“It used to be better.” – The Lapsed Fan Pro Wrestling Podcast

What little bit of ***+ stuff (per Dave Meltzer) I was interested to visit in the first quarter isn’t available to stream anywhere, so we’re inserting a gem from another fledgling company before moving onto the second quarter for what was NOAH’s most important match back then. But first, let’s begin filling in the gaps courtesy Meltzer.

Pro Wrestling NOAH, which only had events for five months, finished 8th in Promotion of the Year in the 2000 Wrestling Observer Newsletter Awards. For the puroresu region, it barely fell behind All Japan Pro Wrestling, while New Japan Pro Wrestling finished #2 overall for the globe behind the World Wrestling Federation. Up to that point (that newsletter issue being dated January 15, 2001), I’d still stand by my statement that at the end of 2000, NOAH had the pieces to eventually usurp its domestic competition.

“Overall the spot show crowds have not been strong now that the novelty of them being a new group is gone. Lots of complaints about the lack of imaginative booking, although that was how All Japan did it in its heyday. But the typical six-man tag main event where the young guy or lesser star does the job which may have worked when the headliners are super hot, doesn’t work now” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated January 22, 2001)

Within a week after that issue, NOAH got some devastating business news.

The bill came due on Kenta Kobashi (who I considered the company’s uncrowned world champion) and his knees. After getting double-knee surgery on June 22 and then returning just 6-7 weeks later for the company’s debut, he finally went down due to knee deterioration. It was determined he’d need surgery not just on both knees, but both elbows too.

With cartilage removal aplenty for Kobashi, he was now out for the rest of 2001, with an early 2002 return being the plan. For the time being, the company was already missing Vader and Mitsuharu Misawa had slotted himself down to the semi-main spot due to his own injuries piling up.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the mentality of just working through injuries came back to bite NOAH very early on. At the very least, Jun Akiyama should’ve won the rematch against Kobashi at Great Voyage 2000 to try really cementing him as the company’s uncrowned world champion.

There was also a missed opportunity at the very start. In the short-term, it’d be a difficult pill to swallow for Kobashi to have taken the year or so off he needed, missing NOAH’s birth and entire first year of existence. But for his own sake and long-term health, I’d have told him to do it and since he’d never been beaten for the AJPW Triple Crown, he’d return in mid-2001 and demand a shot at the GHC Champion to start a hot, money-drawing program that could culminate as late as spring 2002.

Instead, this short-term business thinking and foolish mentality of gutting through injuries has left NOAH in a terrible position just six months into running events, with a world title tournament just three months away as well. It’s truly stunning ineptitude to have hitched so much of the wagon on someone that for all of his charisma and star power, was on the brink of physically collapsing at any moment, rather than go all-in on the (presumably) healthier Akiyama. As enthralling as the story was for Kobashi to have been humbled and then get his win on the comeback to close out the year, it’s crystal-clear Akiyama should’ve won the rematch to solidify his position as the undisputed top star and groom him to be the first GHC Heavyweight Champion.

Perhaps the previous paragraph is a great summary of Pro Wrestling NOAH’s ultimate legacy in the 2000s. We’ll see if that holds true when the end of the decade is reached. What I can definitely say is that it puts a damper on my faith in this federation reaching the top position in puroresu, but considering that region is far from a boom period in the early 2000s, the bar’s still pretty low for NOAH to eventually reach the top over there.

Because of Kobashi’s injuries (which at the time there was even short-lived optimism it’d only sideline him for six months), Vader agreed to work the Navigation For Progress tour in February 2001, but unfortunately not its big final night on February 25 in Kobe. In addition, Misawa slotted himself in a mid-card tag with junior heavyweights rather than fill in the main event slot on February 16.

In other news, in his Pro Wrestling NOAH debut on February 11, Naoki Sano defeated Naomichi Marufuji, and started using the ring name “Takuma Sano.”

“The [Navigation For Progress] tour ended with something of a whimper in Kobe drawing 3,600 fans. This was scheduled to be a major show, but whatever the main idea for it was, it was based around Kobashi, who is from Kobe. With him out of the picture, they booked only a half hearted line-up with Yoshihiro Takayama & Takao Omori over Mitsuharu Misawa & Takeshi Rikio on top when Takayama pinned Rikio, and Jun Akiyama pinned Akira Taue with the exploder, while Takuma Sano (Naoki Sano) did his first job since signing to Yoshinari Ogawa” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated March 5, 2001)

Our first match review comes from the debut of another wrestling promotion on March 2, 2001, as Shinya Hashimoto has started Zero-One Pro Wrestling. Since this features a NOAH talent and is available online, it’s getting the spotlight.

