FLYIN’ SOLO #2
NICK BOCKWINKEL © vs. JUMBO TSURUTA (AWA World Heavyweight Title) - All Japan 2/23/84
Given that Jumbo was one of, if not, the best in the world at this time, combined with how good Bockwinkel was (even nearing age fifty here) and the atmosphere that is Jumbo’s first world title win, this has all the makings to be a classic. But it’s not, it’s still quite good, but it falls short of what a match of this magnitude really ought to be. That’s partially due to their work, but also due to some odd perceptions. The early portion surrounds Bockwinkel keeping Jumbo tied up on the mat and working over his arm. They do a good job with it, especially with Jumbo’s attempts to roll out of the short arm scissors and Bockwinkel using the hair or trunks to prevent him from doing so, someone who’s been on top as long as Nick should know all the shortcuts. But after seeing Jumbo more than hold his own on the mat against the likes of the Funks and Jack Brisco, why should Bockwinkel control him like this? He shouldn’t. Bockwinkel is the champion, he’s already established as being on top of the mountain, so it should be Jumbo controlling him to show that he’s got what it takes to knock him off his pedestal.
Thankfully, Nick’s time wearing down the arm serves to be a bit more than just early filler. After Jumbo is able to get back on his feet, he outwrestles Bockwinkel and goes for the Butterfly suplex, but isn’t able to do the move because of his weakened arm. A few minutes later, Jumbo surprises Nick with a Thesz press, and Nick kicks out by pushing on Jumbo’s left arm and getting his shoulder up. This winds up being the high point of the match though, soon after the kick out, they tumble to the floor and it looks like the match will go the usual DCOR finish, but Terry Funk (special referee) won’t allow that. From there, the match breaks down into something resembling a spotfest, it’s miles better than what one might find in present day All Japan, or on the U.S. Indy scene. It’s a collection of spots that work well on their own, not necessarily interconnected to one bigger story. Bockwinkel gets some payback for wearing down Jumbo’s arm when he misses a charge into the post, and it allows Jumbo to successfully hit the Butterfly suplex for a nice near fall, and wear down Bockwinkel with a Boston crab. Bockwinkel halts Jumbo’s control by avoiding a dropkick and hitting a pair of piledrivers for his own near falls. I could do without the overbooked finish of Nick pushing Jumbo into Funk, and Funk’s ridiculous overdoing of it by tumbling over the top and stumbling into the guardrail and falling over. Ref bumps in All Japan were fairly rare, so the bump itself isn’t a big deal, but Terry makes it look ridiculous. And even worse is that, despite the (obviously) hard shot he took when Jumbo was pushed into him, he was quickly able to get into the ring in time to make the three count when Jumbo hit the bridging backdrop. Which then turns the attention to the Funk/Bockwinkel confrontation, and takes away from the monumental occasion of Jumbo Tsuruta following in Giant Baba’s footsteps and winning an American world title. ***
JUMBO TSURUTA © vs. NICK BOCKWINKEL (AWA World Heavyweight Title) - All Japan 2/26/84
Now it’s a complete 180. The body of the match is much better this time around, but saddled with the DCOR finish that was so prevalent of the time period. What makes this so much better are the various ways that Jumbo and Bockwinkel are able to play off their match from two days previous and improve upon its shortcomings. Once again, Bockwinkel dominates Jumbo on the mat to start, but this time it doesn’t go nearly as long, and Jumbo is able to hand things back. Nick works the neck area with a headlock, and, again, he’s not above grabbing the trunks to prevent Jumbo from escaping. Where Nick goes wrong is with his repetitiveness, after running Jumbo in the turnbuckle, he charges to do it again, and this time Jumbo pushes him off into the corner. Once again, the headlock isn’t just a time filler hold, Bockwinkel shows that he had something in mind with it in the form of a near fall from a piledriver. There’s also a really smart moment from Bockwinkel, when he, once again, tries to suplex Jumbo from the apron to the ring. This time, he stands on the bottom rope when he does so, to give himself more leverage and lessen the chances of Jumbo escaping and hitting the bridging backdrop, and Jumbo isn’t able to do so this time.
