5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Minoru Suzuki - NJPW King of Pro-Wrestling 2012, by Alex Podgorski

This match was said to be so good that Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer said it was better than the legendary Flair-Steamboat matches from the late 1980s. Today we revisit this NJPW classic and see if it does indeed hold a candle to those epics, and indeed, the many other fantastic wrestling bouts I’ve reviewed in this series. You can check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Review series right here. Thanks for reading.

The story

This was the first 5-star match that New Japan Pro-Wrestling had gotten in almost twelve full years. That company had spent the entire 2000s decade on a downward spiral brought about by Antonio Inoki’s failed wrestling-MMA crossover experiment, which has since been dubbed ‘Inokism’. Many big names had been sacrificed for the sake of that experiment, and so NJPW worked incredibly hard to find wrestlers who could carry the company into the future.

Eventually, the company – with new head booker Gedo’s guidance – made Hiroshi Tanahashi their new champion and company ace. It took many years and much initial fan rejection, but eventually Tanahashi became the undisputed ace of New Japan. He has been to NJPW what John Cena has been for WWE: their rock, their top draw, their best performer and their most popular wrestler. Like Cena, Tanahashi was an incredible workhorse that performed at an elite level and carried the entire company on his back to bring it to new heights of success and popularity. But unlike Cena, Tanahashi was – and still is – a wrestling master whose skills are among the best in the world. So imagine if you combined John Cena with, say, Eddy Guerrero’s wrestling skills. You’d get Hiroshi Tanahashi.

Tanahashi was always a well-rounded wrestler that combined a basic technical knowledge with a love of high-flying wrestling (i.e. just like Eddy Guerrero). But in this match, the ace of New Japan now had a serious threat, the likes of which he had never dealt with before: Minoru Suzuki.

Minoru Suzuki was the ultimate threat for Tanahashi. He was as dangerous as they came because he was the most credible opponent for a grappler like Tanahashi. For those of you that don’t know, Suzuki was the co-founder of Pancrase, one of the first Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) organizations in the world. He has been hailed as one of the pioneers of MMA as a sport, and boasts an incredible history in that profession. He holds a record of 30-20 in MMA, and 22 of those wins were by submission. He was trained by none other than Karl Gotch, a legendary amateur grappler so revered that the Japanese actually nicknamed him ‘Kami-sama’ (literally, ‘God’).

Suzuki’s grappling skills were so advanced that many people were legitimately afraid of Suzuki and the kind of damage he could wreak on someone. This fear took on a life of its own, and has led to many in-jokes and crazy stories of Suzuki as a grappler. In fact, the main joke on wrestling discussion boards these days is that, if you were to ask someone to explain Minoru Suzuki in five words or less, the most common explanation would be ‘Murder Grandpa’. Having seen what he can do, that is indeed a very apt description of Minoru Suzuki.

Don Callis/Cyrus Talks about Minoru Suzuki

So here we have it: The New Japan Pro-Wrestling equivalent to John Cena vs. Brock Lesnar from Extreme Rules 2012. That is, if John Cena wrestled like Eddy Guerrero and Brock Lesnar had spent a decade murdering people in MMA.

The question on everyone’s mind was, would Tanahashi be able to retain his title and maintain his spot as company ace? Or would he be defeated by a grappling monster that was literally trained by ‘God’ Himself?

The match

This match took place on October 8, 2012 at the NJPW King of Pro-Wrestling 2012 event in Tokyo, Japan.

Tanahashi’s left arm was taped up. The bell rings and they circle each other. They tease a Greco-Roman knuckle lock but it doesn’t happen. They try it again and Tanahashi applies an armlock but Suzuki reverses it into armlock of his own. Tanahashi escapes and tries a dropkick but Suzuki dodges and kicks tana in the back as the crowd applauds and cheers for Tanahashi. Some mat wrestling ensues with both men exchanging control and Tanahashi starts working the leg. Tanahashi with a headlock that Suzuki struggles to escape from for a bit until the hold is broken on the rope.

Suzuki knees Tanahashi against the ropes and the crowd is more evenly-split. More technical wrestling exchanges as both of them cinch in headlocks until Suzuki chops tana’s chest. Suzuki whips Tanahashi, who reverses it and struggles but eventually gets an abdominal stretch in the middle of the ring. He mocks Suzuki by doing his air guitar, which gets some boos. Suzuki gets up and he looks more pissed than usual. He slaps Tanahashi and they start hitting forearms on each other. Tana with more forearms, but Suzuki catches him and locks in the rope-hung cross armbreaker and keeps it locked in for a long time until the referee forces the break at the five-minute mark.

Suzuki whips Tanahashi into the barrier and then locks in the armbreaker through a gap in the barrier and then tosses Tanahashi arm-first into the barrier again before locking an armbar around the ringpost. Suzuki is in full control as he continues his arm-focused onslaught with forearms kicks to Tanahashi’s taped-up arm. Another modified standing armbar targets the same arm and then Suzuki locks in a headscissors as well until Tanahashi reaches the ropes.

