Junior heavyweights. Cruiserweights. Lightweights. X Division. Whatever name the particular period and company decides to call them, the smaller members of the wrestling world’s roster have long had to scratch and claw their way to whatever booking respect they could garner. What they lacked in stature has traditionally been made up tenfold in athleticism and innovation, producing some of the most jaw-dropping encounters in our great sport. This edition of The Wrestling 101 features five junior heavyweight matches that are sure to blow you away. – Robin Reid

Match #27 Ultimo Dragon vs. Shinjiro Otani

Match #27
Ultimo Dragon vs. Shinjiro Otani
NJPW G1 Climax 1996 J-Crown Tournament

Testimonial by Case Lowe

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately New Japan World doesn’t have the match up currently on their service. The match is available on certain sites, but if you’re struggling to locate it then it might be worth joining our Discord channel and joining the conversation.

Junior heavyweight wrestling is a small-room act. No matter how much wrestling evolves and no matter how many calendars turn over, junior heavyweight wrestling will be best served wrestling in front of intimate, enthusiastic crowds. By no means is this a dig. Outside of the wrestling bubble, I am gravitated towards small room acts in the alternative music and comedy spaces. Not everything should be for everyone, and nothing personifies that thought process quite like the existence of junior heavyweights. Unwanted in promotions like All Japan Pro Wrestling during their heyday, under-appreciated throughout American wrestling history, and relegated to hyper-focused promotions like Dragongate and DDT in the present, the battle for respect among junior heavyweights will be a continuous uphill battle.

There was a brief moment in time, however, in which the stars aligned and in the midst of fame and fortune for New Japan Pro Wrestling’s biggest and brightest heavyweights, a coalition of junior heavyweights began to get a taste of what the genetically-favored were used to.

The battle between Ultimo Dragon, a cartoon-come-to-life with flashy charisma that could pull in an unassuming viewer, and Shinjiro Otani, who wrestled with the weight of a 1,000 underdogs on his back, in front of a rabid Sumo Hall, created an instant classic and a template for what junior heavyweight wrestling can look like in front of the masses.

For so long, tales about junior heavyweights wrestling in silence in front of Sumo Hall and Tokyo Dome audiences carried throughout wrestling. On this evening, however, 11,000 fans lived and died through every second of Ultimo and Otani.

Ultimo Dragon is both massively overrated and massively underrated, depending on what bubble you operate within. There is a version of Ultimo, among hardcore wrestling inteligencia, that puts the Aichi-native in the overrated camp. Once a standout junior heavyweight in WCW’s cruiserweight division, Ultimo’s botched surgery in 1998 left him firmly entrenched as a mediocre wrestler. For the better part of two decades, he’s existed as a nostalgia act, failing to produce anything worthwhile for nearly every major company in Japan and largely thriving off of appearances abroad, where he can come in for big money and exert little effort.

His lackluster 21st century has led people to forget how innovative and exciting he once was. Ultimo Dragon, the wrestler, is far more than Ultimo Ten Belts. His time in WCW wasn’t the peak of his career, but merely one of many promotions that he dominated in the 1990s.

Yoshinari Asai, the man behind the Ultimo Dragon mask and the name that he wrestled under prior to 1991, was a stunning wrestler. My favorite work of his career is the work he did before he wore a mask. Despite his unassuming build, Asai revolutionized the junior heavyweight scene with his work in Gran Hamada’s Universal Lucha Libre promotion and his eventual departure from the promotion led to the demise of a once-exciting group.

Once he was given the mask, his otherworldly talent was only elevated by his newly found otherworldly charisma. Ultimo Dragon, the in-ring performer and the creative mind, is a man of many flaws, but he is ultimately a one-in-a-million entity who reached his apex in 1996 as he stood across the ring from Shinjiro Otani.

The Yamaguchi-native graduated from the Animal Hamaguchi Dojo before surviving the battlefield that was the New Japan Dojo. Whereas Ultimo bounced around the world, wrestling in Mexico, then Hamada’s Universal, then later SWS before sticking the landing in Genichiro Tenryu’s WAR, Otani had been loyal to New Japan since his earliest days as a wrestling fan. On a rare instance when he would pop up outside of New Japan, whether it be to an upstart Michinoku Pro promotion in 1994 or to the aforementioned WAR, it would be done in an effort to defend the Lion’s Mark.

