When I watch this match—and I do weirdly often—I always ask the same question at around the same point.
Prince Devitt, many years before he’ll take the name Finn Balor, or even before he and his finger-gun friends will change the wrestling world via t-shirt, is standing on the top turnbuckle. He’s been struggling to find an opening but his opponent, Naomichi Marufuji, is disoriented on the floor outside the ring. Here, just before Devitt takes flight I wonder, “Why doesn’t anyone ever talk about this? It’s the Super J-Cup, isn’t it?”
The answer it seems, is that nobody really gives a shit about any J-Cup beyond the first in 1994. That year Jushin Thunder Liger, the flag bearer of the junior heavyweight division, invited a selection of juniors from almost every other major wrestling promotion in Japan (the main exception being AJPW), to come compete in a New Japan Pro Wrestling ring for one night. The results were so impressive that the Super J-Cup name garnered respect and legacy that sustained through various other host promotions putting on lesser versions of the tournament.
In some ways, the fifth Super J-Cup might actually be the most fascinating.
In 2009, the tournament returned to New Japan for the first time since its inception fifteen years prior. After a pair of relatively weak lineups for the third (by Michinoku Pro) and fourth (by Osaka Pro) iterations, the talent assembled is pretty impressive, especially in hindsight. Liger returns, along with Kota Ibushi, YAMATO, Koji Kanemoto, Taichi, Taguchi and more.
But where the first two J-Cups took place in front of a sold-out Sumo Hall (11,500 cap.), this one would only fill Korakuen. (approx. 2,000) It sometimes seems there’s a strange dearth of evidence anywhere that this tournament even happened, which has always made it something of a mystery to me. Adding to that mystery, the 2009 J-Cup is the only one branded with a subtitle: “Land of Confusion.” It shares that name with a hit single by the rock band Genesis, released in 1986, the same year the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Title was created.
I have to wonder if Genesis and their album Invisible Touch — which includes that very song — are in fact, the keys to a greater understanding of this obscure wrestling tournament, or even the junior division at large. With no English-speaking resource providing evidence to the contrary, I’m forced to roll with it.
If you take a closer look at the history of Genesis, what you’ll find is a boring tale of mild-mannered and reasonable British men making prog rock records. That won’t work, so let’s focus on the most “pro wrestling” aspect of Genesis: The departure of singer Peter Gabriel, making way for his unexpected replacement, drummer Phil Collins. Gabriel left the band during the touring cycle following their 1974 concept double album The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Toward the end of his run with Genesis, bandmates were growing tired of a growing focus on Gabriel’s overblown costumes and presentation.
During performances of “The Colony of Slippermen” he would take the stage by crawling through a giant phallus, emerging from a small hole at the front pointed toward the audience, dressed as a giant pus-bubble creature with two balloons protruding from his crotch. “I could just about defend Pete’s grotesque ‘Slipperman’ outfit as it made sense with the lyrics,” guitarist Mike Rutherford writes in his autobiography The Living Years, “but the reality was he couldn’t get the microphone near his mouth when he had it on.”
The first few Super J-Cups were also heavily marked by masked theatrics.
The original in ‘94 was littered with colorful face wear; the most iconic match is a Jushin Liger/Great Sasuke semifinal tangle, and even its winner Chris Benoit (then Wild Pegasus) had just a few years earlier rid himself of the mask and moniker of Pegasus Kid. Liger would win the second in ‘95 (at an event that doubled down with a show-stealing special attraction match between Rey Mysterio Jr. and Psicosis) and the third in 2000.
It’s funny, the heavyweights in Japan didn’t seem interested in futzing around with this mask shit, while the juniors seemed to all be tigers or falcons or dragons or fanged anime aliens or Curry Men. When Phil Collins takes over frontman duties, Genesis begins to expand their audience with a boost in pop sensibility and a shift in lyrical content toward adult relationships and emotions, away from wizards and orcs or whatever. In the years following the 2000 J-Cup, Pro Wrestling NOAH is established, with a class of junior heavyweights who blend the no-frills characters of All Japan Pro Wrestling (the promotion they’d all left behind) with the fast-paced high flying of its competitors. They claim a slot in the next tournament.
Okay, still with me?
That tournament would take place in 2004, five years before the 2009 “Land of Confusion” edition. The winner was Naomichi Marufuji, then a young up-and-coming junior who’d taken part in the exodus from AJPW to NOAH. In 1981, five years before the release of Invisible Touch, Phil Collins’ first solo album Face Value is released. Collins’ songwriting output here is tremendous – a song left off of his debut turns up on the Genesis record Duke; that song is the fucking colossal “Misunderstanding”.
