As I’ve noted in other reviews, 1997 was something of a banner year for terrific wrestling matches. Even if business might’ve been down, match quality went way up. Over the course of that calendar year, amazing wrestling matches took place in many different places. WWE showcased both the best WrestleMania match ever and the best gimmick match of all time. A throwaway undercard match on a WCW show ended up being one of the best cruiserweight-style match of all time. And All Japan put on two godly singles matches, one of which took place one day after the match we’re looking at today.
This match is from a very different decade in New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s history. While that company has received almost nothing but praise from wrestling fans and critics alike over the past decade, this wasn’t the case during the 1990s. Despite being the revolutionaries behind the junior heavyweight wrestling style, historically-epic matches in New Japan were few and far between. That brings us to this match, one of the very few 1990s New Japan matches to ever be rated 5-stars by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
Today we look back at the 1997 Best of Super Juniors Tournament finals match between Koji Kanemoto and El Samurai.
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.
There’s no complex backstory going into this match. It was the finals of a junior heavyweight tournament with two wrestlers looking to win and achieve personal glory. All you need to know about the wrestlers is this. Samurai was one of many masked high-flyers at the time and was the student of Jushin Liger while Kanemoto was a straightforward no-nonsense technician.
This match originally took place on June 5th, 1997.
It opens with some chain grappling as Samurai takes Kanemoto by the arm. Kanemoto counters by going after Samurai’s leg and the chain-grappling continues. They both do a great job countering each other until Kanemoto applies a chinlock, only for Samurai to escape via Stunner. Samurai stomps on Kanemoto’s head and starts working his neck with leg drops and a camel clutch. Samurai transitions into a cool-looking double-arm submission hold but Kanemoto escapes by reaching the ropes with his foot.
Kanemoto tries to gain control with a spinkick but Samurai answers with a shoulder tackle. Neither man budges so they trade stiff slaps. Samurai counters a headlock with a backdrop suplex and goes to the top rope. He attempts a diving kneedrop but Kanemoto dodges and Samurai hits his knees hard on the mat. Kanemoto immediately starts kicking at and working that knee because he knows what wrestling is and begins an extended segment devoted to destroying Samurai’s left leg.
Kanemoto flips Samurai off as he wrenches his leg and Samurai tries to escape with stiff kicks to Kanemoto’s face with his free leg. But Kanemoto’s having none of that and keeps the hold cinched in. Samurai tries to apply his own leglock but Kanemoto wrestles out and applies a different hold of his own that still punishes Samurai’s left leg. Kanemoto’s in full control as he kicks Samurai all over the place and stomps on him in the corner. Suddenly, Samurai gets a burst of adrenaline and unloads with kneelifts (using his good leg) and lands some running corner dropkicks with Kanemoto hung upside down. But Kanemoto counters Samurai with what looks like an ankle lock out of nowhere. He caught Samurai’s boots on a dropkick and turned it against him. Terrific counter. Samurai reaches the ropes so Kanemoto just unloads on him with stiff kicks.
Samurai attempts a comeback but can’t get any momentum due to his weakened left leg. He manages to land some hard face kicks for a two-count but can’t really do much else at this point. Samurai lands a sudden shoulder tackle but Kanemoto kips up and lands an overhead belly-to-belly suplex that shoots him down. Kanemoto applies a heel hook but Samurai drags both of them to the ropes for safety. Kanemoto goes for a moonsault, Samurai rolls to safety, and Kanemoto lands on his feet, only for Samurai to land a desperation lariat out of nowhere. Samurai suplexes Kanemoto over the ropes and dumps him out of the ring. But he’s not done. Suicide dive through the ropes.
Both men get into the ring slowly and Kanemoto shuts a charging Samurai down with another belly-to-belly and then applies an ankle lock. Samurai screams in pain as Kanemoto wrenches his leg as much as he can. Samurai reaches the ropes, so Kanemoto pulls him away and applies a Figure-4 leglock in the middle of the ring. Samurai sells it like his leg is being torn off, but still manages to roll to the ropes.
Kanemoto wraps Samurai up in the ropes and karate kicks Samurai everywhere. He bitchslaps a barely-standing Samurai and charges but Samurai knocks him down with a sudden elbow strike. Samurai fights through the pain and goes for a powerbomb b but Kanemoto escapes and applies another leg submission hold. Samurai crawls to the ropes again so Kanemoto wails on him in frustration. He goes for a top-rope corkscrew moonsault but Samurai rolls out of the way. Samurai takes advantage of that miss and lands two DDTs in a row. Then he goes to the top rope in spite of his weakened leg. Diving head-butt. Kanemoto kicks out. He gets some mild revenge with stiff slaps and dumps Kanemoto out of the ring.
