Section 1- Dragon Gate
Dragon Gate has been running two small shows daily for the past several weeks in a place called Odaiba. This requires a little background. Odaiba is a man-made island in Tokyo’s coastal region. It’s one of the lesser-known places to visit in part because it has been renovated in recent years following a decline in the early ’90s. Besides having many a spectacular view of the city’s bay area (especially at night), it’s home to some nifty attractions such as the Fuji TV studios, Zepp Tokyo (which has wrestling shows on occasion), family-oriented theme parks, and many stores. And a Cinnabon. Last summer and this summer Dragon Gate has operated its shows in a tent located at one of the theme parks.
For a wrestling show in a tent, Dragon Gate brought some serious production values. For starters, each seat was equipped with a hand-held light wand thingy that could produce a variety of colors during wrestler entrances. There was a stage and a large (given the venue size) screen which played videos. Each wrestler has a video package complete with their name, finisher and a brief spoken message. Lighting and sound were top-notch. The show itself was the first of five ‘Premium Match’ offerings. The twice-daily shows are super-cheap and have small, short shows. Premium shows are full, taped shows with regular ticket prices. This particular show had three full-length matches and three short ones, and was very worthwhile.
Before the show was, from what I could gather, a skit designed to show basic wrestling concepts like falls and nearfalls to new fans. This would be especially needed for the cheap shows which attract lots of new-to-wrestling people. The opener of Doi & Yoshino vs Dragon Kid & K-Ness was a very nice sprint with clearly defined face/heel roles and plenty of action. Two squashes followed, one with Kensuke Sasaki protege Nakajima downing uberjobber Stalker Ichikawa. The other squash wasn’t so expected, as one of the Blood Generation musclemen Shingo Takagi crushed veteran Kenichiro Arai in less time than the Stalker match. Takagi is getting a push in the upcoming contendership match, and also does posing in time with his entrance music. If he was a few inches taller and white he’d be on Smackdown by now.
A 6-man of Blood Generation versus PoS Hearts followed, and was the longest match of the evening at a little over 13 minutes. The PoS faction, unfortunately, are total jobbers; this made the match an extended squash and made it anticlimactic rather than dramatic towards the end. Still it was solid action with some neat power spots involving Magnitude. Ah, Magnitude. Post-match CIMA yelled at PoS for being jobbers, at least that’s what it sounded like. After the intermission came the match yours truly was most anticipating.
If you don’t know what the Florida Brothers are, you’re missing out. As wrestling comedy acts go they’re top-notch, with elements ranging from absurd mime tricks to Eddy ‘cheat to win’ tactics to over-the-top American impersonations and outfits. Florida was joined last year by Kensuke Sasaki, and on September 17th of last year they had a 6-man tag with staggering comedy value. Sasaki was also at this show, leading the group in a 10-man ‘war’ with Do Fixer. Though several of the ‘Sasaki is superhumanly strong’ spots were repeats from Sasaki’s past appearances, they managed to come up with enough new ones to justify the show’s 5,000 yen price tag. Florida Brothers Express won the match and everyone (including DF) did a salute while the Star-Spangled Banner played. Priceless.
The main event was voted on by Dragon Gate fans, and was a much-anticipated non-title singles match between champion Mochizuki and his friend Yokosuka. Their match was rather cookie-cutter, featuring submission work that got blown off and very pedestrian finisher exchanging. Mochizuki won in slightly more time than the opener took, which surprised me. Still it was a decent capper to the show.
The next morning I walked to a residential neighborhood to do some laundry (which on a 17 day vacation is inevitable). What should happen to pass me on the street but the Dragon Gate bus! Considering how gigantic Tokyo is, that’s no small coincidence.
Section 2- The Tokyo Dome Area
Japan’s version of the New York Yankees, the Yomiuri Giants (former team of Hideki Matsui), play at the Tokyo Dome. In addition the Dome hosts assorted other events and of course the occasional wrestling show. Where so many large stadiums are an island surrounded by acres of parking, the Dome is surrounded instead by buildings and attractions. There’s an amusement park complete with rides, shopping, and a little place called Korakuen Hall. I saw two shows in this area.
http://www.tokyo-dome.co.jp – Tokyo Dome website
http://www.tokyo-dome.co.jp/hall/ – Korakuen Hall website
Section 3- New Japan
‘New Generation Live’ wasn’t your average tour. Every night for a week, adjacent to one of the Tokyo Dome amusement parks, New Japan hosted a couple hundred fans. Twenty bucks got you an unreserved seat on bleachers, plus a drink. Next to the ring was what I think is a play stage, which acted as the show’s backstage/entrance area. Also next to the ring was two of Japan’s omnipresent vending machines, to the point where a wrestler so inclined could have easily done a suicide dive into the big Cola-Cola logo.
