RIP Steve Williams.
Section 1- Results
Dragon Gate: Tanizaki got through his 5th and 6th defenses, besting Mori and Kzy on the 20th and 27th. Heâ€™s only had the lightweight belt 4 months, so this is a tremendous pace by Japanese standards. K-Ness turned heel, taking Saitoâ€™s place. CIMA & Gamma won the tag titles on the 27th, then sorta vacated them. Team Mochizuki retained the trios belts. Yoshino lost the hair/mask cage match after interference from Sugawara, who joined Real Hazard. Sugawara also beat Doi in a non-title match on the show (thanks to interference), and beat Shingo (clean?) on the 25th, so Sugawara seems likely to be Doiâ€™s next challenger.
New Japan: Marufuji beat Devitt in the J Cup final. Devitt also reached the final of Zero-Oneâ€™s tournament last month, losing to Hidaka, and of course he lost to Kanemoto in the Super Juniors final. So a good year for him, though he risks becoming the Buffalo Bills of the junior scene.
Section 2- News
All Japan: Kojima defends against Doering on the 11th. On the same show, Akebono & Hama defend the All Asia belts against Zodiac & KAI.
Dragon Gate: CIMA vs YAMATO is set for 1/20. Tanizaki, refusing to slow down, defends against K-Ness on the 11th (I smell a title change). There will be an 8 team tournament, with the winners likely facing CIMA & Gamma to get the tag titles back on track.
New Japan: Devitt & Taguchi vs Ultimo Guerrero & Averno for the junior tag titles was added to 1/4.
NOAH: Jun Akiyama, suffering both physically and mentally, is considering ending his career in the coming year. Iâ€™ll give my take on that next week. The tag league wraps up on the 24th in Korakuen. Also on the 24th is Kobashi & Akiyama vs Taue & Marufuji.
Section 2a- Meltzer News
New Japan: They did a legit 8500 for Nakamura vs Nagata, which is a huge number for any promotion to do outside Tokyo. However they had to downgrade the Osaka venue on the last tour from previous years. There had been plans to do Tanahashi vs Akiyama, but that didn’t go down for obvious reasons.
NOAH: Marufuji and Akiyama were booking, but Akiyama is being removed from management. Meltzer adds that he’s suffering from some sort of PTSD stemming from his personal life. Kobashi handles his own booking. They drew 10000 and announced 12000 for the Budokan show, and again, a lot of tickets were sold based on the Sasaki/Morishima vs Kobashi/Akiyama match that got cancelled.
Section 3- Last Shill of the Decade
A discussion of legacies in pro wrestling.
Section 4- Media Corner
Ibushi vs Shuji Ishikawa, DDT title, DDT November 29th.
Ishikawa, the â€˜big manâ€™ of Japanâ€™s indy scene, beat Ibushi in a shoot-style match the year before. He also held the DDT title before as the masked Koo, so this is a huge test for DDTâ€™s top star. The â€œsize vs speedâ€ matchup is what really makes this, in addition to the way they mix up nifty spots and strike exchanges.
Section 5a- Best of 2002
I covered a handful of 2002/2003 matches in the Kobashi set. Between that and this column Iâ€™m covering 17 matches for each year. There are a few more I could add, but theyâ€™re mostly smaller-show tags that tend not to reach many peopleâ€™s top ten of a given year.
Liger & Wataru Inoue vs Kikuchi & Kanemaru, NOAH February 17th 2002.
Probably the most universally enjoyed match of â€™02, this has a bit of everything. Liger shows that heâ€™s a world-class heel; Kikuchi shows that he can still bring it after years as an afterthought; Kanemaru and Inoue have by far their best career match to this point; Budokan is rockinâ€™ and rollinâ€™, and by the time the end comes even youâ€™re counting along to it.
Tenryu vs Kojima, All Japan February 24th 2002.
Too fun. Their July rematch is more famous but I think it gets a bit carried away, whereas this one keeps it simple and ends when it should. Tenryu was just so good early in the decade, and this is right around Kojimaâ€™s peak.
Hashimoto vs Masato Tanaka, Zero-One March 2nd 2002.
Most people come in expecting a big 50/50 heavyweight match, and they come out saying â€œwell that was good and all but Tanaka didnâ€™t get enough inâ€. To which I ask: would Tommy Dreamer get to work a 50/50 match with The Rock? No. No he wouldnâ€™t. Tanaka takes a hellacious beating from one of puroâ€™s biggest stars, and he takes it like a man.
