New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s 2001 edition of their annual January 4 Tokyo Dome Show was a bit different from most. Instead of being a showcase of the best they have to offer, this show had a central theme: it was built around showcasing a single star, and that star’s name was Kensuke Sasaki.
Sasaki is an…interesting…case when it comes to NJPW history. On paper, he looked like a guy around whom you could build an entire promotion. He was big (by Japanese standards), muscular, a solid worker, had great wrestling moves, and could get a crowd behind him. In that sense he was like Randy Orton. But there was one big problem: Sasaki was always being compared to bigger stars and ended up inferior to them in almost every respect.
Sasaki became a main-eventer after NJPW’s Three Musketeers (Masahiro Chono, Shinya Hashimoto and Keiji Mutoh) reached their peaks. NJPW wanted him to be thrown into the conversation with them and for him to rub shoulders with them whenever possible. But when he did, Sasaki was exposed as being inferior to them in one way or another.
The best North American wrestler to compare Sasaki to in this case would be Sheamus when he first debuted on RAW in 2009. He was given a meteoric push upon his debut and was soon rubbing shoulders with, or being compared to, WWE’s Big Three at the time: John Cena, Randy Orton, and Batista. And Sheamus, like Sasaki, was overshadowed in some way by all three of them. Batista had a better physique, Orton was a better villain, and Cena had overall better presentation and better matches. But WWE soldiered on with making Sheamus into a top-level guy, which is what NJPW did with Sasaki almost a decade earlier.
Which brings us to Wrestling World 2001 and the other star of the event: AJPW’s Toshiaki Kawada.
Kawada stayed with All Japan following the NOAH split and instantly found himself drawn into big money cross-promotional matches with rival New Japan. In the fall of 2000, Kawada and Sasaki had a non-title singles match and Kawada won it. In response, Sasaki relinquished the IWGP Heavyweight Championship, feeling that he was unworthy to hold it because he lost to a wrestler from another company. NJPW hoped this would get the crowd behind Sasaki as an honorable fighter and created a tournament to crown a new world champion. That tournament would be concluded at Wrestling World 2001.
New Japan Pro-Wrestling Wrestling World 2001
January 4th, 2001, Tokyo Dome
IWGP Heavyweight Championship Tournament Quarter-Final Match: Kensuke Sasaki vs. Satoshi Kojima
They lock up and Sasaki backdrops Kojima. Kojima ducks a running lariat and sends Sasaki flying out of the ring, and then dives through the ropes onto Sasaki. Kojima lands badly and busts his face open the hard way. Back in the ring. Kojima takes control with a standing armbar. He tries to wrap Sasaki’s arm in the ropes but Sasaki fires back with chops using that same arm. Sasaki lands a vertical suplex for a one-count and then applies a chinlock, but Kojima stunners his way out of it and goes back to working Sasaki’s right lariat arm. Kojima lands a flip senton and tries to armbar Sasaki’s left arm this time but Sasaki resists and counters into a sharpshooter. After Kojima reaches the ropes, the two of them trade strikes until Sasaki downs Kojima with (right-arm) chops then get a two-count off a slam. Sasaki goes for a standing armlock but Kojima counters into a standing armbreaker then works that arm some more until Sasaki gets a ropebreak. Kojima lands more attacks on Sasaki’s arm followed by a diving elbow drop. Sasaki tries to cut Kojima off on another dive but Kojima catches his arm and lands a missile dropkick. Sasaki tries to fire up but Kojima cuts him off by hitting that right arm once more. Kojima goes for a spinkick to Sasaki’s shoulder, but Sasaki ducks and counters into a kickass Tornado Bomb (one-shoulder powerbomb)…but Kojima counters that with a cross armbreaker. Awesome sequence.
