This is an article format I’m trying out and hope to continue in the future. As a lifelong wrestling fan, I and, I would guess, many who read this have a number of wrestlers we believe are perhaps under-appreciated by the majority of wrestling fans we come across. Maybe they’re overshadowed by bigger stars, maybe their time under the brightest lights was too short for most to pay attention, or maybe they simply just aren’t remembered today. I’m hoping to celebrate these overlooked wrestlers, both new and old, with this article and others like it. Full disclosure, I am an American wrestling fan who’s spent most of their time engaging with the American wrestling community, and these articles are by-and-large directed toward what I would consider an “average” American wrestling fan: someone who watches WWE and maybe also watches AEW or NJPW or Impact but are not exactly big puro or lucha fans and probably don’t keep up much with the indie scene of any country beyond maybe some PWG. So not every wrestler I cover will necessarily be overlooked in their home country or in certain circles, and our first subject is, I think, a good example of that. It should also be said that “overlooked” doesn’t mean “unsuccessful” or that I necessarily believe the subject should have been in the main events or winning world titles. These are just wrestlers I think deserve a second look from fans who might have passed on them the first time. With that out of the way, it’s time to wake up and see exactly who you’ve been sleeping on.
There are many reasons to like a wrestler: their promos, their gimmick, their compelling storylines, their amazing athleticism. But sometimes, you just love a wrestler because they’re an incredibly hard man who hits other men incredibly hard. The tough man archetype has been around since professional wrestling’s genesis. From Lou Thesz to Bruiser Brody to Vader to Brock Lesnar, wrestling has been awash with these in all their variations. For the modern-day American wrestling fan, this is most commonly the purview of New Japan’s Tomihiro Ishii or NXT UK’s WALTER. In the 90s, a wrestling fan was spoiled for choosing a favorite tough man. The aforementioned Vader, any member of All Japan’s Four Pillars, or most of the ECW locker room could lay claim to the title. The problem is, these 90s options can all be divided into two categories: stiff striking and hardcore wrestling. Mitsuharu Misawa’s elbow might have legitimately knocked a man out, but you would never catch him powerbombing someone through a table. Similarly, the Sandman was a master of hitting people with anything that happened to be nearby, but you’d never call his striking particularly excellent. Was there anyone who combined these two disparate categories, a man so tough and hard he was as at-home in an exploding barbed wire ring as he was caving men’s skulls in with vicious elbows?
Enter Masato Tanaka.
Mostly known for his run in ECW from 1998-2000, Masato Tanaka has been wrestling like he was stuck inside his own personal Yakuza game since 1993. His rivalry with Mike Awesome is his greatest legacy in the West for good reason. Each match between these two, including pre-ECW bouts in FMW, is a masterclass in how to have a great wrestling match in the hardcore style. Tables, chairs, powerbombs, elbows, DDTs, you will not find two men more perfectly suited for battering each other with anything and everything than these two.
Literally any match of these two is a two thumbs up recommendation if you just want to watch glorious violence unfold before your eyes. The swan song of their feud came at the 2005 One Night Stand pay-per-view, where the pair put on another brutal spectacle. But Awesome was not the only wrestler to really gel with the man known in Japan as “Dangan” (Eng. Bullet). In FMW alone, Tanaka wrestled the likes of Terry Funk, Mr. Pogo, and Hayabusa in excellent matches. In ECW, he briefly tagged with Balls Mahoney and became the first person to kick out of the Dudley Boyz’ 3-D.
But most of that is fairly common knowledge if you watched ECW. Remember how I said Tanaka started wrestling in 1993? He’d only been wrestling for six years by the time he and Mike Awesome were battering each other in ECW. Dangan had a lot left in the tank, and after leaving FMW in 2001, he began touring the Japanese indies and showing it. His matches with Shinya Hashimoto, Satoshi Kojima, Toshiaki Kawada, and Daisuke Sekimoto are recommended for this period if you want to see Tanaka wrestle men just as stiff as he is.
In 2008, Tanaka began making appearances for New Japan Pro Wrestling, where he became a prominent member of CHAOS and feuded with the likes of Yuji Nagata, Tomoaki Honma, and a pre-Tranquilo Tetsuya Naito. He even managed to capture the IWGP Intercontinental Championship and become the inaugural NEVER Openweight champion.
However, his greatest work during his New Japan run were his matches with Tomohiro Ishii. Anyone who’s watched modern New Japan has probably seen Ishii have plenty of stiff wars, and his work with Tanaka is no exception. Like Tanaka with Awesome or Ishii with Katsuyori Shibata, Dangan and the Stone Pitbull meshed in a way most wrestlers wished they could achieve. Any fan of Ishii is implored to check out his matches with Tanaka.
Exiting New Japan in 2014, Tanaka has since returned to freelancing, popping up in Big Japan, NOAH, DDT, and the occasional western appearances at events like Wrestlecon. Though not on as big a stage as New Japan and 10+ years in the business, Tanaka’s ability to put on stiff, entertaining matches hasn’t diminished in the slightest. He formed a partnership with fellow stiff bastard Takashi Sugiura and plowed through NOAH’s tag team division, winning two straight Global Tag Leagues and capturing the GHC Tag Team Championship. His Big Japan 6-Man Tag teaming with Sugiura and Daisuke Sekimoto against HARASHIMA, Yuji Hino, and Yuji Okayabashi is just as quality as anything he put on in ECW or New Japan. In the West, bouts with Kevin Steen, Eddie Kingston, and WALTER all delivered on Tanaka’s hard-hitting legacy. Most recently, he can be found in All Japan, tagging with fellow former ECW standout TAJIRI in their Real World Tag Team tournament.
Masato Tanaka would never lay claim to best wrestler in the world, but his greatest strength lies in his consistency. Going into his fourth decade as an active performer, Masato Tanaka’s quality has not slipped, and he can always be counted on to put on entertaining, stiff matches with anyone he’s put in the ring with. I expect in a few years’ time, I might even be able to go back and add to this article and fill it with more recommendations of Tanaka and his Roaring Elbow laying out the competition. In a medium built on the backs of tough-as-nails men, there are few who can work just as smoothly with Shinya Hashimoto as they can with Balls Mahoney, and Masato Tanaka is near the top of that list.