The following essay was supposed to appear in the Voices of Wrestling 2020 NJPW Year-in-Review eBook but due to user error (my error!), it was mistakenly left out. It will be added to updated editions shortly but in the meantime enjoy this amazing piece of storytelling from Neil! -Rich Kraetsch
I respect Hiroshi Tanahashi. I love watching his matches. But, unfortunately, my hair is thinning, my waistline is expanding and I’ve never been the ace of anything in my life. As otherworldly as his matches are, I can never see myself taking the Highest of Fly Flows to cheers of adoring fans. I’m not conniving or evil like Jay White, nor am I suave like Tetsuya Naito.
I’ve spent many years watching, and writing, about the true heroes of New Japan. I’m not really interested in the matinee idol aces. Whether it’s Tomohiro Ishii as the working man doomed to fail, or Kota Ibushi the true wandering spirit of passion, for me the wonder of New Japan is in the everyman. Behind the lights and rapturous noise are lots of wrestlers situated in a day job. They have wants, hopes and dreams that aren’t just handed to them. There are plenty of stories being told that echo tales from all of our lives. Whether it’s betrayal, disappointment or envy, these are heightened retellings of everyday struggle told between the ropes in front of thousands of fans.
Those are the stories that interest me, and whether I consider the protagonist a hero or a villain doesn’t really matter. The most wonderful, life-affirming compliments are those that echo our inner feelings about ourselves. Conversely, the most devastating criticisms are those that we know to be true.
I like to see myself as an Ishii. A man who is good at what he does, but not good enough for it to be easy. A man whose most prominent characteristic is graft at the grindstone. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s true.
I think I’m more of a Yujiro Takahashi.
I’m not a pimp, by any stretch of the imagination. The idea of someone mistaking me for a pimp is as laughable and as offensive as someone mistaking Yujiro for a pimp. However, as a person beset with imposter syndrome, I can recognize the eyes of a man who feels out of his depth. He might walk to the ring with an over-sexualized bunny rabbit, trying his best to convince us that he really is the Tokyo equivalent of a lecherous criminal but his eyes are staring at something internal that we can’t quite see. Maybe it’s Gedo’s intense fetishism of the sordid nineties wrestling scene being splurged in a booking meeting, but there’s a real sense of Yujiro needing something. Like me, he isn’t quite good enough to excel in his chosen field, so he needed the most extreme of gimmicks.
Inadequacies are never exposed more brilliantly than in the G1 Climax. Newcomers to New Japan may not remember the days of each block having a dire wrestler squatting in a spot, as the last few years have been such a celebration of great wrestling that it truly has become the Grade One Climax in more than just a promotional protestation. The grueling tournament has given the ardent wrestling fan the full Victorian Christmas meal. We’ve had the fine wine of classic matches, the meaty centerpiece of booking decisions and the frantic rush to the best mince pies of the final. Even the amuse-bouche of Toru Yano is something to consider, mull and ultimately decide he is a break for the fan as much as the worker.
2020 has been different. The world having to shut itself down led to changes everywhere, and perhaps the most devastating change was the inclusion of Yujiro, once again, in the G1. As excited as I can get over the sticky story of Taichi taking on Suzuki or the certified classic of Ospreay vs Ishii, a step back and a slight position change can make Yujiro just as exciting. How can a man who looks like every moved limb is an exercise in mental anguish muddle his way through a tournament where even the worst wrestlers would be the best in every other promotion?
The G1 tournament relies on a recognition of the tropes. Bourdieu tells us that in order to succeed in whatever field we find ourselves in, we need to understand the rules of the game and exhibit the behaviors that bring reward from the other actors in that field. The reason the G1 is so revered is because the single most important criterion for success is to have great matches. Wins and losses are important in kayfabe pushes, but for the fan needlessly dissecting every movement, it is the ability to construct captivating matches that elevates all. Plenty of wrestlers finish the G1 with a losing record yet are still heralded as the best performer of the tournament.
Yujiro’s problem is that he can’t really have good matches. At least, not matches on the same level as the rest of the stellar field in which he finds himself. Even wrestlers like YOSHI-HASHI, undoubtedly a physical and mental step behind those around him, can tap into the underdog spirit that ushers in a deeper level of story-telling, heightening his value in a tournament like this.
Yujiro is me in a work meeting. He’s surrounded by people who play the game better than him wearing a mask that doesn’t quite fit. That makes his matches unskippable to me. I’m not the working man of Ishii, the underdog of YOSHI-HASHI or the comet of blazing hairspray that is Tanahashi. I’m consistently out of my depth, and for that reason skipping Yujiro’s matches was never an option. It’s often a painful watch, but meditative and healing.
Of course, one wrestler does not a match make. I’m disabled, beset with spina bifida and can’t really walk properly if the weather is cold but even I could have a two-star match with someone like Tetsuya Naito. I might need carrying, literally and figuratively, but when paired with an ethereal talent the final result would be functional. The interest in Yujiro’s matches don’t lie in his inability, but in the ability of his opponents. What can they do with a wrestler who is just a step behind?
It’s a trope used in literature constantly – the trope of the foil. A clever writer will put two diametrically opposed characters next to each other. The juxtaposition of values will serve as a highlighter, elevating each characters’ respective traits. Tybalt seems all the angrier when speaking to the besotted Romeo. John McClane’s family-centric toughness is emphasized because of Hans Gruber’s greed. The G1 gave me an opportunity to see if this applies to wrestlers’ qualities. Who can have the best match with Yujiro?
