(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: KENTA and Taiji Ishimori vs. Naomichi Marufuji and Kota Ibushi – NOAH July 15th, 2007

(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: KENTA and Taiji Ishimori vs. Naomichi Marufuji and Kota Ibushi – NOAH July 15th, 2007

Get ready for one of the craziest and most intense exhibition matches you’ll ever see. This random tag match in the middle of a random tag tournament was highly-praised when it first took place, and that was over thirteen years ago. Much has happened since then, with all four wrestlers going on to achieve immense glory in their native Japan.

So for this review, I decided to look back at one of the first NOAH matches I ever saw. It was one of the most interesting tag matches in NOAH history, and helped elevate the careers of all four men involved. I enjoyed this match a lot, and I wanted to share that enjoyment with you, the dear readers of TJRWrestling.

With that, let’s look back at the tag match between KENTA & Taiji Ishimori and Naomichi Marufuji & Kota Ibushi from a NOAH show in 2007.

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.

The story

Pro Wrestling NOAH created a junior heavyweight tag tournament in 2007 to help elevate their cruiserweight division. Tag tournaments have a long and celebrated history in Japan, especially since NOAH was the spiritual successor to Giant Baba’s All Japan, which had the best annual tag team tournament ever in the World’s Strongest Tag Determination League. NOAH owner Misawa wanted his junior heavyweight wrestlers to get the same attention, hence this tournament.

Wrestlers were put into new combinations together in the hopes of creating unique and exciting combinations. In this match, we have the following wrestlers:

Naomichi Marufuji was a former GHC Heavyweight Champion and arguably NOAH’s biggest homegrown star. He was Misawa’s protégé and had achieved immense success on his own since his debut. He was something of a wrestling master with his graceful technique and innovative offense. To this very day, if you think of your favorite smaller or indy-style wrestler, there’s a good chance they were heavily influenced by Marufuji’s work in NOAH.

Kota Ibushi was a freelancer working all over the Japanese independent scene at the time. Going into this match, Ibushi was only three years into his career and was already known for his stiff kickboxing-oriented style. He had not yet earned his reputation for being absolutely bats**t crazy.

Taiji Ishimori was a rising star trained in Ultimo Dragon’s Toryumon promotion that had a lot of potential but suffered from a bad gimmick in his rookie years and wanted to have a fresh start in NOAH.

KENTA was Marufuji’s erstwhile rival and another one of NOAH’s biggest stars. He was the master of stiff kicks and his gimmick was that he was perpetually angry at the whole world and vented his frustrations by playing soccer with his opponents’ faces and spines.

The match

This match originally took place on July 15th, 2007 and was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. A lot has happened since then for all four wrestlers involved. Looking back to when all of them were either rookies or rising stars, let’s see how this match holds up.

After all four wrestlers shake hands, the crowd ‘OOOOHHHs’ loudly because it’s Marufuji and KENTA that start the match. Oh, Christ, this is going to be brutal. The second the bell rings, KENTA boots Marufuji in the face. A brutal strike exchange ensues. Marufuji goes for a leapfrog but KENTA boots him in midair, then snapmares him and soccer kicks his spine. Both men dodge and duck extremely stiff kick attempts, leading to a standoff and tons of applause from the crowd.

They slow the match down with some mat wrestling as Marufuji goes after KENTA’s leg. After a ropebreak, both Ibushi and Ishimori tag in. Ishimori lands a sequence of impressive cruiserweight moves and takedowns and sends Ibushi out of the ring with a dropkick. Ibushi returns and has a nice technical exchange with Ishimori until Ishimori reaches the ropes. Ishimori tosses Ibushi into his corner and tags KENTA. Oh lord, the two kickboxers are about to go at it.

KENTA snapmares Ibushi and punts him in the spine. Ibushi springs right back up and returns the favor. The crowd comes alive as they go nose-to-nose and then trade elbows and brutally stiff slaps. But just when KENTA looks like he’s going to win, Ibushi kicks his knee. KENTA goes down. Ibushi tags Marufuji, who lands a dragon screw leg whip through the ropes on KENTA’s now-weakened leg. He follows that with a heel hook in the hopes of wearing down KENTA’s main weapon. Marufuji tries to switch to an STF but Ishimori breaks up his hold.

