BJPW JUNIOR HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE TOURNAMENT
February 3, 1998
Yutaka Fujita . . . manages to put on the most compelling performance of the first round and does so in a match that lasts less than five minutes.
Minoru Tanaka . . . shows the world how much the tarantula hold is really capable of stretching someone out.
Gedo . . . looks for all the world like the greatest heel in all of juniors wrestling.
Quarterfinal: YOSHIHIRO TAJIRI vs. GRAN NANIWA
This is far too clipped up to judge how good it might have been, but we do get to see a couple of nice things. The best thing from Naniwa is his gutwrench powerbomb, but instead of going right for the pin, he adds a Kiwi roll to disorientate Tajiri. Rather than use his kicks to scramble Naniwa’s brain, Tajiri uses his superior wrestling skills to try to win the match, and eventually does so with an Oro clutch.
Quarterfinal: MINORU TANAKA vs. YUTAKA FUJITA
Holy Crow! This might be my favorite Minoru Tanaka match ever! Fujita jumps him at the bell and seemingly does everything he can (which isn’t much at this stage in his career) to put Tanaka through the ringer, including a big dive to the floor and a near fall from a German suplex, and Tanaka puts it over perfectly. He’s not in much danger of losing the match, but his facials and reactions are a mix of his being taken by surprise by Fujita, and also a little bit impressed. Fujita’s tenacity is fully on display when Tanaka gets him in a juji-gatame in an attempt to slow him down, and he fights his way out of it. The only real downer here is that when Tanaka does take over the match, it comes a little too easy for him, with Fujita simply missing a dropkick in order for Tanaka to get the opening. You’d think that after such an onslaught, that it would take more than a rookie mistake (even if Fujita is a rookie) to turn the tide.
When he’s in control of things, Tanaka makes Fujita pay dearly for that mistake, between his kicks and locking him up with submissions. There’s a quick hope of Fujita making a comeback when he surprises Tanaka with a dragon screw, but Tanaka outwrestles him into a legbar before he can do anything else, and when Fujita won’t quit, Tanaka switches gears to a cross kneelock and finally forces the rookie to give it up. This was an absolute blast the whole way through and deserved at least ten minutes to see what else Fujita might have had up his sleeve to hopefully give Tanaka a genuine scare. ***
Quarterfinal: RYUJI YAMAKAWA vs. MASAYOSHI MOTEGI
Even in it’s clipped up form this still looks like the worst match of the first round. There’s nothing shown that helps piece together any sort of story that they might have been telling, and there’s several goofy moments. Motegi hits an ugly Tombstone on the floor, and it apparently doesn’t mean anything. They follow that up with Motegi busting out the rolling German suplexes and Yamakawa being able to counter into a cradle after taking two of them. Motegi fouls Yamakawa to escape a German, and then Yamakawa fouls Motegi back, and neither of them sells it for more than a second. Hell, even the finish looks botched, with Motegi kicking out just as the referee was counting to three. This isn’t the worst match I’ve ever seen, but that’s pretty much the nicest thing that I can say about it.
Quarterfinal: GEDO vs. TOMOAKI HONMA
This is yet another massive clip job, but it’s still an improvement over the previous match. The only issue here with the clipping is that it appears to make Honma look like a chump with the finish. We mostly see him working over Gedo with some good spots, including a Tombstone and a huge Benoit-style diving headbutt for a near fall, as well as a nice dive to the floor. But then we see Gedo counter a rana into a powerbomb, hit a brainbuster and then finish off Honma with a splash off the top. It looks like Honma gave Gedo his best shots, and Gedo sucked them up and easily put him away. Of the three matches in the first round that were clipped to shreds, this is the one that I’d have liked to see in full in order to see how even the match really was. As it is, it looks like Fujita got a hell of a lot more respect from Tanaka than Honma does here.
Semifinal: YOSHIHIRO TAJIRI vs. MINORU TANAKA
Overall, this is more fun than it is good, but both Tajiri and Tanaka have enough smart touches to make this interesting the whole way through. Tanaka shows the ability to do the juji-gatame from virtually any position, and Tajiri responds by finding his own ways to outsmart Tanaka to get in his stuff. One of the first ways he does this comes after he gets a rope break to get out of the armbar, Tajiri tries a roundhouse, but Tanaka gets his arm up to help block it, so Tajiri takes him over with a snap mare, hits another kick that he can’t block, and then does his inverted full nelson. There’s another smart touch from Tajiri when he gets a near fall from a German suplex and does his spinning bow and arrow before doing another one to see if disorienting Tanaka would be enough to beat him. Tanaka has some success with a Northern Lights suplex transitioned to his armbar but tries it too often and Tajiri counters him into a Butterfly Lock. Tajiri nearly loses when he thinks he’s got the match won, and calls for the Dragon suplex, but that momentary pause to play to the fans gives Tanaka the opening to do the Minoru Special. Tajiri finally does get the win by counting Tanaka’s attempt at a German suplex with a standing switch and then dropping a couple of elbows onto his head and doing his own German and rolling over into the Dragon suplex. Oh, and Tajiri breaks out the Tarantula too, and he stretches out Tanaka way more than he ever did to Super Crazy or anyone else in ECW or WWE. Being shown in full certainly helped, but this is the first match of the tournament that has genuinely felt like a cohesive match instead of an exhibition. ***1/4
Semifinal: GEDO vs. RYUJI YAMAKAWA
I was perfectly fine blaming the utter shittiness of Yamakawa’s first match on his opponent, but this isn’t a whole hell of a lot better. What sort of crazy world are we living in when it’s Gedo bringing the bulk of the good work here? Gedo works on Yamakawa’s arm and shows some impressive persistence in staying on task, especially since he’s never been really known for his work on the mat. But once Yamakawa makes his comeback, the match just goes off a cliff and never recovers. Gedo’s arm work doesn’t mean a thing, Yamakawa doesn’t even sell it after throwing forearm shots or his lariat. He’s apparently too busy being a hardcore guy and throwing Gedo into the crowd and then goofing around with a table to be bothered with actually wrestling. Well, he does bust out a swank looking spot where he does a powerbomb and then picks Gedo back up and does a piledriver, but it looks so nasty that it really ought to be a finisher. Gedo winds up outsmarting Yamakawa by letting him run himself into the ring bell and then he does his diving splash to win the match. It’d have been nice to see Gedo win by going back to the arm, or by following up on the bell shot with some sort of flash cradle to give the idea of wrestling winning out over garbage stuff. But it’s probably just as well, since I don’t know for sure now if it was Motegi or Yamakawa who bungled up that finish.