Suzuki hits stiff strikes to Tanahashi until Tanahashi tries a comeback with his good arm, but Suzuki puts a stop to that with a hard headbutt. Suzuki locks in a grounded kimura and Tanahashi reaches the rope with his foot. Suzuki then stands on Tanahashi’s arm as he taunts the crowd to make more noise, and then locks in another armbar and begins to remove the tape on Tanahashi’s arm and also tries to bend Tanahashi’s fingers at the ten-minute mark.

Tanahashi continues to try and make a comeback, but each time he tries, Suzuki shuts him down with hard forearms to the head and knees to the gut. Suzuki slaps Tanahashi hard in the face, hits a snapmare and goes for a running kick but Tanahashi catches his leg and stands up. This time Suzuki tries to slap Tanahashi as hard as he can but Tanahashi works through the pain and hits a vicious dragon screw. Suzuki didn’t roll with that move, so it genuinely looks like his leg got wrenched badly. This gives Tanahashi crucial recovery time.

Tanahashi charges a corner but Suzuki kicks him, so Tanahashi slaps him hard in the face. Now Tanahashi hits forearms of his own as the crowd chants with each one and then hits his second dragon screw and three basement dropkicks to Suzuki’s knee.

Tanahashi tries to lift Suzuki up, but he’s in pain at the ropes. Tanahashi stomps away on Suzuki’s knee. Irish whip by Tanahashi gets reversed by Suzuki, but Tanahashi hits a Shawn Michaels-style flying forearm. Tanahashi tries to pick Suzuki up but Suzuki kicks Tanahashi in the bad arm several times. He tries a waistlock but Suzuki reverses into another kimura lock while also in a pinning position. Then, Suzuki starts ripping off Tanahashi’s bandages with his teeth. He’s determined to destroy that arm. Tanahashi struggles but manages to reach the rope with his foot again. Irish whip by Suzuki followed by a big boot, and then it’s back to the kimura until Suzuki tries to lock in a sleeper hold at the 15-minute mark.

Tanahashi manages to toss Suzuki off of himself and charges, but Suzuki has him scouted and hits a Nakamura-style flying armbar in the centre of the ring. He keeps it locked in for a very long time as Tanahashi struggles to escape and endure the pain until once again he reaches the ropes. Suzuki tries for the sleeper again but this time Tanahashi locks in a sleeper of his own and turns it into a standing slingblade. The crowd chants Tanahashi’s name again. Tanahashi goes for the dragon suplex but Suzuki kicks him in the knee and hits a Ric Flair chop block, followed by a High Fly Flow to Suzuki’s weakened leg.

Suzuki writhes in pain as Tanahashi tries the Texas Cloverleaf but Suzuki fights through, so he tries to transition into a figure-4 leglock. Suzuki stops it for a bit but Tanahashi eventually locks it in fully as Suzuki screams in pain in the middle of the ring. Suzuki musters as much strength as he can and starts taunting Tanahashi as Tanahashi wrenches the leglock even more. Suzuki almost reaches the ropes but Tanahashi drags himself and Suzuki back to the centre of the ring and wrenches the hold some more. Suzuki continues to trash talk at the twenty-minute mark.

After an excruciating two-and-a-half minutes in the hold, Suzuki manages to reach the ropes. They both get up and Tanahashi hits his third dragon screw. They get up and Suzuki ducks a slingblade attempt, but as he tries to run the ropes for a counter, he can only hobble on one leg. Excellent selling by Suzuki there. Tanahashi runs the ropes again but Suzuki responds with a standing dropkick out of nowhere right to Tanahashi’s weakened shoulder. Wow, where did that come from?

Suzuki slaps his own leg to try and get himself worked up enough to continue and the crowd is cheering wildly. Both men are up and they have a classic strong style slap exchange in the middle of the ring. Tanahashi tries to keep fighting but Suzuki kicks his arm and continues destroying Tanahashi’s face. Tanahashi tries to show some guts but Suzuki ducks one of his strikes and cinches in another sleeper hold.

They’re in the middle of the ring and Tanahashi has no way of escaping. Suzuki suplexes Tanahashi over his shoulder and does a straddling sleeper hold in the middle of the ring. Excellent psychology there as Tanahashi has even less of a change to escape in this situation. Tanahashi looks like he’s about to pass out yet still musters some energy to stay awake. He starts to fade and the ref is checking on him to see if he’s passed out. Then, Tanahashi awakens and in a last ditch burst of energy reaches the bottom rope. Wow, talk about heart.