The crowd comes alive as Sasaki writhes in pain and gets a ropebreak with his foot. Kojima charges but walks into a powerslam. Sasaki whips Kojima into a corner and goes for a bulldog, but Kojima is out of place, so Sasaki covers that minor botch with a clothesline. But Kojima counters by tossing Ssaki into the corner real hard, giving both men time to recover. A sitout spinebuster gets Kojima a two-count and he goes back to working Sasaki’s right arm, only for Sasaki to clothesline him with his free left arm. Sasaki lands two running lariats with the injured arm and starts firing up. he goes for the Northern Lights Bomb, but Kojima resists. Then Kojima counters into a sitout Tombstone Piledriver for two! Great counter.
Kojima lands an RKO for two and then a running lariat for another two-count. He applies another armbar but Sasaki gets to the ropes. But as soon as he does, Kojima sits back into a cross armbreaker in thew middle of the ring. The ref makes Kojima let go due to the ropebreak but the damage has been done to Sasaki. Kojima goes for another standing armbar but again Sasaki resists, so Kojima lands a scorpion death drop on him for two. Kojima charges for a lariat but Sasaki lariats Kojima’s lariat arm. Kojima lariats Sasaki. sasaki kicks out. Lariat ot the back of Sasaki’s head. Kojima charges again. Sasaki counters into a judo arm throw. Followed by two running lariats. Then a Northern Lights Bomb. And finally a Boston crab. Kojima gives up right away giving Sasaki the win after 16:33
Winner and advancing to the semi-finals: Kensuke Sasaki
Analysis: **** That was a great opening match that told a great story. Kojima tries his best to neutralize Sasaki’s arm from the beginning and made sure to come back to it whenever he could. By the ten-minute mark, he had done so much damage that Sasaki could’ve lost at any moment. But Sasaki’s will to win was too much for Kojima, given that he overcame all that arm pain to drop Kojima with a flurry of big moves at the end. The only thing that I found strange was the random Boston Crab at the end. That just seemed out of place given the psychology of the match with Sasaki targeting Kojima’s neck. I think winning with his Northern Lights Bomb brainbuster would’ve been perfect, but that’s just personal taste.
IWGP Heavyweight Championship Tournament Quarter-Final Match: Yuji Nagata vs. Hiroyoshi Tenzan
A great chain grappling sequence starts things off. They then trade strikes for a bit until Tenzan lands a head-butt and some Mongolian chops that drop Nagata. Tenzan applies a chinlock but Nagata counters into an overhead berlly-to-belly. Nagata lands a stiff kick to the head for a two-count then applies an inverted crossface-type move. Nagata follows with some hard kicks and hooks in an armlock, and then goes on a long spree of shutting down Tenzan’s attempts at a comeback with kicks. Both guys apply simultaneous leglocks until Tenzan gets to the ropes. Nagata works over Tenzan’s leg but Tenzan escapes by raking Nagata’s eyes. He lands some falling strikes for a one-count and after Nagata escapes a chinlock they trade stiff strikes while standing. Nagata blocks some Mongolian chops and drops Tenzan with a wheel kick. Nagata lands more hard kicks and Irish whips Tenzan into a corner but Tenzan bounces out and clotheslines Nagata down. He lands a kick of his own for a two-count, followed by some corner clotherlines and a top-rope bulldog for another two-count. Tenzan goes for a diving move but Nagata cuts him off and lands an avalanche belly-to-belly suplex.
Nagata lands a flurry of hard kicks all over Tenzan and a bridging northern lights suplex for two, followed by an ankle lock. Tenzan grabs the ropes right away, then breaks away from Nagata with more Mongolian chops. But Nagata catches him off guard with a Thesz press for a one-count and Nagata kicks him so hard in the legs he falls to the mat. He applies the Nagata Lock (modified Figure-4) but Tenzan reaches the ropes after a struggle. Both men get to their feet and trade strikes. Nagata kicks at Tenzan’s leg and charges, but runs into a back body drop. Tombstone Piledriver by Tenzan. Diving head-butt. Nagata kicks out (of the pin) and then literally kicks out of a sleeper attempt. Nagata tries his Nagata Lock again but Tenzan escapes with a low blow. I guess that isn’t a DQ in New Japan. Tenzan tries to capitalize but Nagata lands a low blow of his own and rolls into a cover for two. Nagata Lock gets fully applies. In the middle of the ring. Nagata lets go, for some reason, and kicks at Tenzan’s weakened leg. Tenzan stays vertical and they trade strikes again. Nagata charges but Tenzan lariats him. Tenzan Tombstone Driver (sitout Tombstone)! Moonsault. Tenzan scores the pin after 16:45.
