This week on VS. we have a truly epic battle for the Puroresu championship. Puro is, for those who donâ€™t know, Japanese wrestling. Our champion of the regular VS., Jake Mulligan is a respected Puro expert around the internet (on every damn message board you can think of) and writes the weekly Spotlight on Japan. His opponent is, for my money, the single most respected voice in Puro, the Ditch himself, David Ditch. Come on in and join us for this extra special showdown of Puroresu heavyweights.
Question 1. Keiji Mutoh just won the IWGP title from Nakamura. Was this a good decision? Why or why not? Where do you see the title going from here?
Ditch: As a fan, I hate the decision. I haven’t liked a Mutoh singles match performance in almost seven years. How much does that matter? Zilch. I’d love to come up with excuses as to why it’s the wrong move but I honestly can’t. It would be nice for Nakamura to have a longer reign, but who would he face? Tanahashi is hurt and they’ve faced off enough over the last year and a half. Nagata is coming off an injury and shouldn’t get a challenger push until he’s 100%. Makabe has no chemistry with Nakamura. Bernard and Hirooki Goto are in Nakamura’s stable. Chono and Choshu aren’t physically up for a championship-caliber match with Nakamura. Nakanishi just fell short of Zero-One’s title.
Insert Mutoh and things open up quite a bit. Bernard is an obvious challenger. Hirooki Goto needs a little re-building but would make sense in wanting revenge after the January 4th loss to Muta. Makabe vs Muta would get a lot of interest in a who-can-out-gimmick-the-other way. If Chono is going to get an IWGP shot ever again, Mutoh is more his style and speed. By the time you work through most of those, Nagata should be back. On top of all that you have the “who can beat the outside champion” storyline heading into the G-1 Climax, which in turn sets up a big title match. I don’t see Mutoh running through the entire company but I think there’s enough for him to hold the belt through October where he’d face the G-1 winner, and maybe even to the January 4th dome show.
Jake Mulligan: Keiji Mutoh as IWGP Champ is certainly an extremely interesting choice by NJPW. I think itâ€™s a good one, as everything else (big name foreigners, building to â€œnewâ€ guys like Nakamura, established stars like Nagata) has failed to bring attendance up, so a big name outsider from Japan is something worth a try. As for where I see the reign going, it seems v1 will be against Hirooki Goto, which Mutoh shall win. I imagine he will reign relatively long, with defenses against Makabe, Nagata, a LEGEND member or two (Chono?), and perhaps Bernard likely. I see no one who epically needs the rub from Mutoh right now, so I say build it all to the ultimate matchup, should he be ready: do the switch at the Dome, 1/4/09, Mutoh vs. Tanahashi. Do the switch there, in front of the largest fanbase possible, with hopefully the fans embracing Tanahashi, once and for all, as the future.
Glazerâ€™s Grading: This is a tough one, but Ditch, in examining why Nakamuraâ€™s reign was done and then explaining how the Mutoh run should go wins out over Jakeâ€™s more speculative answer (as much as Iâ€™d love to see his speculation be correct.
Question 2. With Tanahashi out, who is the best active wrestler (non-Kobashi division) in Japan? Why? And what is their best match?
Ditch: I’m really tempted to say that nobody strikes me as the best, including Kobashi. Nobody is consistently great. The likes of Kobashi and Takayama are so hobbled that they’re almost entirely limited to tags; I can’t imagine ‘the best’ as someone incapable of at least one big singles match a month. All Japan has been a wasteland for quality for years now, unless you’re a huge mark for personalities like Mutoh and Minoru Suzuki. Dragon Gate can’t turn out a smart singles match to save their lives. Big Japan has lost a lot of the spark it had in 2006. Zero-One’s style is more ‘indy’ than anything else and only gets heat through brute force of endless finishers. Is the ‘obvious’ pick Morishima? It must be, though that’s only if you count his matches in ROH. Over the last year Morishima has the most good-great matches of anyone in Japan… yet in the last six months not so many. The Morishima/Yone vs Marufuji/Sugiura tag at Sunday’s Budokan show was the letdown of the night.
