The build-up to the match was fairly simple. Akito was the DDT Extreme Champion, a belt which is only defended in special stipulation matches, with the stipulation decided by the champion. These rules have allowed the purpose of the belt to shift over time – at times it’s been a hardcore belt, at other times comedy, and at times (as when Shinya Aoki was champion) it’s been defended in MMA-style submission matches. But Akito was the champion and Akito, by his own admission, was boring. Having won the belt in a Yogi Yogi deathmatch against the comedic Antonio Honda, nobody quite knew what Akito’s reign had in store.
Into this situation stepped ASUKA, billed as the world’s first genderless pro wrestler and one of DDT’s rising stars. After pinning him in a tag match, ASUKA challenged Akito for his title, fearing that a match against such a boring guy would be dull, asked for a light tube deathmatch – surely the least boring match imaginable. But Akito was still a little wary, so he cuts it down to a single light tube. And thus the set-up is in place for what should have been a fun, harmless comedy match in the middle of one of DDT’s marathon Ryogoku shows.
Things do start out light-hearted. The light tube gets introduced with its own theme music (the same theme as RIZIN’s Tenshin Nasukawa, for whatever that’s worth). The rules are, curiously, almost the opposite of a typical weapons match: the wrestler who breaks the light tube first will be eliminated. Wins can also take place via pinfall or submission. Thus, the goal is to make use of the fragile weapon without breaking it. The match is a parody of the excesses of deathmatch wrestling: in other places the ultimate symbol of hardcore, the light tube here becomes just a light tube, a fragile, mundane, perhaps silly object. At the same time, Akito and ASUKA take the match entirely seriously, fully committing to structuring their match around the stipulation. It’s the mixture of absurdity and commitment that defines DDT at its best.
The match begins with both wrestlers almost immediately whipping each other towards the single tube (taped to the ropes like in all those other deathmatches.) This helps to establish the stipulation immediately, as does the ensuing roll-up. The crowd also immediately gets into it, chanting “SAFE!” whenever Akito or ASUKA barely manage to avoid crashing into the tube. This is followed by the slapstick comedy of the two tossing the tube back and forth. ASUKA stumbles after catching it, in a moment of Chaplinesque physical comedy. There’s a nice visual of both grappling over the weapon, a nice visual symbol of the match.
A lot of what happens in the match is fairly routine, three-star workrate. But there’s an added sense of danger because the audience is aware – is worried, even – that the tube could break at any moment. Normal spots, like Akito doing a bridge (over the light tube) to avoid getting pinned, get a big crowd response because they briefly believe he was about to break it. Later, Akito takes a facebuster, and he has to land perfectly, making contact with his head first and resisting the instinctual urge to lessen the contact with his sternum. Later, he does a physically impressive gymnastic vault. I typically think of Akito as one of the legion of pretty-good junior heavyweights that populate DDT undercards, but his physical performance in this match – to say nothing of the patience and invention — is genuinely impressive. ASUKA also has some great moments, as when they modify a moonsault so as not to break the tube.
The key to the match is the way it changes how the viewer watches a wrestling match. The appeal of deathmatches is supposed to be the perception, real or not, that the wrestlers are in greater danger and will take greater punishment than a typical match. Here, there’s no fear of actual danger, but there’s a tremendous sense of anxiety throughout. Not only is there suspense within the explicit text of the match – whether Akito and ASUKA, in the process of fighting each other, can avoid breaking the light tube – but there’s also suspense in the non-kayfabe meta-story – whether Akito and ASUKA, in the process of putting on a collaborative performance, can avoid screwing up and breaking the light tube. DDT is a very theatrical and parodic style of wrestling, and there’s no real attempt at pulling the wool over the audience’s eyes. But here, the stakes of the kayfabe match and the stakes of reality are re-aligned, and the result is an audience that audibly hangs on every move.
As is required in a deathmatch of any sort, the progression of spots intensifies as the match goes on. Akito takes a bump directly into the tube as it hangs onto the rope, and almost dislodges it. The tube gets balanced between two chairs, in a parody of the typical hardcore match where tables, barbed-wire boards, and anything else gets set up for a power move.
In the end, ASUKA loses in a moment of madness. They roll out of a move and instinctively kicks Akito in the face, shattering the light tube in one quick motion. Akito takes his first hardcore spot, but wins the match as a result. The ending happens so quickly that the viewer is uncertain whether it was intentional (or at least I did.) Again, the obvious difficulty of the match restores kayfabe in a post-kayfabe era.
This was a comedy match, for a midcard belt, that came sixth on a thirteen-match card. It ran less than twelve minutes. It certainly doesn’t fit the standards of your typical Match of the Year Candidate. Yet, when looking back over the year, I found myself remembering this match than most of the epic, critically acclaimed main events. In terms of technical execution, everything had to be pitch-perfect, and it was. In terms of innovation and dramatic effect, it played with the confines of the traditional wrestling match in ways that I hadn’t seen before.
Perhaps Akito/ASUKA makes the case that we need to have a broader concept of what makes a great match, and especially a Match of the Year. The award is usually reserved for lengthy, serious matches featuring a lot of big moves, kick-outs and sudden reversals between two wrestlers already established as greats. But for some reason, over the past year, I’ve found a lot of these types of matches (including most NXT and NJPW main events) have left me cold, seeming like an empty ticking of “epic” boxes. In contrast, the short, story-focused matches of DDT keep my attention the whole way through.
If we accept that every card can’t be 25-minute MOTYCs, then I think it’s our duty to take the smaller, less “important” matches as serious as the big show main events. If film critics can acknowledge great supporting actors, or great films in every genre, why can’t wrestling critics rank a great comedy match or a great road-to tag match (like, say, Goto & Ishii vs. Shingo & EVIL on the recent New Year’s Dash so) alongside the long epics?
In the end, I ranked Akito vs. ASUKA third on my match of the year list, behind more conventional MOTYCs in Ospreay/Shingo and PAC/Kzy, so perhaps even I’m not immune to this bias. But I hope that, when it comes time to evaluate the best matches of 2020, we’ll have a list that is more diverse and reflects the true, beautiful breadth of pro wrestling. Or at least a match with a light tube with it.