February 2022 marks 20 years since Keiji Muto, Satoshi Kojima, Kendo Kashin and several office staff officially jumped to All Japan Pro Wrestling from New Japan. While not as seismic of an event as the Pro Wrestling NOAH exodus from All Japan in July 2000, the effects still reverberate today on the puroresu scene.
The rumors of the jump had been circulating in the media since mid-January but Muto himself remained tight-lipped. As January drew to a close, Muto and company gave notice to New Japan that they would not be signing new contracts there. As an aside, and a big what if that would have definitely led to a very different world, Muto tried to get Hiroshi Tanahashi to jump too but the future ace declined demonstrating his loyalty to his home promotion.
While it was quite obvious where they were going, at first they simply pretended to be freelancers working All Japan. The February 24 Keiji Muto vs. Toshiaki Kawada match at the Nippon Budokan for the Triple Crown had already been announced months before.
By leaving New Japan, Muto vacated the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Team Championship that he held with All Japan’s Taiyo Kea and Kashin vacated the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Championship.
The main reason for the split was the rise of Inokiism in New Japan and its disastrous effects (and it would even get worse for New Japan after the jump). Motoko Baba taking a liking to Muto also helped. While Baba’s role in the NOAH split is controversial, Dr. Jonathan Foye, in his new book Ganbaru: How All Japan Pro Wrestling Survived the Year 2000 Roster Split, makes a strong case that Baba also deserves credit for keeping All Japan alive and relatively healthy by bringing in Genichiro Tenryu, working with New Japan and then finally snagging Muto. With these signings, it seemed that All Japan had finally been saved.
Muto was coming off of an incredible run in 2001 and was arguably the hottest wrestler in the world not named The Rock or Steve Austin.
The jumps seemed to initially pay off. The February 24 show sold out Budokan and in the main event Kawada defeated Muto for the Triple Crown in a fantastic match. Kojima and Tenryu also had a banger in the semi-main. And in a surprise, Kaz Hayashi would appear and join All Japan after leaving WWF developmental where he probably realized his prospects in the U.S. were grim.
FROM HIGH HIGHS TO LOW LOWS
All Japan’s history has not only been marked with exodus and bad decisions. There has been a lot of just plain old bad luck. Less than a month after the jumps, Toshiaki Kawada blew out his knee in the Champion Carnival and would be out for a year. The Triple Crown was vacated. From that point forward, the euphoria that Muto had brought to All Japan would begin to wear off.
For my money, the period from April 2002 to just before the 2002 Real World Tag League was one of the worst in company history, and most of the fault for this was on Muto’s booking. Muto kept around foreigners who added nothing like Mike Rotunda. Muto also became transfixed by foreigners that cost too much and wouldn’t add anything long-term like Goldberg and Kronik. And probably for those reasons, Muto never bothered to sign great free agents who were available on the scene at the time like Masato Tanaka who eventually got scooped up by ZERO-ONE.
Adding to these blunders, All Japan had been in talks with both TBS and TV Tokyo about a new weekly show on broadcast television based on Muto’s star power, but a deal was never reached. All Japan would have to settle for continuing to be on GAORA TV over satellite.
Goldberg’s brief run epitomized everything wrong with Muto’s All Japan in its early days. The company’s two top prospects—Kojima and Kea—were sacrificed to Goldberg in squash matches on back-to-back Budokan shows on August 30 and 31 that celebrated the company’s 30th anniversary. The month prior, Kojima had had a match of the year contender against Tenryu for the Triple Crown and Kea had finally got his first singles victory over Tenryu in a non-title match, bringing to a close one of the few long-running storylines that the post-NOAH split, pre-Muto All Japan had booked. To make this story even more preposterous, Goldberg was injured at the time and couldn’t even do the Jackhammer, instead using a twisting neckbreaker move that looked a lot like Tanahashi’s Twist and Shout.
Just a gigantic waste of money.
In October 2002, with the 30th anniversary finally celebrated, Motoko Baba sold her shares in All Japan to Muto and a team of investors in a deal brokered by Hiroshi Hase. While Muto’s fingerprints were all over the company since he joined it, he was now officially the boss and the Pro Wres Love era could really begin. This deal would have the effect of Tenryu becoming a freelancer as he had hoped to maneuver into the company Presidency himself though he continued to regularly work All Japan into 2004 and occasional shows after that. Kawada was also working without a contract by this point, but Muto, in one of the actual smart things he did in the early years of assuming power in All Japan, kept Kawada loyal to the company by keeping him as the top guy.
Things began to turn the corner in late 2002 when the feud with ZERO-ONE got underway as the Emblem team of Shinjiro Ohtani and Masato Tanaka entered the Real World Tag League. The feud would get even hotter when Shinya Hashimoto defeated The Great Muta for the Triple Crown in February 2003.
