The Reality of Wrestling: Roundtable Japan

I’m back and I brought Dave Ditch & Kevin Wilson with me

It’s been a little over a month since the death of Mitsuharu Misawa and I took that month off as a way to reflect and at least see where NOAH was immediately heading in the wake of this tragedy. However, there is a lot more going on in the world of wrestling in Japan besides Misawa & NOAH. Summer is the most eventful time of the year for pro wrestling in the country of Japan with tournaments both major and minor taking place in almost every major promotion as well as smaller promotions during this time period whether it’s New Japan’s G-1 Climax tourney, Zero-One’s Fire Festival, or NOAH’s NTV Cup, there are tournaments galore. Moving past the tourneys, there are plenty of big shows and the next two months could spell out where several promotions are heading in both good and bad ways. So, for an article like this, I decided to go back to the roundtable because in order to cover the various events, both current and future, taking place in Japan, I needed the help of two people who follow that country’s wrestling on a wider basis than most Internet writers. And with that, The Ditch, Kevin Wilson, and myself re-enter the Puro world with plenty to write about.

1. When All Japan runs Sumo Hall August 30, Keiji Mutoh’s 25th anniversary match will pit him and Masakatsu Funaki (a man who hasn’t had a pro wrestling match in sixteen years) against old Mutoh rival Masahiro Chono and old Funaki rival Minoru Suzuki. As far as attitude and personality are concerned this match is full of it, but how will it end up doing?

D.D.: I don’t expect the tag match to be particularly exciting. I’m sure Funaki will still be capable in a worked setting, but he’s someone who doesn’t exactly lend himself to ‘dream match’-style wrestling. He doesn’t have trademark moves that fans can easily recognize and react to. He should be comfortable doing shoot-style with Suzuki, but I don’t see the Funaki and Chono meshing that well. As far as the business aspect, this could be a big success. I doubt it will sell out with Takayama vs Suwama as the title match, but it could end up as the biggest Sumo Hall show of the year. New Japan’s best effort in April was only able to draw 6500, and All Japan should easily surpass that. Last year’s G-1 final drew 8000, and that’s also a number All Japan can top.

K.W.: As long Funaki gets in the ring and mixes it up (i.e. doesn’t just stand on the apron, come in for one spot, then go back), I think it will do great. People that watch wrestling just for “workrate” need not apply, but the atmosphere will be absolutely electric. Can you imagine the first time that Funaki and Suzuki are in the ring together? There are no “weak links” in the match as they all bring something to the table, so there shouldn’t be any significant downtime (the Mutoh/Chono parts will probably be slow, but since they can tag in and out I imagine they will try to keep it moving). Considering the match is designed as a celebration for Mutoh I don’t see how it could fail, it is a much more compelling match then Hase’s retirement match three years ago.

P.C.: I’m going to go 50/50 on this one as far as whom I’m going to agree with. While I don’t think the match will be anything special by a wide margin, I do believe it will be tons of fun and the crowd will enjoy it no matter how it comes out. First of all, there’s too much personality in the ring for this one not to be at least entertaining as the Mutoh/Chono and Funaki/Suzuki exchanges will more than suffice whatever expectations or needs the crowd will have for this one. Myself, I’m expecting Mutoh & Funaki to be in white with Suzuki & Chono in the contrasting black and that will be the roles (white-face, black-heel) that the two teams will play. While the match will be the big draw for the show it will suffer the fate the most dream matches (especially dream tags) face: they will only entertain and it will be up to the main-event to steal the show as far as quality goes.

And speaking of said main-event…

2. Takayama/Suwama is official to main-event All Japan’s Sumo Hall show. The only other logical choice in my opinion would’ve been Takayama/Kojima. Is Suwama the right challenger for this show and who will leave with the belt?

D.D.: I would have gone with Takayama vs Kojima, that being a fresh matchup with a big-show feel to it. However I can certainly see the logic behind using Suwama. First, it’s debatable that Takayama vs Kojima would be a significant improvement in ticket sales when the real draw is the dream tag. Saving it for later gives them something to use for whatever their big fall show ends up being. Second, since the dream tag is going to attract attention, they have an opportunity to give Suwama a chance in front of fans who might not be familiar with him. I’m not a big fan of Suwama but he’s the future of the company and as such he needs all the help he can get. That said I think he can look good in defeat against a tough SOB like Takayama, and big Tak is a much fresher face in the main event scene than young Suwama, who has already had title matches with the other All Japan mainstays in recent years. I think the best route would be for Takayama to lose to Kojima in a few months. Suwama will have other title shots.

