A September of Sabin is a month-long miniseries that will look back on five Chris Sabin matches from over the course of his career. Some of these matches will be singles matches, others will be Motor City Machine Guns tags, but the goal will be the same no matter what: To remind people that Chris Sabin is an awesome wrestler who deserves his due.
AJPW World Junior Heavyweight Championship
Katsuhiko Nakajima © vs. Chris Sabin
AJPW Pro-Wrestling Love in Ryogoku Vol. 3
August 26, 2007
(Apologies in advance for the blurry screenshots. You work with what you got.)
2007 is not the first year Chris Sabin wrestled in Japan. That came a year before, when he and Alex Shelley briefly toured with Pro Wrestling Zero-1 MAX. Sabin would go on to wrestle dozens of matches in Japan sporadically over the next twelve years, most recently taking part in New Japan’s Super Jr. Tag League in late 2018. The majority of Sabin’s tenure in Japan has actually been as part of a tag team, but his most prolific singles run in the country took place during the summer of 2007 in All Japan Pro Wrestling.
Sabin had already been having quite the run in TNA before arriving on All Japan’s turf. He won the X-Division Championship from Senshi at Bound for Glory 2006, but lost the title mere days later to AJ Styles. In his quest to gain the title back, Sabin turned heel and started feuding with Jerry Lynn. Sabin defeated Lynn and Christopher Daniels (who had won the title from AJ in a three-way dance that also involved Sabin) at Final Resolution 2007 in January and would go on to hold the belt for 154 days, eventually losing it to “Black Machismo” Jay Lethal at Slammiversary in June.
A few weeks after dropping the title, Sabin flew to Japan to take part in AJPW’s Junior League. Held over six shows and featuring two blocks of five, the round robin tournament also included longtime junior heavyweight stalwarts such as TAKA Michinoku, Kaz Hayashi, NOSAWA Rongai (the first three wrestling under different names as the Mexico Amigos), Dick Togo, and AKIRA. And yet, despite the involvement of those puro luminaries, who ends up winning the whole tournament? Chris Sabin. He bested Shuji Kondo in the finals with an avalanche Cradle Shock, a major scalp considering Kondo had recently been AJPW World Junior Heavyweight Champion for 483 days. With his tournament victory, Sabin earned a title shot against the current champion at the time, Katsuhiko Nakajima.
Nakajima is nothing short of a prodigy in pro wrestling. Debuting in Riki Choshu’s World Japan promotion at the tender age of 15 in early 2004, he showed an early aptitude for wrestling and was quickly taken under the wing of the legendary Kensuke Sasaki as part of his Kensuke Office group, later known as Diamond Ring. (Their bond became so strong that Sasaki and his wife Akira Hokuto consider Nakajima like a son.) Nakajima toured the world and honed his craft, wrestling in New Japan, All Japan, NOAH, Dragon Gate, DDT, Zero-1, Ring of Honor, CMLL, and countless others. He’s the youngest wrestler to hold the AJPW Junior Title, the youngest wrestler to ever be in a Champion Carnival, and he won the 2004 Tokyo Sports Rookie of the Year Award. Following the retirement of Sasaki and dissolution of Diamond Ring in 2014, Nakajima signed full time with NOAH, where he remains to this day as a former GHC Heavyweight, Jr. Heavyweight, National, and Tag Team Champion. Needless to say, Nakajima has been there, done that as a 16-year accomplished veteran who has earned worldwide acclaim for his wrestling skills practically since day one… and the guy is still only 32 years old. Incredible.
But we’re not here to talk about 32-year-old Nakajima in 2020, we’re here to talk about 19-year-old Nakajima in 2007. He’s stepping into the ring against the 25-year-old Chris Sabin to defend his title in historic Ryogoku Kokugikan, better known as Sumo Hall. The match is part of All Japan’s Pro-Wrestling Love in Ryogoku Vol. 3 show. Out of curiosity, I looked up the rest of the card and it is fascinating. The main event is Kensuke Sasaki vs. Minoru Suzuki for the Triple Crown Championship. A few matches prior to that is Great Muta and Tajiri vs. Scott Steiner and Suwama. Yujiro Kushida (yes, that Kushida) is wrestling in a six-man tag against Joe Doering, Phil Atlas, and someone named Hawaiian Lion. The kicker is the match third from the bottom, with VOODOO MURDERS members Shuji Kondo and YASSHI taking on Seiya Sanada and T28. If you don’t know who T28 is, you might know him by a different name: BUSHI. So eight years before Tetsuya Naito started acting tranquilo and formed Los Ingobernables de Japon, SANADA and BUSHI teamed fairly regularly in All Japan during the Mutoh era. Wild stuff.
