Pro wrestling, like any art form, has its share of conventions, tropes and traditions. One of the most common ones is the ‘David vs. Goliath’ story, the battle of man vs. giant. Most of the time, the smaller fighter is the hero because people want to see him overcome the odds and reach the top of the mountain. And yet, there are some people that wonder what would happen if the opposite happened. What if the big man was the hero, trying to catch and beat up the smaller guy that knew he couldn’t beat the bigger man normally and thus had to cheat to win?
That’s the sort of situation we have with this match. In a match that flips the above convention on its head, a big man plays the hero and has to overcome a devious, opponent that knows the big man’s weaknesses and is ready and willing to exploit them. So the question that everyone wants to know is, can the big man win, or would his devious foe outsmart him?
Today we look at a great NJPW singles match between Tetsuya Naito and Michael Elgin from The New Beginning In Osaka 2017.
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 is a story about the IWGP Intercontinental Championship, one of NJPW’s newest titles. It was previously synonymous with Shinsuke Nakamura until Nakamura left NJPW for WWE. From there it shifted until a new ‘real’ owner could be found. After Nakamura vacated it, it was won by Kenny Omega, who held it for about four months until he lost it to Michael Elgin. And Elgin held it for about 98 days until he lost it to Tetsuya Naito.
But in one of their matches, Naito injured Elgin for real. A botched dropkick damaged Elgin’s eye socket to the point that he could no longer compete for NJPW until that injury healed. Elgin lost the title in September 2016 and didn’t return to NJPW until January 4th, 2017. On that show, a now-fully-recovered Elgin competed in the pre-show New Japan Rumble (a sort of Royal Rumble-style match with wrestlers coming in at regular intervals, but wrestlers lose by being pinned or submitted instead of thrown over the top rope). Elgin was both the first man in and the last man standing in that match. Then, on the following night at NJPW New Year’s Dash, they had a non-title singles match. Elgin won after dropping Naito with his own version of the Burning Hammer (laughs in Kobashi) and became #1 contender for that title.
Thus the stage was set. Elgin was looking to both reclaim the title he was convinced was his and wanted to get revenge for Naito injuring him. Meanwhile, Naito wanted to continue his upward momentum after retaining that same title against company ace Hiroshi Tanahashi at Wrestle Kingdom 11.
So who would win, the established champion or the stronger, angrier challenger?
This match took place on February 11, 2017 and was rated five stars by Dave Meltzer in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter.
The bell rings and the fans clearly love Naito. Naito spits on Kazuchika Okada and the other commentators to send a message. Elgin goes for a lockup but Naito rolls into tranquilo and rolls out of the ring. Naito wastes some time ringside until Elgin chases after him, but gets back into the ring as Elgin exits. Naito charges but Big Mike springboards and lands a shoulder tackle onto Naito. That’s an impressive move for a guy that big.
Elgin lands some stiff strikes then slams Naito hard. He lands a springboard splash for a two-count as the crowd chants for both guys. Naito escapes a vertical suplex and goes for Destino but Elgin counters into a Greco-Roman knuckle lock attempt. Naito charges but walks into a military press slam. Elgin charges for a lariat but Naito kicks him and lands on the apron. He goes for his springboard dropkick but Elgin forearms him in midair, sending Naito ringside. Kevin Owens-style cannonball senton from the apron by Elgin. Great move.
Elgin goes to climb the top rope bur Naito dropkicks him in the knee. Naito charges and lands a suicide dive through the ropes. Wait, no, Elgin catches him. Elgin catches Naito in midair and carries him in a walking vertical suplex. He walks carrying Naito like he’s weightless. Elgin drops Naito hard with a suplex. Amazing display of strength by Elgin.
Back in the ring, Elgin maintains control and goes for the Cesaro over-the-rope suplex, but Naito fights back. Elgin fights back with forearms but Naito rakes the eyes. Naito’s targeting the same eye socket he injured earlier. Then he pushes Elgin off the top rope but catches the leg he dropkicked earlier. Naito applies a leglock using the ropes for leverage. Naito barely lets go of the hold in time. He follows by smashing Elgin’s leg into the barricade and Elgin struggles to stay on both legs. As he returns to the ring, Naito dropkicks that leg hard and continues to work the leg. Elgin tries to escape by hitting some forearm clubs to Naito’s chest, but Naito refuses to let go. I love it when a wrestler doesn’t immediately let go of a submission hold as soon as they feel the slightest contact.
Naito works the leg some more but Elgin fires back with chops as he holds all his weight on one leg. That doesn’t last long as Naito dropkicks the leg hard once more and lands a knee breaker. Naito continues with a figure-4 leglock as the fans chant for both guys. Elgin tries to fight out with forearms but Naito spits on him and asks for more. Elgin reaches the ropes and again Naito takes time letting go. Elgin gets to a vertical base and tries to counter an Irish whip but hasn’t the strength to do so. Naito grabs the leg but Elgin lands a desperation enzuigiri. They both charge, Elgin blocks a kick, and lands a back suplex facebuster. Wow, there’s a creative move.
