New Japan Pro-Wrestling is said to be the home of the best cruiserweights in the world. That has been the case for almost thirty years, mainly because New Japan treats their cruiserweights/junior heavyweights as credible athletes. They have their own unique style and their own unique events. One of those is the annual Best of the Super Juniors (BOSJ) tournament, which showcases the best cruiserweight singles matches. Today we revisit what is said to be one of the best junior heavyweight matches of the modern era. It features one of the most technically-gifted cruiserweights in modern history (KUSHIDA) facing off against one of the most high-profile wrestling prodigies of the past decade (Will Ospreay). Their match together was lauded when it took place, so let’s see if it has stood the best of time.
Today we revisit the singles match between KUSHIDA and Will Ospreay from the finals of the 2017 Best of the Super Juniors tournament.
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.
This was a dream match for anyone that had invested time in NJPW’s long-term storytelling. Wins and losses matter much more in NJPW, and stories grow organically out of hype from things that happen over the span of years. In this case, Ospreay had never been able to beat KUSDHIDA in singles competition, having lost to him three times in a row, two of which were Junior Heavyweight title matches.
In terms of BOSJ history, both of them had made waves in recent years. KUSHIDA was in the finals of the 2014 tournament and had won the 2015 edition. Meanwhile, Ospreay had made his BOSJ debut in the 2016 edition, which he ended up winning. Thus, this was something of a junior heavyweight dream match between the winners of the prior two tournaments. Needless to say, everyone had high expectations for this match, especially fans of Ospreay’s, who sang his praises as possibly the best cruiserweight wrestler in the world at the time.
This match took place on June 3rd, 2017. It was rated five stars by Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
The bell rings and the fans are split between both wrestlers. KUSHIDA starts working Ospreay’s leg but Ospreay escapes quickly. Nice technical chain grappling sequence. Followed by another great one that ends with KUSHIDA in an armlock. That’s followed by what can only be described as ‘pure acrobatics’ from both guys that ends in a stalemate and some loud applause from the crowd.
Ospreay dares KUSHIDA to hit him hard and he does, and then both of them trade stiff forearm shots. Ospreay charges but KUSHIDA kicks him out of the ring. Then KUSHIDA climbs the top turnbuckle. Diving senton to the floor.
Back in the ring, KUSHIDA begins targeting both Ospreay’s knee and his arm. Ospreay tries to resist a Figure-4 leglock but fails, and takes a long time to reach the ropes. Ospreay gets back up and KUSHIDA kicks his weakened knee. Then out of nowhere Ospreay does some ‘flippy shit’ to knock KUSHIDA down, and then goes back to selling the knee (but not the arm). Well, okay then.
Ospreay lands a running corner dropkick for a two-count then hobbles around the ring as KUSHIDA chops his chest. He lands a snap suplex for a one-count and applies an octopus hold. KUSHIDA fights hard to reach the ropes, and when he does Ospreay lands a hard spinkick to his stomach. KUSHIDA escapes a charging Ospreay and then kicks Ospreay on the top turnbuckle as he prepared for a dive. Ospreay goes for a corner move, but KUSHIDA counters. He grabs onto Ospreay’s arm as tightly as possible. Diving shoulderbreaker. Awesome move.
KUSHIDA lands some stiff kicks to Ospreay’s shoulder then lands a Tajiri-style handspring elbow. Ospreay somehow counters a tilt-a-whirl into a spinkick and charges but KUSHIDA shuts him down with a forearm shot. KUSHIDA charges this time but Ospreay counters with some kicks that send KUSHIDA out of the ring. Ospreay charges and flies over the ropes.
Ospreay lands a springboard forearm back into the ring and charges, but KUSHIDA ducks his corkscrew Robinson special. KUSHIDA lands a Pélé kick and charges, but Ospreay counters into a standing Spanish Fly. Another crazy move.
KUSHIDA charges but walks into some big kicks. Ospreay follows with a running shooting star splash and goes to the corner for a dive, but KUSHIDA gets his knees up. KUSHIDA goes for a fisherman buster, Ospreay counters into a suplex, KUSHIDA lands on his feet, rolls through, and lands a Bridging Dragon suplex for two. Great sequence.
The crowd cheers for KUSHIDA as he lands a rib breaker and goes to the corner, but Ospreay catches his leg. KUSHIDA stomps on his arm and ascends the corner but Ospreay kicks him off of it. They fight on the top turnbuckle and KUSHIDA goes for the Hoverboard Lock (kimura lock) then he drapes KUSHIDA on the top rope. Shooting star press. But Ospreay’s not done. Poisoned Frankensteiner on the apron. Wow that looked brutal.
