Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of The Lion’s Vault where we take a detour from current New Japan Pro-Wrestling to watch historic NJPW matches from NJPW World’s archives. As we are rapidly approaching Wrestle Kingdom 14 we are going to up the ante for our column and look at three matches this week, including two separate Liger tribute matches as well as our first viewing of an old New Japan staple, the Different Styles Match. So with three matches to review let’s get right to the action.
Riki Choshu vs. Kazuyuki Fujita, Yotaka Yoshie, Tatsuhito Takaiwa, Takashi Iizuka, and Jushin Thunder Liger (Choshu Retirement Gauntlet)
1998 January 4
Final Power Hall in Tokyo Dome [Match Five of Nine]
Tokyo – Tokyo Dome
Spoiler Free Teaser: Rick Choshu retires for the first time in an emotional gauntlet series against a mixture of New Japan talent including young lions, juniors, and a tag team specialist. Essentially a greatest hits concert from Choshu, but one where several of the songs are played multiple times. While your appreciation mileage might vary drastically, overall I felt the structure worked against what should have been an iconic moment. **
As a quick aside, for Tatsuhito Takaiwa being one of Liger’s most frequent opponents, there are surprisingly very few matches featuring the pair of them on NJPW World. Consequently, we are looking at a very different type of match…though perhaps appropriately for our Liger retirement tribute it is another retirement match. In this case, it is Riki Choshu’s 1998 retirement gauntlet match when he took on five NJPW wrestlers, including Takaiwa and Liger.
We begin with Choshu against a young lion version of future IWGP Heavyweight Champion Kazuyuki Fujita in a very basic match that Fujita largely controls with strikes and a side headlock (always dangerous against Choshu!). And sure enough after just a few minutes of action Choshu counters a headlock into a backdrop driver, and follows it up with a lariat for three. Fellow young lion Yutaka Yoshie is next, and we essentially get the same match structure done in half the time with Choshu giving less to his opponent and substituting out his backdrop driver for a spot of fixing his hair before getting the pin off a lariat.
Yoshie’s elimination finishes our young lions portion of the match as junior midcarder Tatsuhito Takaiwa is next to try his luck against Choshu. Following a similar pattern to the first two encounters, Takaiwa starts fast with a series of strikes, but it ends up not really mattering as seconds later Choshu reverses a piledriver and then Takaiwa just stands there waiting to eat his lariat. Now ready to play another one of his timeless hits Choshu goes for the Sasori-Gatame, which gets a nice reaction from the crowd when first teased…but then Choshu waits a while before finally turning him over for the quick submission to a much quieter reaction. Iizuka in next, and stop me if you heard this before, but we begin with Choshu’s opponent opening fast with a series of strikes. Soon enough it’s Iizuka’s turn to receive the Choshu lariat, but then in an M. Night Shyamalan esque twist, he reverses the subsequent Sasori-Gatame attempt into a heel hook that after a long struggle earns him the submission victory.
Finally, the unquestioned ace of the juniors division, Jushin Thunder Liger enters the ring for his opportunity to take on the now wounded, and once defeated, retiring legend. These two treat us to an accelerated match that you might expect between the two, with each man hitting their most well known spots, in addition to a crazy plancha dive from Choshu that was Nakanishi levels of scary. After Liger fails to get a submission with a figure four Choshu proceeds to lariat him twice to earn the victory and win(?) the gauntlet series four bouts to one. Post-match we get an emotional Choshu who thanks all of his opponents before addressing the audience, and then interestingly enough a longer address from Inoki.
Match Rating ** – Not much to say about this one. By 1998 Choshu was undoubtedly a legend in New Japan and Japanese wrestling in general, and he deserved a spotlight retirement moment. Unfortunately, I felt the actual was quite repetitive, and while the structure allowed Choshu to hit crowd favorite spots multiple times, it also seemed to limit the emotional investment of the viewer while also making some of his opponents (particularly Takaiwa and Liger) look weaker than needed. If you are a Choshu fan definitely watch, but overall I would recommend checking out the tribute video from the show (that, unfortunately, is not available on NJPW World, but can be found online) as a more enjoyable goodbye.
Antonio Inoki vs. Eddie “Monster Man” Everett (Different Style Fight)
1977 August 2
Real World Martial Arts Championship [Main Event]
Tokyo – Nippon Budokan
Spoiler Free Teaser: A surprisingly fun Different Style Fight as Inoki takes on the game “Monster Man” Everett. Essentially a prototype of a 1990s (worked) MMA match, with Inoki representing professional wrestling against Evertt’s karate background. While the styles clash did produce some expected awkward moments, the energy and presentation more than made up for it. ***½
This match represents on of Inoki’s earliest “Different Style Fights,” and was nearly one year after his (in)famous bout with Muhammad Ali. His opponent on this night is Eddie “Monster Man” Everett, an American heavyweight karate fighter who was making his debut in a professional wrestling setting. As a part of the different styles presentation, the match was contested under a rounds system and Everett is wearing boxing gloves.