Because of my low expectations and being outdoors on an absolutely perfect summer night, this was the most straightforwardly enjoyable wrestling show I’ve been to. It began with two young lion’s matches, both of which were solid. Iizuka versus Yanagisawa was a standard New Japan heavyweight match, and was just fine as well. Minoru Tanaka & Hirooki Goto versus Samurai & Kakihara was fun and didn’t disappoint despite the countout finish. Liger versus Takemura was amusing just because Liger did everything he could to be a heel but the crowd would just keep making ‘Liger!’ calls. Thankfully they got behind Takemura a bit in the end, and after the match Liger gave up and posed to the crowd’s delight.
The main event, Jado & Gedo versus Kanemoto & Tiger Mask, got the job done. Gedo stalled for literally five minutes to start and it didn’t get boring. They went on to do a Jado/Gedo formula match that didn’t lose the crowd during the heel beatdown, and there was a long finishing stretch with plenty of big moves for such a small show. Gedo’s heel charisma was quite fun in person. A personal highlight for me was getting to speak a little with tri-lingual referee Black Cat. At first I tried Spanish, of which yo dico un poco, but then he switched to english because I’m clearly American. If only Kengo Kimura was that personable when he turned down my request for an autograph. After the show I went to see if Korakuen Hall was, in fact, ‘right there’. It was.
Section 4- NOAH in Korakuen
Korakuen Hall is a venue that hosts by itself more wrestling shows per year than any non-Tokyo city on earth. I wouldn’t be shocked if it has more wrestling than any one US state either. There are bulletin boards showing what shows are coming up in the near future, and it boggles the mind. Korakuen Hall had been previously described as to me as the ECW Arena of Japan; smarter fans, smaller venue, not very upscale. I pictured a rough neighborhood. Well, to be accurate I pictured the neighborhoods in Philly where I went to see ROH and MLW shows in the past. That was not the case because of being in the Tokyo Dome area. What’s more, Korakuen Hall isn’t even a building, but rather the 5th floor of a mall. Though it shows its age (built in 1962 and never seriously renovated), it’s a perfectly nice place to see people get kicked directly in the face.
Korakuen’s crowd struck me not only as receptive, but also at least half female. And much of that of the nubile variety. So the show was already on my good side from the get-go. Due to not being able to use/find the stairs, we arrived at the show during the opening match of Yone vs BJ Whitmer. This match was caused by Mike “Gladiator” Awesome cancelling his tour appearances due to injury, forcing much card reshuffling. For some reason the second match was an 8-man that went 20 minutes, but it was a good one. Featuring both sets of upcoming tag title challengers (Ki/Slinger, Saito/Sugiura) plus the good and evil Mushikings (who are quite over with the kiddies), the pace was kept up very well.
Bison Smith and Scorpio (under a mask) versus Izumida and Kikuchi was mostly a comedy match, and worked as that. Between Kikuchi’s apparent hatred of Scorpio’s mask, Scorpio’s dancing and antics, and the interplay between Bison’s iron claw and the Izumida/Kikuchi iron skulls, there was more to work with than if they’d gone for a straight match. Right around here they did a segment with Kentaro Shiga returning, which received a very good response. Next match was Morishima versus SUWA, with SUWA doing his usual heel act and going after the legs with a chair. Morishima was able to get nice and surly, leading to some stiff shots and good nearfalls. Odd way to build the next junior title challenger, but hey that’s Japan for you.