Elgin gets up first and hits his own leg to power-up. He charges with a corner clothesline and then lands a second, bigger one that almost sends Naito over the top rope. Elgin places Naito on the top rope but Naito escapes by raking the eyes again. He dives, Elgin dodges. German suplex into the turnbuckle. Naito lands hard. Elgin staggers over. Deadlift bridging German suplex. Naito kicks out. Elgin hobbles over again and lands Sasaki-style front and back lariats. Elgin charges but Naito answers with a Manhattan drop and dropkicks the left knee again.
Naito goes for the corner dropkick again but Elgin catches him. Naito goes for a sunset flip, Elgin counters into a vertical suplex, but Naito lands on his feet. Rear waistlock by Naito, Elgin counters. Another German suplex. He goes for the trifecta, but Naito reaches the ropes and elbows out. Naito goes for the tornado DDT, but Elgin out-powers him. Elgin refuses to go down. He goes for another vertical suplex, no, Naito counters into a massive DDT. He pins, but Elgin kicks out.
Both men are down as the fans chant both men’s names. Naito gets up first and stomps on the knee again. Elgin fights out of another knee breaker and they start trading hard strikes. Elgin fights like a man with forearms to the head while Naito keeps going for the knee and raking the eyes. He charges, but walks right into a big bicycle kick from Elgin. Elgin hurts his knee some more in the process.
Elgin gets up first and lands some stiff elbows to Naito. He drops him with a Misawa-style rolling elbow but can barely stay standing without using the ropes for leverage. Elgin goes for a superplex but Naito escapes again. Rollover sitout powerbomb by Naito. Fantastic counter. Naito dives, but Elgin catches him with a sitout powerbomb of his own. The referee counts one, two, no, Naito kicks out.
Elgin scoop slams Naito and goes to the top rope…very slowly. Diving splash by Elgin. He pins, but Naito escapes at 2.8. Elgin grabs is knee as he clearly hurt it more on that dive. Elgin goes for another powerbomb but Naito resists. Naito grabs Elgin’s leg but Elgin escapes with forearms, only to suffer another dropkick to it. Elgin quickly reaches the ropes and kicks Naito away, but Naito blocks his clothesline and lands an enzuigiri. But Elgin no-sells and answers with a huge lariat. The crowd’s behind Elgin now. LARIATO! Naito kicks out!
Elgin tries the powerbomb again but can’t lift Naito due to the pain in his left leg. So he answers with a hard elbow smash and places Naito on the top turnbuckle again. Naito escapes another powerbomb but walks into a superkick from Elgin. Naito cuts Elgin off on the top rope with strikes to the knee and eye rakes. Then he climbs the turnbuckle. Top rope frankenst—no, Elgin counters. Wait, no, Naito counters that. He lands the super frankensteiner. And follows with a poisoned Frankensteiner! Naito pins. Elgin kicks out at 2.9!
Naito goes for Destino but Elgin counters into a chop. Elgin ducks a flying forearm and goes for a German suplex. No, Naito rolls through into a leglock. Right onto the same bad leg. Amazing counter by Naito. Elgin’s so close to tapping. He’s trying to hold himself back. SOMEHOW, he reaches the ropes. The fans chant for Naito this time.
Naito stomps on Elgin until he rolls onto the apron. That’s a dangerous place to be in a Naito match. Naito spits on Elgin and soaks in the boos. He charges…but walks into an Air Raid Crash onto the apron. Brutal landing for Naito. But Elgin’s not done. Somehow, he lands a Cesaro-style over-the-rope deadlift Falcon Arrow! Amazing strength by Elgin. Yet Naito still manages to kick out. Rolling elbow to the back of Naito’s neck. Elgin spits on Naito and lands a second rolling elbow. Then Elgin does Naito’s ‘open your eye’ taunt and drills Naito with an Uraken. Somewhere Aja Kong is smiling. Bucklebomb by Elgin. He follows with a spiral powerbomb – no, Naito escapes. Desperation tornado DDT. Destino! One, two, thre—NO, Elgin kicks out. Another Desti—no, Elgin counters. Death Valley Bomb into the turnbuckle. That’s Naito’s friend Hiromu’s move.
Both men are down ringside as Elgin hobbles over to Naito. Elgin tries to take control but Naito rakes the eyes again. Elgin catches Naito’s leg but Naito kicks him, so Elgin counters with an apron powerbomb. Ouch! Followed by a running powerbomb into the steel barricade. F**ING OUCH! Spiral Bomb in the middle of the ring. The referee counts one, two, no, Naito still kicks out. Damn, what is this man made of? Even those fans that booed Naito earlier start cheering for him.
