“It used to be better.” – The Lapsed Fan Pro Wrestling Podcast
The big news to kick off 2002: in the main event of Wrestling World 2002, NJPW and puroresu in general’s biggest show of the year at the Tokyo Dome, Jun Akiyama successfully defended the GHC Heavyweight Title against Yuji Nagata. (For a review of the match, please visit the first-ever edition of The Lapsed Lion King of Sports)
But Pro Wrestling NOAH’s top championship headlining the grandest stage of ’em all is just the tip of the iceberg for an insanely newsworthy month in puroresu. This was one for the record books; time to dive in to all the interesting newsletter tidbits. Read the full archives of the Wrestling Observer at wrestlingobserver.com.
“Jushin Liger is expected to come in to work matches with Kanemaru and Naomichi Marufuji
KENTA is out with torn right knee ligaments. It’s that karma from having that name.
Shinjiro Otani challenged Jun Akiyama to a singles match on the Zero-One 3/2 PPV show” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated January 14, 2002)
“It is official that the originally planned Jun Akiyama vs. Kenta Kobashi main event on 2/17 at Tokyo Budokan Hall will be changed to a tag match because Kobashi won’t be nearly ready to work a singles match. His attempted comeback really worries me. Akiyama said he’d like to either team with Misawa against Kobashi and a partner, or team with Kobashi against Misawa and a partner on that show
They are doing a three-team tournament with Akira Taue & Jun Izumida, Tamon Honda & Masao Inoue and Takeshi Morishima & Takeshi Rikio this week, ending on 1/20 at Korakuen Hall, with the winners facing Yoshihiro Takayama & Takao Omori for the belts, possibly at the Budokan show or on a 2/10 show in Kobe. That’s an awfully weak tag title match for such a big show.” – 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 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
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…
[NOAH] did a fake turn angle on this tour with Mitsuharu Misawa and Yoshinari Ogawa. They had been teasing the turn until the 1/16 Osaka show, where Ogawa was about to shake hands with Jun Akiyama in a six-man tag main event of Misawa & Ogawa & Naomichi Marufuji vs. Akiyama & Akitoshi Saito & Yoshinobu Kanemaru. Instead, Ogawa turned on Akiyama and scored a clean pin on him with his cradle
They also had a match [on 1/20] with Double Takeshis (Rikio & Morishima) setting up a tag title match with No Fear (Yoshihiro Takayama & Takao Omori) next month winning the title shot match over Masao Inoue & Tamon Honda in 16:09 when Morishima pinned Inoue after a lariat
Vader likely will be returning on the March tour. After the [2/17] Budokan Hall show, which is the return of Kenta Kobashi, and has been sold out for some time, they will build for big shows on 4/6 in Nagoya at Aiichi Gym and 4/8 at the Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo. Kobashi left for Hawaii on 1/22 for his final training before his return.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated January 28, 2002)
“The 2/17 main event for Budokan Hall was officially announced as Mitsuharu Misawa & Kenta Kobashi vs. Jun Akiyama & Yuji Nagata. “Wow, if it was the Misawa & Kobashi of 1997 against the Nagata of 2001 and the Akiyama of 1999, what a match that would be. I’m sure it’ll still be pretty darn good. Building has been sold out for weeks just on the strength of Kobashi wrestling for the first time in a year after so many knee operations I’ve long since lost track, but far too many for him to be coming up. Rest of the card is Yoshihiro Takayama & Takao Omori defending the GHC tag titles against Takeshi Rikio & Takeshi Morishima, Naomichi Marufuji defending the GHC jr. title against Juventud Guerrera, Jushin Liger & Wataru Inoue vs. Tsuyoshi Kikuchi & Yoshinobu Kanemaru, Akira Taue & Tamon Honda & Masao Inoue vs. Akitoshi Saito & Kentaro Shiga & Makoto Hashi, Yoshinari Ogawa & Takuma Sano vs. Too Cold Scorpio & Richard Slinger, Michael Modest & Donovan Morgan vs. Takashi Suguira & Daisuke Ikeda, Rusher Kimura & Mitsuo Momota & Masashi Aoyagi vs. Haruka Eigen & Jun Izumida & Kishin Kawabata and KENTA & Yasuhiro Suzuki vs. Mohammed Yone & Terry Ray Gordy Jr
On paper, nearly every match looks good, but aside from New Japan vs. NOAH in the main event and the Liger match, nothing has a strong storyline going in. They are pushing the idea that Kobashi will be debuting a new power bomb like finisher called the “diamond head,” since he’s supposedly came up with it this week while training in Hawaii
For December, the house shows averaged 3,614 fans per show, a 20.1% increase over the 3,008 last year in December. The sellout percentage went up from 25% to 28.6%. The company averaged a 1.97 television rating. Last year they didn’t have television. Averages for November were 2,525 per show, 37.5% sellouts and a 1.50 average television rating” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated February 4, 2002)
“Pro Wrestling NOAH, which debuted in the summer of 2000, went from an average of a reported 2,316 fans per event to 2,403, a 3.8% increase. However, it was the opposite, as they ran more larger buildings this year, going from 68.6% sellouts in their first year to 41.3% this year. Part of that is also that in the first year, the first time in every city, they were a novelty and did well. The feeling was always during that first run that they would drop, but for all real purposes, they held steady. NOAH never had television until April of 2001, and averaged a 2.10 rating for the year.