To begin with, there’s not a whole lot of story to the match as predictably both men are relying on their respective backgrounds to negate their opponent’s strengths and carry them to victory. Luckily for us the lack of nuance is fine, as the simpleness of the match is a part of what makes it a fun watch (well, as long as you don’t mind this niche of professional wrestling). Both men start off relatively aggressively, and it is clear from the beginning that Everett possesses a presence that many similar martial arts guest stars lacked in a pro-wrestling environment. Plus his strikes, for the most part, look both solid and pretty damn entertaining, especially his array of kicks. Meanwhile, Inoki’s usual fired-up babyface routine is perfect in a setting like this, and while his attempts at grappling create some awkward looking spots…it kind of works most of the time as Everett shouldn’t know how to deal with a wrestler of Inoki’s caliber trying to grapple with him. Hell, at one point Inoki fairly believably manages to work in a double-underhook suplex in a really nice spot that looks better from Everett not feeding it like a trained wrestler would.
The first three rounds are there pretty much there to give both competitors moments to shine, but in the fourth round things start getting a little dicier as Inoki and Everett begin to display increased frustrations with each other and the referee as they work to navigate the match rules while trying to put their opponent away. Then in the fifth the match comes to a decisive, though odd finish, as Inoki quickly floors Everett with a phantom punch (shades of Sonny Liston!). Then as Everett is still selling the punch Inoki follows-up with a 1970s style powerbomb, and then a leg drop of all things to earn a KO victory when Everett is unable to answer the count. Post-match Inoki is hoisted on the shoulders of his fellow wrestlers, while Everett is left to be consoled by his corner men.
Match Rating ***½ – Call me an idiot, but I really like this match for what it is. Everett really surprised me, and if he wanted to, I think he could have gone on to have a really fun pro-wrestling career. Additionally, the match served as a nice showcase of Inoki’s vision for worked shoots, as the match came off as a spectacle while effectively putting over the dominance of “strong style” wrestling. I definitely recommend checking this one out for historic curiosity purposes if nothing else.
Tatsumi Fujinami & Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Masahiro Chono & Jushin Thunder Liger
2005 May 14
Nexess VI [Semi-Main Event]
Tokyo – Tokyo Dome
Spoiler Free Teaser: NOAH Legend Mitsuharu Misawa makes a rare NJPW as he teams with Fujinami against Chono & Liger. A good, but not great match, where all four men are given opportunities to show off why they are legends, but ultimately lacks the juice you would hope for from an interpromotional legends match in the semi-main slot of a dome show. ***¼
To end things this week things this week we are going to take a look at an interesting all-star tag match featuring a superstar from another promotion. In one corner we have then leaders of the then two big anti-NJPW stables teaming together in Jushin Thunder Liger (Control Terrorism Unit) and Masahiro Chono (Black New Japan). Standing against them is a team of two Japanese pro-wrestling legends, NJPW’s Tatsumi Fujinami and NOAH’s Mitsuharu Misawa (in one of Misawa’s four matches in New Japan). And since Liger is mixing it up with the big boys in this bout, he has decided to bust out his Battle Liger outfit/character…and to the surprise of no one he looks absolutely jacked. In fact, as the only junior in the match, it should be noted that Liger does not look out of place at all size wise.
The match begins with Fujinami and Liger, and Fujinami is feeling it tonight as he starts off fast while mixing in some of his old junior heavyweight offense. I have to say that while I absolutely love Fujinami, his post-1990 back surgery career is fairly iffy, so it is a pleasant surprise seeing him move around the ring fairly well in a 2005 match. Speaking of seeing legends in a positive light, when Misawa enters the ring for the first time he is greeted to a great reception from the fans, and then proceeds to outclass Chono for a couple of minutes. We then progress to all four men pulling out some of their signature moves, with most impressively Liger delivering a vicious running Liger Bomb to Misawa. While this portion as some fun spots, it also suffers from a lack of direction until Misawa begins to dominate the by relying heavily on his elbow strikes. As the match builds towards its conclusion we are treated to an unexpected dive train before Misawa and Fujinami are able to isolate Liger. At that point they both score with some of their signature spots before Fujinami puts Liger in a Dragon Sleeper, and then transitions it into the grounded Cobra Twist for the victory.
Match Rating ***¼ – Similar to the Choshu retirement match from earlier, this was all about getting to enjoy some legends have a crowd pleasing match…and for the most part they succeeded. For his part Liger looked absolutely fantastic in the match, and was definitely the MVP as he really held things together when he was involved in the action. Additionally, despite being the only junior, Liger did not feel out of place at all in the match and came off as equal competitor (despite ultimately taking the fall). I would also like to give a “runner-up MVP” nod to Fujinami for his overall performance, as he looked like he turned back the clock at least a little bit and did the bulk of the work for his team. Finally, I don’t want to dismiss the contributions from Misawa and Chono, as both had fun spots throughout the match and managed to keep the crowd engaged whenever they were in the ring. While ultimately the match might not meet the usual lofty standards set by the wrestlers involved, it does at least have that professional sports all-star game vibe where you get to see the biggest names interact with each other in a fun, if largely inconsequential encounter.
Thank you everyone for joining us for another fun trip down memory lane. As always feel free to follow along with our match reviews and curated playlists through our Guide to the Lions Vault, and join us again next time as we finish our Liger retirement tribute, and inspired by the Monster Man we will take another look at a Different Style Match.