Winner and advancing to the semi-finals: Hiroyoshi Tenzan
Analysis: **3/4 That was disappointing compared to the match that preceded it. It lacked both the depth and coherence the first match had, which in turn made it less dramatic. Nagata really didn’t go that far with his submission holds or his limb targeting, while Tenzan didn’t really do much of anything but land a random move here and there. Tenzan’s victory came off as completely unearned considering he spent most of the match on defense avoiding or trying to escape Nagata. Because of that I think Nagata should’ve gotten the win here and not Tenzan, but oh well.
Koji Kanemoto and Minoru Tanaka vs. Shinya (Togi) Makabe and Tatsuhito Takaiwa
Tanaka and Makabe start things off with Tanaka getting a clean break. This is followed by a chain grappling sequence that ends with Makabe slamming Tanaka to the mat. Takaiwa tags in and he and Tanaka trade strikes. They follow with a great technical exchange of their own that ends in a stalemate and some applause from the audience. After another brief exchange, Takaiwa gains the upper hand with a slam and tags Makabe, who stomps on Kanemoto. But Kanemoto fires back with slaps and tags Tanaka and both of them take turns soccer kicking Makabe’s back. Tanaka follows with a dropkick and a figure-4 necklock, but Makabe counters into a leglock. It isn’t long before Tanaka wrestles his way into his own leglock and we get the ‘both guys have leglocks applied, who will go for the ropes first’ spot. After a stalemate, Tanaka tags Takaiwa and they both stretch one of Makabe’s legs in a different direction. That same duo try to keep Makabe grounded with double-team kicks, but Makabe just grapples his way out of any attempt at control from Kanemoto. Makabe tags Takaiwa and he lands some hard chops to Kanemoto, but that just pisses Kanemoto off and he unloads a barrage of stiff shots on Takaiwa.
Kanemoto tags Tanaka who lands a suplex/knee drop combo for a one-count, then applies an armlock. Takaiwa counters into his own submission hold but Tanaka rolls to the ropes for safety. Makabe tags in and dropkicks Tanaka, but Tanaka avoids a suplex and tags Kanemoto and the two of them take turns kicking the hell out of Makabe’s chest. Makabe fires back with hard shots and tags Takaiwa who chops Kanemoto hard. Kanemoto shoots him off the ropes but gets knocked down with a shoulder tackle, and then leapfrogs ahead of a charging Takaiwa. Except Takaiwa sees this coming and catches Kanemoto in midair and powerslams him. Great counter. Takaiwa lands more hard strikes but Kanemoto just launches a flurry of his own. Takaiwa fires back with a Death Valley Bomb for two and goes for a powerbomb but Makabe escapes with a dragon screw. Takaiwa tries to maintain control with an aided powerbomb, but Tanaka pushes Makabe off the top rope before he can dive. Then Tanaka dropkicks Takaiwa in the leg, allowing Kanemoto to apply an ankle lock. But that too gets interrupted by Makabe, but only briefly because Kanemoto drops him with a hard forearm smash. Kanemoto goes back to the ankle lock, but stops soon because he sees Makabe charging back. He goes for a big kick but Makabe ducks and lands a German suplex on Kanemoto Makabe holds Kanemoto up for Takaiwa, who lands a running lariat for one as Kanemoto gets his foot on the rope. Makabe tags in and spears Kanemoto and they team up to land a powerbomb/diving neckbreaker combo. Nice.