The lead single from Face Value, “In The Air Tonight”, charts higher internationally than any preceding Genesis single. In the years following his first J-Cup victory, Marufuji briefly captures NOAH’s top prize, the GHC Heavyweight Championship, and embarks on a legendary two-year stint as half of the GHC Junior Tag Team Champions with partner KENTA.
Two years before Invisible Touch, Collins is asked to deliver a song for the film Against All Odds, and records his signature ballad of the same name:
How can I just let you walk away
Just let you leave without a trace
When I stand here taking every breath with you?
Marufuji is also forced to reckon with the ache of separation.
On December 23rd, 2007, Marufuji and KENTA would lose a match to the team of Go Shiozaki and Takeshi Morishima, marking the end of their final year as an active team. In his autobiography Heir to the Ark (translated by HISAME), Marufuji fondly recalls the unlikely chemistry between the two. “KENTA and I never need to make any special arrangements,” he writes. “Our technique during matches increased with intuition.” When Collins’ thinks back to the release of “Against All Odds”, the film and titular song, the first thing that comes to mind is “the size of [lead actress] Rachel Ward’s breasts,” he told Rolling Stone in 2016. “They were fantastic.” In either case, a very memorable pair indeed.
Finally, in 1985 Phil Collins would close the record No Jacket Required with the song “Take Me Home”, before returning home to work with Genesis on the record Invisible Touch. At the conclusion of the 2009 World Tag League, Jushin Thunder Liger would enter the ring at Korakuen Hall to announce he was bringing his baby home. New Japan Pro Wrestling would host the Super J-Cup for the first time since the inaugural event in 1994, and attempt to undo the damage the past two incarnations had done to its esteemed name. And so, we arrive at the Land of Confusion.
There’s too many men, too many people, making too many problems.
The winner will receive an IWGP Junior Title match a few short weeks later at Wrestle Kingdom IV. The champion is Tiger Mask — the fourth incarnation of a character that since 1981 has been the foremost symbol of smaller wrestlers having to dress up like funny animals. He doesn’t compete in the tournament.
Devitt had been developing a reputation for coming up short in the big moment. He and his tag team partner Ryusuke Taguchi had fallen in the finals of the World Tag League (the same night Liger announced this event would be happening), he’d lost to Koji Kanemoto in the finals of Best of the Super Juniors and a year prior he’d been beaten by Tiger Mask in a tournament for the vacant IWGP Junior Championship. He’s surely walking into this tournament with a chip on his shoulder.
Devitt begins against NOAH representative Atsushi Aoki, who’s working his way through the “Atsushi Aoki Shining Magic 10 Match Series”. The intention was for Aoki to be pushed to his limit by some of the best juniors on the planet, but what it amounted to was an invitation for nine men (he manages to beat Davey Richards) to come beat the shit out of him. Devitt is happy to contribute a thrashing of his own. Just two weeks before this, Aoki had lost the ninth match of the series to Naomichi Marufuji.
In the second round, Devitt would meet Danshoku Dino from DDT. (The other DDT rep was Kota Ibushi.) If you’re not familiar, Dino’s character is an extremely horny gay man. However, in the DDT-focused episode of Damien Abraham’s The Wrestlers, DDT owner and founder Sanshiro Takagi says of him, “It’s not just a match between a gay and straight wrestler, he knows to create meaning. He’s capable of creating an experience that moves people.” It’s difficult to argue. Dino employs the classic in-ring storytelling tool of attacking a limb when he connects with a Dragon Screw to Devitt’s penis. Dino will go for the kill by trying to force-feed Devitt his ass. As he disrobes it’s evident that if nothing else, he takes his personal grooming very seriously, which ties this match to the closing instrumental track of Invisible Touch, “The Brazilian”. Devitt eventually closes him out with the top rope double foot stomp familiar to anyone who’s followed his work as Finn Balor. The one difference here, he lands on Dino’s balls. Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em.
This is the time, this is the place, so we look to the future.
Marufuji defeats Liger in his first round. This match and “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” are the second-longest pieces of their respective sets (beaten out only by “Domino” and the Marufuji-Devitt final), and they both evoke the clashing of past and present. “People tend to say now we’re a commercial group who writes pop songs,” Collins laments to Creem magazine in ‘87. “‘Tonight, Tonight, Tonight’ is like the old Genesis.” Liger and Marufuji are the last two winners of the tournament, and what’s more emblematic of the Super J-Cup than an all-out war featuring Jushin Liger?