Liger & Minoru Tanaka vs Kikuchi & Kanemaru, NOAH April 7th 2002.
Liger upgrades his partner. In the same vein as the February match, which is a very good thing.
Nagata vs Takayama, IWGP title, New Japan May 2nd 2002.
For my money, between this match and when he got injured in August 2004, Takayama was as good as anyone in the world. Heâ€™d had a couple good outings before but here he looks like a world-class fighter and he makes somewhat shaky IWGP champ Nagata look great in the process. This is one of the best examples of a â€˜Strong Styleâ€™ title match, with a different feel from the Kings Road (All Japan/NOAH) classics.
Takayama vs Nakanishi, New Japan June 7th 2002.
Okay, so Takayama can have a good match with Nagata. Big deal. Can he get a good singles match out of Nakanishi, just two days after Nakanishi was in an hour-long tag match? Yes he can. A straightforward heavyweight slugfest right here.
3-way 3-man tag, Toryumon July 7th 2002.
3-way 3-man tag, Toryumon July 14th 2002.
Two of the better sprints in Toryumon history. One headlines the annual Kobe World Hall show, and the rematch takes place at Korakuen.
Sasaki vs Takayama, New Japan G-1 Climax 2002.
The Nakanishi match was hard-hitting, but this makes it look like petty-cake. They somewhat play off Takayamaâ€™s PRIDE fight with Don Frye, and if you havenâ€™t seen that one you should.
Takayama vs Nishimura, New Japan G-1 Climax 2002.
A wonderful clash of styles. Takayama hangs right with technician Nishimura on the mat, but eventually gets into his usual doses of brutality. I love love looooove the last minute of this.
Chono vs Takayama, New Japan G-1 Climax 2002 final.
In my less than humble opinion, Chono had hardly any singles matches of this caliber after getting his neck broken by Steve Austin in 1992. He was very capable in tags and could have fun outings in singles, but he didnâ€™t have â€˜greatâ€™ in him until he was able to get in there with red-hot Takayama at a red-hot Sumo Hall. Chono is Mr. G-1 for a reason!
Kanemoto vs Hashi, New Japan August 29th 2002.
This was one of the more unique cards of the decade. First, itâ€™s New Japan at Nippon Budokan, which is a rarity. Second, the undercard is full of interpromotional juniors bouts while the main event is shoot-flavored Takayama vs Kaz Fujita, and thatâ€™s an enormous contrast. Anyway, it seems that NOAH fans turned out heavily to support their boys, because Hashi gets a ton of sympathy heat as he tries to tangle with New Japanâ€™s junior ace.
Liger & Minoru Tanaka vs Kikuchi & Kanemaru, junior tag titles, New Japan August 29th 2002.
Going even further than the last match, Liger/Tanaka work heel despite being in their home company where theyâ€™re normally faces. This is a fitting third part in the Liger vs NOAH feud.
Rikio & Morishima vs Akiyama & Saito, tag titles, NOAH September 23rd 2002.
Coming in, everyone knows Akiyama is capable of bringing the house down. The same canâ€™t really be said about the other three, especially when the first iteration of this match bombed a few months earlier. For whatever reason Saito and the Takeshis step up in a big way and beat the snot out of each other, and itâ€™s a turning point for them as far as becoming consistently good. Oh and Akiyama is also good, but thatâ€™s nothing new.
Tenryu & Hirai vs Kojima & Hayashi, All Japan October 6th 2002.
Tenryu hates everyone and everything. He hates that little punk Kaz Hayashi. He hates Kojima. He hates your dog. He takes snow. He hates birds. He hates pie. Okay he doesnâ€™t hate pie, but thatâ€™s about it.
Akiyama & Saito vs Kobashi & Shiga, tag titles, NOAH October 19th 2002.
Shiga had been #3 in the Sternness stable, and he left it in the spring. After failing to beat Akiyama or Saito in singles matches he was aimless until becoming Kobashiâ€™s right-hand man in the summer. Now heâ€™s got a chance at glory and heâ€™ll fight like hell to show his former stablemates that heâ€™s on their level.
Section 5b- Best of 2003
All Japan vs Zero-One 8-man tag, All Japan February 23rd 2003.
