“It used to be better.” – The Lapsed Fan Pro Wrestling Podcast
El Samurai & Minoru Tanaka vs. AKIRA & Koji Kanemoto
This is my intro to all but Kanemoto, which my only experience watching him being against Alex Wright at WCW Starrcade 1995.
Tanaka wants to start with Kanemoto, and it’s obliged. He gets dumped out for his trouble, eating a suicide dive from AKIRA as Samurai inserts himself and gets his mask targeted and then dumped out for his trouble too.
Once AKIRA is tagged on, he targets Tanaka’s left knee. He and Kanemoto don’t let up, just keeping Tanaka grounded and in their corner. Samura eventually comes to make the save, only for Tanaka to accidentally strike him, but then he eats a missile dropkick from his partner too. Kanemoto applies a picture-perfect ankle lock submission on Tanaka too.
Kanemoto avoids Samurai’s suicide dive, causing Tanaka to eat instead to continue cutting the ring in half on him. Tanaka finally cuts off Kanemoto with a basement dropkick to make the tag. Samurai’s house of fire is good, but he gets surprised when a Super Hurricanrana is turned into a Sunset Flip near-fall. This lets Kanemoto hit a Tiger Suplex, but that’s broken up by Tanaka.
AKIRA gets tagged in to control Samurai and goes low to maintain it, but doesn’t get full damage, as Samurai puts him down an Inverted DDT and diving headbutt for a near-fall. Tanaka looks amazing upon being tagged in, reminding me of AJ Styles with his rope-running and explosive dropkick. That’s not enough to maintain control as he eats an Enzuigiri, Falcon Arrow, and Super Splash for a near-fall. Tanaka should be pretty much done there as he applies a Cross Arm-Breaker to AKIRA for a submission tease.
Tanaka outsmarts the default heels, almost putting AKIRA down with a schoolboy pin. Instead, he surprises with a backslide for the victory, only for Kanemoto to kick the shit out of him immediately. The segment doesn’t conclude as audio also gets muted.
Good match and consider me a fan of all four men. Perhaps I’ll better appreciate them should the day ever come that I visit the 1980s and 1990s for puroresu. Rating: ***
Gedo, Jado, & Dick Togo vs. Great Sasuke, Jushin Liger, & Tiger Mask IV
I’ve only seen Togo thanks to Barely Legal and Sasuke thanks to that same match, plus Canadian Stampede and his classic 1994 Best of the Super Juniors final against Chris Benoit featured on the Hard Knocks biographical compilation, while I’m casually familiar with Liger. The rest are all new to me.
The masked team pops the crowd earlier with stereo slingshot dives to the outside. Sasuke also pulls out an Asai Moonsault on Gedo for another crowd pop. But the story begins when Tiger Mask cuts off Togo by dropkicking his left knee, which the masked team targets. I never knew until this match that I needed to see Dick Togo vs. Jushin Liger.
Togo manages to quickly weather that storm, with Tiger Mask eating a 3D from Gedo and Jado. Togo unlaces his mask, causing Liger to wanna come and distract the referee. Liger should be much smarter than that at this point in his career.
The unmasked team proceeds to dominate Tiger Mask, and while all of it is mechanically fine, the perfect facial expressions and all that, this is ultimately just an undercard trios match, so it wasn’t gonna reach any emotional strength of note. The crowd is here for Liger, popping for him as he’s a house of fire after getting tagged in.
Togo evades Sasuke’s Standing Swanton, causing him to take a bump on the apron ramp. I can’t believe that Sasuke takes a head-drop on the same platform right after that with a German Suplex. I’m sure that was worth it for this match. Thankfully, Sasuke finds himself in the Ricky Morton role after that, eating a Triple Powerbomb from the corner and then a Crippler Crossface from Jado as Liger and Tiger Mask are momentarily kept at bay before the save.
