Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Suwama
April 9, 2008
Champion Carnival 2008 – Night 5

Reviewed by Jon Hernandez (VOW Author Page / @OldJonHernandez)

Gifted by Scott Edwards (VOW Author Page / linktr.ee/ScottEWrestling)

If we’re going to talk about the 2008 Champion Carnival Final — if I’M going to talk about the 2008 Champion Carnival Final — we’re going to need to some context. Let’s start here: Hiroshi Tanahashi is magic. In fact, before his once-elegant gait started resembling that of a marionette puppet, he may have been our last magical wrestler.

A few decades ago, tons of wrestlers were magic. They were positively insane people who stopped existing when the television turned off. They could be jet-flying, limousine-riding, and overwhelmingly horny. They could be illiterate bruisers from Chicago with spiky shoulder pads and bad makeup. They could be bullrope-wielding cowboys running roughshod on Japan until a chubby chain-smoker who used to dress like a tiger forearms them to death.

Then one day all the wrestlers got LiveJournals and iPhones and message board accounts. We saw them hang out with their cats in sweatpants. We saw their grocery lists. It was curtains for the magic.

And that’s FINE. Everything has to evolve one way or another. But until two or three years ago, Hiroshi Tanahashi was still, somehow, the larger-than-life Ace of the Universe, sporting unspeakably gaudy gear and a head of hair like a technicolor lion’s mane. Sometimes, it was like nobody ever called Tanahashi on his landline telephone and told him we all learned wrestling was fake. Like nobody told him he could give up the act and start doing wink-wink workshoots now.

In the 2008 Champions Carnival, that magic was beginning to take shape. Tanahashi arrived at All Japan’s annual round-robin tournament as a heel invader from New Japan. Tana plays the snot-nosed villain to perfection, galvanizing a red-hot hometeam crowd against him.

The night before meeting Suwama in the final, he wrestled Toshiaki Kawada to a thirty-minute draw. He taunts and hides from Kawada, antagonizing one of the last remaining vestiges of All Japan’s heyday. He takes a real beating from him, too. It’s an interesting match to watch — a soon-to-be-legend, playing against character, in his only singles matchup against one of the Four Pillars. Tanahashi is a maestro; he works the All Japan faithful into a frenzy and makes Toshiaki Kawada look as fierce as he did 15 years prior.

So we come to the final. If Tanahashi is a sparkly magic man, what is Suwama? A burly lunk with that ridiculous blonde streak in his hair, Suwama has an aura all his own, albeit a very different one. He’s the meathead first-level boss in a Super Nintendo beat-’em-up. He’s the bartender at a dive on the wrong side of town, with a sawed-off below the register.

I first became familiar with Suwama nearly ten years after this, while he played the weathered veteran fending off another young, sparkly rival in Kento Miyahara. I think about that when Tanahashi hits Suwama with his straitjacket German Suplex. Everything is cyclical.

If you’ve seen both Tanahashi and Suwama wrestle main event-style matches, you can probably envision this one — and that’s a good thing. They’re world-class talents in their physical primes. Tanahashi works The Tanahashi Match™. (Work the leg to set up a frog splash, don’t ask any questions.) Suwama endures punishment until he can hoist his opponent into German and Backdrop Suplexes at frightening angles.

What makes this one pop, though, is the context. Tanahashi’s presence and heel act turn this into a full-on promotional war. Suwama jogs through the outstretched arms of fans, making Korakuen’s entranceway look like a miniature version of Nippon Budokan’s aisle in ‘92. Tanahashi disrespects All Japan’s iconic referee, Kyohei Wada. At ringside, you’ll find Suwama’s trainer, Hiroshi Hase, and a New Japan young lion named Kazuchika Okada.

The two tangle for a grueling, high-intensity half hour with little downtime. After all of Tanahashi’s shit, it’s very satisfying to watch Suwama put him away with an absolutely gnarly-looking Last Ride.

Suwama’s victory earned him a Triple Crown title shot against Kensuke Sasaki. He’d win that match, kick off his first championship reign and go on to be All Japan’s top-of-the-card anchor through years of roster fluidity. A few months later, Hiroshi Tanahashi would headline Wrestle Kingdom III and reclaim the IWGP title from an All Japan Pro Wrestling invader named Keiji Muto. Ever heard of him? After that, he’d, you know, restore New Japan to its former glory and become the Ace of the Universe, as one does.

But here? They’re two ships passing in the night for the first and only time, just before each of them would start carrying some extraordinarily heavy cargo. ****½. Highly recommended, especially in tandem with the Tanahashi/Kawada match.

Thanks to my Secret Santa for a killer match. I’ve seen it before — can you tell? My guess is this came from Paul Volsch, co-host of VOW’s Emerald FlowShow podcast.