Puroresu Pulse, issue 127: NOAH Struggles

Five months ago Kobashi had seemingly saved the day. Two months ago Morishima claimed the company’s throne. Why then was their latest Budokan Hall outing perhaps the lowest-drawing in company history?

Section 1- Results

All Japan: Suwama beat Sasaki to win the Triple Crown. Also on that show Mutoh & Doering retained the tag titles, and Hijikata beat Silver King to win the junior title.

Dragon Gate: Kanda got shaved and Doi & Yoshino turned face to top off Monday’s big card. Underneath, KENTA beat Doi, Shingo beat Tanisaki, and Saito & Yokosuka took the tag titles from Arai & Iwasa. Mori beat Yoshino in round 1 of the lightweight tournament but fell to Gamma in the final. CIMA retained against Saito.

New Japan: Mutoh beat Nakamura to win the IWGP title. Also on that card was Makabe & Yano over Tenzan & Iizuka when Iizuka turned heel, and Inoue over Daniels to retain the junior title. On the Chono show, he and Sato beat Ohtani & Sekimoto, while Nakanishi beat Yoshie (in 24 and a half minutes… yikes).

NOAH: Saito & Smith won the tag league, beating Misawa & Ogawa in the last match. Other noteworthy finishes from the final days include D-Lo & Buchanan over Marufuji & Sugiura, Sasaki & Nakajima over Akiyama & Rikio, and Marufuji & Sugiura over Morishima & Yone (with Sugiura pinning Morishima). The Budokan card did a claimed 11,000 attendance, the lowest claim NOAH ever had for the building, and sales were well below even that.

Section 2- News

All Japan: Hijikata defends against Hayashi on the 25th. Suwama & Mutoh vs Suzuki & Kea is set for Sunday.

Dragon Gate: CIMA will take some time off due to a neck injury. Gamma vs Super Shenlong (a rookie) for the lightweight title will take place on Sunday. New Hazard defends the trios titles on Wednesday vs Gamma, Horiguchi & Yamato.

New Japan: Super Juniors blocks have been announced. Block A includes Inoue, Liger, Minoru, Taguchi & Takaiwa. Block B includes Kanemoto, Tiger Mask, AKIRA and… Jimmy Rave?!

NOAH: Morishima defends against Sugiura on 6/14. On the upcoming tour Kobashi finally returns to Korakuen, Kanemaru defends the junior title against Magnitude Kishiwada, Marufuji & Sugiura defend against Saito & Smith, and there will be a set of ‘random draw’ singles matches on the 6/1 tour finalie. Kobashi has been told he can’t go full time yet and needs to slow down; he’s on one less show in the upcoming tour.

Section 3- Of Thee I Shill

Glazer talks fundamentals!

JMull is back!

JMull is back again!

Section 4- NOAH’s Ark Is Sinking

I downloaded the April 27th NOAH show with much anticipation. Three tags had a ton of promise and two of those delivered. Yet the first match I watched, Marufuji/Sugiura vs Morishima/Yone, seemed ‘off’. The crowd was utterly dead and as a result the match was lethargic until the finishing stretch. Well, maybe the crowd was worn out after the Kobashi 6-man, featuring several great Kobashi vs Shiozaki exchanges? I don’t think that was it, and when I saw the low attendance it all made sense. On one hand, how much can you expect a card headlined by Akitoshi Saito, Bison Smith and Yoshinari Ogawa to draw? A card with no singles matches and no titles on the line? The tournament made for the most interesting NOAH tour in recent memory but should have ended earlier to allow for a proper Budokan-level card.

More importantly we needed to have Morishima defending the title; there have been just two GHC title matches on Japanese soil in the last seven months and six defenses in the last fifteen months. Compare with six and ten, respectively, for the IWGP title. Morishima’s reign is of monumental importance and he simply isn’t a strong enough champion to afford a cold start. Sugiura is a smart choice for a first defense, and the finish of their Budokan tag was a perfect lead-in, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t have done that earlier in the tour and had Morishima defend against a ‘name’ wrestler (say Akiyama or Rikio) at Budokan.

Far more important than Morishima’s reign is Kobashi’s health. All we’ve seen this year are 6-man tags for the chopping machine, with one 2-on-2 tag set for the next tour. And that while working a style requiring very few bumps AND while missing many shows. To top it off even this was apparently more than doctors want him to be doing.

I’m not a doctor. I don’t know how harsh a cancer treatment he had, what the normal recovery time would be, what has yet to heal, and what timeframe would be considered reasonable for him to return to ‘high-impact’ matches like his return. Is he behind schedule or not? All I can go on is what has been released to the press, and NOAH said months ago that Kobashi was cleared to return full-time. I’m guessing this was the usual hype-job that Japanese promotions do (see also: the GPWA), which doesn’t excuse their working an injury on the side of making it seem better than it is. It wouldn’t be the first time that happened.

Dave Meltzer was pessimistic about Kobashi’s return and compared it to Jumbo Tsuruta. I’m beginning to think he was right, and thus it’s important to explain. Jumbo contracted hepatitis at some point causing his body to break down, especially in 1992. For someone his size and with almost 20 years under his belt this meant less time spent in the ring, doing less while in the ring, fewer high-strain matches, and so on. During the summer he took time off for a ‘leg injury’, which was a cover for the hepatitis. Jumbo came back in August only to leave again before the start of the tag league in November. This second absence was longer and after his second return he was only capable of a limited schedule in very low-impact 6-man matches. Jumbo in 1994 wasn’t taking half the bumps of the much older and much more visibly worn Baba. Jumbo never had a last big sendoff before he died because he wasn’t up for it.

Kobashi has been much more active in his matches this year than Jumbo was from 1993 on, but that doesn’t mean time will necessarily heal his wounds. Perhaps there’s a better analogy: Takayama. Big return match, lots of anticipation, but nothing as big as the return match. Takayama’s first significant singles match since the return comes up shortly against Minoru Suzuki, and I rather doubt that will be a bump-fest. Tak has taken some big punishment from time to time but clearly is holding back to prevent a repeat of what happened when he wrestled too intensely too often in 2004. He’s now a special attraction rather than a big asset. Takayama 6-man tags don’t draw big, and at this point neither do Kobashi 6-mans.

If Kobashi remains at this level of performing he won’t be able to fully pass the torch to NOAH’s new stars, he won’t be able to fill Budokan Hall again, and NOAH will have to hope for a miracle to turn things around. Kobashi more than deserves to put his health before the company, and with a habit of inconsistent and/or lazy booking I doubt NOAH will turn Morishima, Rikio, Marufuji, KENTA and Shiozaki into powerhouses without Kobashi leading the way.