K.W.: The match is fine as Suwama (as a former title holder) is a legitimate contender, but as far as if it is the right choice depends on what their plans are. Regardless of who he faced, Takayama needs to win at Sumo Hall as they need a few more defenses out of him since he still has some fresh matchups. So if the plan is to get the belt on Kojima, then it is the right choice as Takayama can beat Suwama, then Kea in October, and finally lose to Kojima in December or January. That way they will get everything they can out of him. But if Suwama is destined to be the next champion and wins in August then I’d disagree with their decision. Hopefully Takayama will keep the belt so they can get all they can out of him before he goes back to Freelancer land.

P.C.: I still believe that Takayama/Kojima is the better choice because this is a bigger show and Kojima still sells more tickets than Suwama; I’m not saying that couldn’t change (All Japan should hope that it does) within a year or so, but for right now for a big show like this, the dream tag plus a dream match of sorts for the Triple Crown could get them closer to a 10,000 attendance than Takayama/Suwama is likely to draw. Of course, as was already mentioned by both Ditch and Kevin, how long All Japan plans on having Takayama wear the gold is the bigger question. The likely next Sumo Hall show for All Japan would be October or November and if a Takayama defense against Kojima were slated for then, I can accept that since it would give All Japan ample time to adequately hype the match and make people want to see it. But Takayama, being a freelancer, does equal fresh matchup no matter who he would defend the title against. That is really the X-factor considering Suwama is tied to All Japan and thus can get his second title reign almost whenever. With that, I’m going to say that Suwama gets to put up a great fight, but Takayama keeps the gold—as it should be.

3. Japanese Indy promotion DDT will make their Sumo Hall debut in August as well. For a promotion that (like any Indy in Japan) sometimes has trouble even filling Korakuen Hall, how are they even going to get a decent attendance and what kind of show will it be?

D.D.: DDT is taking a big risk and I’m not sure how they can make it pay off. HARASHIMA versus either Ibushi or Takagi isn’t something I would count on to pack Korakuen Hall. Chono versus Poison Sawada Julie is positively baffling, because Sawada hasn’t been a good wrestler or a compelling character in years. It’s a matchup that would get the DDT faithful in by the hundreds at Korakuen, but it’s not going to attract a single casual fan. Dick Togo and Taka Michinoku as tag champs will make a defense, and even them against an all-star team from another promotion would still be a Korakuen-level bout. The only thing I could ever imagine being a significant draw is some sort of tag match involving multiple outside main eventers and a few DDT guys like Danshoku Dino, with the DDT entertainment aspect enhancing a dream match. I think Sanshiro Takagi imagines this as a Wrestlemania-style sports entertainment extravaganza, but really, if Tanahashi vs Angle can only draw 6500 then what chance does HARASHIMA have? With low talent costs they can probably make a profit with a half-full arena but they’ll be fortunate to even do that well.

K.W.: They won’t. I hope they found some big money mark to pay for the show, otherwise I can’t see how it will be successful. So far in 2009, DDT has been able to get a pretty decent crowd at Tokyo Korakuen Hall (by decent I mean around 1,400), but how they plan to get even 5K is beyond me and Sumo Hall holds a lot more then that. There are no freelancers with enough pull to help much, and they don’t have any current agreements with any of the big promotions. This one is a head scratcher. If they get more then 3K paid I will be very surprised, but they can’t do any worse then the Wrestling Expo did, so they have that going for them. The show will have all their major titles on the line and for their sake I hope they have some string they plan on pulling for the main event to attract new fans but so far only Chono has been announced and I can’t see that doing a lot of good for the draw (see Expo, Wrestling).

P.C.: I’ve never seen a DDT show and only know that there product is basically WWE with a Japanese touch. Based on that, I’m going to say that this will be a Pro Wrestling Expo level disaster and am still baffled as to why they would choose to run Sumo Hall instead of a smaller big arena (compared to Korakuen that is). As previously mentioned, this is a promotion who does have the same trouble selling out Korakuen Hall that most other Indy’s have when they run monthly or bi-monthly shows there. Dragon Gate may have broken the mold that only major promotions can run Sumo Hall or Budokan Hall, but Dragon Gate might as well be the fourth major promotion at this point since their 9,500 paid at Sumo Hall (the promotion’s Sumo Hall debut by the way) was a bigger paid crowd than New Japan or All Japan has done in the building in the last three years, with the exception of the 2007 G-1 final. As for DDT, their biggest matchup in my opinion would be Sanshiro Takagi—the promotion’s founder and president—and Kota Ibushi—the promotion’s best worker. Sadly, DDT gave that match away on a (literally) one-match card recently, so no dice there. I do see variety being the theme of the show considering the match lineup with Chono being brought in as a big name, but only for a comedy match with Poison Sawada JULIE while The Great Sasuke is being brought in for a dream match with Takagi. If the more stacked cards that New Japan and All Japan take to Sumo Hall can only do between 6,000-8,000 paid, then DDT has absolutely no chance since they won’t even get close to that.