SHOJI NAKAMAKI/YUICHI TANIGUCHI/GENNOSUKE KOBAYASHI/MAKOTO SAITO vs. SHADOW WX/SHADOW WINGER/KISHIN KAWABATA/SHUMA MATSUZAKI
If not for the extended brawl on the floor with the tables and chairs getting used, this looks like it’d be right at home in the middle of a NOAH Budokan show. It’s perfectly watchable, and everyone seems to do their part without anyone doing anything offensive, but it’s also painfully obvious that the main reason for this match to exist is to simply eat up time and get the heavyweights on the card. Winger and Saito have a few nice exchanges, and Kawabata turns into Dick Togo and busts out a senton bomb. But this could have easily been clipped to half its length, if not more, and allowed Gedo/Honma to be shown in full, and it seems unlikely that anything would have been lost. Then again, considering my general unfamiliarity with the Big Japan scene, it’s quite possible that this is actually right up there in quality with the early 1990’s trios between the Jumbo and Misawa groups, and I’m just not able to fully appreciate it.
YOSHIHIRO TAJIRI vs. GEDO (Tournament Final for the BJPW Jr. Heavyweight Title)
For someone as well traveled as Gedo, he’s had very few impressive singles performances. He’s probably known more for his having eliminated Benoit from the second Super J-Cup than for anything else, and this might just be the best performance of his career. Gedo targets Tajiri’s shoulder, which is already hurt from his match with Tanaka, and while he’s not always interesting with the actual work, he more than makes up for it with the attitude and personality that he shows. It’s not like Gedo is a total bore about things, while he does a fair number of simple things like stomping the arm and some basic holds, he adds a few great touches like the shoulder breaker (even if it’s a bit ugly) and using the same diving splash that won both of his previous matches aimed squarely at Tajiri’s shoulder, which results in a great near fall. Tajiri has a few selling lapses, but he mostly puts the shoulder over perfectly. Even when he makes his first comeback, he finds ways to keep the bad arm in mind. He counters Gedo’s powerbomb into a rana, but he’s only able to use one arm for the cradle. There’s another smart moment when Gedo tries to dive onto the floor and gets met with a dropkick. It would seem like Gedo would be the worse one off from that exchange, but it’s Tajiri who’s nearly counted out. Tajiri hits a big superplex, but can’t follow up right away because of his arm and the delay allows Gedo to do a keylock with a body scissors, in effect, making the big spot work against Tajiri just as much as it worked for him.
There are only a couple of odd moments, but nothing that takes anything away from the performances of both men. The biggest one is the double lariat spot, which just looked so out of place with these two, and even more so with Tajiri having the bad arm. It’s not like the lariat has even been a staple of his anyway, so there was really no reason for him to even try something like that. The other comes a bit before, shortly after Tajiri starts his comeback, he gets a near fall with a German suplex. It would seem like he’d have some trouble even pulling off the suplex, let alone holding Gedo in place. He sells the arm afterwards, but it would have been just as easy for him to lose the bridge because of his arm being hurt. Tajiri winds up winning with a Dragon suplex after he fouls Gedo, and it works better since the pinfall was just as much due to the foul as it was the suplex itself. The finishing sequence itself is pretty much flawless, with Gedo countering Tajiri’s attempt at La Magistral for a close near fall (and with the referee taking his sweet time getting into position, possibly costing Gedo the title), Tajiri hits Gedo with a kick as he’s coming off the ropes and goes for another suplex. Gedo tries to escape with a foul, but Tajiri sees it coming and avoids it and then returns the favor with one of his own. One Dragon suplex later and Tajiri is the inaugural Big Japan Jr. Champion. This isn’t a very long match, and the work and story aren’t all that deep, but if the wrestlers are able to execute it properly, as they do here, then a match doesn’t have to be complex in order to be compelling and worthwhile. ***1/2
Conclusion: I only got this to see some of Tajiri’s early work, but I was more than a bit surprised by some of the other good to great performances here. This one is definitely worth checking out.