Section 1- Important Results
All Japan: On the 20th, Taka defended the junior title against NOSAWA while Kea and Jamal defended the tag titles against the FBI. After the tag title match, Albert/A-Train made his All Japan debut by joining the Voodoo Murders ‘superheel’ stable. Albert has been dubbed ‘Giant Bernard’ (I’ll just call him Albert). The next night, Kojima and Kawada bested Mutoh and Sasaki when Kojima got a rare pin on Mutoh.
New Japan: On the 21st, Kanemoto and Wataru Inoue downed Jado and Gedo in a 44 minute long junior tag titles match. On Saturday, New Japan failed to sell out Sumo Hall (more on that later) for a fairly stacked show. Fujinami’s return match with Nishimura went to a draw, and Fujinami seems to be in better shape than when he left two years ago. Hirooki Goto won the Young Lion’s Cup, beating Ito of the U-Style promotion. Kosaka beat Nagata in a quick match, which was shortened by a leg injury to Kosaka. Tenzan won the Tokyo Dome IWGP title shot by beating Nakanishi and Chono. Finally, Kojima versus Nakamura went to a sixty minute draw.
Zero-One: Omori defended the AWA title in a three man elimination match against Ohtani and Corino on Sunday.
Section 2- Other news & Upcoming matches
All Japan: Blocks for the upcoming Champions Carnival were announced. If the winner isn’t Kojima, that person gets a Triple Crown match. Block A: Kojima, Sasaki, Kea, Arashi, Albert, Shuji Kondo (awesome wrestler formerly of Toryumon). Block B: Kawada, Mutoh, Jamal, Palumbo, Suwama, Bull Buchanan.
Dragons Gate: A metric ton of stable changes happened on Sunday. A ‘PoS Hearts’ stable was created with Mori, Super Shisa and BxB Hulk. Magnum Tokyo will be a half-member of that and Do Fixer. YOSSINO turned heel and joined Blood Generation, in the process returning to his real name of Masato Yoshino.
New Japan: The only title match expected before the Dome show is a Kanemoto/Wataru junior tag title defense against the rather random pairing of Kakihara and El Samurai on 4/9. Also announced is a pair of ‘Black New Japan’ shows, which I suppose would be like in WCW when nWo had its own Souled Out PPV.
NOAH: Rikio’s first title defense will be against Akitoshi Saito on the 4/24 Budokan show. Saito had a shot against Kobashi last fall. Also expected for the show is Tenryu vs Morishima and Akiyama vs Minoru Suzuki. On the 20th, Yone will defend the openweight title against Morishima.
Zero-One: Omori’s next title defense will be on 4/10 against Yokoi.
Section 3- Rikio’s reign off to a rough start
So if you said to someone four years ago that Rikio would be headlining a NOAH Budokan show, they wouldn’t be surprised. He was being groomed for stardom based on his size and in-ring competence. If you said his opponent would be Akitoshi Saito, you’d be mocked. Perhaps even pantsed. Hey, puro fans can be spiteful at times.
Let me tell you about Saito. Not tall, not very well built, not exactly handsome even with hair that could likely survive (or is perhaps the product of) a nuclear detonation. Saito grew up in New Japan, as a midcarder. He was occasionally in some notable angles but clearly wasn’t going to become any sort of draw. He left there in ’98 and resurfaced in NOAH on 10/11/00. The next year he teamed with Akiyama, which signaled the start of his push. In ’02 they took the tag titles from Wild II (Rikio/Morishima) and had the second most successful reign in the history of the belts. Also that year they formed the STERNNESS stable along with (primarily) Kanemaru and Hashi. STERNNESS vs Burning became a staple of many NOAH shows, with 6 and 8-man tags in a variety of forms.
EDIT: Jun formed the stable a couple of months before Saito joined, and STERNNESS with Saito was around by 2001.
Saito still struggled with singles match success. He lost a number one contender’s match to Tamon Honda for the first Kobashi title shot in ’03, then lost an openweight title match to Akiyama last August. That match coincided with Saito leaving STERNNESS to form Dark Agents with Masao Inoue and Sugiura (chronicled somewhat back in issue 12). Though the Saito and Inoue tandem lost on 9/10 in a tag title match, it was one of the more memorable tag matches NOAH has ever produced.
A month later Saito got an outright GHC title shot at last, and in what would also have been a shock four years ago, it was primarily Kobashi who dragged the match down by failing to put over Saito’s arm work (hey, go read the Gordi column on limb work whydontcha). Kobashi vs Saito failed to sell out the mid-sized Osaka Prefectural Gym. Saito’s most notable action since then was a hilarious drag act on NOAHFUL GIFT IN DIFFER ’04, the Christmas show. I love typing the phrase ‘NOAHFUL’.
At what point exactly does any of the above translate to ‘compelling first title defense for Rikio’? Simple: it doesn’t. Even though it was Saito who pinned Rikio when STERNNESS won the tag titles, that was two and a half years ago. Clearly Rikio is being provided fodder, which is exactly what he doesn’t need for his first Budokan main event. If this were a smaller venue, hey, why not? Kobashi versus Honda (which was better than it had any right to be) two years ago wasn’t in the Budokan because it never could have filled the building.
Misawa’s plan seems to be one of developing a stronger undercard than most past NOAH Budokan shows. Between Tenryu vs Morishima, Akiyama vs Suzuki, other potential title matches and maybe even Misawa vs Ohtani, it could wind up being the strongest top-to-bottom card the Budokan has seen in years (even ones All Japan did were top-heavy). Thus, while it could still sell out, Rikio’s match won’t be the big attraction and is doubtful to be match of the night. Perhaps it’s Misawa being realistic and giving Rikio a little time to develop as champion. Perhaps Rikio will look good enough to balance out a mediocre opponent. However, there’s a good chance that Rikio will look like a lesser champion to Kobashi as long as he’s treated that way.
Next Week: The disaster that was New Japan’s Sumo Hall show