Jun Akiyama said that if he were to get pinned by Kenta Kobashi in the 2/17 Budokan main event (Akiyama & Yuji Nagata vs. Kobashi & Mitsuharu Misawa) that he would vacate his GHC title. One would think the most logical political finish is Akiyama pinning Kobashi, since it makes sense that Kobashi from a sports standpoint shouldn’t be out of action for a year and be able to beat guys who have been working regularly, and it gives Kobashi a win to avenge. Can’t see Nagata involved in the finish at all
Kenta Kobashi announced he would start wrestling full-time after his 2/17 return, working every house show starting in March
They are going to do an angle where Kentaro Shiga leaves Jun Akiyama’s group and feuds with him, so Shiga may be moved to be Kobashi’s tag team partner
Rookie Yasuhiro Suzuki has had his name changed to Kotaro Suzuki” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated February 11, 2002)
The table-setting is now complete for one of the most historic shows in NOAH history, one that deserved a much grander stage than it got. Prepare for some shining examples of when #ItUsedToBeBetter.
Jushin Liger’s Pro Wrestling NOAH Debut Match
Jushin Liger & Wataru Inoue vs. Tsuyoshi Kikuchi & Yoshinobu Kanemaru
Navigate for Evolution 2002 Day 10
February 17, 2002 – Tokyo, Japan
This is heated before the entrances are even done, with Liger and Kikuchi throwing their apparel at Kanemaru as Kikuchi comes to the ring. This has a true electricity not seen in so long for this federation. They don’t even wait for the opening bell either, the action starting right as everyone got introduced by the ring announcer.
Inoue and Kikuchi no-sell outside briefly and the crowd reaction is just fantastic as LIger and Kanemaru probably deal with each other off-camera. Kikuchi finds his left leg being targeted, Kanemaru failing to come bail him out. The crowd continues firing up for Kikuchi’s comeback attempt but Liger steps in to prevent it, then shoves down the referee. I’ve never seen Liger this prickly before and I love it.
Kanemaru breaks a Boston Crab, only to lose a strike exchange with Inoue while Liger utilizes a terrifically arched Camel Clutch on Kikuchi. The ref appears to have not realized there was no legal tag for Liger to come in, but perhaps the tense situation makes that understandable. At least it settles back down to Inoue being legal before actual tags are made.
The crowd is fully behind Kikuchi as he makes a comeback and gets the hot tag on Kanemaru. His house of fire is outstanding and he still plays dirty as always too before getting cut off with a Coppo Kick and Powerbomb for a near-fall. The New Japan team continues dominating, with Liger dropping Kanemaru with another Powerbomb, this time on the padded floor. Even when Kikuchi comes for the save, Liger wins that battle.
Kanemaru’s left knee, eating a basement dropkick, Dragon Screw, and Figure Four Leg Lock from Liger as Inoue keeps Kikuchi from making the save. Kanemaru keeps the hope alive when kicks out at one after an overhead suplex, making a comeback to tag in Kikuchi. He’s just absolutely pissed and unloading on Inoue, then does the same on Liger when he tries stopping it. The crowd connection for this storytelling is firing on all cylinders.
Moments later, Liger instructs Inoue to keep Kikuchi away so he can hit a Running Powerbomb on Kanemaru for a near-fall, as well as a Fisherman’s Buster for another hot near-fall. Kanemaru scouts it possibly coming again, evading and hitting his trademark low-blow to tag in Kikuchi.