Naomichi Marufuji vs. Naohiro Hoshikawa
Zero-One Truth Century Creation
March 2, 2001 – Tokyo, Japan

https://www.bilibili.com/s/video/BV1jE411Z7Ra

They have a stalemate early, and Hoshikawa’s moveset resembles much of KENTA’s. Marufuji eventually gains control thanks to some elbow-centric moves, so Hoshikawa would be wise to target that body part. Marufuji cuts off a comeback attempt from Hoshikawa, dropkicking him to the outside. That time outside is enough for Hoshikawa to make a comeback upon getting in the ring, driving Marufuji outside in position to eat a suicide dive. As expected, he targets Marufuji’s left arm, going for a Cross Arm-Breaker to kick off that strategy. He keeps up the control, still targeting that body part and just not relenting with other attacks.

They almost botch Marufuji’s comeback, but he’s able to dump Hoshikawa to the outside and follow up with a Somersault Senton. Marufuji delivers a picture-perfect Missile Shotgun Dropkick to maintain control, cutting off Hoshikawa’s kicks and suplexing him to then eat a Frog Splash. This is very good stuff.

Hoshikawa scouts the Shiranui, eating a German Suplex for a near-fall. When he kicks out, he turns it into a Double Underhook Guillotine submission for a hot submission tease. Marufuji fails in his comeback attempt, too damaged for the moment and eating a Northern Lights Suplex for another near-fall. Another comeback attempt fails for Marufuji, getting an Enzuigiri to knock him down. After another kick to the head, it’s another hot near-fall.

Hoshikawa also jumps from the top rope to hit a knee strike to the back of Marufuji’s head for an even hotter near-fall, and while this is my intro to him, he appears to be running out of his arsenal. As I think that, Marufuji evades a Superlex and has a fantastic near-fall pin, then uses his adrenaline to kick Hoshikawa and put him down with a sudden Shiranui.

This was a great opener with just the right amount of selling to go with the big moves and counters, keeping the crowd along the way. Marufuji would be a great choice to be NOAH’s first GHC Jr. Heavyweight Champion later in the year, and this wouldn’t make for bad undercard rematches (perhaps something like Best of the Super Juniors) in the future throughout Japan too. Rating: ****

There was some good but not great news, as NOAH would finally get a weekly Friday slot on Nippon TV starting April 6; unfortunately, it’s a 1AM starting time.

More newsletter tidbits before crowning the company’s first champion.

“Kenta Kobashi had the fourth operation on his right knee on 3/13. Actually it’s his fifth, because he had the one last year, but it’s the fourth since 1/22. There is talk now that he may need yet one more operation. They are still talking about him coming back and wrestling again, although not for a very long time, but I don’t see how he can expect to do so without almost guaranteeing being in a wheelchair by his mid-40s and it’s just not worth it. I hope every young wrestler studies his career because there are limits what amount of punishment the body can take, and quite frankly, the body only has so many four-star matches in them as all the Japanese superstars of the early 90s have shown. I know as fans we want to see everyone give everything they have when we pay for a ticket or watch television, but the reality is you’ve got to pick and choose your four-star matches, unless you are very lucky like Ric Flair, or you’ll end up like this” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated March 26, 2001)

“They shot a big angle to heat up the first TV show, which is taped 4/1 and airs on 4/6 with Jun Akiyama vs. Takao Omori as the main event. In a trios match on 3/24, Omori axe bombered Akiyama into the ringpost and gave him a second axe bomber and threw him into the crowd where he hit his head on a chair. Akiyama sold it as a total knockout and laid there for three minutes motionless, before he was carried out with an ice pack on his head. He actually did a comeback later in the match, but Omori & Takayama laid him out again and they did a hospital angle after the match. However, because of the lack of main event talent depth, Akiyama was still brought back for the show the next night in Kyoto rather than selling the angle

From watching tapes of late, the workrate for this group is really starting to come on. It wouldn’t be fair to say it’s similar to what happened in the early 90s because there is no Kobashi or Akiyama out of the young group, but there is a lot of promise in people like Marufuji, Suguira, Takeshi Morishima along with more experienced Kentaro Shiga and Kanemaru and underrated Akitoshi Saito.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated April 2, 2001)

“The big angle shot on the first TV show [taped April 1, to air on April 6] was Ogawa turning on Misawa after winning the tag match and giving him an enzuigiri. It’s still strange to me watching NOAH because it’s the old Baba guys who almost never did angles and didn’t to face-heel, doing American angles and heel psychology. So the premise of the first, and thus most important, TV show was to give the people the great match on top, a strong win for Vader (best foreign draw), Misawa was in there with the hottest young worker for the match and then was turned on by his long-time partner. The new guys who will either carry or fail to carry the company in the future if people get into their “elevation story” or not, Marufuji, Rikio and Morishima, all were with the top guys but lost. In Japan, the losing is okay because everyone knows it’s part of a long-term tease, and at this point them just being in the ring with those guys on television and performing well will elevate them” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated April 9, 2001)

“In what was really bad news, the first TV show on 4/6 with the Jun Akiyama vs. Takao Omori match only drew a 1.9 rating for the one-hour special, which was about 2 million viewers. That is along the lines of what the Colisseo show (a pro wrestling weekly news show) did on the network on late Wednesday nights, but NTV, which signed the promotion to a multi-year TV deal, was expecting a very big rating for the first NOAH show.