But then I remember the most electric part of the Budokan show, and I find my answer: Go Shiozaki. Go had a match with Morishima in August in which Go controlled the action interestingly until Morishima decided to stop selling. Shiozaki has had great matches with Danielson and Aries on ROH shows, plus a fun match with Necro Butcher. Match after match Shiozaki lights up the ring with his charisma and lights up his opponents with brutal chops. Shiozaki going against Kobashi was the highlight of NOAH’s April tour and demonstrates just how big a star he’s going to be.
Jake Mulligan: The best non-Tanahashi, non-Kobashi wrestler in Japan? Thatâ€™s a tough one. However, I think Iâ€™m going to have to give it to Dragon Gate wrestler Naruki Doi. Doiâ€™s been tearing it up with his Speed Muscle team, with partner Masato Yoshino, winning gold in DG and also in NOAH. He is a T2P graduate, and thus is well versed in fast paced, and sometimes submission based, work. Heâ€™s also extremely fast and explosive, and has one of the best finishers in Japan right now in my opinion, the devastating Muscular Bomb. His versatility can be seen in the sheer different styles he works: plenty of fast paced tags, hard hitting singles work, story based multimans, he can do it all and lead the match to greatness. If your looking to see the Naruki Doi thatâ€™s ruled the world for the past year or so, Iâ€™d check out his singles match vs. CIMA (9/22/07, look at CIMAâ€™s boring singles work then watch this to see how much Doi can get out of someone), and vs. KENTA (5/5/08, very fast, hard hitting, and hateful, great stuff), and for tag work, check out Doi/Yoshino vs. Shingo/Hulk (1/15/08, a definite MOTYC)). Doi has been ruling it lately in DG, and hopefully will get the reigns to carry the company soon. No one else in Japan is as consistently smooth and confident as Doi, and I truly would watch a Doi match over anyone else in Japan right now.
Glazer: I love that Ditch analyzed the other contenders, which Jake didnâ€™t do. Neither picked one match to be the best, but Jake gets the point because Ditch disqualified Morishima due to ROH work, then named ROH work as a major reason Go would be the best. One for JMULL.
Question 3. Of the following, who will have the brightest future: Nakamura, Nakajima, Marufuji, Morishima, Suwama? Explain what you see as the major career highlights now and in the future for this group?
Ditch: Morishima. Marufuji is never going to have the size or presence to be a big-league star. Nakajima has a lot of potential but hasn’t grown much in the last couple years, at a time when he should be making big strides. Nakamura still doesn’t have the kind of charisma or fire you want in a top guy. Suwama hasn’t had a breakout performance yet, unless it happened in his match with Sasaki. Morishima is a high-end striker who can do dynamic exchanges with his opponents, he takes great bumps for someone his size, he’s got a simple moveset that’s likely to hold up with time, and he’s proven that he can have a compelling title run. The title win against Misawa was somewhat underwhelming, but that was against Misawa. His next opponent (likely Sugiura) should fit perfectly with the style Morishima honed in ROH, and I’m anticipating it more than any GHC title match in a while.
Jake Mulligan: That is quite the crew of workers right there. However, if I had to pinpoint one to have the brightest future, it would be GHC Champion Takeshi Morishima. The man already has a singles win over Mitsuharu Misawa (which the crowd reacted favorably to), is not in a â€œsmallerâ€ company (sup Suwama), is contracted to a company and can be counted on to always be there (sup Nakajima), has the size needed to be a believable asskicker (sup Maru), and hasnâ€™t already been proven as a non-draw (sup Nakamura). Thatâ€™s not to say the other guys are failures, but rather, Morishima has all the tools needed, and a strong push ahead of him. As champ, NOAH clearly trusts him, and if he ever gets back to singles matches, itâ€™s almost a sure thing Morishima will claim a victory over Kobashi at some point, something thatâ€™s extremely important and a claim no one else in puro can make right now. For all these reasons, I feel Morishima will end up shining the brightest of these five.
