Welcome to the first instalment of ‘Deep Cuts from NJPW World’, where I’ll be highlighting a selection of matches from the extensive NJPW World archive – some famous, some obscure and all worth a watch for fans of NJPW, new and old alike. While the NJPW World archive is far from complete there are still thousands of matches on offer that cover the entirety of New Japan’s forty six year existence, but that can be a daunting prospect for newer fans looking to delve into the promotions history, which is part of why I created the NJPW World Recommended Viewing List (which can be found at http://tinyurl.com/NJPW-WORLD). This series will hopefully serve as an accompaniment to the list, taking a more in-depth look at and providing context for a selection of the matches included. First up, a huge and historic title match from the promotion’s infancy:
By no means an obscure match, but one fans of modern NJPW may not be familiar with and a genuine all-time classic, perhaps the best of either men’s careers. You can tell right from the start that this match was an event, with eight minutes of pageantry before the bell even rings. While Antonio Inoki’s NWF World Heavyweight Title is on the line (a precursor to the IWGP Heavyweight Championship), Inoki & Robinson are both students of Karl Gotch and “The God of Pro-Wrestling” has also put his true World Heavyweight Title up for grabs to the winner. Three time NWA World Heavyweight Champion Lou Thesz is also at ringside, while the referee is legendary Johnny ‘Red Shoes’ Dugan, who officiated for three decades at the Los Angeles Olympic Auditorium and was very highly regarded in Japan for refereeing some of the most famous matches in the earliest days of wrestling in the country (incidentally, current NJPW referee Red Shoes Unno wears his signature red shoes in tribute to the man).
Both the British and Japanese national anthems are played and the match finally gets under way. In many ways, Robinson was Inoki’s toughest opponent. The first foreigner to win a Japanese World Heavyweight title, Robinson was at this time in the peak of his abilities and the greatest active proponent of the famed Lancashire catch-as-catch-can style of professional wrestling. He was a wrestler’s wrestler, and more than a match for Inoki in terms of strength, technical ability and some startling agility for a man of his size. Inoki, however, was a skilled catch wrestler in his own right, and both he and Robinson shared Karl Gotch as a teacher. Also, he was in prime physical condition and had stamina and youth on his side against the heavier set Robinson. The match plays out at a fantastic, deliberate pace that highlights why Robinson was such an amazing competitor. Minutes will go by as they engage in a fascinating struggle to reverse one another’s holds, punctuated by bouts of explosive action and repeatedly Robinson wows the crowd with his athleticism.
But it’s Inoki they’re here to see, the valiant leader of New Japan (the promotion barely three years old at this point) and the real highlights come when the odds are increasingly stacked against him, and it becomes increasingly clear that the British catch wrestling master may very well have Inoki’s number. The crowd erupts in elation for the slightest reversal of Inoki’s fortunes, screaming encouragement towards their hero as he tries to figure out exactly how to deal with such a skilled opponent as Robinson. As the match wears on the pendulum swings back and forth, both men at times teetering on the precipice of victory and of defeat as the crowd reaches a fever pitch. The final moments are dramatic, both men utterly exhausted from such a gruelling, hour-long contest. One of the best matches of this length you’re likely to ever see and a wonderful example of pacing for excitement from two absolute masters of their craft. A must watch.
There’s a number of reasons why this is such a cool match, not least the fact that because interest in Sayama’s learning excursion was so high a Japanese camera crew were sent to report on his progress. This means the match is available here in the sort of pristine quality you rarely see from 1980’s Mexico. Also, the impressively high-banked open air arena the match takes place in is the Toreo de Cuatro Caminos, the same arena El Santo wrestled his very last match in. Lastly, while luchadors had been plying their trade in Japan since the late 60’s, Sayama and Hamada were both hugely responsible for bringing the lucha libre style back to Japanese shores, popularising it and (importantly) passing it on. Hamada in particular would train many notable wrestlers in the hybrid of Japanese wrestling and lucha libre that would become known as ‘lucharesu’, his students going on to found promotions that would form the backbone of the style in Japan: Michinoku Pro, Toryumon and Dragon Gate.
