Welcome one, and welcome all to the inaugural edition of The Lion’s Vault, a new column that will dive into the much under-discussed NJPW World Archive. As a fan of New Japan, and as someone who is an archivist for his day-job, I have been a fan of their match archives ever since I first began subscribing to NJPW World back in early 2015. That isn’t to say that the service doesn’t have its obvious faults…such as very infrequent additions of historic matches to the back catalog and an often less than helpful search interface, but even with these shortcomings the archives offers a huge amount of fun matches, historic encounters, truly great bouts, and under-appreciated gems.  It is my hope that this column will shine a spotlight on some of these historic matches in an attempt to bring them to a wider audience.

With each column of The Lion’s Vault we will take a look back at a small handful of matches from the archives, which will include providing some historic context for the match as well as a quick review of the action. To start with all of the selected matches will be from cards that took place before the launch of NJPW World, which essentially gives a nice wide range of 1972-2014 to select from. So yeah, hopefully, this will be a fun, breezy column that we can all enjoy together, as we watch some wrestling that we otherwise might not make the time for. And now that we have finished our introductions let’s move on to to this week’s featured bouts.

Antonio Inoki & Seiji Sakaguchi vs. Lou Thesz & Karl Gotch (Best Two Out of Three Falls)

October 14, 1973
World’s Strongest Tag Team [Main Event]
Tokyo, Japan
Kuramae Kokugikan 

Watch: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00001_1_1

Spoiler Free Teaser: A grapple heavy, technical match where Inoki and Sakaguchi test themselves against the Gaijin legends team of Lou Thesz and Karl Gotch. Snug wrestling that makes almost everything feels like a struggle in the best of ways, though some might not enjoy the slower-pace and lack of modern tag tactics and tropes. ***3/4

We begin this adventure by going back to the (currently) oldest match available on the service, a best two out of three falls match between Antonio Inoki (the founder of NJPW) and Seiji Sakaguchi versus Lou Thesz and Karl Gotch who were essentially forming a shooter’s dream team. This match took place a little over a year after NJPW’s debut card, where coincidentally enough Gotch defeated Inoki in the night’s main event. While Gotch continued to work semi-regularly in New Japan after that initial match, this event represented Thesz’s NJPW debut (and one of only three matches that he wrestled for the promotion). And for all of you wrestling trivia nerds out there, according to our friends at Wrestling Data, this match marks the only time that Thesz and Gotch ever teamed together. While both Thesz and Gotch were already big names in Japan at the time of this match, it is important to note that Gotch was particularly important to NJPW’s early history. Not only was he the more frequent wrestler of the two, but he also worked as a trainer and foreign talent booker for the promotion during the 1970s and 1980s. 

When the video starts all four men are already in the ring, and while in good shape Gotch and Thesz both very much look their respective 49 and 57 years of age. Sakaguchi and Thesz quickly start things off, and the crowd is definitely into the match from the get-go, including nice pops for Gotch and Inoki when they tag in. Gotch displays his technical superiority throughout the first fall, while Thesz wrestles with more of an edge while he is the ring. As for Inoki and Sakaguchi, they mostly look like they are just trying to hold their own against their veteran opponents, and for the most part actually do a decent job at it. This has been a very grapple heavy match, but damn entertaining with everything appearing to be a struggle. And as an aside, I would be amiss to say that even while wearing brown high waisted trunks, Inoki is pretty damn good looking at this point in his career. Back to the wrestling and Sakaguchi appears to have gotten the upper hand, but as he speeds things up Thesz catches him off-guard with a nasty backdrop suplex for the pin and the first fall.