Otani suffered an embarrassing defeat in the 1995 Super J Cup to Ultimo Dragon. He put forth a strong effort, but still lost to the masked man after a botched moonsault-turned-La Magistral. That’s partially why the crowd loses their minds whenever Ultimo attempts his signature flash pin in this match. A second attempt a minute into the match prompted a “wag of the finger” from the New Japan homegrown. He had learned from his mistake and he wasn’t going to get in Ultimo’s flashy lucha pin again.

In the constant balance between “head” and “heart,” the aforementioned sequence showed Otani’s “head.” The rest of this match, a 16-minute affair that left both men exhausted as if they had wrestled for twice that amount of time, exuded the “heart” of one Shinjiro Otani.

When you think of iconic junior heavyweights, there are names like Ultimo Dragon, El Hijo del Santo, and Jushin Thunder Liger that immediately come to mind. All are charismatic in their own way, but ultimately, their faces are left covered by a mask. Otani bared every emotion on his face in a raw, nearly unsettling way. A lifelong underdog, Otani relied on superb technique and unmatched heart to carve his way through New Japan’s best junior heavyweights. This is his magnum opus. He is phenomenal in every aspect of this match. He takes wild, uncontrolled bumps that send him spilling to the floor. He hits Ultimo with huge moves like his signature dragon suplex. He emotes big enough so that everyone in the building, including whoever had the privilege of sitting in the cheapest cheap seat, could feel the emotions etched on his face. He was simply perfect in this bout.

When it was all said and done, Otani, had carried the emotional weight of every New Japan fan in the building on his back, was unable to get it done. The emotion that had been etched across his face throughout the match – the joy, the pain, and the desire to win, had all been erased by Ultimo Dragon. Otani’s “lovable loser” status began forming as Ultimo advanced, both in the tournament, and as a global entity who could claim sizable fan bases in  the United States, and Mexico.

Two unparalleled talents, their different approaches to the ring and their different ways of marketing themselves outside of it, showed just why this was a golden era of junior heavyweight wrestling. This is a rare instance of Big Room Junior Heavyweight action working. It is an outlier in the larger canonical history of junior heavyweight wrestling, yet it is a match that simply must be discussed when rattling off defining moments within the genre.

Further Viewing

Match #28 Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio Jr.

Match #28
Eddie Guerrero vs. Rey Mysterio Jr.
WCW Halloween Havoc 1997

Watch: WWE Network / Peacock
Testimonial by Andrew Sinclair

I got my first taste of professional wrestling in 2004, and it didn’t take long to get me hooked. At that point, Eddie Guerrero had just won his sole WWE Championship from Brock Lesnar, and Rey Mysterio was flitting in and out of the Cruiserweight title picture. To a seven-year-old child, they both jumped off the screen: Mysterio flew about the ring in fast, dynamic ways, while Guerrero was dripping in this roguish charisma.

Fast forward 12 years, and I’m at university. I decide to make the most of my WWE Network subscription and do a watch-through of old WCW pay-per-views from the early 90s onwards. A lot of the stuff I saw wasn’t particularly good, and that was true of the opening two matches of WCW Halloween Havoc 1997. Third on that night, though, is a match that I’ve seen countless times since and would rank as the best match WCW ever put together: A Mask vs. Hair match for the WCW Cruiserweight title between Eddie Guerrero and Rey Mysterio.

Both men had followed similar paths in wrestling to that point. Both had excelled in Mexico before getting their big American breaks in ECW thanks to Paul Heyman.

Guerrero was the older man by seven years and the more physical and technical wrestler of the two. He’d won the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (WON) Feud of the Year Award in 1994 for his work in AAA and then again the following year for his iconic series with Dean Malenko. Since jumping back to WCW in 1996, he’d won the United States Heavyweight title and then at WCW Fall Brawl 1997 the Cruiserweight strap from Chris Jericho.

Meanwhile, Mysterio was a Lucha Libre prodigy who’d made his professional debut as a 14-year-old in 1989. He’d starred in ECW with ground-breaking matches against Psicosis and Juventud Guerrera before leaping to WCW in 1996 and winning the Cruiserweight belt within his first month with the promotion.

