Puroresu Pulse, issue 140: Big in 2008, Big in 2009

Last year I tried to guess which wrestlers would have the biggest impact in Japan for the year. I was wrong, and spectacularly at that. Of the 13 or 14 possible correct choices, I only managed to finger about 5. Oh well. Hopefully my 2009 picks are more accurate! Plus a boatload of news and results, some of which are jaw-dropping when placed in context! Puropulse brings the content as always!

Section 1- Results

All Japan: Minoru Suzuki & NOSAWA won the All Asia tag title tournament.

Dragon Gate: Doi beat Mochizuki in the King of Gate final to get a title shot on 12/28. He took advantage, beating Shingo for the Dream Gate belt. Also on 12/28, Cyber Kong & YAMATO retained the tag titles over Liger and the returning CIMA, and the Typhoon stable will disband after losing a 3-way match.

HUSTLE: This year’s HUSTLEMANIA managed to get prime-time airing on New Years Eve, which is to Japanese television what the Super Bowl is to the US. The main event saw Muta & Akebono beat Kawada & Esperanza (Takada). Ticket sales were low, but it didn’t help that Takada wasn’t announced in advance.

New Japan: Just before the Dome show, Tenzan had emergency eye surgery to take TenKoji out of the tag title match. This led to the Dudleys unseating Makabe & Yano in what is being hailed as an early MOTYC. Oops, I mean WMOTYC. New Japan did well overall, with Nagata retaining over Tanaka, Nakamura & Goto downing Misawa & Sugiura, Tiger Mask IV unseating Low Ki, and Tanahashi regaining the IWGP title from Mutoh. Other results included Shelley & Sabin winning the junior tag titles from Yujiro & Naito, and Akiyama over Nakanishi.

Section 2- News

All Japan: Yasshi will be taking a hiatus from wrestling in a few weeks.

Dragon Gate: They will be using Sumo Hall on 3/22, in what will be the biggest event since the September 2002 Toryumon event at Ariake Coliseum headlined by Ultimo’s return and Dragon Kid vs Darkness Dragon mask vs mask. Shingo vs Yamato will happen on the 23rd, and I expect Yamato to win and get a title shot. Also on this tour: Mochizuki, Fujii & Magnitude defending the trios titles against Hulk, Tanisaki & KZ; Cyber Kong & Yamato defending against Super Shisa & Shisa Boy. Shingo will lead a to-be-named stable, and its other members as of now are Iwasa and Tozawa.

DDT: The indy fed stunned the world by announcing that they too will use Sumo Hall, on August 23rd. Absolutely baffling for a company that regularly uses the ~400 seat Shin Kiba 1st Ring, and doesn’t always sell out Korakuen Hall with its biggest cards. But they’ve been around for a while and have a fair amount of connections so who knows.

New Japan: Tanahashi’s first defense will be at the 2/15 Sumo Hall event, against Nakamura. Tanahashi & Nagata vs Nakamura & Goto will headline the 1/30 Korakuen show, and is EXACTLY the sort of match NOAH should use more often but doesn’t. Also on 2/15 will be Angle vs Bernard. Kanemoto finally settled down, announcing that he’s engaged to joshi wrestler Hikaru.

NOAH: Marufuji defends the All Japan junior title against NOSAWA on a self-produced show this Sunday. Shiozaki will have several singles matches on the tour, and if he wins them all he’s a shoe-in to face the winner of Sasaki vs Akiyama. KENTA defends the junior title against Kotaro Suzuki at the 1/25 Korakuen tour finalie, and possibly again on 2/11 when he faces Nakajima.

Section 3- Shilling Tendencies

Wiswell made a top 100 matches list, and while I strongly disagree with some picks (ie. #21 head of #32, #53 as far down as it is), he did two very important things right: not overrating Flair vs Shawn and putting non-Meltzer-approved puro high on the list. He’s watched a lot more wrestling than most and that makes it a much more “complete” list even beyond its scale!

Phil talks Tokyo Dome, and I pretty much agree. It was a big positive. That’s why I’m not going to go into details; why bother when you can just read them from Phil?

Section 4- Sizing up my 2008 predictions and making a few for 2009

A year ago I touted ten to follow: Akiyama, Doi & Yoshino, Hirooki Goto, Ibushi, Kobashi, Kojima, Morishima, Nakamura, and two Sasakis (Mammoth and Yoshihito). How’d they work out?

-Kobashi, though obviously important to NOAH and in a number of top matches, didn’t have near the year we hoped for. No singles matches, typically in the least of anyone in tags, and still very broken down after over a year off; that’s a far cry from the best case scenario of a Tokyo Dome main event. From the perspective of Kobashi fans who mostly follow puro for the matches, he did fine. From the perspective of making a big impact, no, absolutely no. And that in turn meant my Akiyama pick tanked as well.

-Doi & Yoshino had a somewhat odd year. They lost the GHC junior tag titles right away, and to a Dragon Gate team no less. They lost the Twin Gate titles a few weeks later. In April, Yoshino lost the lightweight belt. He had a good showing on a TNA PPV, but that didn’t lead to anything. August finally brought them back to tag success as they won the big tag league, then got the Twin Gate titles back… only to lose them in the first defense. Yoshino got the lightweight title again and still has it, and Doi came out of nowhere in December to become the top singles wrestler. Overall they were a good pick, but not in the way I envisioned.

-Kojima also had an odd year. He lost to Sasaki in March, which was unexpected. He participated in the G-1 Climax and did okay but nothing special. The end of the year finally gave him focus as TenKoji fought all comers and won both tag leagues. I’d say that TenKoji had the impact more than Kojima.