Anyway, Sabin comes out first to the dulcet tones of “Offbeat Bare Ass” by 311, one of the many themes he used on the indies. Listeners of my renowned podcast Music of the Mat would know that this song “inspired” Dale Oliver’s second version of “Hail Sabin” that Sabin began using as a theme in 2006 TNA.
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He poses on the turnbuckle, first firing off the double finger guns and then pointing his left index finger to the palm of his right hand. The Motor City Machine Guns have finally become a team in TNA around this time, so it would make sense that Sabin would bust out their signature Michigan hand taunt (and wear a machine gun design on his tights as well). Sabin is also sporting a wicked shiner on his right eye, most likely earned during an earlier match on the tour. The champion Nakajima comes out next, and as someone who is used to current day Nakajima with his luscious curls and sleazy facial hair, it’s a bit startling seeing him at 19 with his baby face, short black hair, and Kensuke Sasaki-style tights.
The match begins with a requisite lockup and some chain wrestling, neither man able to gain an advantage. Sabin seemingly stuns Nakajima with an early superkick to the chin, but Nakajima fires right back with a mid kick to Sabin’s chest, runs up the turnbuckle, and jumps off with a diving kick between Sabin’s shoulderblades that sends him scrambling to the outside in pain. Masaaki Mochizuki would be proud. They’re the first of many kicks from Nakajima in this match, which is appropriate given he’s an accomplished karateka. You don’t earn the nickname “Genius of the Kick” for your bearhugs and gator rolls.
Sabin takes a second on the outside to reset before getting back into the ring. He and Nakajima start exchanging forearms to each other, which ends with Nakajima once again using his legs to sweep Sabin’s feet out from under him. Sabin charges Nakajima in the corner, but Nakajima lifts him over onto the apron. Nakajima tries to kick Sabin off, but uh oh Sabin catches his leg and TWISTS IT against the top rope with a Dragon screw leg whip. The champion clutches his left leg in pain and now Sabin has a target. He spends the next few minutes going after Nakajima’s left leg. He stomps on it, pulls on it, jams it into the guardrail on the outside and kicks the guardrail, and puts it in various submission holds. This is the first match in this series where Sabin has an extended control period. Even though Sabin is a heel in TNA at this time, he’s not being a dastardly mustache-twirling villain here, but he does come off as “the aggressor,” which we did not see in the Juventud Guerrera match or the Samoa Joe match. Then again, this is also the first match of the series where Sabin is actually the more experienced wrestler and not the young (well he’s still young, but relative to Nakajima) hungry upstart.
Sabin continues to punish Nakajima with a kneebreaker and holds onto the leg, but Nakajima fires back with a enzuigiri. Sabin quickly gets back up and hits a running dropkick to Nakajima’s injured leg. Nakajima rolls to the outside, giving Sabin an opportunity to bust out some X-Division flair with a suicide dive. Unfortunately he forgets that Nakajima has two legs, one of which nails Sabin in the head as soon as it sticks through the ropes. Sabin looks like he got CRITICAL’d in Fire Pro as he lies face down on the outside. Nakajima picks him up and delivers two sharp kicks to Sabin against the guardrail, the first one looking like it landed directly under his chin. With strikes that hard, Sabin might as well be back at No Surrender facing Joe again.
Now it’s Nakajima’s turn to target a bodypart. He goes after Sabin’s neck with a couple of submissions and some well-placed strikes. Sabin fights back and connects with a series of Signature Sabin Spots. First up we get the jumping enzuigiri, followed by the classic running springboard tornado DDT. A woozy Nakajima stumbles into the corner, where his face meets Sabin’s foot thanks to a running Yakuza kick. The champ soon ends up crotched backwards on the top rope, where Sabin pulls Nakajima down into the Tree of Woe. And then… for the first time in A September of Sabin… WE GET IT, BABY! THE HESITATION DROPKICK! Sabin runs towards a defenseless Nakajima, leaps into the air, and torpedoes his feet right into Nakajima’s face. Oh my sweet days, it’s a thing of beauty. Sabin makes the cover, but it only gets two.
