH. Ishii has never been pushed near the top. His few main events seem to have done fairly well, but there’s not a large sample size to draw from there (and they were generally smaller shows anyway).
Were they valuable to their promotion before their prime? Were they still valuable to their promotion after their prime?
Naito is probably the one who gets hurt the most by this question, as he clearly flopped in their initial attempt to use him as a top babyface before he found his footing as a top guy in LIJ. Nobody else stands out to me here except again, Meiko is always someone Sendai Girls can put on top to draw houses even though you’d have to consider her out of her prime by now.
Were they involved in a number of memorable rivalries, feuds or storylines?
Jun vs. Nagata was a very memorable interpromotional rivalry in the early 00s and probably his biggest claim to fame here. I think he suffers on this question compared to some of the others, though. CIMA had a ton of memorable feuds and storylines in early Toryumon, since the promotion was practically based around him. He and Magnum TOKYO was probably the feud that got that promotion off the ground in the first place, he and Mochizuki had a legendary off-and-on feud, he and Milano Collection was an underrated one, etc. Kota Ibushi and Kenny Omega’s partnership and rivalry is a legendary one for both of them, and they’ve both had many others, with Omega-Okada possibly doing more to expand Japanese wrestling in the West than anything else in history. Naito has had very memorable feuds with pretty much all the top guys in NJPW, plus his founding of Los Ingobernables de Japon totally changed the makeup of the promotion. Ishii probably grades out weaker here than most of the rest but still has some strong feuds to his name, like with Omega, Naito and Shibata. Meiko’s got some legendary ones to her name too, probably most notably the long-running feud with Aja Kong. And finally, Taue, of course, was part of the Misawa/Kobashi-Kawada/Taue feud that basically carried All Japan through the better part of a decade, so he grades very well here as well.
Were they effective working on the mic, working storylines or working angles?
Including this as a criterion really helps CIMA and Naito, two of the all-time best promos in Japanese wrestling history in my opinion. Omega I wouldn’t quite put on that tier but his promos always seemed to get strong reactions, and obviously going the extra mile to become fluent in Japanese puts him above pretty much every other major gaijin star in this category. The rest I would not call great on the microphone by any stretch, although Meiko is good in an authoritative role in Sendai Girls.
Did they play their role(s) effectively during their career?
Can’t think of anyone I wouldn’t answer yes for here.
What titles and tournaments did they win? What was the importance of the reigns?
Easiest just to break them down by wrestler here I think, so:
Akiyama: 3-time GHC Heavyweight Champion, although none of his reigns would be considered legendary ones or anything. Also held the Triple Crown twice.
CIMA: Held pretty much every title you can hold in Toryumon/DG, including a number of long Open the Dream Gate reigns that would be very well-remembered by fans of that company.
Ibushi: Despite being DDT’s top star he never held the KO-D Openweight Title for very long, with all three of his reigns maxing out at 98 days. He just added his name to the rather exclusive list of G1 Climax winners, and seems likely to be in line for an IWGP Heavyweight Title reign in the future. I would still consider this a weakness as of now, though.
Ishii: Here’s where Ishii again suffers compared to the field, as he’s never even won New Japan’s #2 title, let alone its #1.
Naito: Only a short run with the IWGP Title so far, although he’s brought great interest to the #2 title through his various storylines with it (some might argue he’s also damaged the prestige of it by appearing to not want it, however). He’s also in a somewhat exclusive club of multi-time G1 Climax winners, and held virtually every other title in the company as well.
Omega: Became the first gaijin ever to win the G1 in 2016, which is definitely quite the accomplishment. Had a pretty long run with the IWGP Title last year to add to his resume here.
Satomura: She’s got a very impressive list of accomplishments here that stretches well beyond her own company, including the old AAAW Title in GAEA, a very memorable run as outsider World of STARDOM champion, and even became the first woman to hold DDT’s top title, the KO-D Openweight. She did hold the Sendai Girls World Title for over a year as well.
Taue: As mentioned earlier, he only had two very short runs as top champion in AJPW and NOAH. He did win the Champion Carnival in 1996 and the World’s Strongest Tag Determination League alongside Kawada twice, and held the tag titles 7 times when they were considered a big deal at the time. He grades better here than some people might think.
Did they win many honors and awards?
Let’s go person by person here again. We’ll focus on the Tokyo Sports awards, which while partially kayfabed are still a good indication of their interest and recognition in Japan, and the Observer awards for hardcore fan opinion:
Akiyama: Lots of Tokyo Sports awards to his name, most notably a MOTY with Kenta Kobashi in 2004. That also won MOTY in the Observer awards that year, his second after 1996 (w/ Misawa vs. Steve Williams & Johnny Ace). He won Rookie of the Year in 1993 as well.
CIMA: Just one Tokyo Sports award, a Technique Award in 2006. That same year he won the WON MOTY award for his memorable trios match in ROH (CIMA/Doi/Yoshino vs. DK/Genki/Saito).