The crowd is absolutely FIRE when Kikuchi applies a Cross Arm-Breaker on Liger. The drama from this submission tease is just phenomenal before Liger reaches the bottom rope, now finding his left arm a prime target for Kikuchi.
Inoue and Kanemaru get tagged in to keep the action going, but it gets really interesting when Liger inserts himself, drawing in Kikuchi and putting him behind Kanemaru, who hits his partner with the low-blow! This allows Liger to briefly hold on to Kikuchi when Inoue applies with his trademark Triangle Lancer.
Kikuchi won’t be denied, planting Inoue with what appears to be his trademark Fireball Bomb. This allows Kanemaru to hit a Frog Splash, but Liger makes the save in front of this absolutely fire crowd. Fuck, this is awesome!
The drama continues when Inoue kicks out of Kanemaru’s Top Rope Moonsault, then tries surprising him with a Small Package.Inoue follows that with a variation of an Abdominal Stretch for a pin-fall attempt for another near-fall, but he then falls prey to Kanemaru’s Brainbuster, and that’s it as Kikuchi prevents Liger from making the save.
This issue is far from over as there’s a post-match altercation involving some other wrestlers I’m not familiar with. In the post-match backstage interview, Liger is absolutely livid over what unfolded, as is Inoue. One need not know their language to feel this shit. What an absolutely sensational piece of business this entire segment is.
Truly a work of art, the turmoil in NJPW has been a creative blessing in disguise for these companies. This crowd was molten-hot, as they should’ve been. Tense pre-match and post-match antics, kicking off the action before the opening bell even rings, everyone irritable, tremendous tag team psychology, this had it all. This is one of the greatest tag team matches I’ve ever seen and I’m salivating at what’s to come for this program. Rating: ****3/4
Naomichi Marufuji retained the GHC Jr. Heavyweight Title over Juventud Guerrera in what was said to be a very good match. Unfortunately, it’s not available to stream anywhere. Moving on.
GHC Tag Team Titles Match
No Fear © vs. Wild II
Navigate for Evolution 2002 Day 10
February 17, 2002 – Tokyo, Japan
No Fear are the tandem of Takao Omori and Yoshihiro Takayama, while Wild II are the tandem of Takeshi Rikio and Takeshi Morishima.
Takayama doesn’t take any shit from the challengers, knocking them down with boots and kicks early. Omori eventually introduces some mat work, taking Rikio down to apply a Crippler Crossface. Once Morishima’s tagged in though, he wins a big boot exchange over Omori. Takayama comes in to make the save and Rikio shoulder charges him to start an exchange that Takayama wins, knocking him down and forcing him out of the ring.
With the ring cut in half on Morishima, the champs go to work on him on the apron ramp, having him eat a Piledriver on it. Morishima eventually shows great fire on a teased comeback, but Rikio is still recovering from Takyama’s strikes earlier, leaving him to eat a Hart Attack. Even when Rikio comes in for the save after that, the champs just shoulder charge him down.
Omori gets a great reaction when he hits a corner lariat on Morishima to cut off another comeback attempt. Once again, when Rikio comes in for the save, he’s cut off and dumped out by Takayama. When Omori runs the ropes, Rikio grabs and holds him for a strike from Morishima, allowing for a tag to be made.
Rikio’s house of fire segment is fine but nothing special. Omori cuts him off with a backdrop driver, only for Rikio to dump him on his head with a German Suplex. Would it really kill these guys just to do a standard bump for that?
Morishima takes Takayama out of the equation, leaving Omori to briefly fend for himself. Takayama then eats a double chokeslam from the challengers before Omori eats a double-team move. After they hit a Doomsday Device on Omori, Morishima fails to keep an eye on Takayama, allowing the save to be made. Morishima does get a good reaction when he hits his trademark backdrop driver on Takayama, and Rikio hits a lariat and Powerbomb for the pin on Omori, putting all his weight on him. Good reaction for the title change, but Wild II have a LOT more seasoning to do if there’s any hope of them joining Jun Akiyama in striving to be the next generation of top draws. Rating: ***
Yuji Nagata’s Pro Wrestling NOAH Debut Match
Jun Akiyama & Yuji Nagata vs. Kenta Kobashi & Mitsuharu Misawa
Navigate for Evolution 2002 Day 10
February 17, 2002 – Tokyo, Japan
The pre-match video is really good, showing Kobashi’s journey since his victory over Akiyama at Great Voyage 2000.
