One of the most wonderful things about wrestling is the power of context.

Ultimately, there are only so many ways in which one person can inflict pain on another within the confines of a wrestling ring. However, it is the circumstances around the collection of spots that make up a match—the storyline, the gimmicks, the crowds, etc. – that turn it into something special. It is how the same sequence of moves can take place in a different time and place and speak a very different narrative.

Antonio Inoki vs. Masa Saito
June 12, 1987

On June 12, 1987, a simple move and reversal formed the finish of a match that heralded a watershed moment in New Japan’s history. Almost three years to the day, the same sequence—albeit with a little twist—took place at the end of a bruising battle between one of the All Japan old guard and a young upstart eager to prove his worth. Removed from context, they just become a spot that could have occurred in any number of matches throughout history.

With context, wonderful things begin to happen.

Considering how central belts like the NWA World Heavyweight Title and the (W)WWF equivalent had been in US wrestling, it feels strange looking with a modern eye at the fact that it took until 1987 for New Japan to create its own main title. Though there had been a title handed out to the winner of the 1983 IWGP League (the winner being Hulk Hogan via an infamous countout victory over Antonio Inoki), it felt largely ceremonial, a trinket in addition to what would already be considered a comprehensive victory within the tournament itself.

By 1987, New Japan was willing to change and leading the charge was, as per usual since the promotion’s inception: Antonio Inoki. At the tender age of 44, Inoki was still a charismatic force of nature that the crowd loved, a relationship cultivated over the past fifteen years. The only man who realistically stood in his way from the inaugural IWGP Heavyweight Title? His once tag partner turned bitter foe (and fellow 44-year-old), Masa Saito.

The two had stood across the ring from each other in singles action as early as 1974, though it was in the last few months pre-tournament that things had begun to turn particularly ugly. Footage of their 1983 and 1984 matches saw Inoki outmaneuver his opponent in the former en route to victory via octopus hold, whilst he outsmarted Saito in the latter with a roll-up out of the corner. By this time, it would appear he had the measure of Saito having defeated him in six out of six contests. 

However, matches in March and April of 1987 only served to showcase a more aggressive side to both men. Whilst Saito would be disqualified for refusing to release a hold in their first encounter that year, it was the second that was particularly eye-opening. Having removed the ropes mid-match, the two men brawled to a bloody standstill, Inoki by sheer force of will alone able to force a referee stoppage as he threatened to bludgeon Saito to within an inch of his life unless someone stopped him.

Neither man had too many difficulties in getting to the final as they were drawn in separate blocks: Inoki beat Killer Brooks, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Seiji Sakaguchi, Konga the Barbarian and Scott Hall; Saito defeated Akira Maeda (by countout), Umanosuke Ueda (by DQ), Alexis Smirnoff, Hacksaw Higgins, George Takano, and Kengo Kimura to set up the final everyone wanted to see and the only ever likely outcome.

The tone was set even before the bell had rung as Inoki aimed a kick at Saito that instead clipped the referee. Though this didn’t immediately lead to the brawl that could have been expected – the two men instead trading submission holds at least initially- neither man backed down when it came to exchanging headbutts as brutal punctuation to their technical struggle.

Eight defeats out of eight contests might have hinted at Inoki having Saito’s number, but it was the stocky former freestyle wrestler who took control of the contest, dumping Inoki with multiple Saito suplexes as well as almost winning via countout after knocking the fan favorite off of the apron. When a third Saito suplex wasn’t enough, the look of frustration was clear and the crowd rose as one in an attempt to spur on their man to victory.

The finish was straightforward. Dredging up one last ounce of energy, Inoki was able to turn a fourth Saito suplex into a pinning predicament, using his legs to pin the shoulders to the mat. Almost concurrently with the ref’s hand hitting the mat for the third time, Saito managed to kickout, but the referee deemed it to be enough: Antonio Inoki was the first IWGP World Heavyweight Champion. Just as it felt like Saito, for the first time in their decade-plus rivalry, was primed to truly usurp Inoki on the grandest stage of them all, he had fallen short, defeated by a simple counter.

Antonio Inoki vs. Masa Saito 1987

Antonio Inoki vs. Masa Saito 1987

Jumbo Tsuruta vs. Mitsuharu Misawa
June 8, 1990

The parameters in which Jumbo Tsuruta and Mitsuharu Misawa met each other just under three years later were rather different. With ten years between the two in age and eight in terms of debuts, both men were sitting in somewhat different positions within All Japan. Tsuruta had been one of the guys of the 80s: anointed the first Triple Crown Champion in 1989, Jumbo had spent the past decade winning a significant number of singles and tag gold. Rarely was he to be seen without gold around his waist.