Ibushi: Two Tokyo Sports Best Bout awards, with Kenny Omega vs. Prince Devitt & Ryusuke Taguchi in 2010 and vs. Shinsuke Nakamura in 2013. Ibushi also won the WON MOTY for a match with Nakamura, but it was for their more famous Wrestle Kingdom match in 2015. He also won Best Flying Wrestler 4 times.
Ishii: Ishii got an Outstanding Performance Award in 2014 from Tokyo Sports, and has won Best Brawler five years running in the WON Awards (2014-2018). It’s perhaps worth noting here that despite his very strong reputation as a worker, he’s never won either a MOTY or Most Outstanding Wrestler award from the Observer.
Naito: Naito won the prestigious Tokyo Sports MVP award in back-to-back years in 2016 & 2017, becoming just the fifth wrestler in history to do so (and he’s in pretty amazing company there with Kauzchika Okada, Genichiro Tenryu, Jumbo Tsuruta and Antonio Inoki). He’s only won Most Charismatic and Best Gimmick in the Observer awards, neither of which you’d call top tier awards.
Omega: Omega has three Best Bout awards from Tokyo Sports, the 2010 tag match with Ibushi and back-to-back matches with Okada in 2017 & 2018. In the Observer, he’s the only wrestler listed here to win Wrestler of the Year (2018) and Most Outstanding (2018 as well), plus won MOTY for the same two Okada matches.
Satomura: She won the Tokyo Sports Joshi Grand Prize in 2013. She’s never won an Observer award.
Taue: He received MOTY in 1995 from Tokyo Sports for his match with Kawada against Misawa and Kobashi, and won Tag Team of the Year in 1997. He’s also never won an Observer award.
Did they get mainstream exposure due to their wrestling fame? Did they get heavily featured by the wrestling media?
I don’t think anyone here would fail to meet that second criterion, which seems a bit overly broad to me. The first criteria I’m not sure if any of them would hit, although Naito probably comes the closest with his signature pose sometimes being adopted by Japanese celebrities and his crossover with a Japanese baseball team.
Were they a top tag team wrestler?
CIMA and Taue both shine here, as I would argue both are two of the best tag team wrestlers in history. Ibushi and Omega have had some great tag team matches together as well, although their pairing lacks longevity/depth of great matches. Akiyama had some really great tags too and I’d probably put him just below CIMA and Taue there.
Were they innovative?
I would probably call CIMA and Ibushi the two true innovators of this class as far as wrestlers always trying new things. The rest don’t strike me as particularly innovative honestly.
Were they influential?
CIMA really does well in this category as well, as he not only was the driving force behind a new company getting off the ground in the middle of a long-term Japanese wrestling decline but helped influence a ton of wrestlers on both sides of the Pacific, often directly. This is also perhaps Meiko Satomura’s strongest category, as without her founding of Sendai Girls right as the entire Joshi scene looked to be near its deathbed we may be looking at a far more dire situation for women’s wrestling in Japan right now. The others were influential to various degrees but those two really stand head and shoulders above the rest here.
Did they make the people and workers around them better?
This is perhaps the most subjective of all of these questions, but I would answer yes for all of them. All were great workers that definitely made the people around them better, to various degrees.
Did they do what was best for the promotion? Did they show a commitment to wrestling?
Another very strong category for Meiko, who went above and beyond by founding Sendai Girls at the absolute nadir of Joshi puroresu. On the other hand, the messy Stronghearts/DG divorce has to be considered a black mark on CIMA’s record by this standard, as whatever happened there clearly hurt the promotion to a great degree.
Is there any reason to believe that they were better or worse than they appeared?
I’ve always thought that Jun Akiyama’s drawing record is a little unfair; it felt like they never gave him a real shot to headline in NOAH before the promotion was already going down, though I guess you can say he wasn’t the solution to that problem either. Other than that nothing really sticks out at me here.
So at the end of all that, have we learned anything new about these wrestlers and their case for the Hall of Fame?
In my opinion, at least, the wrestler who suffered the most when running through this criteria is Tomohiro Ishii. Despite Ishii’s long-standing record as a top-level worker, I don’t think he has enough credentials to his name in any of the categories to justify putting him into the Hall of Fame above the other candidates. Nobody really surprised me in a positive way, though I think the cases for the other three “current” NJPW candidates (Ibushi, Naito and Omega) are all fairly strong, perhaps stronger than people give them credit for. In general, I don’t like the idea of voting for people who are still in their primes and especially still headlining, but I think all three will probably be deserving Hall of Famers by the end of their careers. I thought Akiyama and Meiko were slam dunks before I started this exercise and I still feel that way; Taue and CIMA are both a little more borderline for me, but I think I would vote for both of them at the end of the day.
I welcome your feedback and perhaps your own takes on any of these candidates, so please feel free to let me know what you thought on Twitter, @toshanshuinla. Thanks and I hope you enjoyed it.