Welcome everyone to a special, thankful edition of The Lion’s Vault, where I am going to ignore the problematic elements of the American Thanksgiving holiday and instead focus on giving thanks related to this week’s featured matches.
In that spirit I am thankful for the awesomeness of the 1994 Super J Cup, for hot wrestling crowds, for the spectacle of January 4th Tokyo Dome shows, for charismatic wrestlers of all stripes, for spotfests, for shoot inspired pro-wrestling, for creative finishes, and for having a space to write about the wrestling that I love.
Jushin Thunder Liger vs. The Great Sasuke
April 16, 1994
Super J Cup 1994 [Semi-Main Event]
Tokyo – Ryogoku Sumo Hall
Spoiler Free Teaser: Semi-final match from the acclaimed 1994 Super J Cup, pitting the established ace of New Japan juniors against the independent star Sasuke. A near twenty minute battle that is a spotfest in the best sense of the word, and that features one of the best finishes in wrestling history. ****½
Continuing our countdown to Jushin Thunder Liger’s retirement matches, our first bout tonight is the Liger/Great Sasuke semifinal from the 1994 Super J Cup. For those who might not be aware of the original Super J Cup, the short version is that it was a one night tournament hosted by NJPW that was organized by Liger and involved fourteen wrestlers representing six different promotions (NJPW, Frontier Martial-Arts Wrestling, Michinoku Pro, Wrestle Association R, CMLL, and Social Progress Wrestling Federation). The tournament ended up being a commercial and critical success, and honestly up until maybe five years ago was probably more responsible for introducing non-Japanese fans to NJPW than anything else.
Liger entered the match having already defeated both FMW reps, Hayabusa and Ricky Fuji, while Sasuke (Michinoku Pro) received a first-round bye before defeating El Samurai in the quarterfinals. The winner of this bout would move on to face Wild Pegasus (aka Chris Benoit) who defeated Gedo in the previous semi-final. Despite wrestling an extra match, Liger was still the huge favorite against the indy-riffic Sasuke, and he predictably dominated the early portions of the match in an extremely enjoyable fashion. Highlights included a fantastic Romero Special where he slid Sasuke into a Dragon Sleeper while maintaining the surfboard, and a couple of early KO teases. During all of this Liger brilliantly projects a cocky asshole attitude who can’t believe that he is having to compete against a scrub like Sasuke and then starts to take out his frustrations by destroying Sasuke’s arm.
Eventually, Liger’s overconfidence gives Sasuke the opening he needs as he counters a Liger top rope dive with a dropkick. Looking to take advantage of his first real momentum in the match Sasuke looks to overwhelm Liger with high spots including a big Asai Moonsault, a top rope somersault dive to the outside where both men land hard, and a giant powerbomb back in the ring that leaves Liger quivering on the mat. After the powerbomb Liger starts to work his way back into the match as both men begin to exchange big spots to the delight of the crowd. And then after nearly fifteen minutes of action, we are treated to a great finishing sequence that is kicked off by Liger first suplexing Sasuke to the outside. As Sasuke tries to reenter the ring, Liger catches him with a Koppu kick to the face and then pauses for a second to taunt the crowd…which gives the dazed Sasuke just enough time to regain his composure and go for a springboard move back into the ring. Unfortunately for Sasuke he slips on the rope, and crashes to the mat in a heap which solicits a giant gasp from the crowd and a mocking clap from Liger. Then as Liger readies himself for the kill Sasuke catches him with a jumping hurricanrana out of nowhere for the upset victory! The crowd collectively loses their mind at the finish as Sasuke collapses to the mat seemingly out of both pure exhaustion and shock about his victory.
Match Rating ****½ – Damn it, I love this match (and the whole Super J Cup tournament) so much. This match is just a fantastic representation of a 1990s junior spotfest, and is made even better if you appreciate that this was just one of three matches for both competitors would wrestle on the night. Both men played their respective roles to near perfection, with Liger as the cocky ace of the establishment promotion’s junior division, and Sasuke as the rough around the edges daredevil from the indies and those two roles served as the simple, but effective, framework for the entire match.