The ref starts counting and KUSHIDA barely gets back into the ring at 19. Running flip DDT by Ospreay. KUDSHIDA kicks out. Ospreay signals the end and goes to the corner. But KUSHIDA’s right behind him. Ospreay jumps and KUSHIDA catches him in midair with the Hoverboard lock. Holy crap, what a great counter. Ospreay writhes in pain. It looks like he’ll tap at any moment. Ospreay tries to fight out. KUSHIDA counters into a triangle armbar. Ospreay deadlifts KUSHIDA into a turnbuckle powerbomb. KUSHIDA blocks a charge and dives…right into an RKO. Ospreay pins. KUSHIDA kicks out. Corkscrew kick by Ospreay. KUSHIDA blocks a handspring attack and lands a handspring RKO on Ospreay. Hoverboard Lock. Ospreay fights out. They trade Kawada-style step kicks and then start brawling. Strong right hands from each guy. Both men go down. KUSHIDA stomps Ospreay’s head Danielson-style. Ospreay flips him the bird and KUSHIDA answers with more stomps. Hoverboard lock again. Ospreay tries to crawl to different sets of ropes. KUSHIDA blocks him and roils into a Fisherman suplex. But Ospreay counters in mid-air with a stunner. Imploding 450 Splash by Ospreay. KUSHIDA kicks out.
Ospreay lands a corner Yakuza kick and places KUSHIDA on the top turnbuckle. He lands multiple superkicks to KUSHIDA’s face and goes for a diving RKO. But KUSHIDA counters into an avalanche fisherman buster. KUSHIDA maintains control and rolls into his finisher. Back To the Future/Small Package Driver. One, two, three! KUSHIDA beats Ospreay!
Winner of the 2017 Best of the Super Juniors tournament after 27:59: KUSHIDA
Everyone has that one wrestler that they find irksome or hard to really get ‘into’, and for me, that’s Will Ospreay. He’s the poster child of the modern ‘gymnastics’ era of wrestling, and in this match that proved to be a double-edged sword. On one hand, he and KUSHIDA pulled off some really crazy stuff, especially in the closing stretch. And while I appreciate the effort they put in to create a truly unpredictable match, I couldn’t really enjoy this match as much because that unpredictability came at the expense of realism and common sense.
While KUSHIDA was great here and fought in a ‘balanced’ way (and looked great while doing so), Ospreay emphasized his flippy stuff over everything else. A great example of this happened early on in the match as KUSHIDA circled him and attacked his arm and leg. And what was Ospreay’s answer to this? To do a high-speed running handspring attack. Less than a second after he was supposedly selling damage to both limbs. It just didn’t make any sense. Ospreay looked like he just wanted to get his moves in, even if that came at the expense of selling KUSHIDA’s offense properly. And to me, it was a bit annoying.
Yes, I understand the argument that flips and speed are integral to the junior heavyweight style. And yet, in this match, it was a tale of two wrestlers on entirely different planes. KUSHIDA demonstrated basic common sense and psychology by trying to weaken Ospreay’s legs and knees. But that completely failed because Ospreay basically no-sold all of that. And to make matters worse, Ospreay was locked in KUSHIDA’s Hoverboard lock (which is identical to Brock Lesnar’s kimura lock) for what seemed like FOREVER.
Keep in mind that this was New Japan, a company that built itself on the legitimacy of submission holds and MMA-influenced grappling. Ospreay surviving the kimura the way he did here after all the damage KUSHIDA had done to set it up was akin to Roman Reigns surviving Lesnar’s kimura if Lesnar had spent five minutes smashing steel chairs over Reigns’s shoulder before applying it. Ospreay’s no-selling devalued whatever psychology KUSHIDA had applied, which left him with no choice but to throw bombs at Ospreay. And while that worked in the end, it felt a bit deflating.
Final Rating: ****
Honestly, this was disappointing, especially for a match hyped up as being a perfect, 5-stars. In my opinion, it was nowhere near that level. While the action itself was solid, there was little in the way of a cohesive story here. It was a typical ‘bomb-fest’, and not even the good kind. KUSHIDA knew what the hell he was doing and came into this match with a strategy. But the problem was Ospreay decided against selling Ospreay’s submissions, which rendered the entire first half of the match pointless. And that actually worked against both KUSHIDA and Ospreay because it lessened the struggle Ospreay tried to overcome.
Yes, his selling was good in tiny bursts, but those flash-in-the-pan moments were juxtaposed by nonsensical cruiserweight flippy shit. Don’t get me wrong; that flippy shit CAN be good…sometimes. But for it to be good it has to be done for a reason other than to show off. Pro wrestling, at least in New Japan, is supposed to be a combat sport, even in the junior heavyweight division. It shouldn’t be composed exclusively of random flips and bombs thrown out of nowhere without rhyme or reason.
What this match did showcase was that KUSHIDA is a great pro wrestler that knows what the hell he’s doing more often than not. It’s just too bad that his opponent wasn’t on the same wavelength when they put this match together.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.