Sabin returns to the forearm strikes and gets dumped on his head with a backdrop suplex, but he shows FIGHTING SPIRIT and gets back to his feet. He delivers a backdrop suplex of his own to Nakajima and dumps him on his head, but Nakajima also shows FIGHTING SPIRIT and gets up right away. The two guys yell in each other’s face and both hit jumping kicks to the other’s head at the exact same time! Wowzers. A spot like that might be a tricky thing to pull off timing-wise, but Sabin and Nakajima nail it perfectly. And if you’ll allow me to put on my English major bullshit hat, there’s a little bit of unintentional symbolism behind it too. Sabin at one point was in Nakajima’s position, the young rookie who showed a knack for pro wrestling right from the jump, proved he could hang with the veterans, and earned acclaim and success fairly early in his career. Now Sabin is the elder and Nakajima is the rookie who can not only hang with him, but also match him move-for-move. It’s like Sabin is wrestling against a younger (and Japanese) version of himself. You also have the added parallel of Sabin as an outsider coming in to a different company to humble the hot junior prospect, much like Juventud Guerrera was doing when he fought Sabin in the 2003 Super X Cup finals in TNA. Okay, English major bullshit hat off, back to the match.
The two men struggle back to their feet and exchange some more forearms, the Sumo Hall crowd shouting “Ay!” with each strike. Nakajima sneaks in a sole butt to Sabin’s midsection (using his own TNA kick against him, that no good son of a…), then runs towards the ropes. Sabin follows right after him, but as Sabin bounces off the ropes, Nakajima stops in mid-stride and absolutely BLISTERS him in the head with a roundhouse kick that nearly made me jump out of my seat when I saw it. It makes a nice loud SNAP and Sabin is on dream street. Nakajima staggers over for the cover, but Sabin manages to kick out at a close two-count.
With Sabin down, Nakajima climbs to the top rope. He takes too long though due to his injured left knee, which allows Sabin to meet him up top. Sabin sets up a superplex, Nakajima knocks him off, but Sabin literally jumps from the mat back to the top rope and sends Nakajima crashing down to the canvas with an overhead throw. Amazing! Sabin crawls over for the pin and gets another close two-count. Sabin wastes no time and hits Nakajima with the Over Easy DDT, but again Nakajima kicks out.
Sabin slashes his throat and points his thumb down, the international symbol for “Time to end this fool.” He lifts Nakajima up for the Cradle Shock, but Nakajima fights out of it and grabs Sabin in a waistlock. Sabin elbows Nakajima to escape and tries a running lariat, but Nakajima ducks it and plants Sabin with a straightjacket German suplex. Nakajima roars to life, and as Sabin ambles to his feet, Nakajima connects with what I can only describe as a single-leg dropkick version of KENTA’s Busaiku Knee that crunches Sabin on the back of his neck for a nearfall.
We’re really cooking with gas now. Nakajima tries another running move, only for Sabin to counter with a lariat to the back of Nakajima’s head, then another running lariat that nearly takes the champion’s head off. The crowd is in a tizzy as the ref counts one, two, th- No! It only gets two. “Katsuhiko! Katsuhiko!” chants the crowd, rallying around their champion, their hero. Sabin attempts a Dragon suplex at the 15-minute call, but Nakajima is struggling, so Sabin puts a stop to that with another sharp enzuigiri to the back of his head and hooks Nakajima’s arms for a Tiger suplex. Sabin connects with it and holds the bridge picture perfectly, his booted toes en pointe like Baryshnikov. 1… 2… 2.9! Sabin slaps himself to regain some energy, then heads to the top rope. This time it’s Nakajima who cuts him off, delivering a big kick to Sabin’s head. As Sabin sits woozily on the top rope, Nakajima climbs and sets up a superplex. Sabin though still has enough in the tank to slap Nakajima in the face and put him on his shoulders. The crowd stirs as Sabin stands on the middle rope. The referee waves his hands in desperation. No, no, you crazy 311-loving American man, don’t do it! But Sabin does it. He hits an avalanche Cradle Shock, the exact same move that won him the Junior League just a few months prior. We get a look at Nakajima’s eyes and they are in another universe. Sabin sits on top of Nakajima with both legs hooked. It’s academic.