Running lariat/norther nights suplex combo on Kanemoto. Kanemoto kicks out. Makabe foes for a suplex, but Kanemoto counters into a Falcon Arrow. In comes Tanaka (plus everyone else. Kanemoto suplexes a charging Takaiwa. Tanaka dropkicks Makabe. Both Makabe and Takaiwa counterattack with running clotheslines. They try to double team Tanaka but he ducks Makabe and wheel kicks him, then ducks Takaiwa and gets two off a backslide. Takaiwa blocks a running wheel kick from Tanaka and tags Makabe but gets dropkicked right away, Makabe reverses a whip and lands a powerslam. He tries to maintain control but Tanaka fights out of backdrop and German suplex attempts, but then so too does Makabe. Makabe charges, ducks a clothesline, and lands a German suplex. Takaiwa comes in and holds Kanemoto back as Makabe lands a bridging German suplex. At the last possible moment, Kanemoto breaks free and breaks up the pin. Makabe charges towards Tanaka but Tanaka counters into a cross armbreaker. Takaiwa makes the same.
Both Makabe and Kanemoto tag in. brutal slap and chop exchange. Bridging German suplex. Kanemoto kicks out at one and counters into a legbar. Tanaka does the same to an incoming Takaiwa. Makabe struggles and struggles until he gets to the ropes. Makabe charges defiantly but Tanaks dropkicks his knee and Kanemoto applies another legbar. Makabe can’t get to the ropes this time. Makabe taps out after eighteen minutes.
Winners: Koji Kanemoto and Minoru Tanaka
Analysis: ***1/2 That was a great tag team match with lots of action. They fought at a fast pace and traded control back and forth a lot. It had good back-and-forth momentum shifts and both teams did a great job of using cool combination moves to try and win. It was full of athleticism and solid wrestling. My only problem with this match was that there was a distinct lack of selling limb damage, especially from Makabe. But beyond that there was nothing particularly bad about this match, yet nothing they did here made this anything more than an above-average tag match worthy of being on a big show.
Kendo Kashin vs. Takashi Iizuka
Kashin goes for a handshake but Iizuka refuses and the bell rings. A long technical exchange ensues that leads to Kashin standing on Iizuka’s chin. He tosses Iizuka out of the ring to whip him into the barricade, but Iizuka reverses it and Kashin ends up flying over the barricade instead. Iizuka rushes Kashin as he returns to thw ring and lands a scoop slam for a one-count. He tries a kimura lock and a cross armbreaker but Kashin rolls into a pinning position, leading to a standoff. They have a brief strike exchange until Kashin lands a blatant low blow in front of the referee, then chokes /Iizuka in the corner. Kashin follows with a Goldust-style Shattered Dreams corner nut punt, but Iizuka gets up right away and fires back with forearms. Iizuka goes for an uranage but Kashin counters into a cross armbreaker.
Iizuka gets to the ropes immediately but Kashin takes his time letting go. Kashin lands a superplex but doesn’t pin. He goes for an Irish whip, Iizuka reverses, and Kashin counters into a sleeper hold. Iizuka gets to the ropes quickly and again Kashin takes liberties with the referee. Kashin kicks at Iizuka and charges but Iizuka cuts him off and lands an Exploder suplex. Followed by another. He goes for a third, Kashin goes to counter into an armbar, and Iizuka counters into a sleeper of his own. Kashin tries to reach the ropes, but Iizuka falls backwards and locks in a bodyscissors. Kashin taps out after six minutes.
Winner: Takashi Iizuka
Analysis: **1/2 A basic match that was kind of all over the place in terms of direction. They packed tons of stuff into such a short period, but the match never really got off the ground. On onew hand there was a lot of good technical wrestling here. On the other hand, there seemed to be no explanation as to what was allowed and what wasn’t. The blatant low blow hurt the match because it didn’t really lead to anything. And Kashin couldn’t seem to decide if he wanted to be a good technical wrestler or be underhanded. In the end he tried to be both, but that didn’t help tell a good story here.