As for current career highlights, all these men have already accomplished major things in the business. For Shinsuke Nakamura, the highlights are clear. Both wins of the IWGP title, main eventing the Dome in 2005 with Tanahashi for the Openweight belt, and defeating Angle to, after years apart, unify the IWGP Title once and for all. Katsuhiko Nakajima is perhaps the least accomplished of these men, but he has certainly had his highlights. His ***** match in NOAH, Sasaki/Nakajima vs. Kobashi/Shiozaki, going on in front of a batshit crowd certainly stands out. Also, he dethroned long time AJPW Jr. Champ Shuji Kondo in front of his family and adoring fans, a great moment. Naomichi Marufujiâ€™s highlights are clear: his shocking GHC Title win over Jun Akiyama, and the ensuing MOTY with KENTA that won him multiple awards from Tokyo Sports. Takeshi Morishimaâ€™s highlights would obviously be conquering Misawa and ending his 14 month reign, thus taking the GHC Title, as well as getting a clean win over Akiyama and then main eventing the Budokan in an exciting tournament final with Marufuji. Finally, Suwamaâ€™s highlights came just over the past month or so: he was the only man to defeat Hiroshi Tanahashi in AJPW, and followed that up with a huge win over Kensuke Sasaki for the Triple Crown. These men, with whatever path they follow, are the future of puro, and I myself am quite comfortable with that.
Glazer: Jakeâ€™s level of detail is unparalleled and he takes the lead here!
Question 4. Which company put on the better product, Dragon Gate or Michinoku Pro? What do you see as the differences between the two? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each?
Ditch: Wording is key here: put out. Cumulative. If it was “puts out”, Dragon Gate would win without any discussion. Over the course of time I take Michinoku Pro ahead of Dragon Gate without hesitation, even if that’s expanded to include Toryumon. Dragon Gate is about style, characters, marketing and constant storyline twists. Michinoku Pro is a balance between lucha libre and puroresu, from the wrestling to the booking to the ambiance. MPro storylines tend to be simpler and slower, with one big face stable against one big heel stable over many months or even years. The initial Sasuke vs Delfin feud, the Kaientai vs Everyone feud, the FEC vs Everyone feud, one after another produced great tags and a handful of great singles bouts. Dragon Gate, meanwhile, is loaded with ‘sports entertainment’. A typical televised show has lots of talking, long entrances, run-ins, weapons shots at crucial moments, and it seems like every month there’s a new stable or multiple turns or distention or some combination thereof.
When I watch Japanese wrestling, I don’t want to see title matches determined by powder or ref screwjobs. I don’t want in-ring promo battles. I just want wrestling. Sometimes heels have cheated to win in Michinoku Pro, but not to the point of frustration. More importantly Michinoku came through in the clutch more often than DG/Toryumon, and Michinoku’s best efforts far exceed anything seen in the dragon system. I don’t expect MPro to return to prominence any time soon, but I also don’t expect Dragon Gate to pull off the kind of multi-month or multi-year runs of excellence that Sasuke oversaw.
Jake Mulligan: Michinoku Pro and Dragon Gate, and its former incarnation Toryumon, are different branches of the same tree. That tree, of course, would be lucharesu, the mix of Mexican lucha styles and Japanese puroresu styles. I, personally, prefer Dragon Gate, being an addict of the company. The differences, while not massive, are clear in my opinion. M-Pro does follow a little more of the lucha style, while D-Gate incorporates a lot more of the puroresu style into their company (see: regular 30+ minute singles main events, lots of hard hitting action, etc).
It is this difference that makes me love Dragon Gate. As for why, itâ€™s comprised of a lot of things. I love the constant flow of shows Iâ€™m able to get at this point in time, unlike M-Proâ€™s current situation, where hardly anything is released. Iâ€™m also not really a lucha fan, so the more puro styled DG appeals to me more. A final thing I absolutely love about Dragon Gate is the fact that almost everyone coming out of the dojo leads to some of the smoothest, most incredible matches youâ€™ll ever see, due to everyone being so familiar with each other. It is these reasons I love DG so much, and while I donâ€™t discredit M-Pro in any way, and it is certainly a huge influence, I will always be true to my puro love, the Dragonâ€™s Gate.
