The year 2020 will go down in history as one of the weirdest years in pro-wrestling history. Without live crowds, promotions were forced to adapt in different ways. Some shut down completely until fans were allowed back into venues. Others replaced fans with staff to give off the illusion and perception of a rabid live crowd. And others still went on without fans in general, wrestling in empty arenas.
But despite those changes, there were still a lot of 5-star matches in 2020 (somehow). During that calendar year, a whopping twelve matches were said to reach that elite level of wrestling greatness. And today we look back at the last one to take place that year to see if it really was as good as wrestling’s most notorious journalist proclaimed.
Today we look back at the world title match between Go Shiozaki and Takashi Sugiura from Pro Wrestling NOAH’s big December show.
As a reminder, I am reviewing Five Star and almost-Five Star wrestling matches as rated by Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It goes back to the 1980s and I’m going to pick different matches from different eras to see how they look today. Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here.
This is a grudge match of sorts between two wrestlers with a long history together. Both Sugiura and Shiozaki were rookies that started their careers during NOAH’s mid-2000s peak and stayed with the company ever since. The two teamed together briefly before going their separate ways. Then throughout the 2010s they kept crossing paths and had many world title matches against each other. Over the course of that decade, Shiozaki and Sugiura won NOAH’s GHC Heavyweight title from one another and both claimed to be the bigger star.
Then in January 2020, Shiozaki beat a rookie name Kaito Kiyomiya to win his fourth GHC world title and embarked on his longest title reign to date. He had beaten many different challengers one by one, until Sugiura appeared and issued a challenge. Shiozaki, determined to continue his reign, accepted.
This would be the biggest match these two had ever had together. When combining all their reigns together, Sugiura and Shiozaki were the #1 and #2 top NOAH world champions, respectively. Shiozaki had learned from the best, having been Kenta Kobashi’s protégé before he retired. But Sugiura was at a higher level from Shiozaki, having held the belt more than anyone else and defending it successfully more than anyone else.
So who was going to win? The champion who hoped to channel his mentor’s trainings and carry NOAH into a new decade? Or would it be the near-Olympian challenger who hoped to break his own records and become an even bigger star?
This match originally took place on December 6th, 2020 at a NOAH end-of-the-year show called THE BEST – Final Chronicle 2020.
This is for Shiozaki’s GHC Heavyweight Championship. Sugiura gets a clean break to start things off. That’s followed by a long technical exchange during which both guys trade holds and look for limbs to target. Shiozaki goes for a shoulder tackle but Sugiura doesn’t budge. Sugiura charges into Shiozaki and Shiozaki fires back with a big chop. Another technical exchange ensues. Shiozaki drops Sugoira with chops and Sugiura fires back with elbows. A standoff ensues as the five-minute mark passes.
Sugiura lands an arm wringer on Shiozaki’s taped-up left arm but Shiozaki fights back with a diving shoulder tackle. Shiozaki whips Sugiura and lands a back elbow for a two-count and then lands Kawada-style kneedrops to the face for another two-count. he follows with elbows to the back of the head (using his bad arm) but Sugiura tanks them and keeps getting up. So Shiozaki fires back with massive chops to the chest that echo throughout the arena. He pins but only gets two once again, so he applies a figure-4 neck lock. Sugiura reaches the ropes so Shiozaki lands a DDT for two and then applies chinlock. Sugiura fights out of it but suffers more chops to the chest for his defiance. I swear, imagine walking into an empty gymnasium and hearing ten basketballs hit the floor with maximum force. That’s how hard Shiozaki’s chopping Sugiura.
Ten minutes have passed as Sugiura tries to fight back with elbows but continues to get chopped as well. Sugiura counters an Irish whip, Shiozaki ducks a big boot and does for a jumping shoulder tackle. but Sugiura gets his knee up. Sugiura follows with a Sasaki-style stepover armbar on Shiozaki’s bad arm. Shiozaki screams in pain but reaches the ropes. Both men escape to ringside and start brawling, with Sugiura continuing his assault on Shiozaki’s right arm. He wraps it up in the barricade and kicks it, causing further extensive damage to that limb. Shiozaki tries to fight back but Sugiura shuts him down with more attacks to the arm.
Back in the ring, Sugiura applies a kimura but Shiozaki reaches the ropes. He tosses Shiozaki shoulder-first into the barricade and lays in more elbows but Shiozaki starts firing up. He tries to keep chopping Sugiura but Sugiura brushes him off and then catches his arm and hits it hard. He lands more kicks to the arm and sends Shiozaki into the ropes but Shiozaki lands a shoulder tackle that sends both of them down.