Well, the Will Ospreay plan was the most simple. If Yujiro is defined by his sluggishness, Ospreay is certainly a foil for that. He bounced his way around the ring with almost as much fervor as he bounced his own head off the mat. Ospreay seemed willing to risk the firm seating his brain currently enjoys to make Yujiro look good, and it was heartwarming to see in a sadistic way. Wrestlers like Ospreay are made for the G1, and he risked it all to build a catalog of matches that would stand the test of time, Yujiro be damned. This drew a clear distinction between the padawan of Ospreay and his mentor Okada.
Okada’s match with Yujiro was hyperreality at it’s finest. I could see Yujiro landing blows, but the subsequent selling from Okada was laughable. He spent most of the match rolling around like he was using it as an opportunity for a rest. Submitting Yujiro with his fifth level finisher, however, gave us the nugget that made this year’s G1 so interesting. The commentary consistently alluded to the fact that there were stronger and weaker competitors. There were matches that certain wrestlers should win, and it was a timely reminder that we still have something that is often forgotten in the bigger company. There is a hierarchy in New Japan, and it allows for shocks, upsets and staggering dominance just waiting to be usurped.
The most heartbreaking moment of Yujiro’s G1 was his match against Taichi. He tried so hard to adhere to the rules of the game. He allowed Taichi to slap him silly while he gradually built up more and more fighting spirit. The big comeback was on the way, and when the stunning forearm finally landed it didn’t regain him his honor. The crowd, who have been remarkably compliant with the order for silence, laughed. He did what everyone else does, and people laughed at him. I’m not sure whether that was as humiliating as the kick to the dick that ended the match, but both moments will have hurt in very different ways. Whether it hurt as much as Suzuki battering him senseless in the next tournament match is a question only the man himself can answer.
Of course, there are times when we are all called to greatness, and for a wrestler it must be when you are booked against Tomohiro Ishii. Again, Yujiro is that mirror that forces you to deal with the uncomfortable truths. How many times have we been in a situation where we have to be better than we actually are? How many times in life are we in a position where failure will only ever be our own fault? Yujiro’s position was a painful truth and a wonderful life-affirming moment. This match won’t be on anybody’s match of the year list, but it was very good. It fit the standards of the G1 Climax. It might seem like I’m damning it with faint praise, but as Ishii kicked out at 2.99, I had that car crash moment where I didn’t realize what had happened until after it was over. I was completely invested in the match, wallowing the part of my brain that can pretend this is all real. The difference between this match and the previous matches, was that Yujiro played his part fantastically. He wasn’t quite an equal, but he wasn’t an obstacle to overcome.
The true moment of Yujiro’s G1, and why I have spent so much time thinking about him, was the moment where he refused to lie down for Jay White. There’s something glorious about the way inter-faction matches are handled in the G1. It’s the sort of story that’s told so infrequently, they almost demand attention. The relationships in New Japan are often based on mutual benefits, almost bordering on business relationships rather than just enjoying the same color of spandex. This demands that, in the G1 of all places, Yujiro should just lie down for Jay White which he dutifully does.
We’re all the Yujiro in certain circles. We all reach the peak of our abilities and we have to make silent sacrifices as we recognize our inadequacy. It’s part of life. We can’t always be at the top of the food chain. When Jay White toyed with Yujiro, breaking the pin that he had ordered, it made something boil inside me. When he clapped Yu-ji-ro for the fans with the smug grin of the bully, it seemed like a contemptible attempt to diminish someone who didn’t deserve it. Sacrifice and subservience are necessary parts of life. Mockery and disdain are not.
When Yujuro kicked out of the pin, I cheered. There’s something pure about someone being so self-destructive in order to do the right thing. Without the BULLET CLUB, what is Yujiro? Yet he was ready to throw it all away to take a momentary stand. It was a wonderful moment, where a man was able to breathe in total freedom whilst being completely cognizant that everything would come crashing down around him.
I don’t like Yujiro. I don’t like his wrestling, and I am offended by his gimmick. However, there is such nuance to the presentation, that when I started picking away at the oakum, I not only saw parts of myself but I saw what I could be.
Neil David lives in Salford with his best pal, Jake The Dog. He drinks too much, smokes too much and is very unfriendly. Don’t add him on Twitter at @chubby_cthulhu.
Download the VOW 2020 NJPW Year-in-Review eBook!
- Profiles of each and every wrestler, tag team and trio that wrestled for NJPW in 2020
- Long-form essays on various NJPW-specific topics
- Detailed statistics including win-loss records, pinfalls, fall differential, match times and more from SportofProWrestling.com’s Chris Samsa.
- Championship recaps, results and history.
- Tournament recaps, results and history.
- Detailed profiles of each NJPW unit.
- Every NJPW show review that appeared on VoicesofWrestling.com in 2020.
- A list of the 25 best NJPW matches of 2020.
- Year-End NJPW Power Rankings.
- NJPW Official Hunk Ratings
- & more!
Last but not least, a foreword by NJPW wrestler and current IWGP United States Heavyweight Champion Jon Moxley!
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