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5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Katsuyori Shibata – NJPW Destruction in Kobe 2014, by Alex Podgorski

Everyone loves a good grudge match, and this they don’t really get as deep and personal as this one. It’s one of the most heated matches in modern NJPW history, built on genuine tension between two of the biggest stars in the company. It’s a perfect example of Paul Heyman’s philosophy of ‘shoot promos’ in action: instead of just pulling the curtain and speaking a whole bunch of illusion-destroying truths for the hell of it, the real-life stuff is woven into a narrative that gets the fans emotionally-invested to the point that they want to buy a ticket to see two guys fight.

Today we revisit the classic singles match between NJPW ace Hiroshi Tanahashi and former-wrestler-turned-MMA-fighter-turned-wrestler-again Katsuyori Shibata from Destruction in Kobe 2014.

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.

The story

There are two important details you need to know about concerning this match. Both of those relate to how Hiroshi Tanahashi is NJPW’s version of John Cena.

Firstly, Tanahashi is NJPW’s rock, their lifer, the man that carried the company on his shoulders. He saved NJPW from the brink of death in the late 2000s and early 2010s, and is/has been crucial to their transformation from arguably the third biggest wrestling company in Japan (and a distant third, at that) to the second biggest wrestling company in the world.

Tanahashi sacrificed so much for New Japan and put on insane performances on a regular basis. He always put the company’s interests before his own, and was said to be the company’s true locker room leader.

The second is that, like Cena, Tanahashi is a perennial hero. He never shows genuine anger, doesn’t cut corners, or do anything that would otherwise display any sort of villainy. Sure, he might get flashes of cockiness or frustration in his matches. But there is never any malice in what he does. He’s a hero, an honorable and respectful professional. No matter what happens, Tanahashi always behaves like ‘the good guy’.

However, there is only one person that can force Tanahashi to make an exception to these rules: Katsuyori Shibata.

Back in the early 2000s, Tanahashi, Shibata and Shinsuke Nakamura were dubbed ‘the New Three Musketeers of New Japan’. They were meant to be rookies that could carry the brand into the 21st century, much like how the original Three Musketeers (Shinya Hashimoto, Masahiro Chono, and Keiji Mutoh) made NJPW insanely popular and financially successful during the 1990s. In essence, these new Three Musketeers were NJPW’s version of the ‘OVW Four’: John Cena, Randy Orton, Batista, and Brock Lesnar. And from looking at that list of names you can clearly tell, ‘one of these things is not like the others’.

In 2007, Shibata left NJPW and pro wrestling, in general, to pursue a career in MMA. In doing so, many in NJPW felt he abandoned them in their darkest hour. Unfortunately for him, that MMA career didn’t pan out very well. While his WWE counterpart (Brock Lesnar) was insanely successful as a draw in MMA despite having relatively few matches, Shibata went 4-11-1 in MMA. That venture was considered a flop and he returned to NJPW in 2012. And when he did, there was one person that was absolutely furious with him: Hiroshi Tanahashi.

Tanahashi felt that Shibata betrayed New Japan, and then waltzed back in like nothing bad happened. They didn’t cross paths for two years because there were still some people in NJPW that wanted the company to involve MMA to some degree. So Shibata was often thrown into matches against MMA-oriented fighters like the Gracies and Kazushi Sakuraba. Then he started facing off against the actual pro wrestlers and found himself in Tanahashi’s crosshairs.

And so the stage was set for an intense showdown that was years in the making. These two men wrestled back in the mid-2000s and had a confrontation earlier in 2014 in the G1 Climax tournament. And now, with this match, both men are looking to settle things. Will Tanahashi put Shibata in his place, or will Shibata prove to be the superior combat expert?

The match

This match originally took place on September 21st, 2014. It was the only match in 2014 to be awarded Five-Stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.

They lock-up and Tanahashi bitchslaps Shibata super hard on the ropes to send a message. Shibata answers with a volley of hard elbow smashes. Shibata dodges a dropkick and Tanahashi dodges a big Penalty Kick, leading to an early standoff. Tanahashi gets Shibata into a corner and fires some uncharacteristically stiff elbows of his own. But Shibata has no f**ks to give and does the same, so Tanahashi answers with uppercuts. As does Shibata. Shibata whips Tanahashi into a corner, Tanahashi blocks, and goes for a springboard dive. But Shibata cuts him off with a dropkick, sending Tanahashi to the floor.

Shibata whips Tanahashi into the barricade and kicks him hard in the face. He goes for another whip but Tanahashi reverses it on him, only for Shibata to charge back. But in doing so he walks into a forearm from Tanahashi and they go back to exchanging stiff strikes. They get to heated and caught up in this strike exchange that the ref reaches the count of nineteen before they return to the ring. and once in there, they resume hitting each other as hard as possible.

Eventually, Tanahashi’s the first to go down, unable to keep going toe-to-toe with a hard-hitting Shibata. Shibata punts him in the back and locks in a Figure-4 leglock at the five-minute mark. Tanahashi tries to escape by slapping Shibata in the face, only for Shibata to ask for more. After Tanahashi reaches the ropes, Shibata channels his inner KENTA and punts Tanahashi in the chest. He whips Tanahashi, who counters into a flying forearm smash and then dropkicks Shibata’s right (kicking) leg. A second-rope senton gets him the first two-count of the match.