-Goto had a big year. Winning the G-1, getting a title shot against Mutoh at Sumo Hall, and plenty of noteworthy singles matches throughout the year have combined to cement him as a long-term headliner for New Japan.

-Morishima got by, and I guess he can be marked as a good pick with his title win and six-month reign, but he really backed into it. Does one mostly blame him or the booking? Either way he isn’t that much better off for having beaten Misawa, just like Rikio beating Kobashi in 2005.

-Nakamura had a reasonably big year, between the title win and the big match against Mutoh in October, but once again he didn’t get the G-1 crown. Perhaps he really is the Hashimoto of his generation, in which case he’ll win the G-1 in 2010. Closing the year by calling out Misawa is a cherry on top.

-Ibushi and Mammoth did decently but I think are solidly in the ‘no’ column. Ibushi’s cup of coffee in ROH (unlikely to be repeated now) and Mammoth holding the Big Japan tag titles (which he’d done before) aren’t anything that people talk about.

-Yoshihito Sasaki wasn’t just a bad pick, he’s maybe the worst pick possible. He traded his title belt with lowly Sandy Beach, then vacated it upon being injured. He lost the Big Japan tag titles. He lost his spot in Zero-One, and upon becoming a full-time Big Japan member he was losing to midcarders.

Who did I miss? In no particular order: Tanahashi, Mutoh/Muta, Makabe, Kensuke Sasaki (how could I pick two Sasakis and have neither be him?), Shadow WX, Shingo, Suwama and Masato Tanaka.

Now for the ones I expect to make the most waves in two-ought-ought-nine!

-Akiyama. Almost a mortal lock to take down Sasaki in March, unless they really roll the dice and give that honor to Shiozaki (more on that later). A title win, a defense or two, likely some more battles with New Japan, and perhaps the type of matches against Kobashi I was anticipating for 2008? Plenty of chances to make good.

-Doi AND Yoshino. Doi seems to be positioned for multiple title defenses, and is thus likely to headline the Sumo Hall card. Yoshino still has the lightweight title. Unless they turn on each other, I expect some more big tags as well.

-Mutoh AND Muta. Still has the Triple Crown, still has value for dream matches, and could continue to be a major player in HUSTLE. That’s more than enough to rate.

-Kobashi OR Misawa. Oooh, getting sneaky here. But bear with me. If Kobashi makes a strong comeback in the spring, he can easily be the MVP. If he doesn’t, I expect Misawa to have several more big matches against New Japan to compensate. Misawa’s reaction at the Tokyo Dome dwarfed that given to New Japan’s Nakamura and Goto, a sure sign that Misawa has serious crossover appeal. There’s a slight chance both Kobashi and Misawa will do well, but I doubt it.

-Kojima. I have a feeling he’ll be the one to beat Muta, and that would tend to mean winning the Champions Carnival first. TC plus CC equals All Japan MVP. When Tenzan returns they’re bound to be in some more major tags to boot.

-Yuko Miyamoto. The newly crowned Big Japan Deathmatch king is now officially part of their title match rotation. While his current reign might not stretch into the summer, it should give him a fair amount of exposure.

-Nakamura. Even though I expect him to lose to Tanahashi, and even though I don’t expect him to win the G-1 Climax (which means he’ll do it to spite me), his performance at the Tokyo Dome event points to a role as the main thorn in NOAH’s side. Plus if he wins the IWGP *or* the G-1, that’s a big year right there.

-Shiozaki. Now that his time in ROH is done, there’s no good reason for NOAH to hold back. That’s not to say he should get the title and roll over every veteran in his path, but rather that he should start to be treated the same way Kobashi was circa 1992 and 1993: important matches on big shows that give him a chance to shine and build credibility. If Go beats Sano, Honda and Rikio this month he’ll not only be getting a title shot in April; he’ll have an excellent chance to win the belt. Regardless of how he does against Rikio this should be the year he’s given his first title shot, and that’s a big step towards eventually being handed the reins. Go Shiozaki isn’t money in the bank but he’s got a better chance of being a mainstream star and a serious draw than any other young talent they have. That’s reason enough to invest in him ASAP.

-Tanahashi. Seems poised for a solid title run, and being on top of the biggest promotion is enough by itself to have a major year.

-YAMATO. When I first saw him in 2006, I thought he was a can’t-miss prospect. Even though I’m not a fan of the current Dragon Gate big match style that he’s a part of, there’s no denying his immeasurable charisma and potential. Like Shiozaki, I expect him to lose in a title match and be part of many prominent bouts afterwards.

Second-tier “could be big”: Ohtani (if he beats Nagata), CIMA (if he makes a full return), Takayama (if he wins the Triple Crown), Bernard (if he beats Angle and wins the IWGP title), Goto (if he wins the IWGP title).

Final thought: Things are far more turbulent in Japan than in the US. WWE and even TNA are much more stable and sound than Japan’s top companies, and chances are things will be much the same for them at the start of 2010 as they are now. NOAH is on the rocks, Zero-One is in rough shape, and if either of them goes down it will be a bad omen for the rest of the industry. New Japan is making a small profit and Dragon Gate is actually growing, but neither are so strong that they can achieve mainstream visibility or prop up everyone else. Right now salaries and revenues are well below what they were ten years ago, and the trend has been negative for years. More than ever, every wrestler and every major promotion need to make the most of things. If the only thing that draws in 2009 is interpromotional dream matches, the future will remain dim.

Next time: Another big Q&A! Maybe two!