The Wrestling 101 Match #10
10-Man Gauntlet Match
Antonio Inoki, Kengo Kimura, Nobuhiko Takada, Tatsumi Fujinami & Yoshiaki Fujiwara vs. Ishin Gundan (Animal Hamaguchi, Isamu Teranishi, Kuniaki Kobayashi, Riki Choshu & Yoshiaki Yatsu)
April 19, 1984
New Japan Pro Wrestling
When I try to explain what I love about wrestling to strangers, one thing I always come back to is the idea that it’s sort of like “sports plus.” That is, wrestling gives you all the excitement of an actual competitive sporting event, but on top of that, it’s optimized for Maximum Drama by the bookers and performers.
So, you might show up to Citi Field in September to spend three hours watching a 7-0 snoozer between two teams who have long since stopped contending for the MLB playoffs. But a pro wrestling main event can always be scripted to come down to the final thrilling moments between two evenly matched, high-level opponents.
In this sense, the 5-on-5 gauntlet match between Antonio Inoki’s babyface team and Riki Choshu’s heel Ishin Gundan stable is a great “sports plus” match. The wrestlers do outstanding, detailed work to create the experience of watching a serious struggle for athletic dominance, but in a way that remains compelling throughout a 65-minute match. And of course, rather than being a blowout where one of the teams easily dispatches the other, this one comes down to a dramatic showdown between the match’s two biggest stars.
What sticks with me most about this match is how it felt like the two teams were really scratching and clawing for the victory. The match starts with Tatsumi Fujinami in the ring for the home army and Kuniaki Kobayashi for the Ishin Gundan side, and right from the early going, it feels like every little move matters. Fujinami looks to hit either a dragon suplex or a sleeper hold, and Kobayashi maneuvers for a rope break with the intensity of someone who wants nothing more than to avoid whatever Fujinami has cooking. Later, Kobayashi misses a big spin kick, and Fujinami immediately capitalizes with a German suplex to score the first elimination and bring on the next competitor from Choshu’s team. It’s like sports—one wrong move, and you’re fucked. Blink, and you might miss something important.
I especially loved the sequence between Fujinami and Isamu Teranishi, where Teranishi just does everything he possibly can to hurt Fujinami’s hand. He rolls his knee back and forth over Fujinami’s hand on the mat, bends his wrist back and forth, and goes to great lengths to repeatedly headbutt the injured hand from a variety of creative positions. At one point, Teranishi is basically doing pushups from his knees, but he’s banging his forehead into Fujinami’s hand on the mat midway through each rep.
This intensity carries throughout the match. The strikes are swift, emphatic, and snug, and the holds compel the recipient to slither and squirm for an escape like a fish caught on a hook. It’s giving grapplefuck vibes, but there’s more action, and they’re doing it in front of an electric arena crowd in Tokyo instead of 100 bored civilians in Joppa, Maryland.
And of course, there’s the drama and the showmanship. Yoshiaki Fujiwara enters the match with a bandage prominently displayed on his forehead. Naturally, Animal Hamaguchi punches him in the head until it’s removed, then scratches and bites at the wound until Fujiwara is bleeding.
Later, the match comes down to the grand finale between the two big superstars Inoki and Choshu. While the actual wrestling in this section is less impressive than perhaps any of the previous pairings, it’s the high-stakes climax the fans have been waiting for. Sports really are more fun when the outcome is fixed.