Kobashi gets a great reaction for his return as expected, with only his and Akiyama’s musical entrances being shown. Obviously, this has got the big match feel as Nagata and Misawa kick off the match. That’s a good idea to save Kobashi’s big reaction for later, especially his showdown with Akiyama.
After Nagata and Misawa have a good showing, the tags are made for the money matchup. The crowd heats up once they exchange charges, especially when Kobashi ties Akiyama to bring it on. The crowd also enjoys Akiyama and Misawa going at it, showing there was still money in an inevitable rematch between them as well.
We then moments later get what I believe is the first-ever collision between Nagata and Kobashi, popping the crowd when Kobashi is tagged in for it. Kobashi brutalizes him once he gets Nagata cornered, delivering chops and even knees to the gut, then appears to target the gut more with an Abdominal Stretch. Nagata escapes and goes for knee strikes, but they’ve no effect on Kobashi as they have a suplex struggle. Kobashi looks to stun Nagata with chops to the neck, only for Nagata to cut him off with kicks to the knees before tagging in Akiyama.
Akiyama dominates by continuing the work on Kobashi’s knees. Even when Kobashi teases a comeback, Akiyama cuts him to apply an STF, then tags in Nagata to really bring the attack on those surgically repaired joints. Nagata has an exchange with Kobashi, a battle of kicks vs. chops, but Nagata puts him down with an Overhead Belly-to-Belly Suplex, then goes for the Figure Four Leg Lock. Akiyama forces Misawa to remain outside as Kobashi is once again absolutely magical in his selling and struggle before reaching the bottom rope.
Kobashi blocks a Northern Lights Suplex attempt by Akiyama, countering it with a low angle Vertical Suplex before tagging in Misawa for the house of fire. Back in the ring, Akiyama drops him with an Exploder and tags in Nagata. Misawa has no answer for Nagata, nor does Kobashi when he comes in for the save. That’s enough though for Misawa to use a grump elbow strike and put Nagata down with a Tiger Driver for a near-fall.
Kobashi gets tagged in and cuts off Akiyama, then drops Nagata with a Sleeper Suplex for a near-fall. Kobashi then hits a Powerbomb, but Nagata absorbs it immediately and applies a Triangle Choke on the Hall of Famer for a good submission tease, reminding me of Brock Lesnar vs. CM Punk.
Akiyama gets tagged in and Kobashi immediately applies a Sleeper on him, the crowd totally ready for the Sleeper Suplex near-fall. Misawa cuts off Nagata, which allows Kobashi to hit the Orange Crush on Akiyama, who then eats a Frog Splash from the company founder. Kobashi signals that he’s wrapping this up but Nagata kicks his left knee from behind, only to be elbowed down by Misawa, who eats an Exploder from Akiyama.
Akiyama attempts the Exploder on Kobashi too, who shrugs it off and hits a lariat. Akiyama kicks out at one, full of adrenaline. He gets Kobashi down with a Front Guillotine while Nagata has Misawa down in the Crippler Crossface, the crowd chanting for Kobashi. Akiyama decides to turn Kobashi over for a pin attempt as Misawa is pushed out by Nagata. Kobashi shows good resilience as he’s at a disadvantage, falling to a Spinning Wheel Kick and Exploder, but he also kicks out at one.
Kobashi can’t fully stand up as he struggles to keep Akiyama away, but eats an Exploder. I really believed that’d be the end, but it’s a near-fall as the crowd is absolutely buzzing. Akiyama goes for the Wrist Clutch Exploder and hits it, and that’s it for Kobashi as Nagata keeps Misawa from making the save. That’s the logical finish, as the money for now is in Kobashi’s climb while Akiyama can defend against Misawa and more cross-promotional challengers.
This was a great match, but not the all-time classic, carried by its star power and special circumstances. This reminded me of Akiyama & Nagata’s match a few months earlier against Hiroshi Hase & Keiji Mutoh in that regard. Now I’m interested in seeing all four individual matchups down the road too: Akiyama defending against Misawa and Kobashi, and Nagata having singles dream matches against Misawa and Kobashi too. Rating: ****
Business has picked up for Pro Wrestling NOAH, and thanks to the hot cross-promotional matches plus Kobashi’s return and Naomichi Marufuji reigning as the junior champion, I’m already feeling like I’ve entered the true glory days of Pro Wrestling NOAH. Let’s take a look at any last interesting tidbits, as surely there isn’t anything to bring down this high.