Suzuki gets up and Tanahashi looks completely spent. Some fans chant for Suzuki as he taunts Tana to get up. He slaps Tanahashi in the face over forty times, and keeps bringing Tanahashi’s face back up when it looks like Tana has no more energy. This keeps going until Tanahashi crumples back down, seemingly exhausted at the 25-minute mark.

Suzuki applies a front facelock and looks like he’s going for his Gotch-style piledriver (his main finisher) but Tanahashi counters into his fourth dragon screw leg whip which connects, but Suzuki rolls into a sleeper hold once again. Tanahashi looks out of it again and Suzuki lifts Tanahashi up for the piledriver, but he keeps fighting through. He tries to lift Suzuki but fails. Suzuki tries again and Tanahashi hits his fifth dragon screw leg whip. The fans chant Tanahashi’s name as both men are down.

They get up and Suzuki tries kicking with his good leg, but Tanahashi catches it and dropkicks the bad leg. Perfect ring psychology there. Tanahashi starts to gain momentum as he hits a slingblade and ascends the top rope. He tries the high fly flow but Suzuki gets his knees up at the last second. A loud ‘Minoru’ chant breaks out.

Suzuki hobbles over to Tanahashi and slaps him some more until Tanahashi falls to the mat. Suzuki with more slaps as Tanahashi stands on the apron, but Tanahashi hits his sixth dragon screw through the ropes. Tanahashi musters his strength and hits a high fly flow to a standing Suzuki, followed by an RVD-style high fly flow where he switches direction in mid-air! WOW! That was incredible!

The ref counts one…two…three. There’s the match. The crowd explodes in cheers for their hero.

Winner and STILL IWGP Heavyweight Champion after 29:22: Hiroshi Tanahashi

https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x5ex368

Review

If you ever wanted to see the concept of ring psychology made into its simplest form while also being applied to its fullest extent, this is the match for you. Simply put, this was phenomenal. It was outstanding. It was the most technically-perfect scientific wrestling match I have ever seen, and I’ve seen countless matches put on by many of the best grapplers of all time.

This was an altogether different wrestling match from what most of us are used to. In this contest, there were zero near-falls or pinning attempts. The entirety of the match was grounded in a visceral psychology whereby Tanahashi attacked Suzuki’s leg and Suzuki attacked Tanahashi’s arm. Both wrestlers forewent any notions of playing to the crowd, changing the pacing, hitting surprise big moves out of nowhere, or anything else that would violate the logic and story they were telling. It all came down to whose strategy was better, and which wrestler’s targeted limb would give out first. In that sense, it was a brutal endurance contest mixed in with a focused psychology and clever and unpredictable reversals that kept you guessing when and how the match would end.

Perhaps this match’s biggest positive is that neither man used near-falls to build unnecessary spikes in drama. They focused so much on their pre-established submissions and limb targeting that they completely ignored the desire to include random near-falls that end in a one-count. Those tiny near-falls tend to get sprinkled into these big matches all the time, and rarely do they ever lead to anything more than a quick ‘ooohh’ from the audience. Sure, sometimes having a sudden near-fall can be justified because the person kicking out will have less energy to continue. This isn’t the kind of match that needs those sorts of energy-draining pin attempts. Both Tanahashi and Suzuki kept to their strategies without faltering or looking for easy escapes.

Because both wrestlers used submissions only, that gave this match an exceptional layer of drama. Either man could’ve tapped out or lost consciousness from the pain at any time, such was the viciousness with which they attacked each other’s respective limbs, but neither wrestler gave up in the end. Both of them overcame incomprehensible pain, and the fans loved both of them for it. Sure, they cheered Tanahashi like crazy, but that was his role; he was the company ace and a hero to millions.

Suzuki wrestled like a villain and acted all smug, yet by the end the fans were cheering for him as well because he too was trying to survive. It’s incredibly rare for one of the wrestlers in a match to act like such a jackass and by the end the audience appreciates his efforts and will to win so much that they cheer him as much as they do the hero. Suzuki managed to pull that off and end this match looking like even more of a nigh-unstoppable monster than he did before it started.

Final Rating: *****

Tanahashi and Suzuki pulled off something special here. They managed to tell such an incredible story of guts, determination, intelligence, and above all else, survival. All while keeping their moves and combined psychology focused to such an incredible degree. This match holds up incredibly well to the other 5-star epics that I’ve reviewed so far. I’m a big fan of smart wrestling and things that make a wrestler look smart in a pro wrestling match context. This match was, for all intents and purposes, technically perfect. It remains to this day one of the greatest wrestling matches I have ever seen.

I would recommend this to anyone and everyone to watch. This is pro wrestling in its simplest form, without overt theatrics, unnecessary stalling or taunting, or reliance on quick near-falls that elongate a match while weakening the story being told. This was almost thirty minutes of pure ring psychology combined with incredible intestinal fortitude. A must-watch for any wrestling fan out there.

You can check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Review series right here. Thanks for reading.