“In the semifinals of the GHC tournament, on 4/11 in Hiroshima before a sellout 2,700, Mitsuharu Misawa advanced to the finals beating Akiyama. The two first went to a double count out in 13:35. They re-started the match since there had to be a winner, and Misawa won with a small package at 1:30. On 4/12 in Osaka, Yoshihiro Takayama beat Vader via DQ in 9:24 before a full house of 1,800. This was very strange, since these guys came from a system that didn’t do count outs and DQ finishes, and these non-finishes tells fans they will start doing DQ and count outs. In Japan over the past ten plus years, fan have reacted very negatively toward non-finishes so doing them, particularly in the semifinals of a tournament to get over the first so-called world title, seems mind-boggling.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated April 23, 2001)

What a last tidbit going into the GHC Heavyweight Title tournament final!!!

GHC Heavyweight Title Tournament Final
Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Yoshihiro Takayama
Navigation For the Victory Day 18
April 15, 2001 – Tokyo, Japan

Per Cagematch, it appears these two faced off many times in various tag matches; as for singles, Misawa is 2-0 against Misawa, including the 1999 Champion Carnival.

Joe Higuchi introduces the championship before the wrestlers themselves are introduced, and for such a shitty tournament, the crowd is still in awe of the belt and buzzing for this historic match. Takayama seems to be treating this a bit more seriously than Misawa, whose face and body language makes this feel like another day at the office for him.

After some stalemates, the heat picks up when Takayama pummels Misawa, who dishes receipts and follows up with a suicide dive. Takayama brilliantly baits Misawa into a top rope move, kneeing the company founder in the gut on the way down and causing him to powder. Takayama keeps up the attack, basement dropkicking MIsawa’s midsection and then backdropping him on the table; this could be an intelligent attack on Misawa’s torso overall.

Takayama targets Misawa’s right arm too, applying his signature Cross Arm-Breaker; perhaps he studied Misawa’s win over Vader a few months earlier. Misawa’s comeback tease results in him getting backdropped again, this time on the apron ramp and then getting a high knee strike upon standing up. I love watching Takayama work big matches.

Considering how the Jun Akiyama vs. Kenta Kobashi rematch was a masterpiece in avoiding submissions becoming rest holds, I’m disappointed these two let a sleeper become just that; Misawa’s effort to break it comes across as lethargic compared to the classic match I’ve just brought up. Once again, the match requires a strike exchange to wake the crowd up and have Misawa regain control.

They have a really nice spot when Takayama blocks Misawa’s roundhouse kick, only to eat a leg takedown into a left leg and ankle lock submission. They follow this up with Takayama using that left leg to knee Misawa in the gut, both of them selling their damage before Takayama regains control using his right leg for kicks, resulting in a hot near-fall.

They have another hot near-fall moments later, Takayama busting out his trademark High Angle German Suplex. He confidently signals he’ll finish Misawa, who fails to keep himself from getting hit again with the same suplex, but it’s another hot near-fall. Takayama busts out kicks to Misawa’s torso along with a Cross Arm-Breaker on Misawa’s right arm again, but Misawa has his foot on the ropes. Misawa’s bleeding around his neck or chest, maybe something hard way from Takayama’s strikes moments earlier.

Misawa gets control and Takayama teases regaining it with a knee to the gut, but Misawa steadies his focus and targets Takayama’s left arm with submissions, including returning the favor with a Cross Arm-Breaker of his own. That’s a brilliant way to try eliminating more German Suplexes, but Takayama finds the energy to break the hold with a one-armed Powerbomb; only to be locked in his trademark submission again for another good false finish.

Misawa blocks Takayama’s big boot attempt, putting him down with a Tiger Driver as the crowd is glued to this. Misawa goes for it again but Takayama scouts it, backdropping him over and hitting a Tiger Suplex; Misawa goes too far back, but Misawa still loosely bridges him for a near-fall. I’ve never seen that before. Misawa wins a striking battle, airing unanswered elbow strikes as the crowd gets red-hot on these near-falls, the crowd atmosphere continuing to escalate.

