Cult of ROH: One Night in NOAH

There is only one weekend of shows between now and mid-August. It’s the annual ROH summer breather, where they inexplicably choose to run fewer events specifically when fans have the most free time on their hands. On the plus side, when ROH does come to your area you won’t have to sit in quite such a sweltering environment to watch it. During this slow period Cult of ROH will look at a few other locales for quality wrestling. Dragon Gate USA is starting up soon, PWG is increasingly beloved, and Puro is where most of ROH’s wrestlers got inspired anyway.

Even ROH fans who remained faithful to the company in its worst periods over the last nine months have been watching other stuff. I have never heard Chikara get this much buzz outside of its own social networks. After hearing Nigel McGuinness attacked and Colin Delaney defended in the same conversation, I no longer believe in any barrier between fandoms. At its height ROH emerged as the top indy, and you watched other things on the side. Now, the October-November and January-March periods having taken a pickaxe to its reputation, ROH is an indy among other quickly improving companies. If you’re lucky, wealthy, or abuse bit torrent, you watch all of them, and quite possibly prefer another. Many former ROH fans have moved to other companies as their primary, even if it just meant resigning to watching what was free on TV. John Morrison, Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio have certainly made it easier to be a WWE fan lately.

This week we’re going to talk about Pro Wrestling NOAH. Specifically, we’re going to talk about one match: Go Shiozaki & KENTA Vs. Kensuke Sasaki & Katsuhiko Nakajima.

You can go watch it now, or read a little background below. At the bottom of today’s column is a lengthy analysis of the match itself. Thanks to David Ditch for the link.

Pro Wrestling NOAH is ROH’s big buddy. It’s where we got the visits from Kobashi and Misawa. They lent us Naomichi Marufuji, Takeshi Morishima and Go Shiozaki. They continue to lend us KENTA. They do this to pop a little buzz on themselves and get their younger wrestlers much-needed singles and main event experience. Both times that ROH hit Japan, NOAH helped with buildings, equipment and their roster. Even when ROH visited England, NOAH lent them wrestlers who were on a European excursion. We have NOAH to thank for a library of great matches: Joe Vs. Kobashi, Misawa & Marufuji Vs. Morishima & KENTA, KENTA Vs. Danielson, Marufuji Vs. Castagnoli, Go Vs. Aries, to name a few. They also employ ROH wrestlers, having taken Danielson, McGuinness, Hero, Richards, Edwards and Strong on tours.

This has been a bad year for them. They lost their major television deal, and with it lost their best mode of advertisement and cultural awareness. Their champion, Jun Akiyama, was wrestling hurt. One of their top juniors, Naomichi Marufuji, suffered a severe injury that would put him out for the year. After a series of health problems, Kenta Kobashi consciously pushed himself down the card, unable to handle a main event workload. All the more pressure was put on a roster where very few young lions had ever been elevated, and none of them for long. Morishima and Marufuji’s aborted top title reigns were testament to NOAH’s lack of faith in anyone but the old guard, who themselves were in trouble.

And then Misawa died in the ring.

We’ve all read enough about that day and about Misawa’s amazing career. If you want more, David Ditch has begun a retrospective of his more important matches. Misawa’s importance to NOAH alone was unparalleled: one of the most beloved stars, one of the bookers, and the chairman and founder of the company. It rocked NOAH like nothing else could.

It wasn’t just that one of NOAH’s most beloved stars died. It was that one of Japan’s most beloved stars died in their ring. It didn’t matter that it was Misawa’s ring; he was gone. I know American fans who gave up on wrestling after his death. In Japan? NOAH reported sellouts, but there were patches of empty seats every night they taped something from the tour. I wouldn’t be surprised if NOAH told the truth on sellouts, and die hard wrestling fans simply didn’t have the heart to come watch. Without major television NOAH was already less in mind by virtue of being less in sight; with that heartbreaking event, you had people who wanted to be supportive, but who couldn’t emotionally attach.

NOAH was in the middle of its Southern Navigation tour. It would have been a financial disaster to cancel their shows, and there was some opportunism in selling a few more tickets to Misawa memorial events. Still, that company was not rife with greed and cynicism. Akitoshi Saito, the man who accidentally killed Misawa, understandably went home. Jun Akiyama got a wake-up call and abdicated the title, intending to get back surgery. Go Shiozaki won the title in a last-minute booking decision, beating former champion Takeshi Rikio. So three main eventers were gone, one of them dead, and NOAH suddenly had an unproven young lion with its main belt.

I’ve laid all this out so you’ll understand the pressure on the few men left in NOAH’s main event scene. Imagine being an outsider or a young lion in this company, and being asked to carry the rest of this tour. And all of that is why the main event at the end of Southern Navigation is so important. It’s not going to turn NOAH’s Ark around

And now, the match: Go Shiozaki & KENTA Vs. Kensuke Sasaki & Katsuhiko Nakajima.