Heading into Halloween Havoc, Guerrero and Mysterio had faced off twice on Nitro. Mysterio had won on both occasions, the first coming just before Guerrero’s title win and the second coming with Guerrero wrestling under a mask as El Caliente. Increasingly frustrated, Guerrero attacked Mysterio after he’d wrestled Dean Malenko, unmasking him and setting the stage for an Apuestas Mask vs. Hair match for the title.

This match excels because it’s proof of concept that a match doesn’t need to be very long to tell a good story or capture the imagination. There’s no egregious nearfalls or melodrama or mid-match promos. Instead, Mysterio and Guerrero maximized every moment of the 13 minutes and 51 seconds they shared in the middle of the ring to produce a match that blew the minds of those watching live in Las Vegas and on PPV.

It’s impossible to understate just how good Guerrero is here. As the more experienced, well-rounded guy, he leads the dance, determining the pace at every step. Beset by ‘Eddie sucks’ chants throughout that only got louder as the match progressed, he slows it down at the right moments, locking in the Gory Special and tearing at Mysterio’s mask to get the maximum reaction from a hot crowd.

When they do take the handbrake off though, the thing that strikes you is the sheer speed of Mysterio. He’s absolutely electric, and it builds into the drama of the match – sometimes Guerrero was able to catch him and slow him down, but sometimes he found himself incapable and had to battle back.

Some of the exchanges and sequences in this match will seem commonplace to today’s wrestling fan but at the time this was never-before-seen stuff. Take, for example, Mysterio launching himself through the ropes with a suicide dive, getting caught in a powerbomb, and then rolling through for a Hurricanrana. A spot you’ve seen many times in recent years, but no one has ever done it better or more cleanly than these two.

As a fan watching it back, the drama is framed by the excellence of Mike Tenay and Tony Schiavone on commentary. Tenay is just this font of knowledge, giving you all the necessary context and explaining all these innovative spots. Schiavone, meanwhile, thrives in the way he always has – he reacts like a human being. When he enjoys it, you know because you’ll hear a ‘wow’ or a genuine emotional response of excitement.

The finishing stretch has all the drama you want from a big-time match with obvious stakes. There are counters and drama right to the very last moment. Mysterio’s victory feels sudden in many ways, but it’s exactly the right finish for this moment.

This second run with the belt only lasted a couple of weeks, with Guerrero winning it back on Nitro in November, but this match is a landmark in professional wrestling history. It’s a masterclass in storytelling and ringcraft but also this eye-opening exhibition of skill that helped to set the tone for the predominant style of today.

Further Viewing

Match #29 AJ Styles vs. Samoa Joe vs. Christopher Daniels

Match #29
AJ Styles vs. Samoa Joe vs. Christopher Daniels
TNA Unbreakable 2005

Watch: YouTube / IMPACT Plus
Testimonial by Garrett Kidney

For much of mainstream US wrestling history, smaller wrestlers were not seen as headline acts. Even in WCW, where the Cruiserweight division formed the backbone of the product and often saved shows from being miserably boring, the idea that those same wrestlers would be allowed to even sniff main events was laughed at. Generational talents like Chris Jericho, Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, and Rey Mysterio all had to seek opportunities elsewhere – opportunities they’d still have to scratch and claw for despite them being easily handed to others who then flopped. Even in TNA, where the X-Division was marketed as the company’s unique selling point from day one, there were only fleeting moments where it was considered worthy of closing shows. The exact same “too small, lacking charisma” critiques were levied at AJ Styles, Chris Sabin, Low Ki, Jerry Lynn, and others. This was often in defiance of what was plain to see in front of everybody’s eyes – AJ Styles would have the best matches and get the best reactions on every show. Still, questions would be asked of him that weren’t asked of people who looked or talked the part, even if they had a tiny fraction of Styles’s emotional connection with the audience.