By this point though, we’re long past Liger’s years of dominance over the juniors. He’s happy to step aside for the future of the division he fostered for so long. And all it took was a popular appearance in a Michelob commercial for Genesis to get out of their own way and release a radio edit of “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight” that cuts the near-nine-minute runtime in half. The newly palatable single charts at #3 in the US. Taking a cue from Phil and the boys, Marufuji takes about half as long to win his second-round matchup against Tigers Mask, a partial Tiger Mask parody from Osaka Pro.
In the semis, Devitt makes it past Dragon Gate’s YAMATO, but on the other side of the bracket his partner Taguchi is eliminated by Marufuji. It hits me all at once. Devitt had achieved success in groups before; he and Taguchi are the current IWGP Jr. Tag champs, and Devitt had already been once before. But both Taguchi and his old partner El Samurai had held the individual IWGP Junior Heavyweight Title; Devitt had never even gotten a shot at it. But now Taguchi’s out, and he stands alone; he’s positioned to “kick the habit”, to “shed his skin,” if you will.
We’ve established our parallels between Marufuji and Phil Collins. (I’ll keep going, Marufuji winning the 2018 Champions Carnival is Collins winning the Oscar for Tarzan.) After leaving Genesis, Peter Gabriel releases four solo records (all titled Peter Gabriel) to reasonable success, but nothing that takes the culture, especially in America, the way Collins’ solo work had, or Invisible Touch would. Devitt had reached the finals of the three aforementioned tournaments but never broken through that ceiling, and now here he is in a fourth. Hear me out — what if Prince Devitt was always the Peter Gabriel of this story, and the final of the 2009 Super J-Cup is actually a final showdown between him and Naomichi Marufuji’s Phil Collins? Wow, wrestling is fantastic.
Devitt conjures up the past in more ways than you may think. Three years earlier in New Japan’s shortlived developmental brand WRESTLE LAND, Devitt took the mantle as the second Pegasus Kid, the same mask Chris Benoit was three years removed from when he won in ‘94. After being overwhelmed by Marufuji for the first chunk of the match, Devitt regains momentum with a mesmerizing senton from the top rope to the outside, the same way Great Sasuke did after being battered by Liger. When Marufuji returns fire he threatens the Shiranui, a move he innovated. There is no wasted time in this match, it’s fireworks from bell-to-bell. This match is the title track, “Invisible Touch”. Go ahead, put it on.
Liger watches from ringside, slapping the mat in support of Devitt, the last hope to defend New Japan from the NOAH intruder. Late in the match, Devitt hoists Marufuji up onto his shoulders for what appears to be his signature double knee gutbuster, but he completes the hold by driving a knee into his opponent’s face, closely resembling the Go 2 Sleep, KENTA’s finishing maneuver.
I’m still not certain if that was intentional or just a sloppy delivery of the move, but it sure falls into place nicely and when Marufuji recovers he punishes Devitt appropriately. A top rope spanish fly, frontflip snapmare driver and Pole Shift in rapid succession seal the deal. Marufuji wins, and Devitt has blown it in the finals again. It’s the fourth Peter Gabriel.
But none of that completely explains why this match is “Invisible Touch”, you have to keep looking.
The song is the band’s most successful single on the pop charts by mile, and their first number one song in the United States. Marufuji moves on to Wrestle Kingdom where he defeats Tiger Mask for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship, vanquishing the old relic and mowing down the challengers that follow.
Peter Gabriel’s fifth album, So, is released in 1986 as well, and is recognized by critics as an artistic and commercial step forward. When “Invisible Touch” is unseated at the top of the U.S. charts, it’s replaced by So’s lead single, “Sledgehammer”. The video for “Sledgehammer” goes up against the video for “Land of Confusion” at the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards in six different categories and wins them all. (In fairness, both videos are endlessly cool.) When Marufuji is unseated as champ, it’s by the hand of Prince Devitt at Dominion 2010.
Devitt will go on to dominate the division for the next four years; he’ll craft gripping visuals for his stage entrances, he’ll dabble with showy light-up wardrobe choices, he’ll paint his entire body up like a demon — in short, he’ll be Peter Gabriel.
It was all right there if you were paying attention, right there in a 1986 pop-rock album. Talk about long term booking.