Ibushi tags back in and lands a flurry of hard strikes for a two-count. He applies a chinlock but KENTA escapes with a stunner. Ibushi tries to maintain control with a suplex but KENTA counters with a slingshot suplex into the ropes. Ibushi’s hung on the top rope as KENTA dives off the top rope with a double foot stomp. KENTA tries to get some feeling in his left knee as Ishimori lands a diving corkscrew splash onto Ibushi.

Ishimori tags in and locks in a Fujiwara armbar and then rolls into a Kurt-Angle-style double arm pin for two. He gets another two-count off a running dropkick and tags KENTA back in. a double-team move gets them another two-count as KENTA applies a figure-4 neck lock on Ibushi. Ibushi rolls to the ropes for safety so KENTA drags him to his corner and kicks him hard as he tags Ishimori. Ishimori lands a springboard corkscrew splash for two and applies a camel clutch. Ibushi continues to fight so Ishimori lets go and they start hitting each other hard. Ishimori wins the exchange with a big dropkick and tags KENTA again.

Ibushi tries to fight out of the enemy’s corner by hitting both of them but gets overpowered. KENTA whips Ibushi and Ibushi goes for a sunset flip counter, but KENTA counters with a vicious bitchslap to the face that echoes throughout the arena and gets him a two-count. KENTA whips Ibushi into a corner and charges, but this time Ibushi escapes, lands a wheel kick, and tags Marufuji.

Marufuji starts a comeback with a corner splash but gets shut down immediately when Ishimori attacks him from behind. They go to double-team him but Marufuji ducks their attack. Both of them charge at him, but he confuses them and clotheslines Ishimori. KENTA manages to land a boot and charges again, but Marufuji cuts him off and clotheslines him as well. Marufuji pins but only gets two.

Marufuji and KENTA trade stiff slaps until Marufuji grounds him with another dragon screw leg whip. KENTA kicks his way out of a Figure-4 but eats a sliding lariat for his efforts. After another kick-out, Marufuji goes for a suplex but KENTA lands on his feet behind him. Stiff martial arts strike combo by KENTA. He charges, Marufuji cuts him off. Both men kick each other insanely hard and collapse.

KENTA charges first but gets kneed in the stomach. Marufuji counters and goes for the Shiranui/Sliced Bread No. 2, but KENTA counters into an RKO and tags Ishimori. Ishimori lands a diving shotgun dropkick and then charges but gets kicked in the face. Unfazed, he sees Marufuji on the top rope and lands a leaping super hurricanrana. One, two, Marufuji kicks out. Ishimori goes for a German suplex, Marufuji reverses, Ishimori lands on his feet, and Marufuji counters into a sunset flip pin. Wait, no, Ishimori counters that with a dropkick. Marufuji gets up and goes for his own dropkick. Ishimori dodges and lands a moonsault splash for two. Crazy sequence.

Marufuji counters an Irish whip but gets knocked off the apron. Ishimori charges for a dive but Marufuji gets to the ropes first and lands a springboard clothesline out of nowhere. In comes Ibushi with stiff kicks. Both he and Ishimori avoid German suplexes. Ishimori charges but runs into a massive kick for another two-count. Ibushi follows KENTA’s example and lands a martial arts rush, followed by a standing corkscrew moonsault. One, two, Ishimori kicks out.

Marufuji knocks KENTA off the apron as Ishimori and Ibushi fight in the ring. They both duck several kicks that would’ve concussed a lesser man, until Ishimori lands one that stuns Ibushi. He follows that with a crazy Crucifix Driver-type move. There’s an innovative move. Ishimori pins. Marufuji makes the save. KENTA drags him out by the feet and puts him in a sleeper. Ishimori charges for a springboard move. Ibushi counters into a Bridging German suplex. One, two, Ishimori barely kicks out. Ibushi goes for a massive spinkick but Ishimori ducks and lands a jumping kick of his own. Ibushi finally lands one and they both go down.

