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.
IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championship
Motor City Machine Guns © vs. Apollo 55
NJPW Circuit 2009: New Japan Soul Night 1
July 5, 2009
(Apologies in advance for the blurry screenshots. You work with what you got.)
In a recent interview with Chris Van Vliet, Chris Sabin recounts the first time he ever met Alex Shelley:
“It was before an independent show in Michigan. One of our old trainers asked and said, “Hey, would you roll around with this guy? He’s new or whatever.” And I was like, “Yeah, sure.” So we just rolled around a little bit, doing some chain wrestling stuff, and I remember him doing like, you know, different stuff that I wasn’t expecting. […] For some reason I remember him putting me in a Muta Lock and I was like “Huh, this guy’s really good.” And then we just ended up knowing each other from like being on the same independent shows and whatnot, and then we became friends, and obviously we started the tag team and all that stuff, and the rest is history.”
Whether you call it fate or just random luck that Sabin met Shelley that evening, their introduction would change their lives forever. You cannot tell Chris Sabin’s story without the Motor City Machine Guns, nor Alex Shelley’s; their relationship as friends and tag partners is permanently encoded into their DNA. They’ve experienced all the highs and lows of wrestling together–from championship glory to career-halting injuries to an influential legacy as one of wrestling’s greatest tag teams–and as they currently reign supreme as Impact World Tag Team Champions, the Guns can truly say they’ve seen all sides of the mountain. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Let’s wind the clocks back to 2006. Sabin and Shelley were on a tour of Pro Wrestling Zero-1 MAX when the booker decided to pair them up as a team. The duo discovered that they had excellent chemistry as a tag team, and thus the Motor City Machine Guns were born. They even won the Zero-1 MAX Lightweight Tag Team Championship from Ikuto Hidaka and Minoru Fujita to solidify their bond. According to Sabin, he and Shelley wanted to continue teaming together when they returned to TNA, but the TNA office was against the idea. It was only after they kept pushing that the office eventually relented.
I can fondly recall when they first started teasing the MCMG in TNA. It was during the Xscape match at Lockdown 2007, which featured Sabin, Shelley, Jay Lethal, Sonjay Dutt, and Shark Boy. This was the first time in company history that Sabin and Shelley were both heels simultaneously, and it was during that match that they busted out some neat-looking double team offense against their babyface opponents. Wow, I thought, they would make a really cool tag team. And then a couple months later, they did! They officially became known as the Motor City Machine Guns, started wearing matching gear (the sign of any true tag team), and came out to a new entrance theme, “1967.” In fact you can hear all about that song and other MCMG themes on the Chris Sabin episode of Music of the Mat with the lovely Sarah Flannery.
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Unfortunately, the reluctance on TNA’s part to bring the Machine Guns into fruition carried over into how hard they were pushed. As I mentioned in the first article in this series, it took Sabin and Shelley three whole years before they won the TNA World Tag Team Championship–a maddening notion given their level of talent and how over they were with the fans. And it’s even more irritating when you look at some of the teams who held the gold before them. I can totally understand teams like Beer Money, LAX, and Team 3D being champions, but did Matt Morgan and Hernandez really need a reign? Or a 50-year-old Kevin Nash and pre-sobriety Scott Hall? I suppose I shouldn’t complain too much about the latter, since Hall’s real-life issues forced TNA to vacate the titles and would lead to the MCMG finally winning the belts over Beer Money at Victory Road 2010. The subsequent best-of-five series that followed between the two teams produced what could arguably be the greatest match in Impact TV history on 8/12/10. Swings and roundabouts.
While the Guns may have had a championship drought in TNA, that was not the case for them in another promotion: New Japan Pro Wrestling. Today New Japan has working relationships with Ring of Honor, CMLL, and RevPro, but from 2007 to 2011, they also had one with TNA. The relationship allowed TNA wrestlers to compete in New Japan and vice versa. It led to some rather fascinating cross-promotional matches in New Japan like Kurt Angle vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, Manabu Nakanishi vs. Abyss, and Rob Van Dam vs. Toru Yano. On the flip side, it also allowed New Japan wrestlers to go on excursion to TNA and appear on Impact. Tune into Spike TV during that time and you might see Hiroshi Tanahashi pop onto your screen, or the No Limit tag team of Naito and Yujiro. It’s a curious period to look back on, particularly seeing current day megastars like Tanahashi and Naito being treated like lower card X-Division fodder. Kazuchika Okada received similar treatment when he went on excursion to the company in 2010-11, which would ultimately contribute to the New Japan-TNA relationship ending. Granted there’s no way anyone in TNA could’ve known at the time that this young man they put in a Kato mask would eventually become the greatest wrestler on the planet and lead New Japan into its most successful financial period in history, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.
