Puroresu Pulse, issue 167: Dooooooooooooom

Section 1- Results

All Japan: Funaki beat Suzuki in a cage, Hayashi retained over Kai, and… Ryota Hama beat Kojima to win the Triple Crown in the biggest title match upset since 2003. Maybe ever. Hama is likeable but the decision is absolutely stunning. Claimed attendance was much better than New Japan’s February show, which would be interesting given the weak main event.

Dragon Gate: Shisa and Team Mochizuki retained, while Yamato dethroned Doi and Shingo/Cyber toppled CIMA/Gamma. Despite the title wins, the Kamikaze unit is bickering. They claimed a sellout for Sumo Hall.

New Japan: Notable results from the first rounds of the NJ Cup included Inoue over Bernard, Yujiro over Nagata (by using one of the tag title belts), Tanaka over Nakanishi, Naito over Tanahashi. Semis were Goto over Tanaka and Makabe over Naito, with Goto beating Makabe in the finals to set up Nakamura vs Goto on the 4th. The claimed a sellout for the round 2 show at Aichi Prefectural Gym, which if true would make me think they should use that venue for big shows more often than Sumo Hall.

Section 2- News

All Japan: Champions Carnival blocks were announced. Block A has Hama, Kojima and Suzuki. Block B has Funaki, Suwama, Kea and Kiyoshi. The lineup looks so weak without Mutoh or any outsiders, though it’s also youth-heavy. Final will be on the 11th at JCB Hall. That show will also have another Hayashi title defense. Based on how the matches are scheduled, it looks like Funaki will be in the semis along with the winners of Kea vs Suwama, Kojima vs Kono (who could get the ‘new star’ push), and either Hama or Suzuki. Nishimura is taking some time off.

Dragon Gate: Yamato will defend against Yokosuka on Saturday’s DGUSA event.

“Mongolian Pro”: The card on the 21st was a joke, though there might be an actual one on May 3rd. Very confusing.

New Japan: Marufuji vs Liger will take place on the 4th. An 8-team Super J (juniors) tag tournament will take place on May 8th at JCB Hall, with it likely having 4 New Japan teams, 2 from other Japanese promotions, and 1 each from Mexico and the US.

NOAH: Taue is out now, because THEY’RE CURSED. Sugiura will be in the singles tournament after missing this month’s tour. Block A of the tournament is Sugiura, Akiyama, Sasaki, Rikio, Sano and Bison. Block B is Kawada, Takayama, Morishima, Marufuji, Saito and Yone. Sano, Bison, Yone and Marufuji aren’t in the last set of matches on the day of the finals and thus have no chance (not that they had any to begin with). There will only be finals, no semis. The tournament starts on Sunday with Rikio vs Sano and Takayama vs Marufuji. Rikio & Yone defend the tag titles tomorrow against Murakami & Usuda, after a poorly-received DQ-finish match between the teams over the weekend. The crowd hated it so much that Sugiura came out and apologized. KENTA will do his own NOAH show on May 24th, like last year’s with him vs Akiyama, and that would seem like a reasonable time for him to return.

Section 2a- Meltzer News

All Japan: They only drew 600 for Akebono/Hama vs Kojima/Nishimura at Korakuen, though bad weather played a role.

Dragon Gate: Meltzer speculates that they can make enough money on DGUSA for it to be worthwhile, but only with the shift to doing two shows at a time.

NOAH: Sugiura’s injury came on an unusual interpromotional show done to promote a video game.

WWE: After some bad attendances at Budokan last year, they will run Sumo Hall in August.

Section 3- Jagged Little Shill

Hey, another good column by Skvarla. Imagine that!

Section 4- Media Corner

I Love The ‘90s: Prelude #1

I’ve covered 2000-2009 about as thoroughly as possible, and at this rate I won’t spend much time plugging 2010, which means I need something to fill the Media Corner. Rather than haphazardly linking to freshly discovered diamonds-in-the-rough, I figure it makes more sense to cover the ‘90s in chronological order. It’s difficult to express in words just how many quality matches there were in Japan between 1990 and 1999. You probably know about J Cup 1994, and Misawa vs Kawada, and Kobashi vs Williams. You might not know about the dozens and dozens of bouts that would be standouts today but were largely forgotten at the time because of how much greatness there was around them.

And what better way to start talking about the 1990s than with a bunch of stuff that happened in… 1989? Yup. Getting the lay of the land is worthwhile. Be it seeing the feud that set the stage for Jumbo vs Misawa, or witnessing the evolution of the Liger gimmick, or learning about the promotion that birthed shoot-style, it’s important to understand the context of things. Plus these are some good matches! Right now it looks like the first batch (through the end of ’90) will have 8 parts. Depending on how long it takes to get through them I’ll either go right into 1991 or save that for next year.