Both KENTA and Marufuji get to their respective corners. KENTA tags in and knocks Marufuji down. He lands another martial arts combo followed by a Busaiku Knee strike. One, two, no, Ibushi kicks out. Ishimori comes in to help KENTA whip Ibushi into a corner. Ishimori charges, Ibushi dodges and boots KENTA and then attacks Ishimori again. He goes back to KENTA but KENTA kicks him brutally hard once again. KENTA goes for a roundhouse kick, but Ibushi dodges it by kipping up. Amazing move. Massive roundhouse kick by Ibushi.

Marufuji comes in to help Ibushi and they Irish whip KENTA. That fails as KENTA boots their combined arms so hard they break free and then he boots Ibushi down. Marufuji boots him in turn and charges but ends up on the apron. Marufuji goes to suplex KENTA out of the ring but Ishimori drags him off the apron. Ibushi boots KENTA and charges, but KENTA ducks and Ishimori lands a springboard dropkick. Excellent teamwork there.

KENTA goes to the top rope as Ishimori prepares some slam, but Ibushi counters with a suplex. Marufuji comes out of nowhere and holds KENTA in place on the top turnbuckle, which allows Ibushi to land a huge Pélé kick. KENTA eats corner strikes from both Ibushi and Marufuji, followed by a front slam from Ibushi. Ibushi goes to the top rope. Moonsault – no, KENTA rolls out of the way, no, Ibushi lands on his feet and lands a moonsault splash. But wait, there’s more. Frog splash by Marufuji. Followed by a shooting star splash by Ibushi. One, two, Ishimori saves KENTA.

Ishimori drags Marufuji out of the ring as Ibushi signals the end. Ibushi jumps onto the top rope, slips, but still manages to land a corkscrew leg drop. He pins but Ishimori makes the save yet again. Ibushi sets KENTA up for another dive. PHOENIX SPLASH! Shades of Hayabusa! One, two, thr—no, Ishimori saves KENTA yet again.

Marufuji and Ibushi double-team Ishimori but he counters with a simultaneous dropkick on Inushi and elbow on Marufuji. Swanton bomb by Ishimori onto Ibushi. KENTA, the legal man, kicks Ibushi in the head brutally hard. One, two, Marufuji makes the save. KENTA lands another martial arts combo and again Ibushi does the kip-up escape. Now Ibushi goes for a kick. KENTA ducks and lands a bridging Tiger suplex. One, two, thr—no, Ibushi kicks out at 2.9. Marufuji comes charging in. KENTA drops him with a Falcon Arrow. Ishimori follows with a running flipping elbow drop and drags Marufuji out of the ring.

KENTA goes for Go 2 Sleep, no, Ibushi counters into a crucifix pin. One, two, no, KENTA narrowly escapes. Another brutal strike exchange ensues. Ibushi swings wildly, desperate to land whatever he can. He goes to finish with a roundhouse kick. KENTA catches him and places him on his shoulders. GO TO SLEEP!!! One, two, three! There’s the match!

Winners after 21:43: KENTA & Taiji Ishimori

NOAH - Kota Ibushi & Naomichi Marufuji vs KENTA & Taiji Ishimori

Review

If there was ever a match that defined the term ‘spot-fest wrestling’, it’s this match. There was little to nothing in the way of traditional psychology or overt gimmicks. Instead, this match acted as both a brutal war and an exhibition of four of the most dynamic wrestlers in Japan at the time. But the match being a spot-fest wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, the match was actually fantastic and incredibly fun to watch, yet at the same time a bit ridiculous.

The match started off as typical KENTA matches do: with KENTA charging at his opponent with murderous rage. He and Marufuji had amazing chemistry here (as they always did) and once again they packed tons of intensity and excitement into their opening war. After that, Ishimori and Ibushi, the outsiders the audience was less familiar with, got their own chance to shine against each other. And after that, the match went down the classic route of one wrestler being isolated forever as the Face in Peril (FIP). In this match, that happened to be Ibushi, who took an absolute monster thrashing for most of the middle of the match until Marufuji tagged back in. from that point on, it became a chaotic spot-fest with nonstop counters, reversals, pin break-ups, double-teams  and nail-biting near-falls. So, like a modern AEW PPV tag match, only more brutal and realistic.