The Unbreakable three-way X-Division Championship main event between AJ Styles, Christopher Daniels, and Samoa Joe was integral in breaking through that glass ceiling and leaving a rope behind them for others to follow. All three were amid fantastic years – Styles had already delivered classics with Daniels, Sabin and Petey, Abyss and Samoa Joe on PPV that year, building a single-year PPV match resume that few have topped. All worries about how TNA would present Samoa Joe on a national level were immediately forgotten as he came into TNA as an unstoppable destroyer that ran through Styles, Sabin, Sonjay Dutt, Alex Shelley, and more in an extremely impressive fashion – proving he could seamlessly translate his hard-hitting style to the bright lights and shorter format of television wrestling. For years seen as a little too dry, 2005 was also the year Christopher Daniels embraced his inner leading man following the break up of Triple X. A regular fixture on iMPACT! commentary throughout the year, he was quick-witted, cocky, arrogant, and self-assured – the kind of heel the X-Division hadn’t seen before and the perfect point of contrast to the blue-chip athlete Styles.

It wasn’t completely uncommon for TNA to main event PPVs with a braver choice. The feud ending Triple X vs. America’s Most Wanted Six Sides of Steel match closed out Turning Point 2004 over the final match of “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s career, while Styles headlined Lockdown 2005 against Abyss ahead of the more star-heavy Lethal Lockdown match. But neither of those shows had a World Title match, while Unbreakable featured a Raven title defense against the recently debuted Rhino. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion that the X-Division would main event, but it was the clear call in hindsight.

The crowd was molten hot for the match. Given it came off the back of tremendous Styles vs. Joe and Styles vs. Daniels matches earlier in the year, seeing the three come together felt like the next natural extension of the story. Joe was the unbeaten monster; Styles was the face of the company never say die babyface; and Daniels was the conceited then longest reigning champion. Those crystal-clear character dynamics helped inform the match, like the opening exchange with Styles and Joe taking turns kicking Daniels, and Daniels demanded they stop kicking him only for them to kick Daniels simultaneously. It wasn’t just an exhibition of cool moves, it had story and character, and emotion underpinning it. Too often in three-way matches people follow a rigid two in, one out formula. Constructing matches like this as a series of short singles matches is easier. These three took the opposite approach, stuffing the match with as many intricate sequences involving all three men as they possibly could. In the end Joe remained an unstoppable monster, but Daniels was once again foiled by his long-time rival when Styles reversed the Angels Wings into a pin to win the title. It felt like a true fulfilment of a three-way wrestling match for one of the very first times.

It’s an important distinction that it’s not just that X-Division wrestlers were in the main event, but the X-Division Championship itself. It wasn’t unheard of that wrestlers “moved up” out of the lightweight midcard division to bigger things – Styles himself did so already in TNA as a three-time NWA World Heavyweight Champion at this stage – but for the division itself, the thing that was so often pigeonholed as a side attraction predominantly for “hardcore” fans to close out the show helped change long, long-standing perceptions of what could main event in US wrestling.

The legacy of the match is pretty plain to see. It remains the only TNA match Dave Meltzer awarded 5 stars. AJ Styles became the quintessential TNA wrestler before having hugely successful main event runs in NJPW and WWE. It was amid an all-time Samoa Joe run that stands among the best work of any wrestler ever, and it’s one of the crowning achievements in the forefather of independent wrestling Christopher Daniels’ career. All three would headline once against four years later in the main event of Turning Point 2009, this time with the World Championship on the line in a match that more than lived up to the legacy of the original. Bias against smaller or non-traditional wrestlers is so deeply entrenched in the US wrestling psyche that it would be impossible for a single match to break it down by itself. So long as an older generation still exists, so will dated views of who can and can’t be a star. But few matches did more work to shatter that perception than this one. It stands as THE TNA match to this day.

Further Viewing

Match #30 KENTA vs. Ricky Marvin

Match #30
KENTA vs. Ricky Marvin
NOAH Autumn Navigation 2009

Watch: YouTube
Testimonial by Robin Reid

One of the beautiful things about wrestling is that there’s no singular route to greatness. Incredible wrestling matches can be produced in a myriad of ways. Technical, high-flying, epic, fast-paced, comedic, violent, methodical, dramatic, hard-hitting… there are a million different ways to skin a cat, and all that really matters is the action connecting with the fans in attendance and the viewer at home.

At times, however, it can feel like there is a certain formula to what a great match is. We can all picture your typical main event that gets four snowflakes thrown at it. Twenty-five or so minutes, starting with a little chain wrestling, gradually ramping up, perhaps throw in a big spot on the outside at the halfway mark, start dropping bombs and a bunch of dramatic counters and near-falls in the closing stretch before one man finally hits his finisher to close. We’ve all enjoyed matches like that, but at times it can start to feel like that’s what a great match has to be.