Misawa’s charging elbow strike is another great near-fall. Having dazed Takayama enough with his flurry of elbow strikes, Misawa goes for the kill, putting down Takayama for the victory and becoming his company’s first-ever GHC Heavyweight Champion. Misawa is now 3-0 in singles against Takayama.

This was a fitting match to kick off this championship and end the horrendous tournament on a high note. It built organically with great storytelling, working the crowd into a frenzy in the finishing minutes. I want rematches and I can’t get enough of Takayama in these major contests.

With that said, it needs to be pointed out that Misawa clearly didn’t plan to pull a Verne Gagne and crown himself. He wanted to move on to the next stage of his career. But Kenta Kobashi’s injuries were no reason to have gone in this direction, no matter how desperate to have a proven headliner at the top. The clearly correct direction was to crown Akiyama in this tournament, and assuming he’d steady or elevate the company’s business, let him go on a killer reign until Kobashi returns, demanding a rubber match for the title and pointing out that he came into the company having never lost the AJPW Triple Crown. Instead, this company clung onto the past and gave Akiyama similar booking treatment to when Kevin Owens reached the WWE main roster in 2015. Rating; ****

We return to Zero-One for another gem involving Naomichi Marufuji.

Naomichi Marufuji vs. Tatsuhito Takaiwa
Zero-One Truth Century Creation II
April 18, 2001 – Tokyo, Japan

https://www.bilibili.com/s/video/BV1Ks41157Q7

They have a strike exchange early, with Marufuji winning it and following up by targeting Takaiwa’s right arm. but quickly switches it to the left arm after Takaiwa briefly cuts him off. Takaiwa also turns a Cross Arm-Breaker attempt by Marufuji into a leg lock submission

However, Marufuji regains control on a lockup, only to be cut off with a sudden side slam. A minute or so later, Takaiwa cuts him off again with a scoop slam, but Marufuji takes Takaiwa to the outside with a head-scissors and Quebrada into the crowd as well.

Like last month, Marufuji delivers a gorgeous Missile Shotgun Dropkick, then targets Takaiwa’s right arm, first with a Diving Knee Strike, then another Cross Arm-Breaker. However, Takaiwa catches him outside to slam him and regain himself. But back in, they have a hot exchange to tease some near-falls for Marufuji. Takaiwa catches him again though, delivering a Death Valley Driver for another hot near-fall.

Marufuji scouts the Mochizuki Bomb after the first Powerbomb, kneeing Takaiwa and delivering a Frog Splash for yet another very good near-fall. He makes the mistake of going for a Super Hurricanrana, which Takaiwa counters in mid-air with a Powerbomb. Takawa has another awesome counter moments later, turning a Shiranui into a Reverse Piledriver and finishing Marufuji off with a lariat. Excellent stuff that would be a worthy rematch for the eventual GHC Jr. Heavyweight Title tournament. Rating: ****

And now some table-setting for Misawa’s first title defense.

“After such a disappointment for the first TV show drawing a 1.9 rating, the company got some needed good news as the second show, on 4/13, airing at 1:55 a.m., drew a very strong 2.8 rating.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated April 30, 2001)

“The first Mitsuharu Misawa defense of the GHC title will be 5/18 in Sapporo against Akira Taue. The match was set up on the 4/26 Korakuen Hall show where Misawa & Akitoshi Saito & Yoshinari Ogawa beat Taue & Jun Akiyama & Jun Izumida. After the match, Taue laid out both Misawa and Akiyama, the two biggest stars of the company, with nodowas (a sumo move similar to a choke slam). They are also doing a history storyline in that it is almost exactly five years (May 24, 1996) of Taue’s Triple Crown title win over Misawa, which was also in Sapporo.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated May 7, 2001)

GHC Heavyweight Title Match
Mitsuharu Misawa © vs. Akira Taue
Navigation With Breeze 2001 Day 5
May 18, 2001 – Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan

After a struggle for either to gain an advantage, Taue gains control thanks to a German Suplex, dumping Misawa on his head. I certainly wouldn’t have picked this match to do any head drops. In another bump I’d have opted not to do, Misawa eats a chokeslam off the apron ramp onto a table. I guess they just had to find an easy way to get heat early.

Misawa tries unsuccessfully to block a Double Overhook Suplex. I appreciate Taue’s crossface during a follow-up headlock, as it avoids looking like a rest hold. Misawa has a hope spot, turning a Powerbomb into a Hurricanrana, only to get immediately cut off with a one-man Hart Attack for a near-fall. Taue cuts off Misawa again on a backspring elbow attempt, dumping the champion outside afterward.