And all of this praise is before we even get to the finish! What I really love about this ending is that there are two interpretations of what happened, and both are amazing in their own right. The more popular narrative is that Sasuke legit botched his dive back to the inside and that Liger’s instant asshole reaction (which fits perfectly with the story of the match!) and the subsequent out of nowhere Sasuke hurricanrana represent the best cover for a significant botch in wrestling history. On the other hand, there are others out there who believe that the “botch” was actually a planned spot in the match, and thus might actually be the best-worked botch in history as opposed to the best botch cover in history. Supporters of this interpretation point to the fact of how well the spot fits into the larger structure of the match, as well as the lack of communication between the three men in the ring after the spot as evidence for their interpretation. For most of my NJPW fandom I fell into the it was a botch camp, but after listening to a few commenters argued that it was a planned spot and rewatching the match a couple of more times…well, I now strongly lean towards believing that it was planned all along. But what I think doesn’t really matter, what does matter is that no matter which interpretation you believe, the ending still elevates the match to a true classic status.
Shinsuke Nakamura © vs. Kazushi Sakuraba (IWGP Intercontinental Championship)
January 4, 2013
Wrestle Kingdom 7 ~ Evolution [Semi-Main Event]
Tokyo – Tokyo Dome
Spoiler Free Teaser: Nakamura and Sakuraba clash in a memorable dome match where the Intercontinental Championship was presented as a true top tier belt for the first time. The result is a fantastic match that blends MMA inspired grappling with modern pro wrestling elements, plus some of the vicious shots you will find in a worked encounter. ****¼
Big time fight feel for this one. Nakamura enters in the midst of his first IC title reign, and had transformed the championship from a run of the mill midcard championship to a significant part of NJPW cards. With the brightest spotlight on an IC title match yet, Nakamura faced off against general badass and MMA legend Kazushi Sakuraba. Sakuraba had returned to NJPW in late 2012 along with Katsuyori Shibata as Laughter 7, and the two commenced to wreck wrestlers in tag matches for the next four months (in fact, this match was Sakuraba’s first singles match since his return).
Interestingly, AJPW legend Stan Hansen is in the ring for the pre-match ceremonies. The match gets underway with an MMA inspired feeling out process to start, which as should be expected is largely dominated by Sakuraba. After a few minutes of slow, but engaging action, Sakuraba opens up on Nakamura with a series of open hand strikes and then after a successful takedown is able to land his trademark jumping double stomp to Nakamura’s face. Nakamura is able to mount a come back by using his size to his advantage and catching Sakuraba in the corner, where he lands a series of giant knees. Unfortunately for Nakamura his momentum comes to a very sudden stop when he goes for a takedown that Sakuraba counters by catching him with a knee right to the jaw right when Nakamura dove in!! That looked like it caught Nakumura flush, and I am amazed that he wasn’t legit KTFO from it.
Nakamura manages to start another comeback after popping Sakuraba with a couple of blows, and then hits a Bomaye to the back of the head, but a second Bomaye is reversed and the two are back to grappling while looking for an advantage. Sakuraba looks to have the edge until Nakamura is able to muscle him up onto his shoulders, and then connects with the Landslide to break things up…but Sakuraba is able to regain the advantage right away with a fantastic leg trip and then transitions into a key lock right in the middle of the ring! At this point both wrestlers look to be struggling (in a good way) as Sakuraba keeps trying to catch Nakamura in a submission to end the match, while Nakamura uses his long legs to help with escapes and to try to knock Sakurab’s head off. In the end it turned out that Nakamura had the superior strategy as after escaping an arm bar he drops a knee right into Sakuraba’s mush, and then follows up with the Bomaye for the pin with Sakuraba kicking out a tenth of a second too late.
Match Rating ****¼ – Just a great, intense battle in a huge spot for these two men. The two blended a MMA style match with modern pro wrestling elements, but it was much more than just faux MMA as the end result felt like an absolute war loaded with some brutal and dramatic spots. At only around eleven minutes, it felt like the perfect amount of time based on how the bout was worked. Additionally, the wrestlers should be given credit for working a match style that was the perfect compliment to the night’s main event, which was Tanahashi defeating Okada in an early representation of the current “NJPW epic main event style” match. Together the two matches demonstrated the diversity of the New Japan main event scene at the time (something they could probably use more of here at the end of the decade), and also helped make Wrestle Kingdom 7 a fondly remembered show for the majority of fans.
Alright, well that wraps up things for today. Thank you once again, readers, for joining us on another trip down memory lane. From my perspective this week was the high point of matches that we have covered so far, and as a bonus, you can watch both of the matches together in just under thirty minutes…so you should probably go ahead and watch them if you haven’t already. And of course, remember you can always keep track of all the matches that we have covered so far with our Guide to the Lion’s Vault. Peace.