Anyway, the Motor City Machine Guns absolutely benefited from this promotional partnership with New Japan because they won the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championship from No Limit at Wrestle Kingdom III in 2009. Sabin and Shelley successfully defended the belts in both New Japan and TNA, including one defense in a three-way steel cage match between the Guns, No Limit, and LAX at Lockdown 2009. I bring that one up specifically because there was no way in hell that Hernandez qualified as a junior heavyweight. Anyone who complained about Shingo Takagi or Will Ospreay being classified as junior heavyweights in 2019 would have fainted at the sight of this behemoth competing in an IWGP Jr. Tag Title match.
This brings us to the matter at hand. The date is July 5, 2009 and the venue is legendary Korakuen Hall. The Motor City Machine Guns are defending the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Titles in the main event of the first show on New Japan’s Circuit 2009: New Japan Soul tour. It’s actually the second time that the Guns have main evented Korakuen as a team, the first being the Zero-1 MAX Lightweight Tag Title victory over Hidaka and Fujita. Nevertheless it’s still quite the career highlight for two Detroit wrestling nerds like Sabin and Shelley to main event a New Japan show in one of wrestling’s most honored buildings. Many of their contemporaries cannot say the same.
Their opponents this evening are the dynamic tandem of Apollo 55, Prince Devitt and Ryusuke Taguchi. Apollo 55 formed earlier in the year in the wake of Devitt’s former partner Minoru Tanaka leaving the company. New Japan decided to put Devitt with Taguchi because of their similar age and build, while the name Apollo 55 (pronounced Apollo Go-Go) came from Devitt’s love of space and Taguchi’s nickname “Funky Weapon a Go-Go.” Visually it was an odd pairing, the clean-cut Irish heartthrob with the hip-shaking, afro-haired Japanese goofball, but in the ring they made magic. Apollo 55 became one of the most accomplished junior heavyweight tag teams in New Japan history with four IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Tag Team Championship reigns, the record for most successful defenses during a single reign (7), a combined 673 days as champions across all four reigns, and in 2010 they won the Tokyo Sports Best Bout Award for their match against the Golden Lovers at Destruction 2010. After four years together Prince Devitt turned heel, the team split up, and Bullet Club was formed. But again, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Apollo 55 make their entrance first as the challengers and you can immediately tell these guys are over big time with the crowd, especially Devitt who gets his name yelled at him constantly. No, seriously, people are chanting for Devitt practically the entire match, so get used to it. The champs are out second, and as soon as the Guns’ music hit, a chill went up my spine. They weren’t coming out to their first theme “1967” or their iconic and enduring third theme “Motor City.” Instead they were coming out to their second theme, “Party with the Motor City,” Dale Oliver’s slice of pop punk treacle that took the edge and attitude out of the Machine Guns’ entrance theme; even Alex Shelley basically disowned the song when asked about it in a Q&A. If you’d like to hear me and Sarah Flannery throw shade at this confounding tune, then may I once again suggest the Chris Sabin episode of Music of the Mat.
The ring introductions are given and Apollo 55 get enthusiastic pops as the “hometown” favorites. This is their second time challenging the Guns for the Jr. Tag Titles, having lost their first attempt back at Resolution in April, so they look jazzed up to have this rematch. They’ve previously won the belts with other partners (Devitt with Tanaka, Taguchi with El Samurai), but they want to put Apollo 55 on the map with their first title win together over an established team like the Motor City Machine Guns. It’s as simple as that. When ring announcer Kimihiko Ozaki introduces the Guns, they get the standard applause, but some noticeable boos as well. You can hear a few guys chanting “asshole” and “you suck” at them. The Guns are fantastic wrestlers, but let’s be honest, they are in enemy territory. The New Japan fans want those belts back around the waists of actual New Japan talent like Devitt and Taguchi, so they’re gonna treat these outsiders like heels. And as we’ll see over the course of the match, Sabin and Shelley are more than happy to slip into those roles. Even their busy red and black gear is more antagonistic than Apollo 55’s simple lime green, lilac, and black ring garb.
Shelley and Devitt start us off. “Devitt! Devitt!” Yeah, this man is a future star. They square off with some back-and-forth chain wrestling for the first two minutes, then make the tag to let Sabin and Taguchi test each other out. Their first encounter is a lot faster and flashier, complete with leapfrogs, handspring evasions, and a dropkick from Taguchi that takes Sabin down. No ACL tears or hip injuries for these boys, they’re in top peak physical condition. Taguchi does a celebratory wiggle of the hips to the crowd’s delight as Apollo 55 draw first blood.