Glazer: Ditch wins by bringing up the awesome 90s M-Pro streak of awesomenss and specific feuds. I also believe many American wrestling fans watch Puro because they â€œjust want wrestling.â€ This oneâ€™s going down to the wire!
Question 5. Name the Top 5 Wrestlers in Puro ever and explain your choices with no more than 3 sentences each.
Ditch: Jumbo Tsuruta: A great athlete for someone his size, yet a smart enough wrestler to remain great for years after his body started to decline. One of the best technical wrestlers of the old-school era, he adapted to the changing times better than the vast majority of his peers and was able to set the table for All Japan’s unprecedented greatness during the mid-90s.
Toshiaki Kawada: From thrilling babyface comebacks to dominant heel performances, from long technical battles to fast and furious wars, from Korakuen to the Tokyo Dome, from no-nonsense wrestling to (of all things) singing, Kawada has brought the house down countless times. To sum him up in haiku form,
“Will you miss your teeth
When I kick you in the face?
I do not miss mine.”
Kenta Kobashi: Exciting as a young lion, superb as a rising star, thrilling as a top heavyweight, entertaining (even tear-jerking) as a knee-less chop machine. A man who went from a very athletic heavyweight who was in match-of-the-years to a man who was barely an athlete in match-of-the-years. Unspeakable knee surgeries and cancer have stolen years from his career but he still has a resume few can hope to compete with.
Mitsuharu Misawa: As a definitive Japanese ace he balanced respectable stoicism with hard-hitting action. A seemingly invulnerable bumper, a great striker, a champ worth chasing, he was the beating heart of the best wrestling product that ever was.
Jushin Thunder Liger: Charisma that is hardly diminished by a mask. As great a babyface junior heavyweight as Japan ever produced and at the same time as great a heel junior heavyweight as Japan ever produced, think that one over. What gets forgotten is how well he did in adapting his style after a broken leg in ’94 and a brain tumor in ’96, changing from a daredevil to a junior powerhouse without missing a step.
Jake Mulligan: My top 5â€¦
Jumbo Tsuruta â€“ The father of current puroresu. Perhaps the biggest torch-passer of all time, with his loss to Misawa in 1990 leading to the mid 90â€™s golden age of Puro. A man who worked many styles over multiple decades, and perhaps, the best ever.
Toshiaki Kawada â€“ Dangerous K himself was one of the hardest hitters youâ€™ll ever see, a man who broke Misawaâ€™s face and then worked it over, just â€˜cause. His rivalry with Misawa may be the most storied of all time, with an over-the-hill rematch being enough to pack the Dome years and years later, a sign of his ridiculous presence.
Kenta Kobashi â€“ The epitome of fighting spirit. His matches, with tons of burning spirit and epic faceoffs, defined the Kingâ€™s Road style of the golden age. And now, his comeback from cancer is one of the greatest stories ever told about pro wrestling, in my opinion.
Jushin Liger â€“ Perhaps, the perfect junior. Innovated with tons of flying and such in his heyday, and smart enough to change his style for a new age. To this day he is making juniors look incredible in NJPW, much like he did for men like Sasuke a decade ago.
Stan Hansen â€“ The greatest brawler I have ever seen. Mass amounts of wrestlers still try to emulate his LARIOTO~!, though none will ever complete the task. The toughest man you may ever see, and he could whip any crowd into a fury with a simple throw of the horns.
Glazer: We have a dead even matchup here. If someone had said Tenryu, theyâ€™d have won, but so be it. I canâ€™t choose between Hansen and Misawa, but Ditch does two things I like. First, he mentions how each guy evolved through his career. Next, he wrote a freaking Haiki about Kawada. If anything screams win, that does.
In the exhibition Puro battle of the stars, your winner and STILL undisputed Puroweight champion of the woooooorld, David Ditch! (That or some Title Declarations I canâ€™t understand. I suppose thatâ€™s more appropriate). See you next time on VS. when Jake will have to rebound from this exhibition loss and defend his title with questions ranging from WWE to TNA to the Indies and Japan! See you next time for more VS!