As such, it’s awesome to get a look at the early progress of both men in the world of lucha libre. While Sayama was on the cusp of greatness and soon to return to Japan as Tiger Mask, the smaller Hamada would have a tougher time of things and be sent on further excursions to Mexico for years to come, soaking up everything he could about the art of lucha. Their opponents here for this two out of three falls match are the legendary Perro Aguayo teaming with the criminally underrated Baby Face (an important figure in the development of another NJPW wrestler, Tatsumi Fujinami) and although the veterans are initially caught off guard by the speed and agility of their less experienced opponents, Perro & Baby Face gain the upper hand and put Sayama & Hamada through their paces in an enjoyable tag encounter that becomes bad tempered and bloody down the stretch, while showing off the exciting ability of the two young Japanese stars.
Shortly after leaving WWF to return to Japan, the Therevada Buddhist monk Hakushi (AKA Jinsei Shinzaki) came to New Japan to cleanse the promotion of an evil spirit that had plagued them for years: The Great Muta. Shinzaki is decked in all-white, his body painted with scripture and carrying his monk’s staff and a mysterious parcel to the ring. It contains a grave marker, which Shinzaki had promised to place at the head of the pit he’ll bury Muta in. But he has to beat him first, and that’s easier said than done. The Great Muta’s entrance gear is no less dramatic, a lavish robe and over mask add to Muta’s air of mystery, while a giant silver dragon statue perches on his shoulders, tail coiling around his neck. He removes the mask and launches a cloud of poison mist into the air.
The match starts at a fairly relaxed pace that belies the brutality Muta’s about to unleash. After sending Shinzaki flying off the apron, Muta breaks the wooden grave marker across his knee and proceeds to gouge Shinzaki’s head with it. In moments he’s a bloody mess and then Muta takes things a step further by trying to hang him from the ring ropes. He takes the broken grave marker and, using Shinzaki’s blood as ink, scrawls the character for “death” upon it. The match is more about symbolism and spectacle, but they still provide some great action once back in the ring, Shinzaki fighting back valiantly and doing his best to avoid Muta’s poison mist. At one point he hits a Sasuke Special in tribute to The Great Sasuke, but also to infuriate Muta (who called the move the Space Flying Tiger Drop and rarely used it at this point). However, he can’t avoid the mist forever and the finish is an exciting one that sets up Shinzaki’s famous match where he’s resurrected to face The Undertaker in Michinoku Pro a year later.
This is such an endearing performance from the late, great Chris Candido and one of those real oddities of professional wrestling as he takes on Giant Singh, the man who would go on to become The Great Khali. The match is barely five minutes long and the only effective offence Candido gets in throughout is a solitary eye poke and some highly ineffective chops, but it plays perfectly to Singh’s strengths (or lack of them) as he doesn’t have to do much and has an opponent like Candido who throws himself around like a maniac to make the big man look every bit a monster. Singh’s run in New Japan was at best forgettable and at worst downright terrible, but this is a fun highlight and a testament to what a great professional wrestler Chris Candido was.
An important match in the careers of both men here, and a pertinent one as it’s the starting point of current NJPW superstar Tetsuya Naito’s troubled ascension up the card and his journey to becoming one of the most popular personalities in wrestling today. Naito had always shown a ton of promise, first as a young lion, then as a Jr. Heavyweight tag team wrestler with Yujiro Takahashi in NO LIMIT, and now as a young hopeful looking to make his mark on the heavyweight division. But there were always questions about Naito, his size, how prone he was to injury (something that would follow him for the next few years to come), his charisma and ability to connect with the fans. This match in particular went a long way to answering those questions and proving that there almost certainly was a bright future in store for ‘The Stardust Genius’ Tetsuya Naito.
Already the now familiar knee injury was a point of focus, Nakamura eliciting boos from the crowd as he mercilessly targeted the taped body part and showed nothing but disdain for his opponent. When Naito gets his chance he responds in kind, going after Nakamura’s left knee in an attempt to negate the Boma Ye. The crowd rally behind Naito and he looks about in wonder, savouring the moment and daring to dream, but a missed Stardust Press changes everything and the veteran Nakamura closes in to deliver Naito a crushing defeat in his first (but not last) G1 Climax final. Naito walks away in tears, devastated, but his performance was one that hinted towards all of his promise finally being realised and the match was a real watershed moment in the career of the Stardust Genius, even if the next few years didn’t quite go according to plan.