Apollo 55 hit a trio of double team moves on Sabin, which not only does some damage, but says “Yes, we are a tag team, not just two dudes thrown together.” Taguchi puts Sabin in a submission, pulling back on both arms while digging his foot into Sabin’s spine. Remember when I said the Guns were gonna be the defacto heels in this match? Alex Shelley remembers because he waltzes into the ring and simply pokes Taguchi in the eye to break it up. Devitt tags in and whips Sabin into the neutral corner. He charges but Sabin ducks and lifts him onto the apron, only for Devitt to snap up with an enzuigiri. Sabin dropkicks Devitt off the apron and prepares to launch. He’s coming in hot with a suicide dive… except he isn’t; Sabin feints the dive and lets Shelley blindside Devitt with a running knee strike off the apron. It was my first “Whoa!” of the night.
Okay Fergal, you had your fun, now it’s time to take your medicine. Shelley and Sabin work over Devitt in the ring, hitting him with their own double team moves like a knee drop version of the Demolition Decapitation and the Guns’ signature front chancery/dropkick to the face combo. Alex Shelley in particular is suuuuch a great dickhead here. I mean we know he can be a great dickhead because he’s had a lot of practice in TNA and ROH, but man does he revel in it. He rakes Devitt’s face with his boots and kicks him sharply in the spine with some extra stank, then gives the Taguchi the middle finger. When Sabin has Devitt tied up on the ground like a pretzel, Shelley walks in, bops Devitt on the head, and leaves. That’s it, he just bops the man for no good reason! At one point, Sabin and Shelley have Devitt in their corner, Shelley digging his fingers into the Irish lad’s eyes while Sabin holds his leg. Then Shelley blows a snot rocket on him. Sabin gets in on the dickhead action too, holding Devitt’s arm and teasingly inching it towards the Apollo 55 corner. They might as well be doing the “Why’re you hitting yourself? Why’re you hitting yourself?” move like any other schoolyard bully. Look, as much as I enjoy the Machine Guns as babyfaces, so much of their identity is tied to punk rock culture that they should act like punks themselves. They should wrestle the way they wanna wrestle and be who they want to be. That’s why we all fell in love with them in the first place! Besides, Sabin and Shelley are actually younger than Devitt and Taguchi, and what’s more punk rock than showing contempt for your elders?
Devitt finally gets a hope spot when a malfunction at the junction allows Shelley to accidentally lariat Sabin, which allows Devitt to hit Shelley with an overhead bicycle kick. Korakuen comes alive as Taguchi slaps the corner pad, urging his partner to make the hot tag. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” chants the crowd. Devitt makes it and in comes the Funky Weapon! Taguchi is a house of fire as he takes out the Guns all by himself with dropkicks, a dual DDT/reverse DDT to both Sabin and Shelley at the same time, and the Three Amigos. Taguchi goes up top and hits Shelley with Enban Chuudoku, a 180° frog splash, but it only gets two before Sabin breaks it up. Devitt flies in with a dropkick and Apollo 55 are ready to go to work. Devitt puts Sabin in an electric chair position as Taguchi jumps off the top rope for a Doomsday Device, but HOLY CHRIST ON A CRACKER Sabin lariats Taguchi out of mid-air to block the move! Wow, that was awesome.
The Guns take out Devitt and turn their focus to Taguchi, setting up for their Dominator/running cutter combo called Thunder Express (a move you’ve likely seen Roppongi 3K do on many occasions). Taguchi fights out of it and arm whips Shelley to the side. Sabin tries a sunset flip, but Taguchi rolls through and DRILLS him in the face with a seated dropkick, no doubt giving Sabin flashbacks to his match against Juventud Guerrera in Nashville. Taguchi hooks Shelley’s arms for the Dodon, Shelley blocks it, and Taguchi winds up on the apron. The Guns successfully hit Poetry in Motion this time, knocking Taguchi to the floor. The follow up–with Sabin hitting a suicide dive through his partner’s legs while Shelley stands on the middle rope–sends Taguchi over the guardrail. I think I can safely say I’ve seen the Guns hit that move hundreds of times, but while it gets a ho-hum reaction from me, it gets an enthusiastic “Oh!!!” from the Korakuen crowd. That’s the beauty of wrestlers going to new promotions or new countries; it’s seeing the fans there experience them for the first time. And with Sabin and Shelley, everything they do here is so smooth and effortless that the fans take to them like ducks to water. I’m really happy for them. Devitt dropkicks Shelley off the apron, eliciting another “Oh!!” Finally, with Sabin, Shelley, and Taguchi all on the other side of the guardrail, Devitt soars through the sky with a springboard somersault plancha OVER THE GUARDRAIL that wipes out everybody. “OHHHH!” shouts the audience as they applaud and chant Devitt’s name once again. This match is hitting that next level and we’re not even close to the finish line. Strap in.