Shiozaki fires up and lands machine gun chops in the corner and Sugiura tanks them and lands a flurry of elbows. They go back and forth until Shiozaki downs Sugiura with a massive chop to the bridge of the nose. I think Sugiura’s chest is now bleeding from all those chops. Shiozaki goes for a fisherman suplex but Sugiura resists and lands a gourdbuster. He charges into a corner but Shiozaki counters with an Okada-style top-rope dropkick. He charges for a dive but Sugiura rushes in and nails him with a spear and then punches him so hard he falls off the top turnbuckle and to the floor. Another spear sends Shiozaki off the apron and back down to the floor.
Shiozaki makes it to the ring eventually and Sugiura yakuza kicks him into a corner and then lends a delayed superplex. He continues to attack Shiozaki’s midsection with a Boston crab. Shiozaki reaches the ropes and the two wrestlers start another brutal strike exchange. Both men absorb each other’s best strikes but Shiozaki seems to be gaining the upper hand as Sugiura starts staggering from all those chops. Both men boot each other hard. Sugiura goes for a superplex. Shiozaki counters into a standing armtrap choke and then switches into a twisting Falcon Arrow. Great counter.
Shiozaki gets up first and goes for a lariat but Sugiura elbows his arm. Then he lands a sick German suplex but Shiozaki powers up and gets to his feet. Then he lands his own German suplex as Sugiura fights to get up. Shiozaki lands a big dropkick for a two-count and goes for a Brainbuster. Sugiura kicks out of it, and drills Shiozaki with a lariat before Shiozaki can land a rolling elbow. Both wrestlers collapse.
Sugiura goes for an apron gutwrench suplex but Shiozaki resists and lands more chops. He falls to the floor and clips Shiozaki’s leg and boots his head. then he removes the ringside mats and hooks Shiozaki’s head. Sugiura lands a vicious dragon screw neck whip from the apron to the floor. Good God, what a vicious move.
Shiozaki gets back into the ring at the count of seventeen and Sugiura answers with a running knee and an elbow flurry in the corner. Shiozaki starts firing up and they have another strike battle. Sugiura traps Shiozaki’s arm on a chop and German suplexes him into the turnbuckles. Damn, another vicious impact. Sugiura follows with another explosive elbow flurry and keeps hammering until it looks like Shiozaki’s barely conscious. He lands another high-angle German and a running knee and pins. But somehow Shiozaki kicks out. Sugiura lands more elbows and hits an Olympic Slam. Shiozaki kicks out again. Sugiura hoists Shiozaki up but Shiozaki lands a sudden lariat out of nowhere. Both men go down once again.
Both men get up and rush each other. Shiozaki hits first with a dropkick and Sugiura falls out of the ring. Shiozaki follows with a suicide dive. In the ring, Shiozaki lands a Batista Bomb for another two-count. he charges for a lariat, Sugiura ducks, but Shiozaki spins around and connects with a short-range lariat. Sugiura kicks out of a pin so Shiozaki goes for another one. Sugiura lands some elbows first. Shiozaki fires back with Misawa-style elbows strikes including a rolling elbow smash. Sugiura eats all those strikes and keeps getting up. Shiozaki drills him with another lariat. One, two, Sugiura kicks out.
Shiozaki signals the end with a Kobashi-style Burning lariat and cocks his arm but Sugiura lands some elbows and knees first. He follows with two big running knees to the head and pins. One, two, kickout. Sugiura lands close-range elbows to the side of Shiozaki’s head. The ref checks to see if Shiozaki can continue and he keeps fighting. Sugiura pins. Shiozaki kicks out yet again. Olympic slam connects again. Shiozaki kicks out. Sugiura goes for a top-rope diving Olympic Slam. Shiozaki fights out and counters into a top-rope backdrop suplex. Both men get up slowly. Shiozaki’s up first and lands a running lariat for two. He follows with a modified backdrop suplex and gets another two-count. He goes to the top rope and flies through the air. Diving moonsault connects…with Sugiura’s knees. Sugiura gets his knees up and then locks in a guillotine choke. Shiozaki starts fading. He tries to counter into a Brainbustuer but Sugiura sinks in the guillotine deeper. Shiozaki fights with all his might out of the guillotine and lands a suplex. Sugiura bounces up and staggers around the ring. Lariat from Shiozaki connects. Sugiura stays on his feet. Both men trade deportation strikes and start staggering. Sugiura lands another stiff elbow combo. Shiozaki fires back with a strike flurry to his head. They go back and forth some more. Shiozaki lands not one, not two, but three brutal lariats to the head. One, two, three! Shiozaki wins and retains his title!
