For an explanation as well as the history behind VOW Social Distance Santa, please read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. All matches from VOW Social Distance Santa that are available on YouTube can be found on a playlist:
Shotaro Ashino (c) vs Manabu Soya
WRESTLE-1 Triumph 5/4/2017
For the second time in a row, I am given a Wrestle-1 match! Not only that, but a Shotaro Ashino title defense. He comes out to Metallica and has “Master of Suplex” written like Master of Puppets on his trunks, so I’m a fan. The last was his early 2019 defense against T-Hawk which he lost, so maybe we can buck the trend (preempt the trend?) here. I also gave that match ****, so there’s a relatively high bar here. His opponent this time is Manabu Soya, or Japanese Bruiser Body. He’s got everything from the wild hair and beard with furry kick pads, to the way he walks and moves his arms. Even his power move set is a ton on Brody. It likely works because he has the body for it compared to the size of most of the other wrestlers, though he isn’t that much bigger than Ashino.
They start with some basic grappling to feel each other out. It’s established that Ashino is the better wrestler and Soya is the burly brawler. Ashino starts to try and chop down the tree going for a dropdown and grabbing Soya’s left ankle which Soya avoids. But this would be key throughout the match. They’d do a tackle exchange before Ashino finally gets some shots on Soya’s leg and hits him with a low dragon screw. He then begins the assault on the left leg. It’s a masterful tale he would finish by the end of the match.
Soya would fight out with some power moves and chops, but Ashino would go back to the leg and regain control. After one such exchange, Soya would throw a Brody-esque headbutt to give himself and his leg some time to heel. Inexplicably, he would take his left kick pad off and stand there yelling at Ashino to kick him there. Needless to say, Ashino abides and it doesn’t go so well for Soya. There’s fighting spirit and there’s idiocy. Not sure if Soya straddled that fine line here. Ashino’s work on the leg is brutal with kicks, stops, and stretches as Soya’s writhes in pain. Soya somehow makes it to his feet and Ashino abandons his strategy to goes twice for a front hanging choke that Soya fights off with a suplex and forearm swat. Soya then starts throwing some bombs. Lariats and a brainbuster rock Ashino, before he regains the advantage with a corner dropkick. Ashino then shows why he is the Master of uplex by throwing a series of them on Soya. Soya won’t stay down though.
Ashino diverts from the plan again, taking Soya to the top rope, only to receive a diving lariat and giving up control. Soya hit a few power moves before getting Ashino up in an electric chair position, which Ashino rolled down into an ankle lock on the damaged left leg. Soya would kick him off into the ropes only for Ashino to roll back into the hold. He could smell blood now. Soya finally stopped Ashino from picking the leg and turned it into an almost reverse buckle bomb, then dropped Ashino for a brainbuster off the second rope. Soya turns this into a great run of lariats and bombs leading to a death valley driver for two. He then hits a NASTY lariat on Ashino that turns him inside out. ONE COUNT KICKOUT!!! But Ashino is on skates. Soya has him as he lines him up for a lariat to the back of the head. He hits it and in the opposite corner, waits for Ashino to rise again for the death blow. Out of desperation, or playing cat and mouse, Ashino grabs the arm and transitions Soya into an ankle lock on the destroyed left leg. Soya tries to roll him and kick him off, but Ashino won’t let go. He finally drops and gravepines the leg. Soya scratches and claws and grabs at the referee. After agonizing seconds refusing to tap, he submits to the referee.
This was tremendous. Ashino took the majority of the match, but sold Soya’s bombs like death making it feel like a more even contest. Though Soya was the bigger man, he played the babyface role so well and you really felt his pain and anguish at the end. It seemed like he grabbed the ref and pulled him close so the audience wouldn’t see him finally have to submit. This was a tremendous gift that will absolutely be on my spreadsheet. As for who gifted this to me, Garret Kidney gave me my first Wrestle-1 match, so I can only he assume gave me the second. Thank you good sir. ****1/2 toilet paper rolls.
High Spurt 600 Tournament 1998 – Semi-Finals – Sakura Hirota vs. Sugar Sato
GAEA 3rd Anniversary Celebration: Night 3 – April 29th, 1998
First of all, I’m glad that I decided to listen to this match with headphones on. If I watched it on my laptop without headphones or on the living room TV, I probably would’ve gotten some looks from the rest of the family with all of the screaming going on! Anyway, this was apparently an annual tournament held by GAEA, a women’s promotion in Japan which (as the name of this show would indicate) was celebrating its 3rd Anniversary at this point. After looking at the match times for this show on cagematch, it looks as though all the tournament matches have ten-minute time limits (which was good to know going in).
The match itself was the semi-finals of the 1998 edition of this tournament, and when the dust settled, it ended up being a pretty enjoyable match. The short time limit was definitely a blessing for someone like me, who had never heard of either competitor before watching this match. It was a guarantee that this would be all action, and if I ever watch a pair of wrestlers for the first time, that’s the way to get my attention. Sakura Hirota dominated the first minute of the match as she absolutely stretched Sugar Sato with various submissions. Sato managed to escape and was able to gain the advantage, and we got a more even affair from this point onward.