Elgin places Naito on the top rope and then into the Torture Rack. He’s going for the Burning Hammer. He lands i—no, Naito counters into Destino. Both men go down and get up very slowly. Elgin charges into the corner and catches Naito’s legs as he goes for a dropkick. It’s back to the Burning Hammer. But Naito escapes in midair. Enzuigiri from Naito. Big rolling chop from Elgin. Kobashi-style Burning laria—no, Naito ducks. Rolling kick to Elgin’s head. Destino once again. Elgin kicks out…once again. Another Destino! One, two, three! That’s it. Naito wins!
Winner and STILL IWGP Intercontinental Champion after 36:17: Tetsuya Naito
This was a great main-event-level match. They told a classic story of Elgin the challenger trying to out-power the smaller Naito, while Naito used cheap, underhanded tactics to maintain control. Those underhanded tactics made the audience cheer for Elgin for a while (though even then they were split down the middle, at best), until Naito started kicking out of all of Elgin’s big power moves. Once Naito pulled off that sick roll-through counter into a leglock, targeting the same weakened knee he had worked on for the bulk of the match, the audience completely turned towards Naito, not even him spitting on Elgin, Okada or the referee could get the crowd to hate him for long.
For Elgin, this was one of the best matches he has ever had. Elgin might seem small on paper (his official stats show him standing at 5’11 and weighing 245 pounds), he definitely wrestles like someone much bigger. In this match he wrestled like a bearded Cesaro, hitting crazy power moves while also showing some speed and agility uncharacteristic of a man with that kind of physique. And that nearly worked, as he parlayed that super strength into a lot of crazy power moves that dropped Naito on his neck and shoulders. But Naito was able to exploit not one but two weaknesses in Elgin: his eye and his knee. Naito spent longer segments attacking Elgin’s left knee to take the power out from under him, and nearly won with a clever leglock.
And by doing so, Elgin learned to expect attacks to his knee and focused more on either avoiding those attacks or withstanding them. But in doing so he opened himself to attacks to the eye, specifically his left eye that Naito damaged months earlier. Naito opportunistically targeted the eye so that Elgin wouldn’t have control for long. Furthermore, after Elgin introduced his Burning Hammer as a new super-finisher, it became a key part of the closing sequences. He landed it on January 5th and it won him the match. If he landed it here, would the same thing happen? That’s what Elgin hoped for, which is why he tried it more than once. But that question was never answered because Naito managed to land two consecutive Destinos to win the match.
And yet, there were some issues with how this match went down. First, there was Elgin’s selling, which was wildly inconsistent. When Elgin was on defense, he sold the leg very well. When he was in control, he did a great job slowing down and hobbling on one leg to make it seem like he was in constant pain. But when he was on offense, that consistency became spotty, at best. If he knew his leg was messed up, why would he still go for running moves or a bicycle kick? And when he did go for his power moves, he couldn’t decide on whether he’d sell the damage and add to the drama or no-sell entirely. There just wasn’t any middle ground from Elgin on this front; it was either one of two extremes. And that was just for the leg. He didn’t really sell damage to his eye until closer to the finish. Naito went for the eye several times and Elgin barely sold any of that or incorporated it into the story. There was no urgency on Elgin’s part to protect his eye, even though that was such a critical part of the story behind this match.
I also think this match went a bit too long. Sure, some of it was justified because Elgin was moving slowly to sell his knee. And yet, it also made the match drag on at times. They really could’ve cut maybe five to eight minutes off, which would’ve given the match slightly better pacing. And a shorter length would’ve also made them trim the fat, removing a few of the more outlandish parts of the match. There was one moment in particular when I think they went overboard with wild moves, and that was when Elgin landed three crazy powerbombs. First there was one onto the apron, the hardest part of the ring. Then Elgin launched Naito neck-and-shoulders-first into the steel barricade. And then, instead of giving the fans time to digest those two big moves and allow Naito to sell them, Elgin quickly dragged Naito into the ring and hit him with his Spiral Bomb finisher. That should’ve ended the match right there, but Naito still kicked out and there was still plenty of time left in the match.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This was a great wrestling match with a solid inner story that flipped a common wrestling convention on its head. Instead of the bigger goliath being the villain, it was the smaller Naito in that role. And Naito sold like crazy for Elgin, making all his moves look brutal while having to go the extra mile to try and beat him. It took Naito taking advantage of two separate weaknesses and a mountain of finishers and big moves to keep Elgin down. In doing so, it made Big Mike come across as an even bigger threat. Since few gaijins in NJPW could really play the ‘power wrestler’ well and balance that with the insane pacing and conditioning requirements of the modern NJPW style, Elgin basically made himself into a guaranteed star with this match.
And yet, this doesn’t come across as a legendary, historic epic. In their attempts to make it into something epic, Naito and especially Elgin ventured into overkill territory. They really could’ve made more with less here and didn’t need to go over thirty-five minutes. And by going a bit too far during one particular segment, they made the match peak earlier than it did, killing much of the heat for the actual finish. They almost did everything right here. So while this is still a great match and one that’s definitely worth watching, it might take a bit more to get through from bell to bell because of how it’s put together.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.