During the break, the camera catches Thesz and Gotch looking extremely confident and pleased with themselves in the corner, as their body language just screams “let’s make quick work of this and end it in two falls.” In the other corner Sakaguchi sells his neck being hurt from Thesz’s suplex, and the odds definitely seem to be against him and Inoki. That said, Sakaguchi successfully manages to hold off Thesz’s and then Gotch’s attacks to start the fall before tagging in Inoki. Man, just have to say Gotch is so smooth in the ring at this point, and he is truly a pleasure to watch. Even just an extended sequence where he works to avoid a Boston Crab is entertaining. Back to Thesz, who continues to wrestle with a hard edge as he uses underhanded tactics to get into the heads of his younger opponents. This approach enrages Inoki who makes it clear he is ready to exchange punches with Thesz, but Thesz continues to stall and break up Inoki’s momentum every time this happens…or almost every time as Inoki finally catches Thesz with a solid right that sends him searching for the ropes. Shortly afterward Thesz hits another backdrop suplex, but this time he is too hurt to go for the cover. Seconds later Inoki makes the hot tag to Sakaguchi and an atomic drop evens the match at one fall apiece.

We start the third fall with Thesz looking hurt, but it becomes obvious that he was just trying to sucker Sakaguchi in for a backdrop suplex. Sakaguchi successfully blocks the move and both men tag in their partners. This time Inoki takes control of the action with an extended arm and shoulder control sequence…that kind of just keeps going for the first exchange in the match that really fails to hold my attention. As Inoki continues to hold onto Gotch’s arm, now might be a good time to mention how different this match is worked than a modern tag team match. And this isn’t even a comment on the pace or moves, but rather that at no point during the match are there any attempts at double-teaming, saving a partner, or really even an attempt to block a tag. Back to the action and Gotch does his best to save this segment by deadlifting Inoki (who is still holding onto this arm) Bob Backlund style, and then carrying him to the ropes to break the hold. Well, that was damn impressive for a 49-year-old. Thesz tags back in and tries to play more mind games with his opponents while looking for counters, but the story of the third fall is that Inoki and Sakaguchi have worn down their opponents and are really starting to dominate the match. Gotch back in the ring, but Inoki sends him to the apron, knocks him to the floor with a dropkick, hits a second dropkick as Gotch gets back in the ring, and then rolls him up with a bridge leg clutch hold to win the decisive fall after approximately forty minutes of action.

Post-match all four men show each other plenty of respect and Inoki has a shit-eating grin on his face which is kind of charming to see. The winners receive ridiculously huge trophies which was pretty much the norm from the time. 

Match Rating ***¾ – Overall, I really, really enjoyed this match and my only big critique was the extended arm sequence in the third fall. Obviously your mileage on the match can vary depending on your views on technical, grapple based matches and slower-paced action, but I would still recommend giving this one a chance…even if just to see these four men in the ring together. Also, while I highlighted a lot of Thesz’s and Gotch’s work above, I do want to mention that Inoki and Sakaguchi were both great in this match as well. In particular, both men (though especially Inoki) sold the uphill struggle of overcoming the more experienced legends remarkably well. In fact, that struggle is what held the whole match together, as it did feel like the Japanese side had their back’s against the wall for the majority of the match…but in the end, they were able to wear down the more technical, but older team, to earn a well-deserved victory.  

The Great Muta vs. Hulk Hogan

May 3, 1993
Wrestling Dontaku [Semi-Main Event]
Fukuoka, Japan
Fukuoka Dome

Watch: https://njpwworld.com/p/s_series_00117_1_1

Spoiler Free Teaser: WWF World Heavyweight Champion Hulk Hogan vs. IWGP Heavyweight Champion The Great Muta in a packed Fukuoka Dome. By no means a technical masterpiece, but a fifteen-minute match that the crowd enjoys, during which both wrestlers work through their regular repertoires, and we get a clean finish in the middle of the ring. ***1/4

With Hogan returning yet again to the WWE recently, I thought it might be interesting to look back at a different Hogan return.