Tanahashi continues a forearm onslaught in the corner, then runs to the opposite corner for a charge. But he doesn’t see Shibata running behind him, and Shibata lands a massive yakuza kick and then does his own charge. This time Tanahashi tries to take Shibata by surprise with a corner crossbody, but Shibata outsmarts him and ducks, sending Tanahashi sternum-first into the corner. Shibata punts him in the chest and goes back to delivering brutal elbows and forearms to the face and neck, and then drills him with a huge dunning dropkick into the corner. That looked brutal.

Shibata tries to maintain control but Tanahashi grabs his leg for the dragon screw leg whip. But Shibata fires back with insanely stiff slaps that would drop an ordinary man. But Tanahashi isn’t ordinary and he tanks all of them like a boss and asks for more and lands the dragon screw. Both men go for German suplexes but Shibata counters into a Goldberg-style leglock takedown and applies a sleeper. Shibata punts him again but Tanahashi fires back with a huge slap of his own.

Ten minutes have passed as Shibata dropkicks Tanahashi off the turnbuckle a second time. Shibata tosses him back into the ring, but as Shibata gets back in, Tanahashi grabs his weakened leg and dragon screws it again. He rallies the fans behind him and goes for the slingblade, but Shibata counters into a backdrop suplex. Wait, no, Tanahashi gets up right away. German suplex by Tanahashi. Shibata gets up right away. Huge kick to Tanahashi’s chest.

Shibata gets up first, hobbling on one leg. He lifts Tanahashi up into a foreman’s carry, but Tanahashi counters into a slingblade. Another slingblade by Tanahashi. He goes to the top rope. High Fly Fl—no, Shibata gets his knees up. Both of them get hurt in the process. Shibata goes for a sleeper, Tanahashi counters into a bridging pin, but Shibata kicks out at two and counters into a rear naked choke. Shibata goes for the running Penalty Kick, Tanahashi ducks and lands a dragon suplex. Grounded dragon screw by Tanahashi, followed by a Texas Cloverleaf. Shibata reaches the ropes.

Tanahashi stomps on Shibata’s knee as the fifteen-minute mark passes. He charges…only to run into a standing dropkick out of nowhere from Shibata. They trade forearms again, with neither man going down. They keep this up until Tanahashi slaps Shibata down hard. But as soon as he gets up, Shibata drops Tanahashi with a VICIOUS spinning backfist. Somewhere, Aja Kong is grinning from ear to ear.

Shibata goes for another fireman’s carry but again Tanahashi counters into a dragon screw. Then Tanahashi returns the favor with a corner dropkick of his own. High Fly Flow to a standing Shibata. Followed by a second one. One, two, three! The match is over.

Winner after 17:57: Hiroshi Tanahashi

Post-match, after another intense stare-down, the two men shake hands, putting an end to the bitter feud that had consumed them.

Review

This was a solid match between two top stars in NJPW. Tanahashi was his usual incredible self, wrestling his ass off and did something unusual. While he’s usually a ‘scientific’ wrestler that attacks a wrestler’s limbs to make it harder for them to stand up and dodge his finisher, he combined that approach with an uncharacteristic rage in this match. Tanahashi hated Shibata so much (especially after a humiliating loss in the 2014 G1 Climax a month earlier) that he had to tread into villainous waters.

But that was fine for Shibata, who answered Tanahashi’s newfound rage with his usual brutality that made him look like NJPW’s version of KENTA/Hideo Itami. And that brutality made for a pretty fun match overall and showed that these two men exactly how to tell a great in-ring story without needing promos.

At the same time, however, I found this match was a bit disappointing. This was supposed to be a grudge match many years in the making, yet the match didn’t come off that way. Yes, they had their moments of intensity and tension, but they didn’t really go that deep in terms of story. It felt like they only scratched the surface of what they could’ve done. I’ve seen far more intensity and willpower from both men in their matches against other wrestlers.

Because of that lack of raw emotion, this match didn’t come across as a historic epic for the ages. Yes, the actual wrestling they did in the ring was good, but it wasn’t anything special. What didn’t make sense to me was how Tanahashi could stand as Shibata’s equal in a strike battle. Shibata was and is far and away a better and more dangerous striker than Tanahashi, especially since Tanahashi’s more of a pure grappler and high-flyer. Yet here, Tanahashi stood as Shibata’s equal and even out-struck him a few times. And while that makes sense to underscore the genuine tension between these two men, it just wasn’t that convincing.

The match would’ve been much better if Tanahashi kept to his own style and showed Shibata what he was capable of doing instead of trying to beat Shibata at his own game. They had already done so much to establish the contrast between these two wrestlers, so why muddy that now?

Final Rating: ****

Although they did a great job of making this feel personal and special, I think they didn’t reach the true heights of the 5-star level. The in-ring action was solid, but nothing special. The match was carried by the intense story and the fans’ investment into those moments of personal bitterness. Beyond that, there wasn’t that much in this contest. Don’t get me wrong, both Tanahashi and Shibata were/are great wrestlers, but they didn’t really show that here.

If this match got another seven to ten minutes and had more of a back-and-forth closing sequence, then this would be an epic match for sure. But as it stands, it’s underwhelming and not worthy of the praise it got.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.