This installment covers All Japan in mid-1989, as Jumbo Tsuruta and Genichiro Tenryu waged war on top while young talent emerged underneath. A side note: for All Japan, many matches were already covered in my Misawa and Kobashi retrospectives, and an upcoming one for Steve Williams. I will note these without linking to them.

Jumbo vs Tenryu, Triple Crown, All Japan June 5th 1989.

A few years back, the Triple Crown was an elite title in professional wrestling. It symbolized both star power and top-flight wrestling ability. However, it wasn’t that way from the start. The first two title bouts in April of ’89 weren’t any better than various title matches involving the same participants from years earlier. The entire point of unifying the belts was to add importance and drama to the matches, so if quality and fan response didn’t improve the whole thing would have been a wash. Thankfully, this happened.

They faced off several times before, and had problems with either maintaining intensity, maintaining a good pace, or a bad finish. This managed to be more intense despite a longer length, they kept the energy level up, and the finishing run was probably the best in company history to this point. They manage some pulse-pounding nearfalls off rather pedestrian moves because the timing, execution and crowd are all pitch-perfect. It would be several years before another Triple Crown match was even close to this good, but the accomplishment was cemented: the Triple Crown meant more as a whole than the sum of its parts.

Tenryu, Hansen & Kawada vs Jumbo, Yatsu & Great Kabuki, All Japan July 28th 1989.

The 6-man tag wasn’t always a specialty of Japan. It really took off in the mid-80s as Choshu and his crew started sprinting and reeling off cool double-teams, alternating between New Japan and All Japan. Even so, the multi-man tags often wound up being spastic and/or directionless, though that was somewhat due to rarely having a real finish to work towards. When Choshu left All Japan and the company shifted to Jumbo vs Tenryu as the focus, there was a change in the 6-man tag style. There was a bit more cohesiveness and methodology rather than bang-bang-bang spots. Storytelling, roles and beefy strikes became the focal point. As with the above match, the style was perfected a few years later with better athletes, but matches like this set the precedent.

Tenryu & Hansen linked up in the spring and traded the tag titles with Jumbo & Yatsu during July. Jumbo vs Tenryu was not only the focal point of the Triple Crown, but also the tag titles, something that was often the case during the ‘90s with Misawa vs Kawada. On one hand it meant many midcarders did nothing of note for years at a time, but on the other hand it led to several of the best tags in history. Anyway, Kawada had previously teamed with both Tenryu and Hansen in losing efforts against Jumbo & Yatsu, as this feud was the first time he got anywhere near the spotlight. It’s not quite the same Kawada that we think of today, but he was good nonetheless. He got one more chance the next month…

Jumbo & Yatsu vs Tenryu & Kawada, tag titles, All Japan August 29th 1989.

While the singles and 6-man portions of All Japan took a step forward in ’89, tags had already progressed several years earlier. The two-on-two feud of Jumbo & Tenryu vs Choshu & Yatsu managed to avoid most flaws of the Jumbo vs Choshu 6-man tags, and when the feud shifted to Jumbo vs Tenryu there was a smooth transition. The main change was simply the addition of more stiffness, and if you’re anything like me there’s nothing wrong with an increase in thick dudes hucking clotheslines and chops at each other. Tenryu’s 1987-1988 parter Ashura Hara was forced out of the promotion over gambling debts, which is why Tenryu alternated between Hansen and Kawada in 1989. Kawada wasn’t quite the clothesline-hucker that Hara was, but he could still trade blows with anyone. These teams first met in a non-title match in January, and while that iteration was a bit on the slow and awkward side, Kawada learned fast enough that the rematch in February was A-OK. By August he was just as comfortable among chunky heavyweight as he was with competitors more his size. Kawada didn’t get another tag title shot until 1991: could he finally break through here?

Tenryu vs Jumbo, Triple Crown, All Japan October 11th 1989.

Not as good as the June classic, but still good, and important as well.

Matches already covered:
Kawada vs Kobashi, July 1st 1989
Tenryu & Hansen vs Jumbo & Kobashi, July 15th 1989
Can-Am Express vs Joe Malenko & Kobashi, October 11th 1989

Section 5- The downward spiral

Last year, I covered what I considered to be the best matches of the year as they happened. At this point we’re halfway through March and I have yet to see a match that I like well enough to say that it would have been in my top 20 for 2009, and I consider 2009 to have been a weak year. At DVDVR, I keep a running tally of matches that are most broadly enjoyed by the board’s members, with top bouts ending up on a ‘list’ that averages about 5 matches per month. Right now just one match qualifies, and it’s not one that is likely to get much year-end discussion. That is what drove me to write this, but the product is just one part of a bleak picture.