Kanemoto gets back in and is met with stiff kicks but he responds with an explosive barrage of martial arts strikes that drops Samurai. Corkscrew moonsault connects. Kanemoto mocks Samurai as he rips his mask. Then he goes to the top rope. Avalanche poisoned Hurricanrana! Kanemoto spikes Samurai on his head. But he doesn’t pin; instead, he continues to mock Samurai with kicks to the head. Kanemoto goes back to the top rope for a moonsault. But Samurai gets his knees up. Samurai fires up. One-shoulder powerbomb. That’s followed by a second one. He floats over into a cross armbreaker. Kanemoto reaches the ropes.
Kanemoto cuts Samurai off on the top turnbuckle and lands a diving T-Bone suplex. Followed by a successful diving moonsault. But Kanemoto’s still not done. Bridging tiger suplex. Samurai kicks out. Kanemoto misses another dive. Samurai hits a top-rope diving inverted DDT. Followed by some kind of inverted suplex slam. And then he finishes off with an inverted Brainbuster/reverse Bloody Sunday. One, two, three! There’s the match!
Winner of the 1997 Best of Super Juniors Tournament after 23:51: El Samurai
When I first read the words ‘best of super juniors’, this was not the match I envisioned. This was nowhere near what we as fans have come to expect from junior heavyweights. There were very few bursts of cruiserweight action or daredevil acrobatics. Instead, this was a purely technical affair and was centered on a simple but straightforward psychology that was almost perfect. The only reason it wasn’t perfect was because Samurai’s selling was inconsistent, which has become a growing theme in these match reviews.
The match opened very strongly with some fantastic amateur-style wrestling and chain sequences, but really kicked into high gear once Samurai missed a kneedrop. His bad landing allowed Kanemoto to pick his leg apart like a true pro and that dismantling of the leg became the central story of the match. Would Kanemoto get a submission victory, or would Samurai somehow fight back and survive? It was hard to guess which of those would happen, and it got even harder as the match progressed. On one hand, Kanemoto kept going back to that leg whenever he could and damaged it so brutally that it seemed like Samurai would tap out at any given moment.
On the other hand, Samurai began to sell that leg damage less and less. At several points, he’d start running around and using his legs as weapons mere seconds after being locked in an agonizing submission hold. And then towards the end, he started using his legs more and more and sold very minimally. It was as if all Kanemoto’s work was forgotten by the end.
Sure, the crowd cheered for Samurai as he started making his comeback. But there was no real fight in it. There was no display of struggle or tension from Samurai as he fought to keep himself standing. There were very few instances where he combined Kanemoto’s leg work into his own offensive comeback to sell like he was still in pain. Because of that, Samurai’s sudden comeback and win came across as unearned and out of nowhere, which made the match end on a bit of a deflating note.
That aside, there’s one other thing I really liked in this match: Kanemoto’s overall character. Going into this match I didn’t know much about Kanemoto’s background, other than he was some kind of Chris Benoit-level technical wizard. But in this match, he displayed much more than simple technical wrestling know-how: he told a great story of being an arrogant bastard through his actions. All throughout the match, Kanemoto mocked Samurai and acted like he was better than him. He kicked Samurai when he was down, rubbed hit boot in his face, and refused to pin several times because he would rather continue humiliating Samurai and inflict more punishment on him than win outright.
So not only did Kanemoto use his technical expertise to basically ground Samurai to the point that he could barely do anything, he also acted so smug that the fans were basically begging for Samurai to kick his ass. Samurai did score a few big moves by the end to win the match, which made the story of the match feel a bit more complete and satisfying. And yet, by the end of this, it was clear to be that Kanemoto was better than Samurai both as a wrestler and as a character.
This was like the New Japan version of a mid-2000s John Cena when he was being fed one wrestler after another. In some of those matches (such as against Chris Jericho, Shawn Michaels, Kurt Angle, or even Triple H), the ‘villain’ of the match did most of the heavy-lifting and got the heat so that the (limited) babyface could make his comeback and win. That’s more or less what happened here, and based on how Samurai wrestled, the match’s ending was as deflating as it was commonsensical.
Final Rating: ****1/2
Kanemoto might as well have pulled a Shawn Michaels here and have wrestled a broom. He did 95% of the work in the match to make Samurai look like a star and Samurai didn’t even sell consistently for him. Maybe Samurai was nervous because he had his mentor Jushin Liger in his corner. Or maybe he thought that the best way to show ‘fighting spirit’ was not to slow down and sell like he’s struggling through genuine pain but to stop selling Kanemoto’s meticulous legwork altogether.
It’s a shame. If Samurai devoted even a slight bit more to selling for Kanemoto and slowed down a bit towards the end, I’d be singing a different tune about this match. Alas, its flaws were too glaring to ignore, which weakened my overall impression of the match.
That said, this is a fantastic match if you want to see awesome wrestling psychology and a smug jackass get his comeuppance. Kanemoto was a master wrestler here and an equally-good foil for Samurai to conquer in the end. So overall, it’s an impressive match but lacking in some capacity which makes it inferior to better matches that were taking place around the same time.