Misawa/s time outside allows him to make a comeback, but he embarrasses himself on the comeback, not getting the height needed on a Slingshot Elbow attempt to Taue still bumps for. Another compelling piece of evidence on why the title should’ve been crowned on Jun Akiyama.

Misawa missed a Top Rope Splash, allowing Taue to actually hit the Powerbomb this time. After the champ intelligently rolls outside, Taue goes for a chokeslam on the apron, but that’s blocked multiple times. That’s a nice tease which is paid off almost immediately as Taue delivers two chokeslams in the ring for another near-fall.

After some boots from Taue, Misawa blocks another chokeslam attempt and makes a comeback finally, including a roundhouse kick and Elbow Suicida. He also makes up for the botch earlier, gracefully hitting a Slingshot Elbow Strike to the outside on Taue. They get a good pop on a Tiger Driver near-fall and an even better one when Taue hits a Backdrop Uranage. The good atmosphere continues when Taue’s running boot is a near-fall. Unfortunately, he keeps running to the well too many times as Misawa has the chokeslam counted, and after a second Tiger Driver is blocked, the champ hits an Island Driver.

Misawa is too exhausted to go for the pin. A running elbow strike makes for another near-fall, followed by a second Island Driver for the finish. Good finish to what wasn’t even close to being a major match, as Misawa keeps willing himself to try carrying his own company. Rating: ***1/2

Gap-filling time before the next gem.

“Jun Akiyama did an interview that has caused a lot of controversy, basically wanting to do fresh match-ups. He said he’d like a singles match with Genichiro Tenryu for the Triple Crown (All Japan and NOAH have had a huge rivalry since the split) and a match with Yuji Nagata, which people have been wanting to see ever since they did the tag match on the first Zero-One PPV on 3/2. He said he’s not motivated against NOAH with the lack of opponents since his main rival, Kenta Kobashi, is out after about a half-dozen knee and elbow operations.

Misawa and Vader will be scouting new talent in the U.S. at the end of the month, after this tour concludes. In particular, they are looking for American junior heavyweights to bring in for a tournament to create their own junior heavyweight title

4/27 TV did a 3.0 rating but the 5/4 show did a 1.4.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated May 21, 2001)

Yeah, I’m totally shocked that Akiyama’s gotten bored with NOAH’s failure to build a hot top mix. Then again, I’ve already gotten used to these types of situations being worked angles or getting turned into worked angles. But he has every right to not be hungry with the company’s uninspired booking; it’s not his fault that Misawa the booker hitched so much of the wagon to Kobashi. This federation definitely needs some short-term special attractions before it becomes irrelevant a year into its existence.

At the very least, I’m ecstatic to see how the junior heavyweight division turns out. Misawa is clearly putting effort into it and I’ve high expectations for it considering it played a factor in the AJPW mass exodus, and the awesome matches I’ve reviewed so far involving Naomichi Marufuji from Zero-One.

“To show how rapid a rise Takashi Suguira is making, he was already working in the main event on the 5/20 house show in Kitami in a six-man tag after just five months in the business in a workrate based company. At this point in time, Suguira is a better and more charismatic worker than Kurt Angle, who he’s always compared with in Japan because both came from amateur, when he was five months in

The tour ends on 5/24 at Yokohama Bunka Gym with a weak main event for an arena that usually gets strong match-ups, with Jun Akiyama vs. Takeshi Morishima in Morishima’s highest profile match to date

Harley Race is going to propose to NOAH at the scheduled meeting after the tour with Misawa and Vader that he book some of his best workers to NOAH and become their American booking agent, and that he also train some of Misawa’s younger wrestlers in American style working. Samurai! TV is also coming to the meeting

5/11 TV show did a poor 1.1 rating, although airing on Friday night at 2:45 a.m. isn’t exactly prime time to do any sort of number, but that is the regular slot.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated May 28, 2001)

I look at that Akiyama vs. Morishima booking and just can’t figure out why Akiyama doesn’t feel creatively stimulated right now. If that’s not a scintillating main event for 2001, then what is?

Seriously, why exactly didn’t Misawa at least have himself and Akiyama programmed at the top for the title at this point? Would it have been so difficult to do that while grooming some fresher challengers for a handful of months to eventually challenge Akiyama? Misawa’s booking is incredibly grating and counterproductive at this point.

“Tour ended with a reported 4,100 at the Yokohama Bunka Gym on 5/25. This was a case where they had a semi-big show and no idea of a line-up, as they went with Jun Akiyama over Takeshi Morishima in 17:34 with the guillotine choke as the main event. Just the fact they used Morishima as a single in the main event shows just how little they have ready.

5/18 TV show did a poor 1.3 rating.