Sasuke has enough to cut Jado off with a Somersault Back Elbow and make the tag to Tiger Mask. I loved Tiger Mask’s Standing Moonsault Kneedrop to Jado, as I don’t see that very often. He then tops himself by hitting a Standing Moonsault that landed on Gedo’s head like a kick. Tiger Mask gets a good pop on a Bridged Tiger Suplex near-fall, then tags in Liger for a Liger Bomb near-fall.
The match breaks down until Gedo dropkicks Liger’s left knee and rolls him for a near-fall. Liger’s strikes are too much for Gedo, and once the Brainbuster is hit, that’s it. No post-match music or segment. Good stuff but nothing memorable, making Sasuke’s head drop highly questionable. Rating: ***1/4
Hiroshi Hase & Keiji Mutoh vs. Osamu Nishimura & Tatsumi Fujinami
Hase and Nishimura start off with good stuff on the mat, but Mutoh is the star here just like Liger earlier, the crowd popping when he got tagged in early. Each matchup continues to just stay on the ground for several minutes until Mutoh hits a People’s Elbow on Nishimura.
Nishimura finds his leg getting targeted, with Hase using his own partner’s Mutoh Lock. Nishimura reverses an Abdominal Stretch variation, making the tag to Fujinami, who targets Hase’s right leg. Everything about this match is mechanically on-point, but it’s not sprinkling any brief spurts of drama to keep this engaging.
Hase gets a substantial pop finally when he hits a Russian Leg Sweep and signals for the Giant Swing on Fujinami, and they’re counting along the way. That’s definitely something Cesaro can sometimes relate to.
Mutoh relentlessly targets Nishimura’s right leg once they’re tagged in, while finding his own left leg gets targeted. Another abdominal stretch is applied by Mutoh, but when the ref gets distracted, Fujinami catches him with a Shining Wizard to pop the crowd. Once again, they can’t sustain any of the crowd’s energy, not even when throwing bombs to indicate the match was in its finishing stretch.
Hase hitting a Northern Lights Suplex on Fujinami, being in place for Mutoh to jump off of him to hit Nishimura with a Shining Wizard, was a nice piece of creativity and earned its crowd pop. as did another Shining Wizard to finish off Nishimura. Thank goodness this is finally over.
I’m not educated enough to have any substantial opinion on Nishimura or a Hall of Famer like Fujinami. But just three months earlier in this stadium, Hase & Mutoh rocked the house against Jun Akiyama & Yuji Nagata. This was a huge downgrade that did very little engaging work.
If you’re a fan of abdominal stretches, this is the match for you. Otherwise, find a better use of your time.
I’m so ready for the main event to wake me back up after what I just sat through.
GHC Heavyweight Title Match
Jun Akiyama © vs. Yuji Nagata
Musical entrances and pre-match video aren’t shown on NJPW World, but are on the embedded Dailymotion upload.
Joe Higuchi is present for the proper championship introduction. This is exactly the kind of majesty the title has needed. This entire presentation is EXACTLY what the title has needed. It’s the Tokyo Dome, it’s the big production with lasers and fireworks, the ring announcer with his spiffy outfit. Everything about this finally lives up to the majestic big match electricity of Akiyama’s rematch against Kenta Kobashi at Great Voyage 2000.
Akiyama doesn’t want a clean break early, leading to ferocious kicks from Nagata that force him to retreat outside. Minutes later they have another heated exchange, eventually trading Exploders and Akiyama coming out the better end of it with a follow-up Shining Wizard.
Nagata surprises Akiyama with a Front Headlock, refusing to break clean for several seconds after Akiyama’s antics at the beginning. Akiyama eats a couple Piledrivers, and as much as I appreciate the Japanese commentary (even without knowing the language), this is when I wish Jim Ross was calling the match to really sell that. Akiyama though makes a comeback moments later, eventually cutting off Nagata with a DDT on the apron ramp; I wonder if that inspired a similar move in another big world title match a year later at Royal Rumble 2003.
