Welcome to Volume #2 of ‘Deep Cuts from NJPW World’. As I explained in the first instalment (which you can read here) this series aims to provide new and old fans alike with a more detailed look at some of the great matches you can find within the extensive NJPW World archive, as well as serving as an accompaniment to the NJPW World Recommended Viewing List. In this volume we look at another five matches, listed in chronological order and featuring some young lion action from the ’80s, a Jr. Heavyweight clash that stands out amongst an amazing year for Jr. Heavyweight wrestling, a huge inter-promotional title match between two ageing legends, a rare IWGP Heavyweight Title match in Korakuen Hall featuring a huge cult hero and a formative match in the young career of one of the most prolific IWGP Heavyweight Champions in modern history.
First up, a young lion match pitting Masakatsu Funaki a little over two years into his career against his senior in the NJPW Dojo, Keiichi Yamada, AKA the future Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger. Early on Funaki had shown an aptitude for grappling and was a firm favourite of Yoshiaki Fujiwara, while Yamada was more of an all-rounder but also a skilled grappler in his own right. Funaki (who would later go on to found MMA promotion Pancrase in the early ’90s) struggled in New Japan in spite of his abilities. The promotion was moving away from Jr. Heavyweight wrestling after the Tiger Mask craze of the early ’80s, and guys like Funaki and Yamada were too small to ever be considered heavyweights. But, while Yamada would stick it out and emerge as one of NJPW’s biggest stars at the outset of the ’90s, Funaki and fellow trainee Minoru Suzuki defected to Akira Maeda’s reborn UWF in 1989.
Right from the start of this match you can see the influence shift compared to the Jr. Heavyweight style from just a few years earlier, more martial arts than lucha libre and with a lot of quick strikes thrown by Funaki early on. He shows some good spirit and Yamada, with a year’s more experience in the NJPW Dojo, punishes him for it. But he perhaps underestimates Funaki, who fires back well and manages to thwart Yamada’s plans to hit the Shooting Star Press (although Funaki does have the distinction of being the first opponent Yamada ever hit with the SSP). This is a tidy little match, one they’d repeat in the inaugural Top of the Super Jr’s tournament (the precursor to the Best of the Super Jr’s) a year later, and a great example of an upper-tier young lion bout from two of the dojo’s standouts at the time.
In 1994 New Japan rebranded their annual Top of the Super Juniors tournament to the Best of the Super Juniors and (capitalising on the independent wrestling boom that had been taking place in Japan since the late ’80s as pro-wrestling’s popularity soared) for the first time NJPW invited competitors from other Japanese promotions to take part, namely TAKA Michinoku and Super Delfin from the Michinoku Pro promotion. Liger, the reigning IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion, had already defeated Delfin in the round-robin phase of the tournament, but nevertheless found himself facing off against the impressive young high-flyer in the finals. Delfin had actually started his wrestling career at the NJPW Dojo, but never debuted for the promotion and instead found himself adrift on the independent scene until joining Gran Hamada’s Universal Pro-Wrestling in 1990.
Hamada was the father of the style of wrestling that became known as ‘lucharesu’, which combined lucha libre with Japanese pro-wrestling training and fundamentals. Through many tours of Mexico over the years Hamada learned the same techniques that made such a star of his peer Satoru Sayama, the original Tiger Mask, but was never given a chance to make a mark in New Japan despite his pro-wrestling skill and mastery of the lucha libre style. Keiichi Yamada, the man who would become Liger and who people often assume has a pedigree in lucha libre, had a much different career path, his dojo excursions taking him to England, Canada and Austria. Now, years later, Liger has become the masked face of NJPW’s Jr. Heavyweight division (a role denied to Hamada after Tiger Mask quit the promotion in 1983) and faces off against one of Hamada’s top students in one of the biggest matches of either men’s careers.
For this match Delfin debuts his ‘DeLuiger’ mask, a Delfin / Liger hybrid that Liger doesn’t seem terribly amused with. They test each other on the mat, but while Liger finds success when he can bring his strength and size advantage to bear, Delfin has an answer for much of the holds Liger tries to apply. Delfin impresses with his athleticism, but makes a mistake in angering Liger by going after his mask, the IWGP Jr. Heavyweight Champion responding by viciously targeting Delfin’s knee. Liger bullies his smaller, less experienced opponent but Delfin fights back well and impresses the crowd with a plancha and rana off the apron. Not to be outdone, Liger later hits a crazy senton tope off the top amid an exciting finishing sequence that set the standard for Best of the Super Juniors finals to come.