Taue & Sano versus Misawa & Go Shiozaki was a dichotomy of young and old. Young in that Shiozaki is a great young lion who connects with the crowd, and has tended to be the highlight of his matches. Old in that Misawa is deteriorating, and he blew one of his trademark spots quite badly. Thankfully Go was in the ring most of the time, and thus it was a good match. Not quite so good was Rikio facing his replacement for Mike Awesome, one Masao Inoue. Inoue wasn’t able to recapture the spirit of the 9/10/04 tag title match, but this was still passable. Inoue was allowed to kick out of way more than I expected, including a big lariat and a top rope splash. That leaves Rikio with the Muso as pretty much his only viable finisher, which is a handicap to his ability to have a dramatic title match.
Minoru Suzuki & Marufuji versus Honda & KENTA was maybe the best match I’d seen in Japan up to that point. KENTA versus Suzuki had already been set for later in the tour, and KENTA did everything in his power to be pissed off at Suzuki. Meanwhile, Suzuki’s theme song managed to be even more popular than at the G-1 Final show, as it seemed like the entire crowd screamed the end lyric. KENTA’s anger at Suzuki drove the match and Suzuki’s cocky heel act was masterful, as it has tended to be. Honda and Marufuji were just fine in support. Post-match there was a pull-apart brawl. As good as the match was, it paled in comparison to what followed.
The main event of Kobashi & Hashi versus Akiyama & Kanemaru was as high-quality a wrestling match as I’ve ever seen live. Hashi, whose love-and-hate relationship with Akiyama has been going on for quite some time, was able to draw massive support from a red-hot Korakuen crowd for his numerous exchanges with Akiyama. The match had so much to love and pulled off so many different elements (storytelling, attention to detail, role playing, intensity) that it single-handedly made me determined to return to Japan at some point. Though Hashi lost as usual in the end, his struggle was such that he seemed stronger than he went in. Kanemaru was, as is so often the case, vastly more effective in a tag environment than singles. Akiyama could have sold more but that was part of the story. Kobashi was Kobashi, no more, no less.
When all was said and done there was roughly two hours worth of match time on the show. The main event went just under twenty-five minutes but wasn’t the least bit overlong. As far as top-to-bottom heat the crowd was better than the G-1 final, and that helped a lot. After the show I snagged Kikuchi’s autograph and was able to exit down the stairs, which are covered by incredibly dense graffiti in sharp contrast to the rest of the city. That was a great night of professional wrestling.
Section 5- ROH
Four days after returning to the states I went to see ROH’s show in Buffalo. It was a major step up from their June 4th effort, and in terms of the overall wrestling quality it wasn’t far off from NOAH thanks to the smart work of guys like Samoa Joe. I won’t do a full report considering that such things are available elsewhere, though I will say that fans of ROH’s 2005 product are recommended to get the 8/27 tape (where 6/4 is skippable).
The reason I bring this show up was the presence of Dragon Gate wrestlers Shingo Takagi and CIMA. Takagi, scheduled to face Christopher Daniels, was a complete unknown to the crowd due to his newness and lack of high-profile matches. Daniels decided to show up as Curry Man, which made a lot of sense because the Fallen Angel character didn’t fit the ‘dream match’ concept. Takagi got to show way more due to the match length, but still needed to be carried because of his youth. Daniels did a fine job at this, making sure the action didn’t drag. Daniels can also shake his moneymaker with shocking dexterity.
CIMA versus AJ Styles was a match right out of the 2002/2003 ROH playbook, both in the booking and the wrestling. No particular storytelling aside from their parity (aided by their nearly-exact builds), lots of sequences and showing-off, both wrestlers playing to the crowd, etc. They executed everything well and CIMA got some good nearfalls before winning with his unique LA MART cradle. CIMA did have the bad luck of throwing chops after Roderick Strong, whose chops earlier were matchless. After the show I was able to get CIMA and Shingo’s signatures on my Dragon Gate ticket, and CIMA was pleased when he recognized that I had seen them in Japan. ROH and Dragon Gate seem to have a more long-term relationship in mind than previous ROH/Japan tie-ups, so this could bring Dragon Gate stars to a city near you! Assuming ‘you’ live in the northeastern US.
Fifteen days apart, I saw four promotions and six wrestling shows. Now consider that anyone who lives in/near Tokyo can see more wrestling than that in any ten to twelve day stretch. It’s all I can do not to go crazy thinking about that here in Rochester, NY.
Next column: CAN Jamal win the Triple Crown? Find out! I know you’re on the edge of your seat waiting!