While All Japan itself was turning the corner, Muto got into bed with K-1 and PRIDE and would promote two AJPW Wrestle-1 shows that featured fighters from those promotions. Despite leaving New Japan because of the MMA influence, Muto couldn’t escape its allure given how hot it was in Japan at the time. The first one in November 2002 in Yokohama arena drew over 12,000, a respectable number. But the January 19 2003 show in the Tokyo Dome was a disaster. They got 20,000 to the show, but much of that was papered. Matches were announced at the last minute and they couldn’t agree to a deal with Hulk Hogan to wrestle. It’s not known how much All Japan may have lost on the original Wrestle-1 fiasco, but given the money thrown around ($100,000 for Goldberg to wrestle, $25,000 for each member of Kronik), it’s safe to say that K-1 and PRIDE absorbed most of the losses. While a mess, thankfully it did not damage All Japan that much. But it is a reminder of Muto’s lack of business acumen and judgment.
KAWADA SAVES THE DAY (AGAIN)
Shinya Hashimoto had a nice little Triple Crown reign but it was cut short due to a shoulder injury that would nag him until the end of his life. Just before he was going to almost certainly drop the Triple Crown to Kawada at the Budokan in September 2003, he vacated it. At the Budokan show, Kawada would win a four-man tournament for the Triple Crown defeating Mike Awesome in the semi-finals then Shinjiro Ohtani in the finals in a pretty good match. While not under the most ideal circumstances, Kawada was Triple Crown champion again.
This would prove to be a stabilizing force for the company.
Kawada would go on to hold the Triple Crown for 529 days and set a defense record in a single reign of ten that still stands to this day (though Kento Miyahara also is tied at ten). This reign was excellent, though overshadowed as it paralleled much of Kenta Kobashi’s epic GHC Heavyweight title reign. It also ended the right way when Kawada put Kojima over for the Triple Crown in February 2005. It was a passing of the torch from the old ace to the new one.
After that point, Kawada would only be a semi-regular in All Japan. While Kojima would have a good run with the Triple Crown, after that point he began to feel lost in the booking with guys like Minoru Suzuki and Kensuke Sasaki getting a lot more attention while Suwama was soon elevated into the main event scene. Though Kojima had some great tag team runs in All Japan with Hayashi and later the re-united Tencozy with Hiroyoshi Tenzan, he never quite lived up to the ace potential some thought he would have in All Japan and this combined with other factors that will be discussed later, ultimately led to his return to New Japan in 2010.
As Kawada’s reign brought stability at the top of the card, the outlines of much of what would continue until the end of the Pro Wres Love era began to take shape. Kaz Hayashi began to build a very good Jr. Heavyweight division after Kendo Kashin’s bizarre and acrimonious departure in 2004. Shuji Kondo and “brother” YASSHI were good additions to the Jr. roster. And it was at this time that Katsuhiko Nakajima began to turn heads putting on excellent matches. Much like Kawada’s epic Triple Crown reign, the All Japan Jrs. were overshadowed by what the Jrs. were doing in NOAH. But I’d argue that the All Japan Jr. division during most of the Pro Wres Love years was often more interesting than what was going on in New Japan until the 2010s.
More controversial was the rise of heel factions like RO&D and later the Voodoo Murders. These groups usually relied on a Japanese talent to work the mic like TAKA Michinoku in RO&D and later TARU in Voodoo Murders. While each group had high profile Japanese members, their core were foreigners, often ex-WWE guys like D’Lo Brown, Bull Buchanan and Jamal. More purist fans recoiled at the time from their heel antics, though it seems rather quaint now in the age of House of Torture. But strong and colorful heel factions later became the norm and in this way, I’d argue that the Bullet Club owes as much to Voodoo Murders as NWO Japan. I didn’t hate any of these factions and in fact, enjoyed the work of Brown and Jamal specifically. I think the biggest issue was that too much money was spent on bringing in guys like Chuck Palumbo and Rico Constantino who added nothing. Sticking to a capable core of foreigners was a smarter idea than trying to get any ex-WWE wrestler they could. There’s also little doubt that NOSAWA Rongai got some of his booking ideas he now brings to NOAH from being an All Japan regular in these years as a member of the GURENTAI stable, especially the frequent jumps to different stables.
THE END OF PRO WRES LOVE
All Japan marched on through the 2000s. It never got beyond being the third or even fourth-largest promotion in the country. However, slowly but surely, it built up a nice little roster of guys that were turned out of its Dojo – Kohei Suwama, Taichi Ishikari, Seiya Sanada, KAI, Hiroshi Yamato and Manabu Soya – to name a few. Muto led All Japan into a fair amount of interpromotional work with New Japan from about 2007 to 2009, including Wrestle Kingdom I being promoted as almost a joint show. While New Japan was slowly rebuilding itself thanks to Tanahashi, All Japan did not reach a new level from it. In 2010 cracks began to show. Satoshi Kojima left the company and returned to New Japan. It’s speculated that it was in part over pay and in part his unwillingness to put Suwama over.