4. Masato Tanaka has all but been made official for the G-1 Climax tourney. Considering his comeback angle with Tanahashi, how well will Tanaka do in the G-1 and (even if Tanaka doesn’t win the tourney) will Masato Tanaka ever challenge for the IWGP title?

D.D.: Tanaka is an outsider and thus has next to no chance of winning the G-1. He’ll be competitive and get a few wins, but even given that he’s the Zero-One champ I can’t see him reaching the finals. Zero-One is in rough shape, rarely able to draw even 1400 fans, and New Japan would be doing them a huge favor if Tanaka ends up in the main event at the second biggest wrestling event of the year. I see him more in the role that Ohtani had last year, where he works hard and can be a threat or a spoiler to anyone. I highly doubt he’d get a title shot at a big show but Tanahashi vs Tanaka would make for a super-hot main event at Korakuen Hall and they could charge a premium for tickets. As to whether Zero-One would be willing to have their champion lose to someone else’s champion… well they don’t have much of a choice. They aren’t in a position to turn down anything New Japan offers.

K.W.: I’ll say an easy no to the second question, I think Tanaka’s recent attack in New Japan was more to push his G1 Climax appearance then anything else. Nagata already beat him twice in the last year so unless he joins New Japan in the near future I don’t see him getting a shot, especially with New Japan having a loose feud with NOAH. As far as how he will do, I am sure he will pick up some wins but I don’t think he will reach the semi-finals. Sugiura will no doubt reach the semi-finals and I don’t think they will have two non-contracted wrestlers in the semi-finals. I think Tanaka will cause some serious problems for someone and even keep a New Japan star out of the next round (I could see him upsetting Tanahashi for example on the last day to keep him out of the semi-finals) but I don’t think he will reach the semis himself.

P.C.: Anybody who’s read my column or knows my likes and dislikes within the business knows that anything revolving around Masato Tanaka is going to be something I will follow; this is no different. Correction: this is different only because it was the Impact Players reuniting again to ambush Tanahashi and start this whole thing. That is a good way to start an angle and with Tanaka’s G-1 entrance, it means they will likely have a singles match at the Aichi show or maybe the first Sumo Hall show of the G-1 tourney, but it likely won’t be a semi-final meeting because having the option of advertising that matchup (considering the great matches Tanaka had against New Japan talent last year) can only be a good thing for New Japan. I don’t believe Tanaka will even get to the semis as a main-event match against Tanahashi on one of the final round-robin days would be a good way to put that angle to bed nice and quick while getting the most out of Tanaka and the angle itself; plus no title defense for Tanahashi and we still would get to see Tanahashi/Tanaka. I’d personally love to see Tanaka challenge for the IWGP title, but the only way that appears to be possible is if one of two things happens: (1) New Japan throws a curveball and either has Tanaka win the G-1 or get to the final, thus giving him enough credibility to challenge, or (2) Tanaka leaves Zero-One for New Japan, something that could happen in 2010 considering Zero-One’s poor state at the moment and the fact that Tanaka is the only person from Zero-One other than Ohtani who worked exceptionally well with New Japan talent during the talent exchange/feud last year.

5.Hiroshi Tanahashi just made a successful first defense of his IWGP title against NOAH wrestler Takashi Sugiura. Where does Tanahashi’s title reign go from here and does it involve another defense against someone from NOAH? If so, then who? How far do you see the NOAH/New Japan feud going and is January 4 and The Dome a possible conclusion for it?

D.D.: In regards to Tanahashi, the obvious next title defense is versus the G-1 winner, likely at the 9/27 Kobe World Hall show. Tajiri just popped up, but his little feud with Tanahashi will probably get settled when they face off in the G-1 (they’re in the same block). Plus I just can’t see him getting a title shot. It was one thing when he was just off his WWE run in All Japan, but now he’s clearly settled down as an ‘entertainer’ rather than a high-end wrestler. Predicting the G-1 winner tends to boil down to picking a loyalist babyface who isn’t the champion, since that describes 16 of the 18 winners and the last 8. I can’t see them re-using Goto or Nakanishi already, so that leaves Nagata, Tenzan and tweener Makabe. Nagata has no storyline, so he’s probably out. Tenzan and Makabe are both in the thick of the GBH vs CHAOS feud, so they could face a CHAOS member from the opposite block (Bernard or Nakamura) in the final. I’m tempted to pick Nakamura, which would set up the top face (Tanahashi) against the top heel, but Nakamura has had two title shots in the last year. To me, the odds are against a limited Makabe and a not-great-anymore Tenzan winning the G-1 and the IWGP back-to-back, so let’s say Tanahashi survives in Kobe.