The next tour starts on 6/9 and will include a tournament to crown a new junior heavyweight champion. The idea is they want 12 wrestlers in the tournament, six of whom would be regular NOAH natives and three of whom would be Japanese wrestlers from other groups, so they are looking at booking three top indie juniors from the U.S. when Mitsuharu Misawa and Vader scout wrestlers this week.

The July tour will be 7/14 to 7/27, ending with the company’s first show ever at the old home of All Japan Pro Wrestling, Budokan Hall for what is being billed as their first anniversary show (company started up late August)” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated June 4, 2001)

I’m definitely enthusiastic about those last two paragraphs. I expect this to be the best juniors division since WCW’s cruiserweight division of 1996-98. And for all the flaws this federation is facing (many of its own doing), I’m having faith (perhaps misplaced) that the anniversary event will deliver something memorable.

“Kenta Kobashi was cleared to start training this week. I believe he’s had six operations over the past 18 months on one of his knees so this comeback is scary as hell, but you know he’s going to return. He’s going to feel pressure that the company needs him because Vader and Mitsuharu Misawa are getting up in years and Jun Akiyama has no program to work that anyone will care about, which is the main reason everyone is pushing for the Yuji Nagata angle” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated June 11, 2001)

“They had a big news story on the first show, which was 6/9 at Differ Ariake before a sellout of 1,800, as Jun Akiyama was pinned in a tag match in the main event by Takeshi Rikio. It was Rikio & Takeshi Morishima over Akiyama & Akitoshi Saito when Takao Omori interfered and gave Akiyama his axe bomber (lariat) and Rikio then power bombed and pinned Akiyama. Rikio has been getting a push ever since he did such a great job in the main event of the Zero-One PPV in April. After the match, Rikio & Morishima then attacked Omori. Misawa pinned Too Cold Scorpio with the running elbow in only 2:57 in the semi

The GHC jr. heavyweight title will be decided in a tournament on the current tour which ends 6/24 in Nagoya, with Tsuyoshi Kikuchi, Satoru Asako, Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Makoto Hashi, Naomichi Marufuji (who should be promoted as the star of the division), Kenta Kobayashi, Masashi Aoyagi (can’t believe they’re throwing him in) and five foreigners that Mitsuharu Misawa picked from the various try-outs this week, B.J. Whitmer of Les Thatcher’s Heartland Wrestling, Matt Murphy of Harley Race’s World League Wrestling, and Jardi Frantz of Roland Alexander’s All Pro Wrestling as well as Juventud Guerrera and AAA’s Path Finder. The guys who were picked weren’t necessarily the best guys from the try-outs, as some guys who were impressive they kept out of the tournament so they wouldn’t have to beat them right away

However, Murphy, Frantz, Path Finder and Whitmer all got bad reviews in their early matches. There is already a lot of heat in the media on Misawa for bringing in guys so green for a major league group. Guerrera, on the other hand, has gotten good to great reviews

Misawa held another try-out on 6/4 in Hayward, CA at the All Pro Wrestling Gym for Michael Modest, Donovan Morgan, Christopher Daniels, Maxx Justice, Mark Smith, Vinny Massaro, Frantz, Vic Capri, Kevin Quinn and Tony Jones. Modest, Morgan and Smith are believed to have the best shot at going in the future” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated June 18, 2001)

“Akiyama issued a singles challenge to Muto at the 6/15 show and Misawa talked about sending Kanemaru & Marufuji to challenge the New Japan top jr. heavyweights

Kenta Kobayashi suffered a broken foot on 6/9, which was blamed on the lack of experience of Path Finder, and will be out for the rest of the tour” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated June 25, 2001)

Well that puts a mild damper on the GHC Jr. Title tournament right there.

Jun Akiyama & Akitoshi Saito vs. Takashi Sugiura & Takao Omori
NOAH Navigation to the Bright Destination Day 5
June 16, 2001 – Sendai, Miyagi, Japan

At the crowd’s request, Omori decides to start against Akiyama. I’m glad to see these fans be this reactive to a match right as it’s starting. Omori holds onto a headlock as the match has a commercial break on this TWC feed.

Back from commercial break, Omori has a sleeper on Akiyama, but gets cut off thanks to a Saito Suplex, allowing Akiyama to tag in Saito. When Sugiura gets tagged in, he looks like a complete natural for this business, head-and-shoulders against others with an equal amount of experience.

Eventually, Sugiura has to play the Ricky Morton role, as the more experienced Akiyama & Saito cut the ring in half on the rookie. Omori foolishly thinks by talking to the ref, it’ll help his partner’s cause. He should abundantly know better.

After several minutes, Sugiura shows a really good comeback attempt in the opposing corner, only for an Akiyama knee to the gut to cut him off, leading to a Northern Lights Suplex near-fall. However, Sugiura ducks a knee and hits a spear, leading him to make the hot tag to Omori. He won’t be stopped, not even by an Exploder Suplex, instead having enough adrenaline to quickly know down Akiyama too with a lariat.