KENTA and Nakajima are two of the top cruiserweights in the world. They came up in similar periods and wrestle very similar kick-heavy styles, happily abusing faster flyers. KENTA was shepherded by Kenta Kobashi in NOAH; Nakajima was shepherded by Kensuke Sasaki. Each is the golden boy of his promotion, and especially in the last year they’ve experienced an increasingly intense rivalry. Everyone expected them to come out of the gate in this match and blast each other.

Go Shiozaki had other ideas. He came right in and threw down with Sasaki in the opening minute like nobody has done in NOAH. He didn’t just trade chops, but put himself into every motion, blocking Sasaki’s bulldozer-like momentum so often that when Sasaki finally took him down with a shoulderblock, Sasaki himself had to stagger to the ropes for balance.

When Nakajima came in, Go showed no weakness, brutalizing the smaller guy with more vigor than Kobashi ever had (and Kobashi loved slapping the punk around). In the first ten minutes, Go showed remarkable chemistry with both the big bruiser and the small striker. I watched Go’s entire tour of ROH last year and never saw him produce half this charisma and skill with different opponents in the same match. This was him proving himself on the biggest stage. KENTA stood on the apron as though he wasn’t sure what he’d do when it was his turn.

Of course, KENTA knew what to do. He flew at Nakajima, who quickly tagged in his mentor. Neither backed down, and KENTA hacked at him with kicks and running offense. Even when both of his opponents dragged him into the corner, NOAH’s top Junior kept swinging at them.

There was no breather after ten minutes. Nor after fifteen. Nor after twenty. When Go went for an easy submission hold on Nakajima, Sasaki dove in and destroyed him with a Lariat. Nakajima was thrown off his game early and both Go and KENTA went for their finishers, but he had nimble counters to all of them. When somebody was caught in a control segment they were pounded, the dominating side never resting in an easy period. There were a few instances of serious peril where the other partner couldn’t make a save, but these were dire moments rather than lulls. It was almost a half an hour with no breathers.

Actually, there were plenty of breathers – you just never had to notice them. After getting his first beating, KENTA disappeared on the floor for five minutes as Go covered for him. Sasaki looked to have amazing wind, but really was just timing when he came in so he could make the most of his exchanges. Between Go, KENTA and Nakajima, they had three young guys with great conditioning, and were smart enough to structure it so that no one was in for too long, but anyone who was in was working for it.

The result was that amazing half hour that was almost a cruiserweight sprint, but sustained on striking offense. Nobody took horrifying spills off the apron, there was very little done off the top rope, and the few head drops meant a lot, like KENTA and Nakajima exchanging a Dragon and Tiger Suplex before both collapsed in exhaustion. Though stiff as sin, they avoided the overkill and extremely dangerous spots wrestling journalists have complained about since Misawa’s death. And shortly after those suplexes, Sasaki and Go took over for them, keeping up an overwhelming version of a classic story.

That story is a NOAH favorite: Big Guy & Small Guy Vs. Big Guy & Small Guy. Go is your new heavyweight champion, and Sasaki is a heavyweight legend. KENTA and Nakajima are top cruiserweights. Sometimes the smaller partner will give the bigger opponent a run for his money; here, Go and Nakajima went at it tooth and nail, and KENTA showed no fear of Sasaki. By not making any one of them weak, and letting Nakajima nearly pin Go at the end, they raised everyone’s stock. Go came out absolutely belonging as a NOAH main eventer, and Nakajima looked like he belonged as a threat – making it unsurprising that they’ll wrestle in singles on an upcoming Kensuke Office show.

Post-match Nakajima refused to shake hands, actually slapping Go in the face. There was a little “ooo” from the crowd, but no one whined. It was a little angle on a tribute show, something that could easily turn fans against NOAH. They didn’t care because they’d gotten a faith-affirming match. While my conversations are largely with non-Japanese puro fans, it’s impressed me that nobody complained about that slap. Now we’re all looking forward to a singles match, and to seeing what Go can do on top.

Recently Jun Akiyama announced that he will return to action, making his abdication of the title suspect. He’s already challenged Go. It’s possible that he was talked back into returning, having left on a snap judgment at losing one of his best friends and oldest business partners. Regardless, now the fear is that Go will lose the belt back to the old guard. The veterans historically draw better than young lions, and NOAH has a bad history of losing faith in the young.

It was not the match that would put NOAH back on the map. As Dave Meltzer lamented, not nearly enough people could see it for it to do that kind of good. No major television deal and NOAH dipping in attention meant it couldn’t do that. What it could do, for the packed house and everyone who checked it out afterwards, was remind them why they loved the Japanese wrestling, if they could after Misawa’s death.

That’s it for Cult of ROH this week. You can read more of my writing at The Bathroom Monologues, or follow me on twitter at https://twitter.com/wiswell

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