We are now deep into the Inokiism era, lets see what this Tokyo Dome Show can bring us....
4th January 2003- NJPW Wrestling World 2003 (Tokyo Dome)-Part 1
Osamu Nishimura vs Tatsumi Fujinami
Osamu Nishimura: Made progress during 2002 in his third successive G-1 climax by reaching the semi-Finals.
Tatsumi Fujinami: The 'Dragon' was beginning to wind down as a major player in NJPW, missing out on the G-1 climax and generally working a lighter schedule.
The Match: This feels like a really odd choice as the curtain jerker at the January 4th Tokyo Dome show. Basically this was two veterans having a pure gentleman's wrestling match, that felt more like an exhibition than a fight.
Save for the odd polite applause, the crowd was dead for this match and honestly who could blame them, it went less than ten minutes but felt as though it dragged on for longer. At this stage in his career the once great Fujinami, should have just been playing the hits in multi-man tags.
Honestly the most interesting thing about seeing this match is spotting a young lion Toru Yano at ringside.
Young Generation Cup Semi Final: Shinya Makabe vs Yutaka Yoshie
Shinya Makabe: Went on a 14 month excursion from August 2001, where he wrestled for various independent promotions around the world including ASW in UK and IWA in Puerto Rico. In October 2002 he returned to NJPW having considerably bulked up, re-debuting with a win in a tag team match alongside Minoru Fujita against King of the Hills (Tanahashi and Kenzo Suzuki).
Yutaka Yoshie: After missing out on the previous years tournament, Yoshie competed in his second G-1 Climax but would finish bottom of his block, gaining just a single win over generational peer Hiroshi Tanahashi.
The Match: This tournament isn't quite the same as the Young Lions Cup, the competitors here had all graduated from the black trunks, limited move-set stage of their career but they weren't quite at that level where a win over more esteemed opponents would not be viewed as anything other than a major upset. An equivalent example in present day New Japan would be a tournament full of Henare's.
Not bad match once it got going and they started working to their strengths. The early portion of the match is extremely dull and pointless, with two young hosses working over each other's legs on the mat. All this proper wrestling gets them absolutely no where and is rendered completely meaningless by the end of the match. It does get better when they realise that technical mat work isn't their strength and they proceed to brawl with strike and lariat exchanges interspersed with the odd display of power, such as Makabe going close with a German suplex on his larger opponent.
Young Generation Cup Semi Final: Kenzo Suzuki vs Ryushi Yanagisawa
Kenzo Suzuki: Like generational peer Yutaka Yoshie, Kenzo Suzuki competed in his second G-1 Climax, after missing out the previous year, finishing with a 2-3 record with victories over Osamu Nishimura and Tadao Yasuda.
Ryushi Yanagisawa: Made his wrestling debut in 1992 for Pro Wrestling Fujiwara Gumi but quickly made the switch to shoot fighting, competing for the likes of Pancrase and Fighting Network RINGS.
With Inoki's desire to blend together the worlds of pro-wrestling and MMA, Yanagisawa was brought back to Pro Wrestling, when he joined the New Japan roster as part of the Tadao Yasuda lead Makai Club faction.
The Match: Considering this was a match between the much maligned Kenzo Suzuki and a long forgotten shooter from a much maligned era of NJPW history, this was better than I expected it to be.
It started out with Kenzo charging hot out of the gate with a spear but he was unable to maintain the instant momentum, as Yanagisawa took control with a combination of stiff kicks and submission holds (very much a throwback to the UWF style). The story here is very much that Yanagisawa is the more technically accomplished fighter but Kenzo might be able to overcome the gap in skill with sheer guts and power. Though I felt the closing stretch was hotter in the previous YG Cup semi final, the overall structure and storytelling was constructed better in this match.
Lets be honest here Kenzo was never a great wrestler, and his style is very simplistic and repetitive but to be fair he wasn't all that bad in this match and did a decent job of selling Yanagisawa's more convincing offence. Whilst I don't think he's as terrible as some would have you believe, I do think he might have stood a chance of developing into a better worker had it stuck at a few more years with NJPW, instead of heading to the WWE and not had to endure a notoriously garbage run with that company.
Dai Majin & Makai #1 vs. Hiro Saito & Tatsutoshi Goto
Makai Club: Lead by Tadao Yasuda, Makai Club became the primary heel stable of NJPW following their debut in August 2002. A mix of wrestlers and shoot fighters that worshipped Antonio Inoki as a god, they debut as a set of masked men who set upon Masahiro Chono. One of them revealed themselves to be Ryushi Yanagisawa, though the other two remained under the mask as Makai#1 and Makai #2.
Dai Maijin: Many suspected that this was just a repackaged Giant Silva under a hood.
Makai #1 (Junji Hirata): Prior to his return last year, Hirata was last seen in a New Japan ring under his Strong Style Machine gimmick in June 2001, after a 15th month absence he returned to NJPW as a member of the Makai Club.
Hiro Saito & Tatsutoshi Goto: The veteran Team 2000 pair spent all year as a directionless midcard tag team, never really gaining enough momentum to make a case for a shot at the IWGP Tag Team titles.
The Match: Given who was in the ring, I had low expectations for this match and managed to exceed them but not in a good way.
Makai club did the jump start to establish themselves as the heels in this match but Goto and Saito are not compelling babyfaces in anyway. Lots of boring basic brawling, so much so that I'm more enthralled by Black Cat's (who is the ref here) severe haircut.
The finish see's the de-facto babyfaces bring a chair into play, and we get Black Cat being taken out with an errant chairshot. Makai Club (neither of whom fit the shooter gimmick this group was supposed to represent) take control and Dai Maijin can't even do powerbomb properly to finish things off. Oops I broke my rule of not spoiling the result in these write-ups, but I've watched this drizzling shit excuse for a wrestling match so you don't have to.