In 1993, Hogan was the WWF champion and other than a one-off match against Stan Hansen on a joint NJPW/AJPW/WWF show in 1990, he had not wrestled in New Japan since 1985. His opponent on this night was none other than The Great Muta, which is interesting as Mutoh/Muta was the IWGP Heavyweight champion heading into the match. Despite both men being the main title holders for their respective companies, this match is perhaps more well known for a Hogan post-match interview than for the bout itself. During the interview, Hogan declared that his WWF was the equivalent of a “toy” or “trinket” while stating that the belt that he really wanted was Muta’s IWGP Heavyweight title. Now obviously this was done in a different media age where video didn’t travel easily across the Pacific, but it is still shocking to see him crap on the WWF title in such a public way.

Similar to the first match, we start off with the wrestlers already in the ring…and holy crap this is a huge crowd. I have no clue what the actual attendance was, but looking online I see estimates ranging from 50,000 to 66,000. Muta brings the theatrics at the start of the match with his trademark mist and throat slash, and Hogan decides to perform his usual “I’m in Japan so I will demonstrate I can grapple some as well” and gets a couple of early takedowns on Muta. It is interesting how lean Hogan was at this time compared to so much of WWF run, as he honestly does not look much larger than Muta.

Muta gets the first real advantage of the match as he sends Hogan outside with a pair of dropkicks and we get a nice shot of Jimmy Hart ringside wearing a MegaManiacs jacket…and a quick trip to Cagematch does indeed verify that Brutus Beefcake wrestled Masa Saito earlier in the night. After some more shenanigans, Muta and Hogan end up briefly brawling in the crowd, and then Hogan hits Muta with a backdrop suplex onto the ringside floor. Hogan heads back into the ring and screams “Ichiban!” while the countout is teased. More ringside brawling, but this time Muta takes the hammer for the time keeper’s bell with him, and hits Hogan with it a couple of times inside the ring. This leads to Muta’s favorite dome spot as both men end up on the ramp and Muta sprints down the length of the ramp and lariats Hogan, along with himself, back into the ring. 

This apparently wakes up Hogan as he starts to fire back at Muta, and takes a moment to shove the referee down after he admonished Hogan for using closed fists. After a brief back and forth Muta catches Hogan with his cartwheel back elbow, lays Hogan out in the center of the ring, and nails the moonsault for a near three that some of the crowd bit on. Back to the outside and this time it culminates in an awkward-looking spot that still needs to be seen to be believed…with Muta swinging on a ladder that is attached to the stage set-up, from the ramp, into Hogan who is standing on the floor. As they head back to the ring Muta tries to introduce a chair to the proceedings, but instead receives an Axe Bomber while the referee works to take the chair away. Then as the ref tries to remove the chair from the ring Hogan decides to pick on him a second time by trying to take the chair for himself. During their scuffle Muta is able to mist Hogan in the eyes, but Hogan avoids his subsequent top rope attack. Leg drop from Hogan gets a two. Irish whip, big boot, and a second Axe Bomber finishes things off for Hogan.

Match Rating ***¼ – This was simply a fun fifteen-minute match between two stars. Showmanship was definitely emphasized over workrate, but it was Muta and Hogan in a dome, in 1993, in the semi-main slot, so it felt like the right style of match for that moment. With that in mind, if you are a critic of “lazy Muta” (I prefer to think of it as “trying to save what little health remained in his knees Muta” but I guess that is less catchy), you will probably enjoy this match less than I did. Both men worked in the spots you would expect from them at this point in their careers, but I have to give them credit for the swinging ladder spot which was something that I had never seen anything like before. It was interesting that Hogan went over cleanly against the IWGP champion, but then again maybe that is a part of why he decided to trash his own title and put over the IWGP Heavyweight Championship in his post-match interview.

And with the end of our second match, I would like to offer a big thank you for joining us on our inaugural journey into The Lion’s Vault. I had a lot of fun re-watching these two matches, and hope you will check them out as well. Next week we will look at some new wrestlers as we turn our attention to a more recent high-flying encounter for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship as well as look back at the beginning of one of the most important feuds of the 1980s. Until then, peace and happy wrestling watching to you all!