The darkest chapter of Muto’s All Japan occurred on May 29, 2011.
TARU got into a fight backstage with his Voodoo Murders stablemate Nobukazu Hirai (then under the gimmick of Super Hate), and during the fight, Hirai suffered head trauma. Hirai would be in a match later that evening and suffer a stroke after it. Minoru Tanaka, Masayuki Kono and MAZADA were suspended because they were in the dressing room during the fight and did nothing to stop it. Media outrage over taking too long to publicly respond to the incident was strong enough that Muto resigned his position of company president to be replaced by Masayuki Uchida, though Muto retained his spot on the board of directors. There were reports like those by Dave Meltzer that stated that Hirai’s condition was much worse than the company claimed as he was unresponsive in hospital for days. While the suspended wrestlers returned by the end of June, another blow to the company came when Kyohei Wada, who had been with the company since 1974 when he started as part of the ring crew, resigned from the company stating that Muto’s lack of a public apology to Hirai, “betrayed All Japan.”
Wada would not return to All Japan until June 30, 2013, when he refereed the main event of Suwama vs. Jun Akiyama for the Triple Crown on the last show that Muto and company were on. Hirai would eventually recover though he would never wrestle again. Despite some faint hope in early 2013, Muto’s All Japan was on borrowed time.
Faced with money troubles, Muto would sell the company to Speed Partners, an IT company for ¥200 million in November 2012. This news was not made public until February 2013. The new management got off to a good start, as it took advantage of turmoil in NOAH by signing Atsushi Aoki, Go Shiozaki, Jun Akiyama, Kotaro Suzuki and Yoshinobu Kanemaru and debuting them as the new Burning stable in January. Akiyama had already proven he had a good working relationship with All Japan as he had a Triple Crown run the previous year while still in NOAH. The jump made a lot of sense for all involved. The Burning vs. All Japan feud was awesome, and I would argue for a few months, All Japan was one of the hottest companies in the world putting on incredible matches thanks to Burning.
But it wasn’t to last. Speed Partners President Nobuo Shiraishi was an egomaniac who pissed off not just the wrestlers but the fans as well. After unsuccessfully trying to buy back All Japan, In July 2013, Muto and most of the All Japan wrestlers that owed their careers to him would leave the company and for Wrestle-1. All Japan was basically left with just Suwama, Akebono, Takao Omori, Joe Doering, Masanobu Fuchi and Burning.
After a promising start, Wrestle-1 never really found its footing and not long after, it began to bleed talent like KAI whose previous loyalty to Muto was not enough to keep him there. Muto had once again proven to be a business bungler. Though to be fair to Muto, a compromise within All Japan that would have gotten him and everyone else to stay would have been nearly impossible. You can’t really blame people for wanting to flee from a crazy boss, even someone with an ego the size of Muto’s.
The Pro Wres Love era of All Japan has its fans (and not just me, I swear). It was never the highest end wrestling product from an in-ring perspective (though there was a decent amount of high-end stuff) and there were plenty of goofy characters and angles along the way. But the company eventually built itself into something that had heart thanks to Hayashi’s Jr. division and the hard work of the younger wrestlers trained there. I probably would have never given much of a chance to a Muto-led All Japan if Kawada hadn’t stayed. He’s my favorite wrestler of all time and the reason I kept watching All Japan after the NOAH split. Once Kawada began to work elsewhere and in All Japan less, I still kept up with the company because it had managed to hook me, even if its flaws were obvious. By that point, I had already invested years in watching All Japan and figured, why stop?. And as it would turn out, I kept watching many more.
There’s a lot of Muto era All Japan out there that’s fairly easy to find, and there’s a good number of hidden gems that a lot of international puroresu fans haven’t seen.
As far as Muto’s legacy goes, it’s a mixed one.
From an in-ring perspective, he’s one of my ten greatest wrestlers ever. He was a bad businessman but I don’t think he’s had as negative an influence on puroresu as a whole as some claim, though the Hirai incident is a legitimate stain on his legacy. I’m not a fan of his NOAH run. He’d be fine doing six-man tags in the midcard but being at the top of the card is too much. Then there’s the storyline with him and Kaito Kiyomiya that is ruining the prospects of a possible future legend. But I can’t lay all the blame on Muto, NOSAWA and Sanshiro Takagi are clearly enabling all of this. But at the end of the day, I still cannot forget his 2001 run and many of his biggest moments in 1990s New Japan.
I thought it was important to remember this historical moment. It was a big deal to me when it happened. For better or worse, we are very much still living in the world it shaped. And it’s always a reminder when it comes to All Japan, things could always be worse.
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