Akiyama follows that up with a Tombstone Piledriver on the padded floor, then hits a standard one inside, but not before looking at each part of the crowd while holding Nagata in position. Nagata eventually blocks Akiyama and teases a comeback with an Overhead Suplex, only to find himself down on the mat thanks to a modified Crippler Crossface for a false finish.
Akiyama goes up top and that’s when Nagata finally cuts him off effectively, kicking him in the gut on the way down, dropping him with a lifting DDT and going for his own modified Crippler Crossface. They have a slap exchange after that and Akiyama cuts off Nagata to deliver a Brainbuster for a really good near-fall. He then goes for the Guillotine Choke for another hot near-fall attempt.
Nagata scouts an Exploder, cutting off Akiyama with a kick to the head for a great near-fall and getting the champion in a Cross Arm-Breaker before reaching the ropes. Nagata hits an Enzuigiri and Bridged Backdrop Suplex for another great near-fall, the crowd totally buying into a possible title change there.
Akiyama scouts the Enzuigiri and takes a page out of Mitsuharu Misawa’s book, dropping the challenger with an Island Driver that has both men down. Akiyama hits a high angle Exploder for another great near-fall, then finishes him with the Wrist Clutch version.
Post-match, they slap each other out of respect and shake hands before the video cuts off.
Really good match that had the various Piledrivers been sold a bit more, could’ve been a classic. Even with that said, the match still delivered for NJPW in a jam and on its grandest stage to date. This is the kind of win Akiyama has needed since dethroning Misawa too. Rating: ***3/4
This was a nice palette-cleanser from NOAH, supplying the majesty not yet seen in that federation.
How did the show do for business? Were there any indications of this being the dark ages? What were the plans for crowning a new world champion? Dirtsheet time!
“With its popularity at its lowest level and coming just a few days after a far more publicized show, what had been the Japanese version of Wrestlemania had several question marks coming in.
To a degree they were answered positively with what most were considering a good turnout and a very good show for “Wrestling World 2002” on 1/4 at the Tokyo Dome. But the TV ratings told a different story.
Just days after his quick knockout loss to Mirko Cro Cop, Yuji Nagata was set to headline by representing New Japan against Pro Wrestling NOAH’s Jun Akiyama in their first ever singles match for the latters’ GHC title. It was also the first time either man headlined a Dome show as a single. Unlike with Kendo Ka Shin, who couldn’t get heat with a blow torch after losing in Pride to Ryan Gracie (and became a bigger star than ever when he avenged that loss), the crowd was behind Nagata as much as ever as the two had what was reported as an excellent main event match before 51,500 fans. The bad news came a few days later when the television version of the show airing in prime time from 7 to 9 p.m. drew only an 8.2 rating. Those who favor old-style great wrestling over the shoot style direction got knocked for a loop when once again the highest rated match was the Naoya Ogawa vs. Kensuke Sasaki match, which did a 13.2. Last year the show aired after midnight and still did a 9.3 rating, but had the big hook of the IWGP heavyweight title tournament with Toshiaki Kawada plus the return after several years of Riki Choshu, which led to TV-Asahi broadcasting the rest of the Dome shows in prime time.
This year’s line-up didn’t have general public appeal as it was a line-up of good matches, but nothing stronger than you would expect for a major arena show aside from the main event, let alone the biggest show of the year. Akiyama retained the title with two offshoots of his favorite exploder, likely setting up a rematch later this year. The bad news coming out of the match was that Akiyama suffered a dislocation of the AC joint (shoulder) and actually it was recommended he be out of action for a few months. However, after missing his bookings on the first two NOAH shows of the year the next two days, he is scheduled to return on 1/9. Kendo Ka Shin also tore ligaments in his left knee in his match against Pride’s Daijiro Matsui, and will miss the first few shows of the next tour, but is scheduled to be back in action on 2/1 when they run a big show in Sapporo.