There are times that spots seem to get repeated for no other reason than just to recognize that they happened in the previous match, such as Nick attempting a bodyslam and Jumbo falling on top. And Nick’s frequent pinfall attempts after a simple back body drop. Thankfully, those are exceptions rather than the rule. Jumbo and Nick are both quite good at showing where they’re trying to take things. A good example is Jumbo’s Boston crab. It seems like either a revenge spot for Bockwinkel using it earlier and something done to point out that Jumbo used it in the last match. But, after Bockwinkel gets the ropes, Jumbo starts putting the boots to Bockwinkel’s back, and then drops him with a backbreaker for a near fall. Another is after Jumbo has worn down Bockwinkel with his own headlock, and then used a piledriver for a near fall, he uses a camel clutch to keep wearing down Nick’s neck. Bockwinkel has his own brilliant (or brilliant by coincidence, depending on your point of view) moment when he catches Jumbo in a drop toehold and segues into a leg submission to wear down Jumbo’s knee. It seems out of place, since Jumbo’s knee wasn’t really a focal point and it wouldn’t be immediately after the hold, but a little bit later. Jumbo gets the same knee tangled up in the ropes when going to the floor and Nick goes right after it. In fact, Jumbo saves the title by grabbing Bockwinkel’s leg and preventing him from beating the count into the ring. Because Bockwinkel had worn him down to the point of not being able to get to his feet, much less being able to enter the ring.
While this match is a lot better, its still got some flaws to it. It may have been great to see Nick foreshadowing Jumbo’s knee playing into things, but it’d have helped if Jumbo had played along. As soon as he was free of the hold, Jumbo went on offense with a sleeper, and instead of Bockwinkel being saved because he took a shot at the knee, he just grabs the ropes and sends Jumbo to the floor. Granted, when Jumbo got tangled up his selling was top notch, but some consistency would have been nice. Terry Funk (again, the referee) also seemed to be taking their spotlight, when Jumbo and Bockwinkel have their crisscross spot, Terry is in their way and running every which way trying to get away from them. But, even with these few shortcomings, this is still an excellent match, and head and shoulders above Jumbo’s title win. ****
JUMBO TSURUTA © vs. BLACKJACK LANZA (AWA World Heavyweight Title) - AWA 3/4/84
Lanza’s ring name ought have been ‘Whitejack Lanza’ based on his outfit for the evening, white hat, white glove, white boots, and white trunks. This is from Chicago, and it’s obvious that these fans have no clue about Jumbo, they’re passionately chanting USA as though Lanza is wrestling Iron Sheik. I don’t know when Lanza’s prime was (or if he had one) but he looks pretty far away from it here, and he’s so far below Jumbo that it’s almost laughable to think that anyone gives him a chance of lifting the title. Lanza’s offense consists of punching for the most part, and while Jumbo’s selling and stooging is top notch, it’s not enough to make Lanza look credible.
Jumbo’s move set is stripped down as much as possible here, and he still outclasses Lanza, both in the amount of offense he uses and how he uses it to get ahead in the match. Lanza does some rudimentary arm wringing early on, and Jumbo quickly reverses and takes Lanza down. He traps Lanza’s arm under one foot, and uses the other to stomp the arm. Lanza gets to his feet and regains control by throwing fists. The only trademark Jumbo spots are the attempted Butterfly suplex and an abdominal stretch, complete with Jumbo grinding his elbow into Lanza’s midsection. There isn’t much to speak of beyond that. The crowd really gets into it when Lanza apparently uses his finishing hold, and Jumbo seems to be fading fast. But Jumbo recovers, and quickly hits Lanza with a cross between a Thesz press and a Bombs away (a Thesz press that ends with Jumbo in a seated position) for the win. Normally, I’d be critical of Jumbo disrespecting Lanza’s hold, but Lanza’s apparent finishing hold is a noogie! He grabs Jumbo by the head and grinds his gloved hand into the head. I guess Mulligan cornered the market on the claw. Aside from the novelty of Jumbo trying to heel things up and Lanza’s supposed offense, there’s nothing to see here.
