The Beautiful Thing: Best of Japan 2004

On holiday last year, in San Francisco’s Japan Town, Chitose bought me a random New Japan tape. As luck would have it, it was the first WPW taping following the big 2004 Tokyo Dome show. I got to see Manabu Nakanishi turn on Yuji Nagata, leaving him to fight Tenryu and Sasaki by himself. Nakanishi is among my personal favorite wrestlers even though a lot of fans dismiss him because he’s built like Lex Luger and he has a slight tendency towards goofiness. I was pretty happy to find that he was featured on my random gift, but there was something on the tape that I loved even more. There was a really good match between the fourth iteration of Tiger Mask and the man I consider the very best Pro Wrestler in the world today:

American Dragon Bryan Danielson.

When I got the Best of Japan 2004 DVD set from Rob Hunter, the first four matches I watched were the ones featuring American Dragon.

Volume Two, Match Two: American Dragon & Curry Man vs. IWGP Jr. Hwt. Tag Team Champions Gedo & Jado

Curry Man is the goofy gimmick that has made Christopher Daniels a minor star in New Japan. Gedo & Jado are former WAR and FMW stars who once set a record for most successful defenses of the IWGP Jr. Tag Titles. They are pretty much the least popular Japanese Juniors among most non-Japanese puroresu fans. This is partly because they are neither exciting high flyers nor great technical wrestlers, and partly because Gedo beat Benoit in the 1995 Super J Cup, robbing us of a Wild Pegasus vs. Jushin Lyger final. I don’t think it’s any secret that Bryan Danielson is a fan of Chris Benoit, and vice versa, so it’s really satisfying in a childish, grudge-holding way, to see him beat on Gedo.

Am Drag has a deadly serious look on his face as the announcer informs us that Curry Man is hot, he’s spicy, and he tastes great! That pretty much establishes their roles, as Curry Man goofs around, throws Steamboat-esque Arm Drags, and plays to the crowd while American Dragon gets the job done with mat wrestling and arm work. Totally outclassed, Gedo & Jado resort to cheating and outside interference to get the job done. Katsushi Takemura keeps intruding on the action, until finally 1980s New Japan superstar Kengo Kimura came out, slapped him, and ordered him backstage. I’m not sure if Kimura is still working as an announcer for New Japan, or if he’s now being used in more of a GM-type role.

At any rate, in a real Sports Entertainment moment, Gedo & Jado get all distracted complaining about Takemura’s ejection, which allows Am Drag to regain the advantage via some kind of high risk diving maneuver that the cameras all but completely miss. Fortunately, they do catch Curry Man’s very smooth springboard Asai Moonsault. The gaijin team keeps the advantage with multiple very quick tags, forcing Gedo & Jado to resort to eye gouging and chair usage. Once the champs regain the upper hand, they mercilessly work on Danielson’s knee, which he sells beautifully for the rest of the match. He goes so far as to push off his right leg when executing the flying forearm that leads to a crowd-popping hot tag. Once Curry Man gets in the ring the action quickly accelerates and they go back and forth at high speed for about ten minutes, pulling out Curry Man’s Top Rope Rana, Am Drag’s Dynamite-style Flying Headbutt, and a beautiful spot where Curry breaks up Gedo’s Figure Four on Danielson by gracefully Moonsaulting onto both of them. The ending sequence is very nice, as American Dragon gets caught in a Gedo Clutch, only to have his partner, who is the legal man, snatch Gedo off into the Angel’s wings.

Overall, I’d only rate this match around the C plus level, but it has real historical value as it marks the first time that an all-foreign team had ever won the IWGP Jr. Hwt. Tag Titles, and it is also genuinely satisfying to see Gedo get stomped.

Volume Two, Match Four: American Dragon & Rocky Romero vs. Koji Kanemoto & Minoru Fujita

Koji Kanemoto is a near-legend. His disciple, Minoru Fujita, is a talented and charismatic Junior who has split his time between New Japan, Michinoku Pro, and Kaientai Dojo. Rocky Romero is best know as half of ROH’s Havana Pitbulls. Romero and Danielson are among the trainers that helped set up Inoki’s New Japan LA Dojo in California. This match was set up mainly to build interest in their participation in the 2004 Best of the Super Juniors Tournament.

The first thing that strikes me is that Kanemoto has totally changed his look. Gone are the Akira Maeda style sensible haircut and black trunks and boots, replaced by a stylish ‘do, a little beard, and brightly coloured tights. He looks a lot younger.

Did he start dating a fashion model or something?

He’s also seemingly abandoned his propensity towards no-selling, as he willingly bumps around the ring for much of the match. Happily, he is still a total dick who has no problems kicking his opponents right in the head while they are down on the mat.

All four guys just lay into each other with gusto, making this is one stiffly contested and well paced little tag match. Am Drag once again manages to get the Japanese crowd behind him as he displays his fighting spirit. I’d assume he’s coming in as an unknown and leaving as someone that they’d look forward to seeing again, which makes it even more baffling that New Japan hasn’t signed him to a long term deal yet.

It occurs to me while watching Am Drag follow up a Superplex with a Diving Headbutt, that Kanemoto was at one point Tiger Mask III, and it isn’t really a stretch to see Danielson as Dynamite Kid III, with Benoit obviously being DKII.

Sadly, my version of this match cuts out just as American Dragon is dropping Koji with a Leglock Suplex, but according to Strong Style Spirit that was the finish of the match anyway. I think that was wise booking, as it set up the LA Dojo guys as legitimate threats going into the tournament.

While Searching SSS, I also learned that American Dragon had teamed frequently with Manabu Nakanishi in the spring of 2004, and that he had beaten Kanemoto cleanly in the opening rounds of the BOSJ tournament with something called an Arm Arrangement Cradle Hold. Apparently, Koji only made it to the BOSJ semi-finals because Lyger got injured.

Next Week:

That sets up American Dragon vs. Koji Kanemoto in the semis very nicely, and that’s where we’ll pick up next week.

There are 90 matches on the DVD set, so I’m going to have to think of a more efficient way of covering them if I want to finish this project before the Best of 2005 is released.

I’m also working on pieces about wrestling burnout, DVDVR’s Best of the 1980s project, and Mixed Martial Arts…

Thanks for reading!