Makai #4 & Makai #5 vs. Masahito Kakihara & Takashi Iizuka
Makai #4 (Katsuyori Shibata): Shibata competed in his second successive Best of the Super Juniors, improving considerably on his 2001 showing where he picked up 0 wins. Though he was unable to advance, he did pick up wins over Black Tiger III and Masahito Kakihara. But his future was not as a Junior, and after disappearing he would re-debut here under the masked gimmick of Makai #4.
Makai #5 (Mitsuya Nagai): Nagai spent all of 2002, competing for All Japan Pro Wrestling where he would take part in both their Champion's Carnival and Real World Tag League tournaments (alongside Yoji Anjo). However the shoot style worker was obviously seen as a good fit for the Makai Club stable and was drawn to make the switch to New Japan.
Masahito Kakihara: Kakihara took part in the 2002 Best of the Super Juniors finishing in the middle of the pack, picking up wins over Curry Man (Christopher Daniels) and Koji Kanemoto. That victory over Kanemoto would earn him a (unsuccesful) shot at Kanemoto's IWGP Junior title later in the year.
Takashi Iizuka: After suffering a concussion in a match with Mitsuya Nagai in June 2001, Iizuka did not return to in-ring action until October 2002.
The Match: To absolutely no ones surprise this was better than the last match, it still wasn't good though. The basic execution of wrestling was fine but there was no structure to this match what so ever. It started out fine enough with the Makai's working an illegal double team leg submission spot on Kakihara, but instead of building heat by continuing to work Kakihara over in their corner, they throw Kakihara back into his corner and call Iizuka out. From then on the match was just four guys trading wrestling moves in front of a dead crowd who couldn't care less. There wasn't even a remotely hot closing stretch to try and get the crowd on side.
These last two Makai Club matches have been prime examples of why this era of New Japan is considered to be the absolute dirt worst by many.
HEAT, Masayuki Naruse & Tiger Mask IV vs. Jushin Thunder Liger, Koji Kanemoto & Takehiro Murahama
Heat (Minoru Tanaka): Tanaka would defeat Masahito Kakihara for the vacant IWGP Junior title in February before going on to make successful title defences against Gedo, Black Tiger III and AKIRA until being dethroned by former tag partner turned rival Koji Kanemoto in July, who had earned that title shot by defeating Tanaka in the Finals of the Best of the Super Juniors.
Tanaka would gain further championship success, when alongside Jushin Thunder Liger he defeated Kanemoto and AKIRA for the IWGP Junior tag belts but that reign was short-lived when they lost the belts of Pro Wrestling NOAH invaders Yoshinobu Kanemaru and Tsuyoshi Kikuchi in their first defence.
In October 2002 Tanaka took on the masked persona of HEAT. He would challenge Kanemoto for the IWGP Junior belt again but once again would be bested by his rival.
Masayuki Naruse: Naruse took part in the 2002 Best of the Super Juniors, finishing in the middle of the pack, scoring victories over AKIRA, Wataru Inoue and Tiger Mask IV.
Tiger Mask IV: Though still not a fully contracted NJPW worker, the fourth incarnation of Tiger Mask would considerably more time in New Japan than his home promotion of Michinoku-Pro, so it would have come as little surprise that he would fully commit to New Japan by the end of the year.
He would compete in the Best of the Super Juniors, picking up wins over Gedo, Wataru Inoue and El Samurai before making an unsuccessful challenge for the IWGP Junior Heavyweight title against Koji Kanemoto in September.
Jushin Thunder Liger: Liger would have a brief reign as IWGP Junior Tag Team champion with Minoru Tanaka and would once again compete in the Best of the Super Juniors , where he was just edged out of making it to the Finals by eventual winner Koji Kanemoto.
Koji Kanemoto: 2002 would prove to be a great year for Kanemoto as he won his second Best of the Super Juniors and go on to earn a fourth reign as IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion, putting up successful defences against Tiger Mask, Heat, Bas Rutten and Masahito Kakihara prior to still being champion coming into this show.
Takehiro Murahama: With a background in MMA, Murahama entered pro wrestling in January 2000, signing on with the independent promotion Osaka Pro Wrestling, only 7 months into being a pro wrestler he upset Super Delfin to become OPW champion but had a short reign with that title when he dropped it back to Delfin in just his first defence. Following that he had a reign as OPW Tag Team Champion the following year. He would remain an OPW regular but would occasionally get the call to work as an undercard talent for New Japan.
The Match: Thus far this show had not been good at all, could the disappointingly de-emphasized Junior's help to turn this show around towards respectability?
Unsurprisingly this did happen to be the best thing on the show so far but still not exactly a match to be cherry-picked, if you weren't going to put yourself through watching the entire show. All in all this was match with solid action throughout and some interesting character developments but it felt more like the kind of match that belonged in Korakuen Hall than the Tokyo Dome.
The most notable character development was with Jushin Thunder Liger, who was clearly on his way towards a heel turn. He was just generally acting more dickish than usual, such as ripping the taping off Masayuki Naruse's injured shoulder and taking out Heat with a nasty brainbuster on the entrance ramp during the closing stretch.
Speaking of Heat, whose (dumb) idea was it to put Minoru Tanaka in naff looking ring gear with an ugly mask?!
Hopefully the last match from the first half of the show is a sign that things are starting to pick up, because this show has not been good so far.
Talk Puro, Lucha, Europe and "I FOLLOWED WRESTLING IN AUSTRALIA/PACIFIC ISLANDS/CARIBBEAN/AFRICA"