IWGP Heavyweight Championship Tournament Semi-Final Match: Kensuke Sasaki vs. Masahiro Chono
They do ring intros and Chono gets a much louder pop than Sasaki. They lock-up and Sasaki gets a clean break. After a second lock-up, Sasaki sends Chono into the ropes and they do the ‘no-one moves shoulder tackle spot’. Chono demands Sasaki try to tackle him and Sasaki knocks Chono down easily. Chono lands a cheap kick to the gut and goes for a suplex but Sasaki out-powers him into a suplex of his own. Sasaki charges for a lariat but Chono yakuza kicks him in the head instead. They tease the Greco-Roman knuckle lock but Chono gets some knees to Sasaki’s exposed gut. Chono stomps away and works Sasaki’s right arm that was so badly weakened in the opener. That should get a big reaction but it doesn’t. Sasaki powers out and fires back with right arm chops while selling the damage. He lands a running bulldog for a one-count then goes to the mat with some holds. Chono counters a headlock by attacking Sasaki’s arm again for a long time. Sasaki eventually escapes with a dropkick. He Irish whips Chono but Chono reverses and lands a knee to the gut. Chono applies a butterfly lock but Sasaki powers out and back nody drops him.
Chono recovers at ringside and returns to the ring and takes control with some running kicks. Chono then climbs to the top rope but Sasaki cuts him off with a superplex. But Chono gets up right away and plants Sasaki with a yakuza kick. Both men go down. Sasaki powerslams a charging Chono. Then Chono lands a superplex. But Sasaki jumps right back up and lariats Chono hard. Sasaki charges for a lariat but Chono kicks his arm. Chono lands a spinebuster and then locks in an STF. Sasaki crawls to the ropes and gets a decent reaction. Chono goes to the ropes again but Sasaki cuts him off with a judo arm throw. Sasaki goes for his Stranglehold arm submission but Chono counters into another STF. Sasaki gets to the ropes again. Chono charges for a kick but Sasaki answers with another lariat. Then another. He pins but Chono kicks out. Tornado Bomb. Chono kicks out. Piledriver. Stranglehold submission hold (step-over-the-head Armbar). Chono taps after 11:28.
Winner and advancing to the finals: Kensuke Sasaki
Analysis: *** That was a good match but still not as good as the opener. I expected a more focused and strategic approach from Chono, given that he went into this healthy up against a weakened Sasaki. And despite some attempts at targeting Sasaki’s weakened arm, I never got the impression that Chono would win this. There was something about him here that made him look completely non-threatening. There was also much less story here, with both guys just landing random moves without rhyme or reason and the crowd didn’t really care as much about this as they should have.
IWGP Heavyweight Championship Tournament Semi-Final Match: Hiroyoshi Tenzan vs. Toshiaki Kawada
Tenzan opens with head-butts and a shoulder tackle that knock Kawada down. He tries to follow with Mongolian chops, but Kawada gets angry (never a good sign), kicks the hell out of Tenzan’s calf, scoop slams him and punts him hard in the back. Tenzan no-sells and they go to war with stiff chops. Tenzan head-butts Kawada so hard he cuts his forehead open (though not as badly as Shibata years later). He continues with more head-butts and chops, then lands a Mountain Bomb (one-shoulder back body drop). More random strikes from Tenzan. Kawada tries to fire up but Tenzan shuts him down with a wheel kick for a one-count. Tenzan goes for a diving head-butt but Kawada dodges. And yet, Tenzan maintains control with more head-butts. Tenzan Tombstone Driver! Kawada gets dropped on his head. Diving head-butt. Tenzan pins, but Kawada kicks out. Avalanche Mountain Bomb. Kawada kicks out again. Tenzan whips Kawada but he collapses midway across the ring. Tenzan lands corner clotheslines, but these only enrage Kawada. Because he fires back with a massive close-fisted punch. Tenzan falls like a tree being felled.