Apollo 55 get Shelley back into the ring and Devitt comes off the top with the Coup de Gr- er, the diving double foot stomp. It only gets a close two-count, so Devitt picks Shelley up and goes for a Brainbuster (or “Brainbustaaah” as he says in his County Wicklow accent). Shelley counters, goes for the Shiranui, Devitt throws him off and hits the Dreamcast kick, Sabin flies in with a springboard lariat, Taguchi reciprocates with a springboard dropkick to Sabin, and then Shelley comes back with a standing Shiranui to Taguchi as we pass the 15-minute mark with everybody down. PHEW. Like I said, smooth and effortless, and the pacing and intensity have been pretty much non-stop for ten minutes straight. No rest holds, no cutesy heel schtick, just two highly energetic teams trying to last until the other’s batteries run out.
Sabin and Taguchi are the legal men again and this time they eschew the fancy footwork for straight forearms to the chin. Taguchi connects with two Germans and holds the bridge, but Sabin kicks out at two. “Taguchi! Taguchi!” chants ring out, though those go out the window when Sabin hits a nasty rope-assisted whiplash. Sabin tags Shelley back in and prepare to double team Taguchi. Devitt springboards in to help his partner and gets two Michigan boots and a sandwich of mid-kicks for his troubles. The Guns are so blasé about it too, as if Devitt’s a telemarketer who interrupted their dinner and was quickly hung up on and forgotten. I love it. Sabin and Shelley return to Taguchi, setting him up in the corner for their main tag finisher, Made in Detroit. That’s where Shelley does an avalanche Shiranui while Sabin simultaneously does a sitout powerbomb; Shelley would use the same finisher (renamed I-94) with KUSHIDA in the Time Splitters. The MCMG try to end the game with Made in Detroit, but Taguchi frantically punches Sabin in the head. Sabin falls down in the corner and BAM Devitt slices him with a running seated dropkick to take him out of the equation. Meanwhile Taguchi and Shelley are still on the ropes. Taguchi hooks one of Shelley’s arms and places a foot on the top rope. Wait a minute now. He’s not thinking of doing what I think he’s doing, is he? He is. Taguchi hooks Shelley’s other arm, steps up onto the top rope, and JUMPS BACKWARDS WITH AN AVALANCHE DODON!!!! Shelley luckily lands knees first (or unluckily, if you’re his knees) instead of straight down on his face, but the damage is done. 1… 2… Sabin breaks the count!
We’re really rolling now. Taguchi tags Devitt and now they’re going for their main tag finisher, the awesomely named Black Hole Vacation. Taguchi lifts the opponent up in the Dodon, and as they’re coming down, Devitt hits them with a double knee gutbuster. Well here Taguchi lifts Shelley, but Shelley manages to hook his legs around Devitt and flip him over into a hurricanrana pin in one fluid motion, while Sabin cuts off Taguchi to hold him back. The crowd panics as Red Shoes counts 1… 2… 2.9! Sabin and Taguchi go to the outside, leaving their partners in the ring. Devitt picks up Shelley and hits the Prince’s Throne! The fireman’s carry into a double knee gutbuster is one of Devitt’s tried and true weapons, but can it seal the deal? 1… 2… Shelley kicks out!!
The building is at a fever pitch and I’m standing and pacing! Devitt wastes no time and attempts the Shingata Prince’s Throne, which is the same move but done from a Canadian backbreaker rack position. This should do it… except Shelley lands on his feet and maneuvers Devitt into a surfboard stretch. But the goal isn’t to make Devitt tap out, it’s to leave him defenseless for another double team move. Sabin springboards off the top and drops a leg right on the back of Devitt’s head. Taguchi desperately climbs onto the apron, only to eat another dropkick from Sabin to keep him out of the ring. Shelley hits It Came From Japan II–a cross-legged fisherman buster–and covers Devitt again. 1… 2… another 2.9!!!
“DEVITT! DEVITT! DEVITT! DEVITT! DEVITT! DEVITT! DEVITT! DEVITT! DEVITT!”