One of those title runs came with Tiger Mask #2, Misawa’s run as successor to Satoru Sayama’s popular gimmick. For four years, the two men had tagged together as Misawa was clearly primed for bigger things within the promotion. What better way to give him the experience and exposure he needed then attaching him to one of the most important guys in the promotion? Unsurprisingly, their success rate in tag and six-man matches was higher than most, culminating in the aforementioned (eight day) title reign.

Whilst the two had met once in a singles match (Tsuruta beating masked Misawa in 1988), by the time they clashed in 1990 things had substantially changed.

Tiger Mask II turning into Mitsuharu Misawa : r/PuroresuRevolution

Not only had Misawa unmasked—mid-match—to drop the gimmick and return to his given name, but the defection of Genichiro Tenryu left a hole at the top of the card for someone to fill. Misawa was deemed to be ready for that push, so a challenge was laid down—Misawa versus his childhood hero, Tsuruta.

Having so often been on the same side of the ring, Misawa and Tsuruta spent all of May colliding in six-man tag matches. In a feud defined by age and status, Tsuruta turned to wrestlers such as The Great Kabuki and Samson Fuyuki to fight for his cause; Misawa had multiple combinations of the eventual Four Pillars, wrestlers hungry to enhance their reputations, to call upon. Six matches were split evenly, three to three.

Still, when Misawa met Tsuruta on June 8, 1990, few could have imagined any outcome outside of a Jumbo win. Tsuruta didn’t lose many matches and for all of his promise, Misawa couldn’t have been perceived as on his level just yet. Tsuruta was a man who had tussled with Tenryu, battled Brody and dished out as good a hammering to Hansen as anyone who had stepped foot in the ring. Misawa’s day would come—time waits for no man, after all, and Tsuruta was approaching 40 – but not tonight. 

However, Jumbo was vulnerable. Only two nights previous, he had relinquished the Triple Crown to Terry Gordy, ending his half-year reign with the belts. It was not the preparation needed for a match against a relatively young upstart, one with all the momentum.

Clocking in at nearly ten minutes longer than the Inoki/Saito match, there was larger scope for peaks and troughs for both workers, ups and downs within the narrative.. The initial exchanges were all about Tsuruta exerting his authority, laying into Misawa with a big knee and a brutal boot to the face. Within minutes, however, the simple Saito suplex/reversal combination saw Misawa grab a quick two count, largely out of nowhere. Little did the fans know that they were being sown a seed that would grow and lead to a spectacular outcome.

Tapping into his junior heavyweight routes, Misawa’s initial success came through the air as he launched himself twice at Tsuruta, once off of the ring apron and once over the top rope. Following the quick start to proceedings, things slowed down as each man began to work holds. Their seeming parity continued through the halfway point as the advantage swung to and fro until a hotshot onto the top rope finally seemed to have Misawa down and in position for an extended beatdown.

And a beatdown he got.

Tsuruta was merciless. A piledriver, a top rope knee to the face and a powerbomb all followed, yet nothing was able to keep Misawa down for the three. A short-lived Misawa comeback saw him eat a pair of knees on a frog splash attempt, earning himself two massive clotheslines for his troubles mere moments later. Yet it was still not enough. Many of the failed pinfalls led to brief opportunities for Misawa. He was unable to capitalize on them in the moment, but was too good a wrestler to keep leaving a window open for.

Ultimately, Tsuruta overreached and landed hard on a missed charging dropkick. Here was where Misawa saw his chance; here was where the same move/reversal sequence that ended Inoki/Saito was deployed, with two small changes.

Firstly, Misawa slipped out of a suplex attempt to end up in position for the Saito-style suplex. Secondly, and most importantly, Tsuruta’s reversal was only good enough for two. Instead, Misawa was able to roll through into a pinfall of his own and hold Jumbo’s shoulders to the mat for three. 

It was a shocking result to see Tsuruta beaten clean in the middle of the ring by Misawa. This surprise coupled with the ascent towards and dominance of the top of the card that Misawa accomplished in the years to come meant that the match held more cultural significance than Inoki’s defeat of Saito, even with the latter being the start of a new era and the creation of the IWGP Heavyweight Title. Misawa over Jumbo is spoken about in “the discourse” more so than Inoki/Saito, there is no doubt about that. However, it is how the matches ended that interests me the most. They both took the same spot, the same basic idea, effectively the same finish and made it tell two different stories, and that’s what I love.

In the first match, you had the man who always seemed to have the number of his nemesis finding a way to win even when all seemed lost. A man able to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat and confirm himself as the best in that promotion – with a belt now to prove it.

In the second match, the wily veteran had seemingly found a way to eke out a victory over his young upstart opponent, taking a win in a match that he had controlled for long stretches but was beginning to lose momentum in. But instead, with that extra reversal, you saw the formal rise of Misawa as one of the guys in All Japan—a spark that lit the touch paper on a promotion that provided some of the greatest wrestling ever seen in the years to come.