Kawada lands some yakuza kicks, following by a gamengiri kicks to Tenzan’s face. He follows with a running yakuza kick in the corner and a flurry of stiff kicks and stomps. Tenzan fights out of the Stretch Plum so Kawada kicks him. Tenzan stays standing, catches Kawada’s leg and lands a dragon screw leg whip. Followed by another. And then followed by a modified Figure-4 leglock. Kawada gets to the ropes. Tenzan tries another dragon screw but Kawada lands an enzuigiri, to which Tenzan responds with a running lariat. Tenzan goes for a moonsault but Kawada cuts him off. Backdrop suplex. Tenzan kicks out. Stiff strikes exchange. Kawada lands two Gamengiris for a two-count. Tenzan escapes a powerbomb attempt so Kawada lands one more yakuza kick. Folding powerbomb. Kawada gets the pin after 10:45.
Winner and advancing to the finals: Toshiaki Kawada
Analysis: ***1/4 That was a good match with solid action and some decent psychology. Tenzan tried to beat Kawada by throwing bombs at him and neutralizing his signature kicks with dragon screws, but Kawada just didn’t give a f**k. Kawada manhandled Tenzan in the closing few minutes with one brutal kick after another, which defeated the purpose of the leglocks in the first place. I get that they needed to make Kawada look strong going into the finals against Sasaki, but if you ask me this wasn’t the right way to accomplish that.
Keiji Mutoh and Shinjiro Otani vs. Manabu Nakanishi and Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger
Otani is the only one that looks like his normal self in this match. Nakanishi looks completely unthreatening with his massive afro, Liger in his all-black attire is totally boss, and clean-shaven Mutoh looks like a killer. Mutoh and Otani charge their opponents right as the bell rings.
Chaos ensues with Liger eating a German suplex and a corner yakuza kick and Nakanishi eats a flashing elbow from Mutoh. Otani mocks Nakanishi by putting Liger in the torture rack (Nakanishi’s finisher) but Nakanishi brings that to a quick end. He clubs both Otani and Mutoh but Mutoh lands a dragon screw on him and Otani tags Mutoh in. Mutoh suplexes Liger and rips part of his mask, then goes for a dragon screw only for Liger to escape with an enzuigiri. Liger tags Nakanishi, who lands a running clothesline and some standing chops, but Mutoh dragon screws him again. Mutoh applies a Figure-4 and Otani keeps Liger in a corner to stop him from breaking it up. Nakanishi gets to the ropes and Mutoh tags Otani, who lands tons of chops and corner facewashes. He charges for a Samoa Joe-style running one, but Nakanishi cuts him off with a spear. Followed by a spear for Mutoh. Nakanishi taunts Mutoh but gets dropkicked in the back by Otani. Otani powerbombs the much larger Nakanishi and stomps away on him.
Otani goes for a charge but Nakanishi German suplexes him instead. Nakanishi fires up and puts Otani in the torture rack, and instead of letting go right away as Mutoh kicks him in the stomach, Nakanishi throws Otani into Mutoh and tags Liger. Liger lands some shotei palm thrusts and a vertical suplex for a one-count. Liger charges but Otani goes for a dragon suplex. Liger fights out, so Otani counters into a bridging German suplex but Nakanishi makes the save. Nakanishi puts Mutoh in the torture rack as Otani lands a spiral powerbomb for two. Mutoh counters the torture rack into a cross armbreaker out of nowhere. Meanwhile, Otani applies a cobra clutch. Liger taps out. Mutoh and Otani win after 5:44.
Winners: Keiji Mutoh and Shinjiro Otani
Analysis: **1/2 That was pretty solid for a five-minute filler tag match. They packed a lot of action and intensity into such a short match which made it exciting. The crowd went absoluteny nuts for everything Mutoh did (which makes sense because it’s KEIJI f**king MUTOH), which shows just how good he was at making the most out of so little in the ring. All four guys worked very well together to create genuine tension throughout the match. And yet, I think this match failed to accomplish its goal. Based on how they wrestled, I got the distinct impression that Liger and Nakanishi were the faces here and New Japan wanted Nakanishi to get over as the valiant unstoppable babyface. But this crowd just didn’t care for Nakanishi. Whether it was him throwing Otani into Mutoh or him playing to the crowd, this audience saved their reactions for Otani and Mutoh. I guess you can’t always succeed with every audience.