JUMBO TSURUTA © vs. BILLY ROBINSON (AWA World Heavyweight Title) - AWA 3/11/84
If nothing else, Jumbo quickly warmed up to the notion of heeling things up, as this match shows. But that’s about all this match really gives us, which is a shame. Maybe they had an off-night, or maybe 1984 Robinson (age 45 here) just wasn’t able to go anymore, but this isn’t the classic that Jumbo/Billy should be. Their slow and methodical pace doesn’t help, especially when they’re only going 15-20, and they look like they’re on pace for going the distance. They both get their chances to look good. Both men wind up being pushed into the ropes and having the brains to block attempted chops and European Uppercuts early on. Jumbo targets Billy’s back, and watching Jumbo put the boots to Billy is a sight to behold, he looks he’d be right at home alongside Tully Blanchard and Arn Anderson in the Carolinas. Jumbo uses a backbreaker and then continues to push Billy into his knee to add pressure, and also an extended Boston crab. Billy gives some nice respect to Jumbo’s wearing down of his back when he attempts a bodyslam and can’t get Jumbo off his feet.
When its Billy’s turn to work Jumbo over, Jumbo is all too willing to bump like a pinball, just as he was for Lanza, and Robinson at least has real offense. The only altogether odd thing is the near fall from Robinson’s running elbow, it wasn’t a Misawa-style strike by any stretch, it was much more akin to Flair’s jumping forearm, but Jumbo stayed down, almost for the count. The rest of Billy’s offense is good stuff, Jumbo reels from his European Uppercuts, and both the gut wrench suplex and Robinson’s patented backbreaker get good near falls. Jumbo his an elbow that sends Robinson over the top, giving the fans a scare that the ref might call a DQ, but the match continues. Jumbo spins to prevent Robinson from doing the Boston crab, and Jumbo quickly hits a backslide to retain the title. If anything, this feels like your average Ric Flair NWA title defense, where the crowd favorite comes within an eyelash of winning, but Flair pulls it out in the end. That style of match worked quite well for Flair wrestling guys out of his league, but Jumbo and Billy should be capable of so much more.
JUMBO TSURUTA © vs. JIM BRUNZELL (AWA World Heavyweight Title) - AWA 3/15/84
This is a lot like the Robinson match, which isn’t altogether a bad thing. The Robinson match came off disappointing because Jumbo and Billy were both good enough to warrant something more. The reason it works better here, is because Brunzell is an obvious underdog. I don’t think he was in Jumbo’s league as worker, but even if I’m wrong, he’d never been more than a tag title contender, and certainly nobody perceived him as a genuine threat to the title. The structure is essentially the same as the Robinson match. They start off slowly on the mat and trading holds, Jumbo takes control and gets the crowd all fired up and solidly behind Brunzell. Brunzell makes a comeback and whips the crowd into a frenzy as he appears to be on his way to the title, and then Jumbo puts the kibosh on it and wins.
Where this really shines is how much the crowd eats up Jumbo working over Brunzell. Jumbo isn’t the dynamic heel that SUWA would become famous for. He’s much more subtle and methodical. At one point Jumbo outwrestles Brunzell and catches him in an abdominal stretch, and uses his facials to show that he’s applying as much pressure as he can, in addition to grinding into Brunzell’s midsection. SUWA would probably have just hit a straight punch to the jaw and then punted Brunzell right in his Killer Bees. Jumbo switches to the camel clutch, and, again, it’s the facials that tell the story.