On October 15, 2009, as part of the NOAH Junior Heavyweight League, KENTA and Ricky Marvin threw up the double bird to your great match formula, and the match they had was all the more memorable for it.

Coming into the match KENTA was in the midst of a dominant reign as junior champion. He was the established top guy in the division, and was accustomed to holding his own against the promotion’s top heavyweights. He even had Budokan main events challenging for the GHC Heavyweight Championship as part of his resume. In contrast, Ricky Marvin was a journeyman mid-level junior for the promotion. He was well respected, with a strong junior tag title run to his name, but never a true tippy-top guy in the division.

As such, if Ricky Marvin chose to wrestle a traditional match, he knew he was destined to come up on the losing end. For Marvin to stand a chance, he had to break the paradigm. He had to drag the superior wrestler KENTA into uncharted waters, hoping the champion would drown first.

Marvin does this by foregoing all sense of structure, and throwing everything he has at KENTA as quick as is humanly possible. If everything goes right, the shock and awe may be enough for the underdog to steal a victory with his initial barrage before KENTA truly knows what is happening.

Marvin initiates this gambit by diving into KENTA seemingly out of nowhere as he enters through the Korakuen guardrail. From there, there isn’t a single moment of hesitation; he unloads his entire arsenal at a frantic pace in effort to earn the elusive victory.

KENTA isn’t the favorite for no reason, though; he is right in the middle of his prime and as good as it gets. He is not one to be overcome easily, and he embraces the speed, and augments it with his own brutality.

What follows is the greatest pure sprint in the history of wrestling. Bell-to-bell it clocks in at beneath the two minute mark. That doesn’t stop it from being a great wrestling match; it’s what makes it incredible. You have no excuse not to watch it; it’ll take you less time than reading this piece.

Editor’s Note: A screw up on my end meant we accidentally ended up with two testimonials for this match.

Testimonial by Paul Volsch

Wrestling is a weird hobby. It is attached to a lot of social stigma but as time has gone on and I’ve become more comfortable with who I am, it has also become easier for me to tell people that I am a wrestling fan. These days I have no qualms telling people I’ve just met that I like wrestling and I have answers prepared for all the usual questions that follow. Do you know it’s fake? Yes of course I do. So you watch WWE? No I don’t. and so on. Every once in a while though I run into people that ask Can you recommend me a match to watch? And for those people my answer is KENTA vs Rick Marvin

KENTA vs. Ricky Marvin is a perfect showcase of athleticism, intensity, and excitement. It’s the kind of match that can introduce people who have never watched wrestling before to the sport and instantly hook them.

The match is a sprint from start to finish, with both wrestlers going all out from the opening bell. KENTA and Ricky Marvin show off their incredible speed, agility, and strength as both men were at the height of their powers here.

The pace of the match is relentless, with both wrestlers constantly trying to outdo each other. Every move is executed with precision and skill, showcasing their impressive athleticism. From Ricky Marvin’s opening dive to KENTA’s devastating kicks and his vicious GTS for the finish, there is never a dull moment in this match.

One of the standout features of this match is the intensity that both wrestlers bring to the ring. The crowd can feel the energy and passion that KENTA and Ricky Marvin have for the sport, and it’s contagious. 

Despite the match being extremely short, KENTA and Ricky Marvin tell a compelling story with their performance. The match is a showcase of what wrestling can be at its best – a thrilling, high-energy competition that is as much about athleticism and skill as it is about showmanship.

So whenever someone asks me to show them why I like wrestling. I show them this match.

Further Viewing

Match #31 El Generico vs. Jigsaw vs. Kota Ibushi vs. Nick Jackson

Match #31
El Generico vs. Jigsaw vs. Kota Ibushi vs. Nick Jackson
CHIKARA King of Trios 2009

Watch: YouTube / IWTV
Testimonial by Kevin Hare

“Spotfest” is one of the most cutting insults a wrestling fan throws at a match. The term is often used condescendingly and is very loaded. As soon as a fan sees the term, they know what is implied: no psychology; the match is too fast; these guys aren’t good wrestlers, they are just impressive athletes; there are too many flips; the match is superficial. Some fans write off the idea of enjoying a “spotfest” almost immediately.