That would leave him wide open for another defense vs NOAH, or perhaps Nakamura, who would have until November to refine his heel persona. When it comes to NOAH opposition the choices are rather thin, perhaps Morishima. New Japan really doesn’t have a Tokyo Dome caliber matchup within the roster, especially after having done Tanahashi vs Nakamura there twice, so I’d guess they’ll want an interpromotional match for 1/4/2010. I can picture Tanahashi vs Shiozaki title vs title taking place on here, since title vs title was teased a few months ago, but that’s quite a ways down the line. Having a heel (Nakamura) representing New Japan against anyone from NOAH wouldn’t make much sense, so my best guess is that Tanahashi makes two more title defenses this year before facing a serious threat from the ark.

In regards to New Japan versus NOAH, I don’t think there is a set end game. Right now NOAH is getting a lot of attention due to Misawa’s death, but that won’t last. They need all the help they can get. New Japan can’t fill a big venue without a significant interpromotional match or two, so they have no reason to end cooperation with NOAH. With the Inokis out of the picture there’s really no political obstacle I can see getting in the way. New Japan versus Tenryu’s WAR promotion lasted for years in the ’90s and only fizzled when WAR itself did. As long as NOAH is a going concern with thousands of loyal fans they’re worth New Japan’s time.

K.W.: I don’t think there will be another defense against NOAH, unless the Tokyo Dome has a New Japan vs. NOAH theme (which I don’t think it will). It would require them to almost make a new feud as the focus has been Sugiura for the last few months, and the feud simply isn’t moving fast enough to get another legitimate challenger unless they start building to it soon. But I don’t know who else NOAH would send anyway, as I doubt they want Morishima to lose to Tanahashi and Rikio has not been part of the feud at all up to this point. Since the feud isn’t exactly going at a fast pace I think it will drag on for the rest of the year with occasional matches here and there, but I don’t think the Dome will be the conclusion as I don’t think there will be a big show focusing on New Japan vs. NOAH since they don’t seem to be building towards a big cross promoted event.

P.C.: The best part of having several angles centering around one person is that that person always has something to do. With Hiroshi Tanahashi’s two IWGP title reigns this year looking like a mantle full of scalps if you look at the line of people he’s defended the belt against. But even after Goto, Angle, Mutoh, Nakanishi, Nakamura, and Sugiura, Tajiri attacked him, Masato Tanaka has attacked him, and there’s always plenty NOAH can throw at him. However, NOAH is still the best bet amongst those choices since Tanahashi will likely face both Tajiri and Tanaka in the G-1 tournament at some point. Within New Japan, the choices aren’t too good in terms of number and that’s why the G-1 is so crucial this year. In terms of the biggest names and most legit contenders New Japan could pit against Tanahashi, the list runs something like this: Nagata, Tenzan, Chono, Bernard, Iizuka, and Makabe. If that is the list New Japan is looking at for future challengers then I’m picking Togi Makabe to win the G-1 Climax tourney this year (after finishing runner-up last year) and challenge Tanahashi for the title, eventually losing. When it comes to The Dome, a NOAH defense is the best option, before that there’s the G-1 winner and whatever big matches that aren’t used there could be used in the final quarter of the year if New Japan should feel the need to do so. While there’s too much politics for a title v. title match pitting New Japan and NOAH, despite New Japan being the new number one and NOAH in a moment of self-reflection and repair, I still believe that a title v. title match couldn’t happen. However, a New Japan/NOAH theme would probably be the best idea for The Dome on January 4 because, as Ditch said, New Japan doesn’t have a Tokyo Dome caliber title match within the roster since Goto’s been used, Nagata and Tanahashi already had their trilogy back in ’07, and Makabe isn’t at the level where he’d be Tokyo Dome main-event material yet. Even looking outside of the inevitable title match on the card, there’s the other possible big matches for a Dome card. Such matches could include Kobashi/Tenzan, Goto/Shiozaki for the GHC belt maybe, Chono/Taue maybe, Nagata/Shiozaki, Nagata/Morishima, Nagata/Sugiura, the list goes on and on. If New Japan isn’t going to go the all-star route for the 2010 Dome show, then bringing in NOAH talent is the only conceivable way I see them even coming close to matching last year’s success at the gate.

Check out Kevin’s Site, Puroresu Central.

Check out Ditch’s Site, Ditch Wrestling.

Check out Dramatic Fantasia for DDT news and results.

Check out Strong Style Symphony for New Japan news and results.

Check out Green Destiny for NOAH news and results.