Although it was actually the smallest announced crowd ever for New Japan at the Tokyo Dome, live reports indicate that unlike most of the Dome shows of late, the crowd announced was accurate looking. In reality, it was the biggest crowd they had put in the building since selling it out last year on 1/4. Still, it was only the second of the 11 annual shows starting off the year at the Dome not to sellout and was the smallest Dome crowd ever on the traditional day. The only other time they failed to sellout the Dome on 1/4 was in 1994, when this was hardly the tradition it is now, but in other years they didn’t have another huge show that got so much mainstream attention in the same area four days earlier.
It was announced the next Tokyo Dome show will be on 5/2, which will be the company’s 30th anniversary show. The idea is to bring back legends from the past for the show including attempting to get Inoki, Hulk Hogan and Seiji Sakaguchi to wrestle. Kazuyuki Fujita is also scheduled to return from his achilles tendon surgery, ahead of the recommended recovery time, on this show.
Kensuke Sasaki no contest Naoya Ogawa in 4:02. Match was quick and super heated. Sasaki attacked Ogawa at the bell, took him down and was punching him from the mount. The finish saw Murakami run in and knocked Sasaki off and Nakanishi then ran in to attack Murakami. Four refs hit the ring as did a bunch of wrestlers. The place was cleaned out and Sasaki and Ogawa exchanged punches outside the ring when Murakami pulled Ogawa off and took him to the back. Sasaki challenged him to come back out, and when he didn’t, fans went crazy and started throwing bottles. Sasaki then sprinted to the back as if he was going backstage to get Ogawa. That only got the fans more upset. Remember when WCW would get this reaction and think they were doing good? Thankfully, everyone recognized here that wasn’t the case. Fans started chanting for a finish.
The IWGP heavyweight title will be decided in a seven-man tournament in February. They will have three first round matches on 2/1 in Sapporo, which are Tadao Yasuda vs. Giant Silva (somebody has got a perverse sense of humor–actually I figure they’ll make Yasuda into a giant killer by beating Silva), Manabu Nakanishi vs. Yuji Nagata and Kensuke Sasaki vs. Rick Steiner. The semifinals and finals will be on 2/16 at Tokyo Sumo Hall for the first PPV show of the year. Masahiro Chono (first round bye, like they just couldn’t have put Muto in as the eighth guy since the tournament on paper is already so weak with only Nagata as the only good wrestler in the whole bunch and put the match on another night since Muto was booked in a main event on the opening night of the tourney) faces the Yasuda-Silva winner (Chono vs. Yasuda or Silva, who books this stuff?), Nakanishi-Nagata winner vs. Steiner-Sasaki winner).” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated January 14, 2002)
“To show the mainstream appeal of Naoya Ogawa, despite being in the match that nearly ruined the show, the entire first two pages of Tokyo Sports on 1/6 featured text and photo coverage of the Ogawa-Kensuke Sasaki match. Akiyama-Nagata also got full page treatment on page 3. The first five pages were all Tokyo Dome coverage, partially because there were no other major sporting events going on. The big photo everyone was looking for which is why they did the match, of Manabu Nakanishi racking Giant Silva, was played big on page five
Kensuke Sasaki on national radio on 1/12 said he wanted a no rules match with Naoya Ogawa stemming from their Tokyo Dome match. Are they looking for a full scale riot when they do a screw job finish again” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated January 21, 2002)
“New Japan Pro Wrestling was thrown into absolute chaos this past week, leaving the balance of power in Japanese wrestling in question when 2001 Wrestler of the Year [and reigning AJPW Triple Crown Champion] Keiji Muto, IWGP junior heavyweight champion Tokimitsu Ishizawa (Kendo Ka Shin) and Satoshi Kojima all gave their notice and, along with five other front office employees, will be headed to attempt to rise All Japan Pro Wrestling from near ashes.
The moves, details of which are still sketchy, have resulted in rumors flying and made up newspaper tabloid stories throughout Japan. This leaves all business relations between All Japan and New Japan dead. New Japan immediately attempted to forge a stronger working relationship with Pro Wrestling NOAH. In addition, there is a significant power struggle going on in New Japan which will likely shake out over the next week when Antonio Inoki returns from Los Angeles at the end of the week.