1… 2… Nakajima kicks out!!!
An avalanche version of Sabin’s finisher—the move he needed to beat the big monster Shuji Kondo—cannot put Nakajima away. This kid was molded in the fires of Kensuke Sasaki’s tutelage, of course he’s made of stronger stuff! As the referee starts a ten count on the fallen Nakajima, Sabin takes a breather in the corner. He counts along with the ref; if he can’t win that Junior Title by pinfall, maybe he can win it via TKO. The referee reaches eight and it looks like Nakajima will get up in time to break the count, so Sabin proactively picks Nakajima up for another Cradle Shock, but Nakajima SNAPS Sabin backwards with a crucifix driver for a close nearfall. Sabin is quicker to his feet than Nakajima, so he sole butts the guy RIGHT IN THE GODDAMN FACE. Now that’s a TNA kick. He picks Nakajima up into the fireman’s carry, crosses the ankles, and BAM hits the Cradle Shock dead center in the middle of the ring. That’s it, he’s done, goodbye, see ya later, give Akira Hokuto my regards because I’m on the first flight back to Detroit.
Except NAKAJIMA KICKS OUT AGAIN AT 2.9!!! WHAT THE HELL!!! Sabin has now hit his finisher twice on Nakajima and he still will not stay down for the pinfall. Once again, the parallels between Sabin and Nakajima shine through. Nakajima is showing the same persistence that Sabin had when he got his foot on the ropes towards the end of the Juvi match, or when he refused to tap out in the Samoa Joe match. Hell, I expect Apu to run up to Sabin and shout “Ha! Now you know how it feels!” Sabin tunes up the band in the corner à la Shawn Michaels and connects with a superkick to Nakajima, but Nakajima immediately shakes it off and wallops Sabin with another high roundhouse kick to the head. The title’s on the line, his title, and he’s not gonna let Sabin take it home with him, dammit! He follows that up with a bridging German suplex (like many puro rookies, it was one of his early signature moves), but this time it’s Sabin who kicks out at 2.9! Nakajima pounds the mat, emits one last guttural warrior cry, and as Sabin stands up, Nakajima hits him with the Death Roll, a jumping spinning back kick to the back of Sabin’s head. 1… 2… 3! Katsuhiko Nakajima retains his AJPW World Junior Heavyweight Championship.
The two men lie in a heap as the ring attendants swarm the duo with cold spray. Eventually Nakajima gets to his feet and celebrates with his title as the crowd cheers. Sabin gets to his feet too and grabs the belt out of Nakajima’s hands. At first it looks like an act of jealous heelery, but it turns out to be the opposite; Sabin wraps the title around Nakajima’s waist himself, then raises Nakajima’s hand to the applauding crowd. They bow to each other, embrace, and Sabin exits the ring to let the young champion have his moment.
Mid-to-late 2000s All Japan is an overlooked era by the majority of wrestling fans, so Sabin vs. Nakajima is definitely a neat little hidden gem of a match. Sabin is fantastic as the seasoned pro who seemingly has all the right moves in all the right places, but it’s still not enough to extinguish the burning spirit inside Nakajima. Kudos to him for giving Nakajima so much shine by letting him kick out of his finisher twice (and just kick him a lot in general). And speaking of the man, it cannot be stressed enough how much of a special talent Nakajima is. He’s so adept at such a young age and clearly has plenty of time to grow into something even greater. I know I said pretty much the same thing about Sabin in the first article, but that’s how it works in wrestling: the rookies become the veterans, then the new rookies arrive to take their place. Granted it feels a bit silly calling Sabin a veteran here given he’s only 25 with six years of experience, but to go back to Don West’s point in the Juvi match, he’s so good he might as well be a few decades in. Now in 2020 Sabin is a decades-long veteran, I’ve got grey hairs sprouting on the side of my head, and oh my god where has the time gone?
Next Time on A September of Sabin
Chris Sabin returns to Japan for another title match, but he doesn’t come alone. The Motor City Machine Guns defend the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Championship against one of the most prolific junior tag teams of all time.