Akiyama dropkicks Omori’s knee so he can tag in Saito. After ducking a Spinning Wheel Kick from Saito, Omori hits one of his own and then tags Sugiura back in. The former amateur wrestler rag-dolls Saito, even impressively lifting his much heavier opponent into a rack submission that draws in Akiyama to make the save.

Omori immediately cuts off Akiyama and dumps him outside, allowing him and Sugiura to double-team Saito. Sugiura continues to impress with a Bridging German Suplex on Saito for a near-fall. Akiyama breaks that so Omori takes him outside, only to get Irish Whipped into a guard rail. Saito socks Sugiura in the midsection and hits a knee strike to the face; a follow-up Uranage is a near-fall for Sugiura as Akiyama keeps Omori out. But once Saito hit the Death Brand and Omori couldn’t make the save, that was it.

That was a very good tag match, although it lacked the drama I was hoping for. Then again, considering how inexperienced Sugiura was at the time and that nothing was on the line in this match, I couldn’t have asked for much more. Rating: ***3/4

I can only find the final for the GHC Jr. Heavyweight Title tournament, unfortunately, as Juventud Guerrera eliminated Naomichi Marufuji in what was said to be a great semifinal.

GHC Jr. Heavyweight Title Tournament Final
Yoshinobu Kanemaru vs. Juventud Guerrera
Navigation to the Bright Destination Day 10
June 24, 2001 – Nagoya, Aichi, Japan

Juvi arrives with a championship belt that Cagematch doesn’t clarify and also tapes some photos to one of the ring posts during the pre-match. He gets annoyed early, saying “fuck you” and delivering a hard chop to Kanemaru. He continues dominating, dragging Kanemaru onto the apron ramp with a head-scissors, then slamming down on the rap with his own version of a Bulldog.

After a little more dominance from Juvi, Kanemaru gains control by head-scissoring him on the outside and then stomping him on top of the guard rail. He continues focusing on Juvi’s head, shoulders, and upper torso, likely setting him for some Brainbusters. But outside, Juvi cuts him off but it doesn’t last long, as Kanemaru eventually gets him in a Boston Crab, bringing back lapsed memories of Juvi’s history with Chris Jericho.

Juvi gets a great cut off, blocking a head scissors and dumping Kanemaru face-first, then pancaking him face-first and then hitting a Rock Bottom for some near-falls. After some Jackknife Pin teases, Kanemaru scouts the Rock Bottom again, but his Powerbomb is turned into a Standing X-Factor by Juvi. The former WCW Cruiserweight Champion hits a gorgeous Powerbomb of his own, only to get crotched up top when going for the 450 Splash and then eats a Split Legged Moonsault.

Juvi evades Kanemaru’s Standard Moonsault and eats a low blow, which the ref surprisingly doesn’t disquality Kanemaru for. Juvi shows his experience from the Jericho history, catching Kanemaru on a Quebrada attempt and delivering a Michinoku Driver for a near-fall, then moments later hits a Sky High and goes for the People’s Elbow, which is missed. Juvi still manages to catch Kanemaru again to deliver a Seated Powerbomb for a hot near-fall. While this is good, it’s missing so many little things to take this into classic territory. There’s no struggle or ferocious chain sequences, nothing to fire the crowd up emotionally either.

They take the action to the apron ramp, with Juvi forcing Kanemaru inside due to a Spinning Head-Scissors. Kanemaru dropkicks Juvi coming down and takes him up top. In the clear highlight that I wasn’t expecting, Kanemaru got out of the way for the 450 Splash, but in a shockingly fantastic display of psychology, Juvi safely landed seating-style on the top rope and bounced off it. However, it backfired as Kanemaru took him down with a Brainbuster. Kanemaru took too long to go for the cover, almost going down to a sudden Small Package and Jackknife Pin.

Kanemaru lifts Juvi underneath, giving him an inverted X-Factor and follow-up Brainbuster, plus a Top Rope Moonsault. That’s enough to become the inaugural GHC Jr. Heavyweight Champion. Good stuff but as mentioned, missing the little things to make this a classic. Rating: ***1/2

“Yuji Nagata will be at ringside for the Mitsuharu Misawa vs. Jun Akiyama GHC title match on 7/27 at Budokan Hall as has been expected.