Thereâ€™s a lot of wrestlers in this who arenâ€™t known for â€˜workrateâ€™ or â€˜talentâ€™ or â€˜being overâ€™. Those flaws are balanced out by the 8-man format keeping the pace up, plus Ohtani being the lord of dickwads. Ohtani also hates your dog.
Kanemoto vs AKIRA, junior title, New Japan March 23rd 2003.
AKIRA is so freaking great in this. He comes up with so many crafty things to throw at the champ. This isnâ€™t a â€œfifteen top-rope movesâ€ type of junior bout, but instead a Strong Style junior bout that mixes technique with athleticism.
Nagata vs Taue, NOAH June 6th 2003.
Nagata invades! He hates the dogs of all the NOAH fans! All of them! Especially the ones belonging to children! Taue is not going to stand for it! He will defend canine honor! Taue > you.
M2K vs Do Fixer, trios titles, Toryumon June 29th 2003.
As good a straight-up trios match as took place in Toryumon. Youâ€™ve got Arai as a solid face-in-peril, Do Fixer as awesome heels, HAGEMANIA running wild, Mochizuki kicking butt, and a big-time finish at their biggest show of the year.
Liger & Murahama vs Marufuji & KENTA, NOAH junior tag title tournament final, NOAH July 16th 2003.
NOAH decided to create their own junior tag belts after the success of the Liger vs NOAH feud, and who better to be in the decision match than Liger himself? Murahama hails from Osaka Pro, and he and Liger come in as their tag champs. This was the first big match for KENTAFuji and boy does it get them going in style.
Takayama vs Tenzan, New Japan G-1 Climax 2003.
Takayama retained the IWGP title against Tenzan in June, so Tenzan decided to take it up a notch for the tournament. He added the Anaconda Vice to his arsenal, and used it to beat Chono and Nakanishi. Will it be enough for him to take down the massive Takayama?
Akiyama vs Tenzan, New Japan G-1 Climax 2003 final.
Akiyama beat Tenzan on day 1, and during the tournament looked as good as he had in years. Both of them do bodypart work to set up some tremendous nearfalls down the stretch.
Akiyama, Saito, Kanemaru & Hashi vs Kobashi, Honda, Marufuji & KENTA, NOAH August 23rd 2003.
Kobashiâ€™s side holds everything but the junior singles title, but Akiyamaâ€™s side has been a cohesive unit for longer. Marufuji isnâ€™t normally as good in Korakuen multi-man tags as he is in other situations, but he does wonderfully as a guest star in the ongoing Burning vs Sternness feud.
4-way 3-man tag, Toryumon August 30th 2003.
Okay, they pulled off having 9 guys, but could they get 12 in there without having it completely fall apart? Iâ€™m not sure how but they manage to make it work!
Marufuji & KENTA vs Kanemaru & Hashi, junior tag titles, NOAH September 12th 2003.
Similar to how Marufuji isnâ€™t known for being a â€˜small showâ€™ guy, Hashi isnâ€™t known for being a â€˜big matchâ€™ guy. He sure is here, and this is among the best of NOAHâ€™s junior matches.
Morishima vs Yone, WLW title, NOAH November 1st 2003.
Morishimaâ€™s first big singles performance. He and Yone knock the stuffing out of one another in this compact battle.
Kobashi vs Yoshinari Ogawa, GHC title, NOAH November 1st 2003.
This is not the usual â€œheavyweight epicâ€ Kobashi title defense. Ogawa is a rule-breaking little prick and Kobashi has to work harder than usual to get his shots in. What it lacks in big bumps and stiffness, it makes up for in story.
Kawada vs Naoya Ogawa, Zero-One December 14th 2003.
Naoya Ogawa has a ton of personality but he doesnâ€™t have the best mind for singles matches. 2003 Kawada could still bring it but he wasnâ€™t on the same level as he was in 2000. When this happened I expected the worst, yet they managed to exceed my expectations in a major way. Kawada carries someone to a career match yet again.
Ryuji Ito vs Abdullah Kobayashi, deathmatch title, Big Japan December 24th 2003.
Because nothing says yuletide cheer quite like light tubes.
Next Time: I had planned to do my annual â€˜Big Inâ€™ column, but instead Iâ€™ll focus on the untimely ends of Steve Williams and Jun Akiyama