As the match approached the three-minute mark, there was a very weird spot where Hirota tried to go for some sort of springboard move off the second rope (was it a back elbow?), but she collided with Sato, who looked to be trying to go right (her right) to run the ropes. I have no idea what they were going for, but it was clearly not planned. Fortunately, things mostly got back on track from there, as both women failed to connect with different falling backwards dives from the top rope (Hirota tried for some sort of hip attack, while Sato tried for a falling backwards elbow, from what I could tell).
Then the crowd absolutely exploded when Sato kicked out of four or five consecutive spinning backfists from Hirota. Sato responded with a super facebuster from the second rope as blood started to come out of her nose (I’m guessing from the spinning backfists). We then got an exciting closing stretch that saw a nearfall off a folding powerbomb by Sato, more backfists by Hirota, and finally, Sato got the win after a sitout powerbomb.
Minor botches aside, this was an entertaining match from start to finish that featured very good action throughout the seven or eight minutes that it lasted. As for a guess, I know right away that whoever gifted me this match has to be someone who is a longtime Joshi fan. I’m going to say it was Taylor Maimbourg, but I’m fully prepared to be wrong. ***1/2
Jushin Thunder Liger vs. Owen Hart
To preface this, I THINK I’ve seen this match before, but it’s been years, so I have little memory of it. Jushin Liger is one of my favorites ever: he’s fast, exciting, adaptable and larger-than-life. Owen is a guy that I like, but maybe not as much as others do. I also haven’t seen THAT much of him outside of his peak WWF run.
First, Owen is walking to the ring in a very badass Canadian-themed jacket. He also looks juiced to the gills and dwarves Liger a bit. As soon as the match starts, it’s easy to notice how smooth and agile he is, despite his size. He’s doing smooth mat exchanges, flips, flying headscissors and even jumps directly to the top rope, only to flip off right into an arm drag. He’s impressive off the bat and finally takes control.
From here, the match gets slower. The first thing Owen does while on top is a headlock, which was slightly disappointing, but then Liger turns the match around and ramps up the intensity immediately with an apron suplex to the outside.
Once again, the match slows down. My immediate thoughts are that it feels a little uneven. There’s exciting moves, but then it immediately returns to a slower control sequences. Finally, Owen settles into working on Liger’s arm, before Liger transitions to his own armwork featuring some of his trademarks such as the surfboard.
Liger goes to the top for a big crossbody to the outside, signaling the transition to the next part of the match. The crowd finally becomes engaged and starts getting into the various suplexes, big moves and pin attempts. While this part of the match is much more exciting, it does make the previous grounded section feel more like just a time-filler. At the same time, maybe the crowd needed that slower part to really get ramped up now;!it’s hard to say in this case. However, within the match story, the grounded parts don’t play in much.
Owen hits a very nice looking moonsault for a two. He tries another one, but Liger counters it by going in between Owen’s legs and dumping him. Shortly after, Liger brings Owen to the top rope, appears to be attempting a superplex, but instead turns it into a super ddt and plants Owen right onto his head. This is one of the coolest finishing moves ever. The only other time I can really remember it is Dean Malenko vs Scotty 2 Hotty at Backlash 2000. It popped me when I saw that match and did the same here.
Overall, this is a solid early 90s jr match. It felt like a standard middle of the tour formula match- hot start, grounded middle, ramped up finish. I think the most interesting part of this is seeing how Owen could adapt to Liger’s style. The answer is that he did a decently good but probably not great job and dragged Liger down two a bit of a slower match than he normally would have at this time. Still, a solid enough watch.
Team International (Alex Koslov, Doug Williams & Tyson Dux) vs. Team Japan (Masato Yoshino, Milano Collection AT & Puma) vs. Team Mexico (Averno, Rey Bucanero & Ultimo Guerrero) vs. Team TNA (Alex Shelley, Chris Sabin & Curry Man)
Of my many wrestling blindspots, TNA is perhaps the most glaring. They are often the victim of perception morphing into reality. Throughout the years, I’ve perceived them as the retirement home where WWE wrestlers go to die, as a poorly run squabble-fest and, more recently, as a company on life support desperately struggling to stay relevant. This perception is quickly revealed as silly after a quick glance through their alumni.
In the age of infinite wrestling, it’s often the smallest reason that demotes a promotion to the ‘nearly watched’ pile, and TNA has always given more reasons than most. It’s for that reason I was incredibly glad to receive this match. A quick scan of the talent reveals an incredible mix of names that, like TNA, have perhaps been colored by perceptions.
This is a twelve-man elimination tag, and it would be impossible to dedicate a paragraph to each. However, it is a testament to the talent here that all twelve men are able to remain distinct throughout. Each man brings a unique look and offense to the match and the mad scramble is incredibly easy to follow.
The two standouts in this match are clear. Firstly, Milano Collection AT. He’s a bizarre character, as he’s a man who appears on our screens regularly through his commentary work on New Japan shows. It sometimes feels like we know him really well, but in reality, I barely know him at all. He’s a wrestler who peaked before I was able to access the likes of New Japan and Dragon Gate. I wasn’t too surprised to learn that he wrestled like a massive dick, but in the most glorious way. Too often, heels get their heat from cheating. I prefer heels who get their heat by being amazing and then being a prick about it. That’s exactly what he does, with Matrix-style dodges and double half crabs interspersed with cocky smirks and triumphantly raised arms.