Riki Choshu vs. Shinya Hashimoto
Holy shit. Choshu vs. Hashimoto. One of NJPW’s top stars of the late 80s and early 1990s vs their ace of the mid-to-late 1990s. This should be great, especially since the crowd makes tons of noise compared to earlier matches.
The bell rings and Choshu charges to fight but Hashimoto does not move. At all. He’s still in the corner as the crowd erupts in ‘Choshu’ chants. He even no-sells a kick from Choshu completely. In response to the growing anticipation, Hashimoto…exits the ring. He makes it back eventually, and immediately unloads on Choshu with STIFF strikes. One after another. Hashimoto just beats the piss out of Choshu like this is some WWE-style beatdown. The ref pushes Hashimoto back and Hashimoto punches the referee. Well, shit. This is going south. Manabu Nakanishi, one of Choshu’s seconds, gets on the apron and calls Hashimoto out, but that leads to nothing. The ref tries to keep Hashimoto back, but Hashimoto shove him aside…and walks straight into a big right hand from Choshu. The crowd goes nuts. Choshu returns the favor with brutal strikes. Hashimoto escapes the ring and eventually comes back in. and when he does, they go at it once again. Stiff strike battle. Choshu gains the upper hand and lands a backdrop suplex. It takes three consecutive running lariats for Choshu to get Hashimoto off his feet. Choshus’s arm appears to be giving him trouble. He goes for another lariat but Hashimoto barely moves, and then blocks Choshu and lands a big DDT. Both men get up slowly and have another long strike exchange. Choshu wins this one with some running chops to the head. a lariat from Choshu is answered with another stiff middle kick from Hashimoto. Hashimoto demands Choshu get up; and when he does, he goes for another kick but Choshu catches his leg and clubs it hard.
Choshu goes for a lariat but Hashiumnoto chops his arm. Hashimoto lands more kicks. Brutal strike exchange #3. They go back and forth for a while on this one. Both men start staggering. Each time one man stays down for too long the referee starts counting them. Choshu gets up at the count of six this time only to eat another kick. Choshu lands a stiff punch and a lariat. Hashimoto finally goes down. But so does Choshu. The referee gets into an argument with Tatsumi Fujinami, who is calling this match. Choshu and Fujinami keep fighting back and forth. It seems like this has turned into a Last Man Standing match. Suddenly, Fujinami leaves the commentator’s table and gets on the apron to argue with the referee some more. As does someone from Hashimoto’s camp. A bunch of people swarm Choshu and Hashimoto to keep them separated. It looks like they’re going with the idea that Choshu can’t continue. But he looks completely fine from this angle. Fujinami says something in Japanese which I don’t understand. I think the word ‘stop’ is used by one of the other commentators. Fujinami is escorted out of the arena with an ice pack on his right forearm. People in the crowd are PISSED! Some even throw garbage at Choshu. In the ring, Fujinami looks to approach Hashimoto, then decides ‘f**k it’ and leaves.
Match result according to Wikipedia and Cagematch.net: No Contest after 15:20
Analysis: They say a picture says a thousand words, but this one only needs to say two:
*1/2 That was stupid on so many levels. They were having a great hardnosed fight until Fujinami suddenly came into the picture and began arguing with the referee. Choshu looked completely fine for the first ten-minutes. Then all of a sudden he starts clasping his arm and that’s enough for the no-contest finish? Had this been a rushed improvisation due to a real injury, it would’ve been okay. But this was apparently all part of the plan, as a means to rehash a real shoot that happened two years earlier (that people ALSO hated). That ending completely ruined the match. It takes a special kind of stupidity to book something so despicable that Japanese fans start pelting one of your most respected stars with garbage. It was basically the NJPW equivalent of Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar from WrestleMania XX, only without the Steve Austin pop at the end. It was that bad by the end.