When Brunzell slips out the back door of the hold and mounts his comeback, the crowd roars to life. Brunzell’s comeback is solid in its own way, he takes Jumbo down and goes for the spinning toehold. It’s not the sort of hold that anyone would really believe would get the win, but it works in the vein of being the signature hold of the Funks, who Jumbo has quite a long history with (not that most of the fans in Chicago on this night are going to know that). Brunzell switches to the figure four, and things really start to look bleak for Jumbo. Jumbo escapes and Brunzell continues to target the leg with several kicks, but Jumbo outwrestles Brunzell to get behind him and hits a backdrop suplex (by far the biggest move of the match) for the win. I’ve always been of the opinion that, for being an all around great worker, Jumbo leaves Misawa in the dust. Watching Jumbo help Brunzell look like he was about to bring the title back home compared with Misawa just letting Akiyama, Sano, Morishima, etc. tee off on him and then winning in a ho-hum manner is what puts Jumbo so far ahead of Misawa. ***
JUMBO TSURUTA © vs. GREG GAGNE (AWA World Heavyweight Title) - All Japan 4/19/84
Greg Gagne is capable of having a good match, there’s video evidence of it! The offense is carried by Greg for the most part, and while it isn’t terribly complex, its still more than adequate. Just because Greg is carrying things, it doesn’t mean that Jumbo is being lazy by any stretch. Jumbo does his part by doing what Terry Funk did for Jumbo in their 6/11/76 NWA Title classic and what Bockwinkel wouldn’t do for Jumbo in their matches in February, he does all that he can to make Greg look as good as possible. Jumbo understands that he’s the man and that he doesn’t need to be overly protective of his spot, so he uses his status as the man to make Greg shine.
The size disparity sometimes makes their work look a bit odd, but they don’t go overboard with moments like that, so they’re exceptions rather than the rule. The most noticeable instance is when Greg reverses the pressure of Jumbo’s surfboard hold, and gets Jumbo trapped in the hold for an extended period of time. It’s understandable for Greg to have to really fight to reverse the pressure, but Jumbo shouldn’t have had to put in such a great effort to escape. Greg mostly keeps Jumbo on the mat, it doesn’t seem like the wisest place to keep a former Olympian, but, being a Gagne, Greg knows how to hold his own, and that’s what he does. Greg’s best work comes when he targets Jumbo’s leg, he uses a nice variety of holds, including an Indian Deathlock, a front figure four, and even a side figure four. This also leads to another of their odd moments, when Jumbo puts on a Boston crab and Greg does a Superman escape by using his legs to flip over Jumbo. It’s not too out there to think that Jumbo’s knee prevented him from applying enough pressure to keep Greg down, but it’d have been nice to see that from Jumbo too.
Greg also works over Jumbo’s arm for a short spell, and his much more heelish about it, instead of being more technical, he starts by dropping knees on it, and then snaps it over the ropes. Jumbo, again, mostly looks good while putting it over. He sells the arm as the reason why he can’t get Greg up for a vertical suplex and it’s also the reason that Greg can escape the Cobra Twist. Greg’s offense isn’t just limited to limb work, there’s a great spot where Greg surprises Jumbo with a jumping head scissors, and when they go to the floor, Greg lets his inner heel out again by slamming Jumbo into the table.
The botched finish also drags this down a few pegs, Greg tries to finish off Jumbo with the sleeper hold but gets thrown off. Greg tries for a high cross body press, but Jumbo catches him and hits a rib breaker (which plays into Jumbo using the Cobra stretch) and get the three count, even though Greg’s foot was on the ropes. This is just like the Brunzell match, in that it’s an excellent example of what makes Jumbo among the top echelon of performers. He wasn’t of the mind set that because he was the top guy that it meant he got win all the time and look like Superman. He knew that being the top guy meant being the best, and he went out and did whatever he needed to do in order to make the best possible outcome. ***1/2
JUMBO TSURUTA © vs. JIM BRUNZELL (AWA World Heavyweight Title) - All Japan 4/26/84
I wonder if Jumbo and Brunzell only had these two matches, this look like a good pairing, if their two title matches are any indication. The finish is designed to look like a fluke, which makes the early portions of Jumbo’s headlocks and Brunzell’s armbar look like nothing more than filler, which is a shame because they were both very well done. Especially Jumbo showing how easily he could outsmart and outwrestle Brunzell and trap him in the headlock. Brunzell would try to escape and when he’d finally do it, he’d charge himself right back into the headlock. Brunzell gets some revenge though when he’s working over Jumbo’s arm and Jumbo picks him right up into a fireman’s carry position, which shows his strength, but Brunzell still had his arm trapped so there wasn’t anything Jumbo could actually do, and he was forced to just put Brunzell back on his feet. The holds work in the context of Jumbo outwrestling Brunzell, and then Brunzell showing he can hold his own, so it’s not a total waste, but neither of the holds themselves is a factor in the match.