But “spotfests” aren’t real. Most who use the term wouldn’t be able to define what it actually means without admitting their biases against specific wrestlers and promotions. The “spotfest” critique refuses to accept or validate the evolution of wrestling styles, the increased athleticism of modern wrestlers and doesn’t realize that the foundations of wrestling have been built upon by this style, not ignored by it.

The mid-2000s presented a real revolution in independent wrestling. Promotions like ROH and PWG focused on young, athletic talent and focused on fast-paced and hard-hitting matches. Different promotions all around the countries formed, each with their own niche and lane. CHIKARA, a family-friendly comic book style promotion, was one. Each year, they ran a tournament called King of Trios, bringing together some of the best independent wrestlers worldwide. As the weekends progressed, different dream matches and mini-tournaments would spring up. One such mini-tournament was the Rey de Voladares, consisting of two four-way singles matches of wrestlers eliminated from the main tournament.

The 2009 version put Kota Ibushi, El Generico, Jigsaw, and Nick Jackson against each other. The match is fought at a blistering pace. Men move in and out of the ring with reckless abandon. Sometimes, it is hard to keep track of the action. But this was not done for nothing. One critique of this style is that it loses the audience; they are given so much so quickly that people can’t wrap their heads around what is going on, that moves can’t sink in or breathe and get muddied together. This match proves that critique is blatantly false. By the end, the crowd is absolutely molten, in sheer disbelief of what they just saw.

Ibushi, Generico (Sami Zayn), and Jackson (½ of the Young Bucks) went on to star in the top companies of the world because of matches like this. Immediately all four start at a blistering speed. This is for a reason. The pace and intensity of the match is established early. Ibushi’s strikes look like they would knock out any man and are delivered like sharp knives hurled at his opponent. Jackson jumps and dives around the ring with reckless, youthful abandon. Generico is a swiss-army-knife of a wrestler; he can fly, he can strike, he can slow down when needed. He can do it all. After a few minutes, the match is slowed while Jackson and Generico work over Ibushi. However, this is done just so the action can be ramped up again.

The reason why this match is able to work well and is more than just the athletic moves used. It’s because of, not in spite of, the action being so fast the whole time. The viewer is given the impression that, right away, the wrestlers are giving their best moves and full effort, only to then reveal they weren’t. There was always another gear, another speed. Ibushi could always hit harder. Jackson always had another dive. Generico had another comeback. Jigsaw would figure out a way to attack two opponents at once. There was always more.

Less than ten minutes in, the action reached nuclear levels and stayed there for the rest of the match. Jackson hit a 450 splash. Generico hit an insane Fosbury flop to the outside, then jumps through the ropes in the turnbuckle and hits a ddt. Ibushi takes moves straight from the matrix, ducking Generico strikes in the most impressive way you’ll ever see. The important thing here is the fight. Each wrestler never gave up. They never died. The fans reacted in time, chanting and cheering and losing their minds every step of the way. Generico was eliminated by a reverse hurricanrana from the top rope from Ibushi. Jackson by a Jig and Tonic. When just Jigsaw and Ibushi left, dueling chants permeated through the building. No fan sat there saying, “They are doing too much, they need to slow down.” Instead, they were entranced. Finally, Ibushi connected with a devastating Phoenix Splash and ended the match.

I believe it is important to acknowledge wrestling as what it is, not what you want it to be. This is not wrestled the same way a Ric Flair 1989 match was. It is not the slower WWE match structure. And that is perfectly acceptable. Wrestling would be boring if it was all the same. Instead, it is a 12 minute sprint, all action, all for a purpose. These men knew they had to hit their biggest moves on their three opponents at the most opportune time they could, and attempted to do that for the entirety of the match. And for that, they were met with a raucous crowd and a standing ovation. And, really, isn’t that all wrestling is trying to achieve, anyway?

Further Viewing

The Wrestling 101

The Wrestling 101 is a Voices of Wrestling group project headed up by Kevin Hare and Robin Reid. You can discuss the series with them on twitter @stan__hansen (Kevin) and @TheRDouble (Robin) or join the conversation over in the Voices of Wrestling Discord.