Tournament Final match for the vacant IWGP Heavyweight Championship: Kensuke Sasaki vs. Toshiaki Kawada
The bell rings and Kawada drops Sasuke with a yakuza kick right away. Gamengiri. Backdrop from Kawada. Sasaki kicks out at two. More kicks from Kawada and he goes for a powerbomb. Sasaki fights out but eats another Gamengiri and kicks out at two. More brutal chest kicks by Kawada. Sasaki catches his leg and tosses him down. Lariat from Sasaki. Kawada bounces back up and lands a yakuza kick. Sasaki bounces up and lands another lariat. Yakuza kick. Lariat. Kawada kicks out at one. Chest kicks by Sasaki followed by yet another lariat and a Tornado Bomb for two. Sasaki goes for a German suplex buy Kawada literally kicks out. Kawada charges but Sasaki answers with a powerslam. Kawada escapes a suplex. Sasaki answers with slaps and goes for a northern lights bomb. Kawada counters into a German suplex. Running lariat by Kawada. Sasaki tanks a flurry of slaps. Kawada answers with a scoop slam and some soccer kicks to Sasaki’s back. Followed by one to the face and some knee drops for a two-count. Stretch plum submission hold. Kawada tries to stretch Sasaki’s face and neck. The crowd’s going nuts.
Sasaki might be knocked out. Kawada pins but only gets two. Sasaki somehow has enough strength to resist a powerbomb so Kawada kicks him in the face. Folding powerbomb connects. Sasaki still kicks out. Kawada lands more kicks and tries for a second powerbomb. Sasaki counters into an Alabama Slam into a Boston crab. Sasaki holds on with all his strength but Kawada reaches the ropes. Sasaki goes for the Northern Lights bomb again. Kawada counters with a Gamengiri. They lariat each other. Kawada falls but Sasaki stays on his feet. Sasaki goes for a German suplex but Kawada holds onto the ropes for dear life. Sasaki responds by stiffing him and then drops him with a German. Kawada ends up on his feet so Sasaki lariats him. Sasaki pins. Kawada barely kicks outs. Northern Lights Bomb. Sasaki gets the pin and the win after 10:30.
Winner and NEW IWGP Heavyweight Champion: Kensuke Sasaki
Analysis: **** That was one of the most intense ten-minute matches I have ever seen. It was just one long bomb-fest with both wrestlers just hitting as many big moves as they can to weaken each other. Think of it as the NJPW version of the Drew McIntyre vs. Goldberg match from the 2021 Royal Rumble, but longer, way more dramatic, and far more competitive. It actually went back and forth quite a bit, and at one point it actually looked like Kawada, an All Japan wrestler, was going to become IWGP Heavyweight Champion, New Japan’s top champion, on New Japan’s biggest yearly event.
Five Stars of the show:
- Kensuke Sasaki – he wrestled three matches against three different opponents and looked great by the end
- Toshiaki Kawada – he showed how to make himself look good and how to make his opponent look great, which was the intended goal of the main event. He doesn’t have to do much to be awesome
- Shinya/Togi Makabe – he worked his ass off in his match
- Satoshi Kojima – he was Sasaki’s first opponent and he did a tremendous job of creating this underdog situation for Sasaki to fight through
- Keiji Mutoh – he may not have the conditioning to wrestle 40 minutes like many of his compatriots at the time, but damn if he didn’t do a great job of working the crowd and making the most of what he could do.
Best match on the card: Sasaki vs. Kojima and Sasaki vs. Kawada (**** each)
Worst match on the card: Riki Shoshu vs. Shinya Hashimoto (*1/2)
Show Rating (out of 10): 7
Aside from the stupidly-bad Hashimoto/Choshu match, there was nothing below average on this card. Several matches were good to great, and both the first and last matches were fantastic for being under twenty minutes long. And the show succeeded in their goal of making people care about Sasaki. He fought three different opponents yet still powered through and regained his honor and his championship.
There’s a lot to learn from this show that can be applied to modern wrestling companies looking to put together important wrestling shows. This show demonstrated how to book the conclusion of a tournament and make it feel important. It showed how to take an upper-midcard wrestler and make him into a bona fide main-eventer. And most importantly, it showed that doing stupid swerves to satisfy the nonsensical whims of one person can lead to terrible matches and horrendous long-term consequences.