“There was a lot of good news as well as maybe even more bad news this past week for Pro Wrestling NOAH, as it ran its biggest show in its history on 2/17, just after getting official word that NTV was giving it a television upgrade for the upcoming TV season in April (unlike the U.S. TV season, which by tradition starts in September).
The show will be expanded to a one hour time slot, airing at midnight on Sundays starting on 4/7. That’s a huge improvement over its current Friday night 30 minute time slot which has no set time, starting anywhere from 1:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., averaging a 2.10 rating. The reason for NTV upping its commitment to the struggling promotion, which has been hampered by a generally bland television product, is because of the belief that pro wrestling can be a cornerstone of its new CS-Nippon, as the company gets into the Digital TV market with a pay channel. There is tremendous skepticism about the viability of the station. The plan is to air NOAH wrestling twice per week with two-hour shows in prime time every Monday and Friday night.
The bad news was that on his first night back, Kenta Kobashi re-injured his left knee. After a seven hour examination which included draining 50cc’s of blood from the knee and an MRI, Kobashi, who turns 35 next month, was told that he suffered further knee ligament damage in the match. His doctor told him he should have another operation, which would put him out of action another year. He refused and his doctor told him even without surgery, he shouldn’t get in the ring for at least four months, and more reasonably six months. Kobashi had been out of action the past 13 months, shortly after coming back from being out of action several more months. During the past 13 months, he underwent five operations in the left knee and four on the right. At first he was going to ignore that advice and start back to work full-time on the next tour, which begins on 3/14. Kobashi at first said he would to take two weeks off all training, and get another check-up for healing and try to come back. NOAH President Mitsuharu Misawa, getting the news, cancelled his appearances for the entire tour, essentially forbidding him coming back that soon. The reality is that, after knee problems that date back to the early days of his 14-year career, that he’s unable to wrestle safely on what have been described as 80-year-old knees, and needs to retire because it is no exaggeration to say he’s legitimately risking following in the footsteps of Dynamite Kid. NOAH was expecting an increase in business everywhere with Kobashi’s return to action.
The 2/17 show at the former All Japan showcase of Budokan Hall in Tokyo sold out more than a month in advance to see his return. He had his first match back before a sellout crowd of 16,500 in the building where he had most of his most famous matches as one of the best in-ring performers in the history of the business. The show also was a test of the new time slot, as they did a 90 minute show TV special in the Sunday midnight slot, airing the complete main event as well as Jushin Liger’s debut, which did a 3.3 rating.
It was clear Kobashi’s return was what everyone came to see, as after the tag team title match, as soon as it was over, the whole place began chanting for Kobashi, knowing he was up next. There were also chants for him that broke out many times throughout the show…
Still, even with all the good news and the alignment with New Japan, NOAH is in bad need of two or three new major stars, which is something far easier said than done. The only foreign draw the company has, Vader, is largely living off his rep, too heavy and injury prone, in fact, he’s out of action currently. There next two top foreigners, Scorpio and Michael Modest, are good in-ring performers, but neither can possibly fill a void if Vader’s dates become more limited. Mitsuharu Misawa is a shell of what he once was. The last time Kobashi came back, he didn’t last long before he was under the knife again. Jun Akiyama is a good technician, but lacks the fire to be a guy to build a company around as has been shown. The attempt to push new talent has really only resulted in Takayama & Omori as a charismatic tag team, and Marufuji as a very popular undercard junior heavyweight.” – Wrestling Observer Newsletter (Dated February 25, 2002)
As long as Akiyama can keep getting fresh challengers in or outside NOAH, Marufuji carries the juniors wagon, and the cross-promotional stuff in the middle involving Liger stays heated, I’m still happy even without Kobashi for the time being. I actually still have something to look forward to in the next chapter of The Lapsed Navigation.
This chapter concludes all content that came before Ring of Honor’s birth, filling some huge “Prologue” holes that I wish I’d considered before putting The Era of Honor Begins under the microscope. For timeline continuity reasons, I’d encourage my readers to revisit that edition of The Lapsed ROHbot, as I will re-watch it before continuing with what followed on the calendar afterward.
The journey returns to the American underground scene, and as for the next chapter in The Lapsed ROHbot Flagship, we still inch closer to Round Robin Challenge. But that show took place in the last weekend of March 2002; there was plenty of other stuff taking place in America before then that must be chronicled.
Up next, we return to the Hoosier State, as IWA-MS gets inserted with some truly world-class mainstream performers in Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio, Jr.!
See you soon with the next chapter of The Lapsed Midwesterner.