Match of the Week (20/04-27/04 2018): Jun Akiyama vs. Naomichi Marufuji (AJPW Champion Carnival 2018 – Night 13)

Added by Miguel Camilleri

Before I break down this week’s match, I’d like to give you some personal insight into my wrestling fandom. Due to my near-exclusive WWE fandom for over a decade, I rarely ever (apart from the odd TNA show and, being a CM Punk fan, classic ROH match) branched out of the bubble up until 2015. It was only after watching Wrestle Kingdom 9 whilst sitting in a hospital bed that I really realised just how much more great wrestling there was out there, especially in Japan. After getting into the current New Japan product, I started checking out some older Japanese matches, especially from the golden eras of All Japan Pro Wrestling in the 1990s and Pro Wrestling NOAH in the 2000s.

Two of the stalwarts of that latter era were Jun Akiyama and Naomichi Marufuji, with both men being two of the many wrestlers that defected from AJPW to form NOAH in May 2000. Although Marufuji was still somewhat of a burgeoning prospect when this defection occurred, Akiyama was an established star in AJPW during that company’s golden period, having challenged for AJPW’s top title, the Triple Crown Championship, on multiple times (but never actually winning it). Nonetheless, both Akiyama himself and Marufuji went on to win NOAH’s top title, the GHC Heavyweight Championship, during the 2000s, and established themselves as two of the top stars in the promotion. This would last until January 2013, where Akiyama, disgruntled with backstage strife in NOAH and having felt that he had some unfinished business in his old promotion, decided to jump back to AJPW.

This week’s match was the first time that the two men have faced off since Akiyama defected back to AJPW. The special nature and rarity of this match was only heightened by the fact that both men sat level on 8 points at the top of their block in the Champion Carnival tournament, with a win by either man guaranteeing them a spot in the final. The high stakes were evident from the crowd’s excitement before and during the match, and the energy was palpable. Owing to the fact that Marufuji was a guest entrant in the tournament, and therefore an AJPW outsider, the fans were firmly behind Akiyama from the get-go.

It was Akiyama that took control immediately, engaging his opponent in chain wrestling that simply could not be countered. The highlight of this opening stretch was an engaging sequence where both men dodged each other’s moves, resulting in a stalemate that garnered a rousing reception from the crowd. This was followed up by Marufuji delivering several hard-hitting chops to Akiyama, who at first reacted with amusement, but as the chops went on, the pain they were causing became more and more evident on his face.

A multitude of kicks to his opponent’s head seemed to be a big mistake by Marufuji as it only served to piss Akiyama off; however, this was merely bait by Marufuji, as he drew his opponent to the outside, only to rush back into the ring and hit a swift dropkick on Akiyama back to the outside. Nonetheless, Akiyama quickly swung momentum back in his favour by stopping a tope attempt by Marufuji with swift knees – the first of many he would in this match – to his opponent’s chest and head. He followed this up by a series of brutal moves over the next few minutes, namely a piledriver on the outside, several knees to Marufuji’s head, a DDT onto the ring apron, a back bodydrop that sent his opponent flying from one side of the ring to the other, and a curb stomp that drop Marufuji’s face right down into the mat.

Akiyama continued the flurry of knees and strikes, until Marufuji eventually managed to re-establish himself in the match after cartwheeling out of an Irish whip into a dropkick on his opponent, followed by several swift kicks to his opponent’s head. This flurry would not last long, however, as Akiyama countered a Sliced Bread attempt by Marufuji into yet another knee to his chest, with several further knees to the chest following. Akiyama then proceeded to lock in the King Crab Lock. Instead of keeping the hold on, however, he attempted to pin his opponent, who promptly kicked out at 2. Maintaining the pressure, he hit another knee to Marufuji’s face, followed by an Exploder suplex.

Although it seemed like Akiyama had Marufuji on the rocks, the latter incredibly managed to shift the tide back in his favour by dodging another of Akiyama’s knees, and using his momentum to hit his finishing move, the Ko-oh bicycle knee kick. Both men were spent at this point, and could barely bring themselves to their feet. An intense exchange of strikes began once both men got up, which led to Marufuji hitting multiple superkicks to his opponent, followed by a Sliced Bread at the second time of asking. This only brought a 2 count, however, as Akiyama just about managed to get his hand on the ropes before the 3 count.

Korakuen Hall was rocking at this point, as Akiyama managed to hit a Brainbuster on his opponent, followed by yet another knee to the face. Another 2 count followed, after he hit a second Exploder suplex. This only served to frustrate Akiyama, who hit a series of brutal knees to Marufuji’s face. The last attempt would be his downfall, however, as Marufuji countered it into a superkick, followed by yet another Ko-oh. Marufuji barely managed to pick up a one count, however, and Akiyama promptly got up all fired up. This, in turn, fired up his opponent, who hit another superkick followed by successive Ko-oh knees. Akiyama incredibly managed to kick out of this sequence, which triggered Marufuji to expose his knee, and hit one final Ko-oh to finish the job and pick up the pinfall (and win the Block in the process).

This was an incredibly brutal yet poetic affair, full of violence and emotion. The emotion was so rife that people in the front row were shown crying towards the end of and after the match. The post-match angle was a nice touch as the two opponents exchanged fist bumps, essentially putting to bed any tension there may have been over Akiyama’s departure from NOAH five years earlier. A definite must-watch if you are a fan of puroresu.