It is strongly rumored that, because of losing three key pieces of talent and the disappointing ratings of the 1/4 Tokyo Dome show, that President Tatsumi Fujinami’s days in power may be dwindling. Seiji Sakaguchi, the long-time President before Fujinami, had already been planning on retiring from the company later this year. There is talk that Inoki may take over the Presidency of the company for the first time since the scandals that took him out of the position in 1983. Inoki may also appoint Tetsuo Baisho, his former brother-in-law, who is his eyes and ears in the office, so to speak, to the position. There is an outside chance Masahiro Chono will be able to maneuver into power. When the ratings for that show came out, Inoki immediately pointed out to the press that he himself was able to put together a show on a far worse night, New Years Eve, against the toughest competition possible, and drew a 14.9 rating, while the people in charge of New Japan only drew an 8.2 for what has a lengthy history for being the traditional biggest pro wrestling show of the year in Japan…
It is believed they also recruited Hiroshi Tanahashi, 25, who most believe has the most potential of all the younger wrestlers in New Japan, but Tanahashi decided against going with them…
New Japan immediately hooked up with Mitsuharu Misawa, to work with NOAH instead of All Japan on a stronger basis. Jushin Liger and Minoru Tanaka did a run-in on the 1/20 NOAH show at Korakuen Hall, challenging GHC jr. heavyweight champ Naomichi Marufuji. There is strong talk of sending Nagata to work NOAH’s big show on 2/17 at Budokan Hall, with Nagata talking about wanting to be in the tag match against Kenta Kobashi in Kobashi’s return. It is believed a Liger vs. Marufuji showdown for the GHC jr. title would occur at a NOAH major show this year, possibly on 4/7 at the Ariake Coliseum.
The staff members on 1/16 who gave notice were a member of the accounting department and the rest were involved in new merchandising businesses for New Japan involving videotape, the official magazine, computers and internet when it came to graphic designing, all of whom will attempt to start up similar businesses within All Japan. All of those who left were said to have been close to Muto. The rest of the staff was then called in for an emergency meeting on 1/17 and everyone was asked if they had been contacted by anyone representing Muto.
Half of the wrestlers in New Japan thought it was an angle until that day, because of the office workers leaving. What convinced virtually all of them over the weekend that it wasn’t is they saw a company notebook which had Muto, Ishizawa and Kojima’s name erased from it.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated January 28, 2002)
And with that fucking curveball, I’ll wrap up this bad boy with a recommended match from the Fighting Spirit 2002 triple-shot.
IWGP Heavyweight Title Tournament Quarterfinal Match
Yuji Nagata vs. Manabu Nakanishi
Fighting Spirit 2002 Day 1
February 1, 2002 – Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
Air date February 24, 2002
This is my intro to Nakanishi.
They start off with good mat work, Nakanishi focusing on Nagata’s left arm, to which Nagata returns the favor. Nakanishi opts to chop Nagata on a rope break, but the Tokyo Dome headliner maintains his composure to hit a T-Bone Suplex and return the favor of not breaking clean, leading to a strike exchange.
Nakanishi wins that strike exchange with another chop, then even more among other strikes. He goes for a low angle spear and lariat for near-falls, then lifts Nagata in Torture Rack position for one of his finishers. While Nagata breaks that, he gets tossed overhead with a couple suplexes, but blocks whatever Torture Rack plan Nakanishi has before eating a backbreaker.
Nakanishi puts Nagata in the Torture Rack position, eventually delivering a Gut-Buster for a good near-fall. Nagata scouts more overhead suplexes, applying a Front Headlock, but still gets tossed overhead anyway before cutting Tanahashi with one of his overhead suplexes, then a knee to cut off a charging Nakanishi on a spear attempt.