The second standout in this match was Masato Yoshino. Again, another wrestler I’m not overly familiar with as I find Dragon Gate to be mostly stupid. His solo run was superb, and he managed to survive two massive onslaughts. If Milano Collection AT played the perfect heel, then Yoshino was the perfect babyface. He took constant beatings and survived, peppering his survival with innovative offense. It was simple, and it worked.
Honorable mentions must go to the powerhouse Doug Williams and the ever ethereal Ultimo Guerrero but really the third standout was the crowd. It’s always breathtaking to watch American mainstream wrestling (AEW aside, obviously) from ten-plus years ago. It’s almost refreshing how receptive the crowd are and it is a stark reminder how, in many ways, WWE have regressed wrestling on the biggest stages. I like the Motor City Machine Guns, but when paired with thunderous reactions to every move, they seem like stars.
TNA has been firmly added to my isolation list to correct my younger misgivings, and if anyone has any hidden gems, please send them my way. Great match!
Real World Tag League 1998 Finals – Kenta Kobashi & Jun Akiyama vs. Stan Hansen & Vader
December 5, 1998
Ooooohh, I am super excited to dive into this match! All-Japan is one of the many promotions that I wish I had found more time to watch over the years, as I have thoroughly enjoyed the small amount that I have managed to watch. What really intrigues me about this particular match is that I know next to nothing about it heading in, as I am pretty sure the latest AJPW matches I ever watched were from 1996, and as a result, this is my first time ever watching Vader in an AJPW ring. Additionally, I absolutely love tag-team wrestling, but unfortunately as someone who almost exclusively watches New Japan these days, great tag-team wrestling is a wrestling itch that I don’t get to scratch as much as I would like.
So yeah, this match is the finals of the 1998 Real World Tag League, and immediately I am appreciative that my Social Distance Santa provided me with a link for the All-Japan show that covers the entire tournament. Consequently, we are treated to a fun appetizer of the opening ceremonies and the finishing sequences of all the pivotal block matches prior to our main event of the evening. The highlight package is fantastic as we get to see Hansen and Vader run roughshod over all the other teams on their way to an unblemished block stage, while Kobashi & Akiyama managed to earn a (surprise?) second place in the block by defeating the Holy Demon Army (Kawada & Taue) and fighting to a thirty-minute time limit draw against Misawa & Ogawa.
The start of the match is a great example of what made AJPW so special during the 1990s, as the production work combined with an electric crowd manages to draw you in and make you feel like an active part of the audience (which is saying something for a thirty-year-old match). As for the match itself, well, for the most part, it largely unfolds in relatively predictable ways, with Hansen and Vader playing the role of grumpy bullies, Kobashi doing everything he can to keep his team in the match, and Akiyama doing his damnedest while largely looking overmatched by the American monsters. That said, this type of predictability is a good thing, because how else would you want a match to play out between these four? What this ends up producing is almost twenty minutes of intense, and non-stop action that can (cheesily) be described as chicken soup for the wrestling fan’s soul.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of this match was how well Vader and Hansen worked as a team. Based on the date of the match I was expecting to see a fairly past his prime Hansen teaming up with an out of shape Vader, and while both those things may have been true…the two men worked so well together that it wasn’t really noticeable during the match. On the other side you had Kobashi and Akiyama who fed the bullies near perfectly the entire match, while also showing enough fire to keep the crowd invested for what was essentially one, match length heat segment from Hansen and Vader.
In fact, that leads me to my only real critique of the match…in that Hansen and Vader were physically dominant for such an extended period of time that it basically tipped the hand that Kobashi and Akiyama would ultimately pull out the upset victory. Luckily for us, the ending still ended up being a fantastic climax as Vader and Hansen appeared to have Kobashi isolated after previously destroying Akiyama outside the ring. Then, just as they were going for the kill, Akiyama rose from the dead and managed to climb the turnbuckle without being noticed by his opponents (captured brilliantly by the AJPW camera crew) to deliver an unexpected jumping knee to the back of Hansen’s head, which allowed Kobashi to land the Burning Lariat for the win and the tournament victory.
So yeah, that ended up being a fantastic match that is just a step below some of the classic All-Japan tags that I had previously watched. What I really appreciated about this match though is how everyone played their respective roles to near perfection, from all four wrestlers, to the production team, to the fans in attendance…which resulted in a truly enjoyable experience. ****¼ (and knowing AJPW, there are probably additional storytelling layers to the match that I am ignorant of that would have made it even more enjoyable to fans who were regularly watching the promotion). Finally, as for who gifted the match…well, as a relatively new contributor to the VoW community I am still learning the tastes of many of the other writers/podcasters here. That said, I do feel fairly confident that Gerard loves this era of All-Japan so I am just going to go ahead and guess him. Thank you Social Distance Santa whoever you might be!!