The camera gets a shot of the Guns’ faces. Shelley looks dismayed, while Sabin looks confused. I’m sure they’re both thinking the same thing: What’s it gonna take to beat this team? What’s it gonna take to beat Devitt? We’re the more experienced team, we’re the champions, and, oh yeah, WE’VE ALREADY BEATEN THEM BEFORE!!!! It only took 12 minutes at Resolution, god dammit, why is it taking so long to win this time? But this isn’t Resolution, it’s Korakuen Hall, and the diehard New Japan crowd are willing on their heroes. They want to see them triumph!
Thunder Express connects, Sabin once kicks Taguchi away from the ring, and the Guns size up Devitt. BANG! A double superkick flush to the Irish Captor’s chin. He’s looking at the lights, that’s gonna do it. Shelley covers. 1… 2… Taguchi breaks up the pin! God bless ya, you dancing goon. Taguchi needs to put an end to the Guns’ momentum and fast. Unfortunately it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire. Sabin counters Taguchi’s attempt at Shika Koroshi (what he calls the Vertebreaker), gets him in the fireman’s carry, and crosses his ankles. Uh oh. We know what’s coming next. At the same time, Shelley picks Devitt up over his shoulder, tucking his head under his arm. UH OH. Yes, the Guns hit their individual finishers–the Cradle Shock and the Automatic Midnight–simultaneously on their opponents. Yet ANOTHER high impact move on Devitt, and a singles finisher to boot. Surely he’s done.
1… 2… DEVITT KICKS OUT AT 2.9 AGAIN!!!
I’m out of words. Well, not really, I’ve got more. But holy hell, Prince Devitt will not die. The combined power of the Lion’s Mark, The Cranberries, and Buzz Aldrin flows through his veins. He shakes his head and pounds the mat in sheer defiance. This is their company, this is their night, and he’ll be damned if the Guns go home with the gold. Shelley lifts Devitt up onto his shoulders into an electric chair as Sabin climbs the corner. Perhaps they’re going for the same Doomsday Device that Apollo 55 attempted earlier. We’ll never know though because Taguchi saves the day again by shoving Sabin off the top rope to the floor. Devitt twists over into a sunset flip, Shelley counters and sits on top of him, but Devitt’s shoulders aren’t down. This gives Taguchi enough time to dropkick Shelley back onto his shoulders. 1… 2… Shelley kicks out. No faffing about from Apollo 55, who immediately hit Shelley with the Black Hole Vacation! Devitt directs Taguchi to block Sabin on the outside as he picks Shelley up for the kill. Shingata Prince’s Throne, right on the money! Devitt makes the cover. 1… 2… 3!!!
Korakuen Hall joyously explodes as Devitt and Taguchi sweatily embrace. They did it. They really did it! The boys present themselves to the rapturous crowd as Devitt’s theme plays; appropriately its “You’re the Best” by Joe Esposito from The Karate Kid. Former IWGP Junior Heavyweight and Junior Heavyweight Tag Team Champion Tatsuhito Takaiwa hands Apollo 55 the belts. Meanwhile in the background, the Motor City Machine Guns make the long walk back to the dressing room. There’s no room on this podium for second place.
Devitt grabs the mic to deliver the post-match promo. Lord knows he’s earned it given his performance and how much the people love him. “We are Apollo 55,” he says. “IWGP Junior Champion-des. Shin Nihon ichiban!” And that’s the speech. A far cry from some of the cutting promos Devitt will deliver in a few years’ time as part of the Bullet Club, that’s for sure. “You’re the Best” resumes as Devitt and Taguchi pose and celebrate with the titles. The reign of the Motor City Machine Guns is over. The era of Apollo 55 has begun.
*deep exhale* What a match. WHAT A FREAKING MATCH! Cagematch users ranked this both the best Motor City Machine Guns match of all time and the best Apollo 55 match of all time. After soaking it all in, it’s really hard to argue with them. The work is superb with everyone firing on all cylinders. Matches like these can go off the rails if a spot or two go wrong, but the cohesion between all four wrestlers is so on point that there’s never any fear that that might happen. You have the Korakuen faithful in attendance who are LIVING and DYING with every big move and nearfall. The atmosphere they create makes the match and Apollo 55’s win come off as a huge deal. And of course there’s the added drama of championship stakes too. This is the kind of match that MCMG fans were clamoring for them to have in TNA, a match where they could take center stage in a big time main event spot and deliver a classic. Well, they delivered. If you want to show someone the Motor City Machine Guns at the peak of their powers, show them this.
Next time on A September of Sabin
All good things must come to an end. We wrap up the series with the Motor City Machine Guns defending the TNA World Tag Team Championship against Team 3D at Turning Point 2010 in 3D’s retirement match.