Nakanishi blocks a Saito Suplex and lands a lariat for a good near-fall, but Nagata blocks his Torture Rack plans. Nakanishi is way too predictable as Nagata scouts his stuff, finishing off with Saito Suplex to advance in the tournament. Throw some selling of the left arm and this could have been really good. Rating: ***
Well, that closes out the 2002 portion that came before a certain honorable birth. This has been overall serviceable and while it’s far from the ideal starting point for the promotion that deems itself to be “The King of Sports,” it’s been incredibly beneficial for The Lapsed Navigation portion of this journey in ways I did and didn’t expect coming into this particular chapter.
When I chose Wrestling World 2002 to kick off The Lapsed Lion King of Sports, it was because it seemed like the most sensible introduction that took place prior to Ring of Honor’s birth. In the previous chapter of this journey, I was surprised to learn that The Lapsed Navigation had been building me up for the 2002 edition of the biggest event in puroresu all along thanks to Akiyama vs. Nagata headlining for the GHC Heavyweight Title as an emergency move.
Now I sit here even more stunned as I gradually learn about the history of NJPW starting from 2002. New Japan historians are not kidding whatsoever: these are indeed some dark fucking ages. But as someone ignorant to these times before kicking off this part of the journey, I would’ve never predicted just how truly disarrayed this company would become just weeks after its biggest event of the year.
Considering NJPW’s growth and consistent critical acclaim for nearly the past decade, it would take someone a lot of balls to make the statement that “it used to be better.” Perhaps when reflecting on the 1980s or especially the 1990s, a case could be made to prove such a statement true.
But right here, early 2002 New Japan? The thought makes me laugh. This era is fucking DIRE. So no, if using the time period captured in this retrospective review as evidence that New Japan “used to be better,” that is absolutely, unquestionably false.
I’m coming out of this even less excited for the next edition of The Lapsed Lion King of Sports, which will be a while since there’s really nothing worthy of my attention from the company for some time as the winter season turned into spring.
On the other hand, I am so fucking excited for the next chapter in this journey. While the flagship that is The Lapsed ROHbot inches even closer on this journey, there’s one last stop to make before the era of honor could begin on this timeline.
It’s the Pro Wrestling NOAH debuts of Liger and Nagata! But most exciting of all, it’s the return of motherfucking Kenta Kobashi!
Before signing off, one last piece of business. The charity spotlight is now being added to The Lapsed Lion King of Sports, but for this part of the journey, will focus on a very specific type of charity for now. Not every edition of the Lapsed Lion King of Sports will have a charity spotlight; for now, it’ll be for the major events and matches, and perhaps once this journey is past the dark ages, the charity spotlights could expand and become more frequent.
Since New Japan has spent its entire existence using lions for their branding, this is an opportunity to bring a spotlight to those who are making a genuine effort to support lions and other big cat species. Many if not all of them face threats of going extinct, plagued by human encroachment, poaching, bushmeat, habitat destruction, entertainment exploitation, canned/trophy hunting, charlatans posing as sanctuaries, misguided desires by our species for home companionship, and misguided views on human medicine.
Without further adieu, today’s charity spotlight:
The National Geographic Society’s Big Cat Initiative
Founded in 2009 by globally recognized, award-winning wildlife filmmakers and conservationists Dereck and Beverly Joubert and National Geographic, this collaborative initiative aims to protect big cat species and help them live in harmony with humans.
“Big cats worldwide are under threat—for many populations, local extinctions are imminent due to habitat loss, degradation, and conflicts with humans. The National Geographic Big Cats Initiative is partnering with some of the world’s leading big cat experts, funding on-the-ground research and innovative conservation projects to protect big cats and their critical habitats, while leading efforts to shine a light on the challenges these species face. Currently, the Big Cats Initiative has identified 20 lion populations in 18 countries in Africa as lion priority areas the project is focusing efforts towards.
The National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative supports scientists and conservationists working to save big cats in the wild. With your help, we’ve supported more than 153 innovative projects to protect big cat species in 28 countries and built more than 2,100 livestock enclosures to protect livestock, and save big cats from retaliatory killings. Together we’re helping big cats and communities thrive.”
See you soon for the early 2002 edition of The Lapsed Navigation.