The number of ‘preventable’ reasons for the decline of the Japanese wrestling business are varied and well-known. MMA has stolen fans and talent; TV executives give wrestling no chance to thrive; major stars have died or become broken down; booking mistakes have harmed the appeal of younger stars and driven away fans. Yet even if promotions had good timeslots on major networks, and were run to perfection, and recruited the same portion of top athletes as before, there would still be a significant business slump. Two powerful factors are beyond the control of pro wrestling: demographics and economics.

By demographics, I refer to birthrate. Starting in the mid ‘70s, births declined precipitously, falling below replacement levels during the ‘80s. In recent years the population has begun to shrink. There’s a case for reducing the population density on a relatively small mountainous strip of land, but this is no way to do it. Young adults today face the prospect of dealing with a crushing government debt over their lifetime, and when coupled with the costs of having children such as having to pay for public high schools the birth slump seems unlikely to reverse.

Fewer children means fewer young athletes for pro wrestling to draw from, so promotions must either keep standards high and put fewer wrestlers through their dojos, or lower standards and try to make do with lower-end wrestlers, or both. The last group of wrestlers born before the ‘70s birth plunge are the so-called ‘third generation’, featuring the likes of Akiyama, Nagata, Ohtani, Kojima and Tenzan. Put aside criticisms that they weren’t as good as the wrestlers who debuted in the ‘80s; it’s still an impressive group of talent. The main dojos have struggled mightily to create heavyweight talent since then.

All Japan generated Omori, Morishima, Rikio, and later Suwama. NOAH generated Shiozaki and Taniguchi. New Japan generated Nakanishi, Tanahashi, Nakamura, Shibata, Goto and Makabe. Of those you have a wrestler who was only been pushed due to not having any other choice (Makabe); wrestlers pushed before they were really ready for the spotlight (Nakamura, Shiozaki, Suwama); wrestlers who seemed to diminish shortly after getting a push (Omori, Rikio); wrestlers with a good pedigree but limited ability (Nakanishi, Taniguchi); a wrestler who left the business (Shibata); a wrestler who can’t stay in shape (Morishima); a wrestler who has yet to actually draw (Goto); and a wrestler who can draw but not that well (Tanahashi).

To put it another way: how many of these guys are on pace to be Wrestling Observer Hall of Famers? Any of them? And that’s for an entire decade of dojo grads. Some of it is circumstances and booking, but the vast majority is talent and consistency. The effort is there for the most part, just not the end result. There’s a lack of leadership, of presence, of being larger-than-life. Those like Tanahashi who are great athletes can’t get the same response with their efforts as the best athletes even ten years ago, and the athletic depth is down quite a bit. Some are able to get the crowd into it during tags, and some during singles, but the ability to blow the roof off at large AND small venues is sorely lacking.

What’s more, even among this group a heavy majority entered the dojo in the ‘90s. That doesn’t take into account that the ‘90s also had the FMW dojo and several shoot-style dojos. Today’s Big Japan dojo seems like the best in Japan for producing traditional-style wrestlers, and Big Japan products are given little to no respect by larger companies. The main dojos haven’t even produced what I would consider 5 good heavyweights in the last decade. While it doesn’t necessarily mean that a 50% higher birthrate would yield 50% more good heavyweights, I have a hard time believing that the average dojo graduate wouldn’t be better than what we got. Yes, every dojo produces flops, but New Japan especially had far more hits than misses during its first 20 years.

No amount of good booking, good promoting, and good intentions can make up for superstars that aren’t born. When you combine too few stars with too many companies, that’s a recipe for a mediocre end result. When you combine mediocre shows with two decades of economic stagnation, that’s a recipe for a pitch-black business outlook.

When it comes to Japan’s economy there is no lack of scapegoats. Don’t like “big government”? Japan has sunk untold trillions of yen into infrastructure for the sake of jobs projects as opposed to actual need, and spends heavily propping up elderly-heavy rural areas for the benefit of key politicians. Don’t like “big business”? Corporatism runs rampant, with major companies able to squash competition and dictate regulations. Government policy led to banks propping up certain failed businesses, wasting money and making it harder for newer, better companies to take their place. There are long-running problems with monetary policy, the cost of housing, high fuel costs, and now a dwindling workforce that must support a long-lived and ever-larger elderly population. With all that to deal with, who has 7500 yen lying around to go to a wrestling show? Especially if the promotion regularly gives away free or cheap tickets.

The bottom line is that it’s not as if there’s one thing or a couple things heading in the wrong direction. It’s that EVERYTHING is heading in the wrong direction, with the exceptions of New Japan being operated competently (as opposed to five years ago) and Dragon Gate appealing to a unique group. Too many promotions compete for a dwindling fanbase, and the fanbase has less disposable income to spend. Too few high-end talents are spread out too widely. A tiny percentage of the population has Samurai TV, which has by far the most wrestling content.

For me the only consolation is that now I have more time to watch the great matches of days gone by, but that’s just not the same as devouring shows as they occur.

But it could always be worse. At least I’m not a TNA mark.

Tags: ,