Winner and STILL GHC Heavyweight Champion after 51:44: Go Shiozaki
That was one of the most brutal matches I’ve seen in quite some time, and is up there with WALTER vs. Ilya as one of the most punishingly violent contests to take place in 2020. But while I appreciate the effort both wrestlers put in here, as a match it was a bit hard to sit through. Not because of the action or violence, but because it was so goddamn long. Honestly, I’ve watched well over two hundred matches for this series and most of them have been long-winded epics. In most of those cases, the action and pacing justified the length of the match. That wasn’t so here. This match came across as bloated and unnecessarily padded out. The story they told over the course of fifty minutes could’ve been told in half the time, which is exactly what WALTER and Ilya did and why their match is better than this one.
The story was that Shiozaki had long struggled to beat Sugiura in a big match setting and this was his chance to put that behind him. To accomplish that, Shiozaki went to war with Sugiura and punished him with everything he had. For almost an hour, these two men tore into with each other with some of the most punishing offense I’ve ever seen. And despite Shiozaki’s punishing offense, Sugiura absorbed that punishment like a boss despite being fifty years old. I don’t think there are any wrestlers his age in such great physical condition. He came across as a total boss for taking everything Shiozaki dished out at him and kept going. This was especially true towards the very end. Sugiura fought until the very end and staggered around the ring as Shiozaki tried to keep him down long enough. It looked like Sugiura was fighting his own body and stayed on his feet through sheer force of will. In the end, it took three brutal lariats from Shiozaki to keep Sugiura down for the three-count.
And in terms of actual wrestling, this match was pretty damn impressive. Each man had a sound strategy that they applied, with Shiozaki going for Sugiura’s neck and Sugiura targeting Shiozaki’s arm. Both strategies were worked effectively and Sugiura’s looked to be the more successful one. He targeted Shiozaki’s right arm and tried his best to neutralize it as much as possible. That psychologically-sound approach made up most of the match’s middle portion and seemed to work for a long time. Shiozaki soon found himself incapable of hitting big chops or using his arm with 100% effectiveness, so he had to find any avenue to distract or stun Sugiura long enough to recover. That ended up working for him in the end and by the time the closing minutes came Shiozaki had recovered enough – although still not to full strength – to land enough big lariats and chops to make a successful comeback.
Furthermore, both Shiozaki and Sugiura sold tremendously well for each other and looked like they were barely conscious towards the end. Shiozaki looked to be bordering on unconsciousness more than once as Sugiura laid into him with brutal strikes and high-impact bombs. Shiozaki also hit some of the loudest, most vicious chops to the chest I’ve ever seen and heard, and I’ve seen and heard many. He hit Sugiura with such punishing force that it sounded like he was trying to cave the man’s chest in. That brutality underscored how badly Shiozaki wanted to win and how much pain Sugiura was willing to endure to win. The title meant that much to both men.
At the same time, though, I found it a bit hard to get into Shiozaki’s wrestling style. He wasn’t just a protégé of Kenta Kobashi’s; he was basically a smaller Kobashi clone. Shiozaki’s style was almost identical to Kobashi: the chops, lariats, high-impact bombs and the moonsault were all Kobashi trademarks. Because of that, I got the impression that Shiozaki was trying to be someone else or use someone else’s big match formula to win. I understand using that formula if it’s proven to work. But as long as Shiozaki relies on moves and actions that someone else made famous, he’ll always be compared to that other wrestler and will likely come across as inferior. At least Sugiura was a bit more subtle when it came to his approach. Yes, his finisher was the Olympic Slam because he was a near-Olympian. But beyond that, he had his own identity as a wrestler and fought like he wanted to and not like a bigger star of yesteryear.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This match could’ve been on a different level if it was shorter. Going over fifty minutes without a crowd to feed off of is a big risk and it didn’t pay off here. Sure the crowd clapped along to show they were into it. But even with that subdued fan reaction the match had too much dead air and needlessly-bloated segments to give it the impression of some historic and epic endurance contest. I get that they were trying to sell that both men were the toughest wrestlers in the world, and they did a convincing job of telling that story through their punishing offense and constant need to sell and recover. And yet, they could’ve shaved off at least fifteen minutes and the story would’ve been the same and had the benefit of better pacing.
But by no means do I think this is a bad match. In fact, it’s still great in spite of a few flaws. If you like intense and brutal wrestling with solid psychology and tense back-and-forth action, this match has all of that and then some. Shiozaki was impressive defending his title against someone that had his number in all their big previous encounters and Sugiura put on an outstanding performance for a wrestler his age.
Ultimately, I think that all the right elements were in place here for a genuine 5-star match but something went awry. Maybe under different circumstances and with less time, they could’ve had a genuine epic. But with the hand they were dealt, these two wrestlers came close but didn’t really deliver the historic, perfect match that this was all hyped up to be.