Each wrestler played an important role in the match. Even though Marufuji was the biggest star in this match, he wasn’t as involved in it as the other three. His main purpose was to break up pins and do his typical creative reversals, which did wonders in building the match’s tension and excitement. Ishimori was in a similar position, hitting only his biggest moves and acting as a foil on pin attempts (but did so perfectly and with his own creative offense that made him stand out as a performer).

The real meat of the match came from KENTA and Ibushi, who contributed the most to it, albeit in different ways. KENTA was in the ring the most and was involved in its biggest moments. He fought Ibushi like hell and did his best to convince everyone that he was out to murder Ibushi. He delivered so many insanely stiff strikes and seemed to have a bottomless well of energy that helped him power through whatever his opponents dished out at him and land the finishing blow.

As for Ibushi, he had a star-making performance here. He was very much an outsider here but he had the crowd behind him by the end. He went strike-for-strike with KENTA, he did as many gorgeous dives as the smaller and more aerially-adept Ishimori, and had just as many clever and creative counters as Marufuji. In that sense, Ibushi channeled an aspect of all three of them and put on a spectacular performance that really put him on the map. Chronologically, this was one of Ibushi’s first big matches and I’m honestly not surprised that he’d eventually become one of the biggest wrestling stars in Japan.

And yet, for all the great stuff in this match, it still had some notable flaws. As I mentioned earlier, this was very much a spot-fest match and none of the wrestlers did anything to hide that fact. The match lacked traditional psychology and traded deep and digestible storytelling for nonstop, frenetic action. Marufuji and KENTA had a little technical exchange early on that involved some limbwork that targeted KENTA’s knee, but that was largely forgotten by the time the closing stretch started. It always irks me when wrestlers this good put so much effort into their wild bomb-fests that they neglect to incorporate earlier work into their matches.

Of course, that neglecting of limbwork paled in comparison with how wild the match got by the end. The match sort of veered a bit into overkill territory with a ton of complex sequences and double-team spots that made the referee look completely useless. It reached a point where all four wrestlers were in the ring at once a bit too much, especially since the ref didn’t do much to enforce any rules or warn of any consequences. Luckily, the wrestlers made up for that with those tense near-falls and moments where one wrestler held the other back to keep them from breaking up a pin. It’s always refreshing to see the non-legal partners struggle against each other to try and save their partner that’s being pinned.

Lastly and most notably, this match suffers a bit from inconsistent pacing. The lack of selling, particularly from KENTA, makes this match come across as a perpetual sprint. All four wrestlers moved with the same speed and agility twenty minutes into the match as they did two minutes in. There was little realism in the sense that no one really sold what their opponents had done to them. On one hand, it made the match seem a bit too much like a video game. And yet, it also made all four wrestlers look tough by showing them really fight through the pain.

Final Rating: ****3/4

Even though I found this match to be quite unrealistic and a bit exaggerated, I think it kicked ass and remains a must-see contest. These four wrestlers packed thirty minutes’ worth of intense wrestling into just over twenty. And while the middle of the match was kind of typical and not particularly eventful, the final ten minutes more than made of for it. These four wrestlers fought so hard and performed so well together that they looked like they had been in hundreds of matches together beforehand. And yet, this was the first time ever that these four wrestlers fought together like this. That speaks volumes to how talented they were.

This match was, and still is, simply insane (but in a good way). It was as if it were some kind of first-time-ever exhibition match and all four wrestlers had to convince the audience in as little time as possible that all four of them were worthy of the fans’ time and money. And boy did it work. If you’ve never seen any of these four wrestlers before, this match is a great introduction to any one of them. It had incredible action, lots of raw tension, and was exciting more or less from bell to bell.

Was it over-the-top? A bit, yes. But sometimes being a tad unrealistic is necessary in wrestling, and that certainly was the case here.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.