There was a lot of drama surrounding this match, not least for the inter-promotional implications of the GHC Heavyweight Champion defending the title on a New Japan show. And a controversial show at that. Dubbed ‘Ultimate Crush’, the event would feature a series of ‘Vale Tudo’ matches pushed by Inoki, who was insistent that the worlds of MMA and pro-wrestling should collide. A belief which would ultimately have disastrous consequences for New Japan’s business. Inoki publicly criticised the presence of Pro-Wrestling NOAH wrestlers on the card, while Kobashi predicted that his GHC Heavyweight Title match and the Nagata vs Takayama IWGP Heavyweight Title main event would please NJPW’s fans more than Inoki’s brand of MMA. What’s more, Chono had suffered a serious knee injury just weeks before the show while defending the IWGP Heavyweight Tag Titles and would need surgery.
Chono decided to compete regardless, but in a match where much of the build had been centred around the idea that a 60 minute time-limit wouldn’t be enough to settle things between these two ’90s legends, this presented something of a problem. The result isn’t a pretty match by any means, but the story they tell is wonderful regardless. Chono does his best to hide it, but it’s obvious moments into the match that his left knee is severely troubling him. Kobashi puts him through his paces and Chono’s struggling to build the slightest bit of momentum. He takes a shortcut with a low blow and Kobashi immediately punishes him for it, then takes things outside to speed things towards a quick end. But Chono doesn’t play nice and after a rana on the ramp takes control of the match and does his best to wear Kobashi down. It’s a futile effort though, and the crowd seem to know that, but Chono’s still got a few tricks up his sleeve.
He stalls Kobashi’s comeback with a series of nasty backdrop drivers and for the first time looks to have the champion in trouble. Chono follows up with the Shining Kenka Kick and locks in the STF, but Kobashi breaks free of that and then the butterfly lock as well. Chono, exhausted, beaten and at the point of breaking is out of options as he limply kicks at Kobashi. The champion grabs his leg, spins him around and hits a half-nelson suplex that spells the beginning of the end. But Chono refuses to stay down and Kobashi damn near has to dismantle him to get the victory. The drama in this final sequence is great, worried reactions from the crowd as Chono lands on his head yet again, Tenzan on the apron teasing throwing in the towel and a huge roar when Chono somehow locks in the Cobra Twist for one last gasp attempt at victory.
A rare IWGP Heavyweight Title match in Korakuen Hall here, as Yuji Nagata makes the first defence of his newly won title against legendary cult hero Shiro Koshinaka, who celebrated his 28th anniversary in pro-wrestling and New Japan’s 35th anniversary with this match. Koshiaka was sort-of feuding with on-and-off frenemy Riki Choshu, which would lead to a G1 participation match between the two, with Koshinaka winning the match, earning Choshu’s respect with his performances in the G1 and then joining Riki’s LEGEND stable. But in the course of all this, Koshinaka laid out a challenge to Yuji Nagata, who Choshu had stamped with his seal of approval by publicly hailing him as the best wrestler in New Japan. Koshinaka set out to prove Choshu wrong, and he had a red hot Korakuen Hall crowd behind him every step of the way.
Huge Koshinaka chants reverberate around the arena as the announcements are made, Nagata being booed simply by virtue of not being Shiro Koshinaka. They get things started and Nagata’s shows deference to his senior, which Koshinaka spits back in his face and takes the fight to the champion. The match quickly spills to the outside and Koshinaka gives the crowd exactly what they want, his patented hip attacks! Many, many hip attacks. He goes to work on Nagata’s arm, but it’s largely ineffective as the champion fires back with some vicious strikes. Koshinaka weathers the storm however, and fights back in a big way as he throws everything he’s got at Nagata. The outcome’s never really in question, to be fair, but that doesn’t stop the crowd biting in a big way for every expertly timed nearfall.
Long before he was The Rainmaker and one of the most prolific IWGP Heavyweight Champions in the modern era, Kazuchika Okada was just another young lion in the NJPW Dojo. Albeit one trained by Ultimo Dragon and held in high regard by New Japan officials, but inexperienced all the same. That shows here as he faces a stern test against Koji Kanemoto, one of the most skilled strikers in pro-wrestling and possessing a notorious temper. Okada, perhaps unwisely, raises Kanemoto’s ire early on by trying to go strike for strike with him, which does not pay off. There’s flashes of The Rainmaker here though, that crisp technical ability, that natural athleticism which makes much of what he does look so easy and that dropkick, already beautiful. Inevitably, the young lion is no match for his vastly more experienced opponent, but it’s an interesting look at an Okada less than a year into his NJPW career.