The plan for now is to create GHC tag team champions in an October tournament” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated July 16, 2001)

“Kenta Kobayashi returned from an injury on 7/18 with a new ring name, to avoid the obvious confusion since his name is so similar to the company’s second biggest star. So to avoid the confusion, his new name is simply KENTA. Sometimes I get headaches

The biggest show of the week was 7/22 in Hiroshima before 3,600 with Misawa & Takuma Sano over Jun Akiyama & Akitoshi Saito when Misawa pinned Akiyama in 9:26 with the emerald frosien. Based on the usual Japanese booking patterns, when the challenger gets pinned by the champion before the biggest match of the year in a tag (which is the opposite of what would make sense to heighten interest in the singles match), one would suspect title change coming with Akiyama taking the GHC title on 7/27

Shinya Hashimoto is supposed to attend the 7/27 Budokan Hall show to perhaps reopen a working agreement with this group and Zero-One. Jun Akiyama announced that he wanted the main event on that show, where he challenges Mitsuharu Misawa for the GHC belt, to be pinfalls only, with no submissions (strange from a storyline deal since Akiyama’s front guillotine is his main finisher) or referee stoppage. He said it’s better for the fans, but to me, any elimination of an element takes an element away from working, particularly when fans expect a classic match going in and won’t be happy with less” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated July 30, 2001)




GHC Heavyweight Title Match
Mitsuharu Misawa © vs. Jun Akiyama
Accomplish Our First Navigation Day 9
July 27, 2001 – Tokyo, Japan

Akiyama is accompanied by Yuji Nagata, whose presence definitely brings extra spark to this title match as he sits ringside dressed in business attire. Kenta Kobashi is also a guest commentator to give this even more of a boost.

Misawa shows his championship experience early when he forces Akiyama outside and cockily teases a suicide dive. Once Akiyama gets control, he targets Misawa’s left arm only to be cut off by right elbows from the champ. He cuts off Akiyama again with more of those grump right elbows; those are still always good for popping the crowd even with him obviously past his prime.

Akiyama dropkicks Misawa off the corner to the outside to get control, then drives Misawa’s face into the guard rail like he’d done in the past to Kobashi. I don’t care for them making a near-fall this early on a sloppily delivered Cradle Tombstone Piledriver, and it rightfully didn’t get much reaction. Akiyama applies a head-scissors submission and the control he shows here seems to telegraph this will finally be a much-needed changing of the guard, even as Misawa makes a comeback with those grumpy, crowd-popping elbows.

Misawa’s elbow strikes really are the stuff of legend, and Akiyama’s teased comeback cut off is great stuff too. He also has a great facial expression while applying a Kneeling Abdominal Stretch. When Akiyama teases a Powerbomb counter, Misawa gives him a Hurricanrana and follows up with his trademark Elbow Suicida.

Akiyama blocks a Tiger Driver once back in the ring, and finally scouts Misawa’s running elbow, turning it into a Crippler Crossface for a nice submission tease. There’s an extended ramp that Akiyama delivers a DDT to Misawa on, and they tease Akiyama dumping him on the floor with an Exploder and then a German Suplex. Akiyama swats him down and finally delivers an Exploder on the floor.

They take too long to get back in, which allows Misawa to kick out after a knee strike to the back and another Exploder. They have a struggle that results in Misawa delivering a Super Inverted Tiger Driver to a huge pop, but he doesn’t have enough to go for an immediate pin. Akiyama blocks a standard Tiger Driver, only to get strikes from both of Misawa’s elbows for a near-fall as the crowdis buzzing.

Misawa hits the standard Tiger Driver for a near-fall, but I’m not convinced Akiyama is being denied here. He evades the Island Driver, hitting two Exploders on Misawa but he doesn’t have enough to go for the pin this time. Akiyama blocks a running elbow strike, delivering a Brainbuster for a near-fall and then applies a Front Guillotine Choke, not allowing a rope break. Akiyama foolishly lets go, figuring Misawa is done, but the pin-fall becomes a rope break.

Misawa still won’t be dethroned after a high angle Exploder, requiring a second one for Akiyama to finally get the job done and reach his rightful spot on top. This is a decision that should’ve taken place three months ago in the tournament final, and hopefully now this main event scene gets some renewed energy from healthier talent.

Now it’s time to see if Akiyama can carry the wagon as expected, and the crowd is behind him as Nagata respectfully applauds before leaving. Akiyama poses with the junior champion Yoshinobu Kanemaru, both of them showing off their titles. Akiyama also offers a handshake to Kobashi, which is accepted. I’d have much preferred they teased a program for 2002 there.

As for the match, it was very good and had great crowd heat at the end, but Misawa was just too broken down for this to be a classic. There’s not much more to say than that after all the paragraphs I’ve written about this federation’s booking. Rating: ***3/4


With the correct champion now crowned and Akiyama now obviously programmed with Nagata, can NOAH make some improvements entering its second year of existence? Find out in Part 2!