Where this really shines is in the little things that they do. When Jumbo has Brunzell in the headlock, he sees Brunzell looking like he wants to attempt a backdrop suplex (what Jumbo had done to beat Brunzell last time) so he quickly grapevines his leg to prevent him from doing so. When Brunzell mounts a comeback against Jumbo, he once again starts to target Jumbo’s leg, and Jumbo is very quick on the defensive for it. Brunzell goes for the spinning toehold again, and gets kicked right off, the second time he only gets one spin and Jumbo kicks him off again. There’s even a moment when something that looks to have gone a bit wrong but winds up working anyway. Brunzell gives Jumbo a school boy roll up, but doesn’t do it right and Jumbo’s shoulders aren’t down, it’s obviously not intended, but it works in the vein of Brunzell not being much of a technical wrestler. Again, the finish is designed to be a fluke, although it also plays up Jumbo’s wrestling expertise, Brunzell tries a piledriver and Jumbo reverses and instead of the back body drop, Jumbo falls back and lands on top. Normally Brunzell would bridge up and would either try for another piledriver or a backslide, but not this time, Jumbo lands on top and Brunzell can’t move and Jumbo secures the pin.
The only real marks against this are the fact that the headlocks from Jumbo and armbars from Brunzell never went anywhere, and the fact that, aside from his armbars and his spirited comeback toward, Brunzell really didn’t look too impressive against Jumbo. Then again, not a whole lot of guys can look impressive when against one of the best in the world, but Brunzell only gets one good near fall on Jumbo, from a dropkick, and that just shouldn’t be the case in a World Title match. Shortcomings aside though, it’s yet another good outing from this pairing, who’d have thought that Jim Brunzell would ever have a better match with Jumbo than Billy Robinson? ***1/4
JUMBO TSURUTA © vs. RICK MARTEL (AWA World Heavyweight Title) - AWA 5/13/84
All good things must come to an end. If not for the Lanza match, this would easily be the worst of Jumbo’s AWA Title defenses. The only thing that puts it above the Lanza match is that Martel actually has offense. Maybe it’s unfamiliarity with one another, maybe it was the language barrier (English was the second language for both of them), but this never comes together like it should. It’s like the second Brunzell match, only without as many smart touches to it, they’ve got a couple of decent spots and moments, but that’s about it. It’s nice that Martel is willing to crank on a headlock and show he’s trying to work it, but a few minutes earlier he’d missed an elbow drop and Jumbo had started working over his arm, so it’d have been smarter for Martel to *not* be able to work the headlock because of his arm being hurt. Jumbo isn’t any better in that regard, their early work features Martel working over Jumbo’s arm including a cute spot with Martel holding a hammerlock and then rolling over so that Jumbo is in a pinning position, but that’s the only worthwhile thing to come out of Martel working over Jumbo’s arm. There’s also the stupid ref bump so that Jumbo can hit the backdrop, which is supposed to protect Jumbo since he hit his finish and Martel would have been pinned if the ref wasn’t down. But, the ref gets up far too quickly and Martel kicks out at one, so, if anything, they’ve hurt the backdrop.
There are smart spots, and they’re easy to appreciate on their own, but they’re not nearly enough to make up for the rest of the match. The first sign that its Martel’s night is when he gets caught in the Cobra Twist and manages to reverse the hold and use it on Jumbo. They also use the fireman’s carry spot from the Brunzell match, only this time Jumbo finds an out by putting Martel on the turnbuckle so the ref forces the break. Their best one is the finish, with Martel catching Jumbo with a hotshot (long established as being Jumbo’s Achilles heel) before Martel hits the flying body press and wins the title. It’s disappointing to see Jumbo reign end with a whimper, but the fact that Jumbo even got a real title reign (compared with Baba’s three NWA Title reigns) is fortunate.