(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Naomichi Marufuji vs. KENTA - October 29th, 2006, by Alex Podgorski

Think of any of your favorite wrestlers that are either active now or reached their prime in the last fifteen years. There’s a good chance they and 95% of all modern wrestlers were influenced to some degree by this match. This is, in many ways, the progenitor of the modern version of pro wrestling.

Almost every high-profile wrestling match involving current or former ‘indy’ wrestlers borrows from this one. Modern wrestling staples like the myriad of insane dives done in a single match, lengthy no-sell sequences, back-and-forth finishers and subsequent kicks-outs, and superkicks being delivered at a frequency bordering on fetishistic, were first tested and made popular by this one match.

This is widely considered to be the second-best NOAH match of all time, behind only the legendary final match between Misawa and Kobashi three years prior. But for Marufuji and KENTA, this was more than just a big title match. It was a test for two of the biggest junior heavyweight stars in NOAH. They were two smaller guys fighting for the company’s heavyweight title. This was symbolic for a very important reason.

Most Japanese promotions have weight classes and restrictions, which is a feature used to this very day. It’s widely considered that a junior heavyweight wrestler must ‘graduate’ from the junior heavyweight division before they can compete in the heavyweight division. So, being a junior heavyweight in Japan carries a connotation of inferiority to regular heavyweights (unless your name is Jushin Liger), and that’s what Marufuji and KENTA hoped to break here. They saw this as their graduation match, and they hoped that fans wouldn’t see them as only junior heavyweights going forward.

Many people consider this to be one of the best wrestling matches of all time. The action, the tension, the brutality, the risk, all of those things made it an epic when it first took place. It was voted Match of the Year in 2006 by both Tokyo Sports and Nikkan Sports, and was rated 4.75-Stars by the Wrestling Observer. Given how much this praise this match has gotten, and how much it influenced subsequent wrestlers and their matches, let’s revisit this classic to see if all that praise is still well-deserved today.

As a reminder, I am reviewing 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

These are two of the most important Japanese wrestlers of the past twenty years. Both KENTA and Marufuji started with All Japan Pro-Wrestling in the late 1990s and followed Mitsuharu Misawa when he formed Pro Wrestling NOAH in 2000. Each of them became protégé to one of NOAH’s biggest legends at the time. Marufuji became Misawa’s protégé and KENTA became Kobashi’s.

Throughout the first half of the 2000s, KENTA and Marufuji were pegged for major success. Not only were they paired and associated with two of the biggest wrestling legends in the country at the time, but they were also embroiled in a bitter feud between them. KENTA was a no-nonsense striker with a kickboxing background that hit people as hard as he could because he suffered from a little man complex. Marufuji was his polar opposite; an artistic technical grappler with a penchant for diving moves and lucha libre-inspired reversals and cradles. The only thing they shared in common in the ring was a love of kicking people.

Throughout the early 2000s, they both crossed paths and teamed together in various big matches. By 2006, both of them had achieved great success. They were the first-ever and longest-reigning GHC Junior Tag Team Champions, had won the Differ Cup (an interpromotional King of the Ring-style tournament) and had won multiple awards and distinctions as a team. Marufuji had also won the 2004 Super J Cup tournament and had transitioned to the heavyweight class earlier than KENTA, having won the GHC Tag Team Championships alongside Minoru Suzuki (yes, that Minoru Suzuki).

Then in September 2006, Marufuji defeated Jun Akiyama to capture the GHC Heavyweight Championship. Now, this was considered an upset victory, because Marufuji had won with his Perfect Inside Cradle, which was a surprise move more than anything. That victory over Akiyama was considered a fluke by many people, so Marufuji needed to prove that he was worthy to carry NOAH’s most prestigious title.

Enter KENTA.

And so it came to be that KENTA, the brutal, vicious, remorseless kicking machine would challenge his former tag team partner to prove that he, too, could make for a credible heavyweight wrestler.

The match

This is for the GHC Heavyweight Championship. KENTA is the heel in this match and Marufuji is the face. You can tell because KENTA’s name is written in Roman letters and Marufuji’s isn’t. We get some excellent amateur grappling to start things off and that ends in a stalemate. Marufuji applies a grounded headlock and KENTA rolls him for a quick one-count pin. KENTA gets him to the ropes and the first big exchange is on. KENTA leapfrogs and ducks down, but Marufuji sees him and goes for a basement dropkick. Kenta dodges and kicks Marufuji in midair as Marufuji attempted a leapfrog of his own. Now the tone is set for the rest of the match. This is going to be good.

Marufuji ducks a massive kick and we get another stalemate. KENTA starts working Marufuji’s arm but Marufuji reverses that hold onto KENTA, but KENTA then reverses that. Marufuji sweeps a leg and applies a leg lock but KENTA blocks with a headlock of sorts, bringing us to another stalemate. KENTA applies a cross armbreaker but Marufuji reverses it for a one-count, then gets another leglock in. KENTA reaches the ropes and the hold is broken.

Things take an aggressive turn as they start slapping each other as hard as possible. Marufuji wins the exchange with a STIFF kick to the stomach. KENTA reverses an Irish whip and attempts a yakuza kick to the corner, but Marufuji blocks it and sends him down. A basement ax bomber lariat sends KENTA towards the ropes.  Marufuji punches KENTA in the stomach then lands a springboard DDT over the rope onto the apron. Holy shit, that looked brutal.

KENTA looks to be in extreme pain ringside as we reach the five-minute mark. Marufuji pulls him into the ring and lands a slingshot choke using the rope. Great psychology there as Marufuji targets the neck. He goes for a pin but KENTA kicks out at two. Marufuji applies a headlock that puts immense pressure on KENTA’s neck and keeps it in for a long time until KENTA reaches the ropes with his foot. KENTA tries a comeback but Marufuji stops him dead in his tracks with clubbing blows to the neck. Marufuji whips KENTA hard into the steel ring barricade and then dropkicks him into it. That looked absolutely vicious.

Marufuji continues his assault by standing on KENTA’s neck, choking him. He slams KENTA’s head into the steel ringpost with a sickening thud, then gets another two-count. Marufuji applies a standing cobra clutch then transitions into a dragon sleeper. KENTA tries to escape, so Marufuji applies a bodyscissors. He’s doing a great job destroying KENTA’s neck here. After KENTA escapes, Marufuji starts punting KENTA in the chest, which is usually KENTA’s go-to-shtick. Then he turns to punches and forearms, and KENTA starts getting up. Oh great, now KENTA’s pissed. Marufuji is a dead man. Marufuji tries to maintain control with forearms and kicks but KENTA no-sells them and kicks Marufuji in the gut as revenge for before. Marufuji’s writhing in pain from that one kick. Well, that’s what you get for making KENTA mad.

Marufuji tries to block an attack from KENTA and KENTA just drops him with another hard kick to the stomach. Marufuji’s making noises like he’s both gasping for air and is about to vomit. Considering it’s KENTA kicking him, both of those things are probably happening for real. KENTA nearly smashes Marufuji’s sternum in with another hard kick at the ten-minute mark.

Kenta whips Marufuji and drops him with a kneelift and then lands a standing double stomp, both to the gut. Marufuji escapes a pin attempt at two then rolls out of the ring out of desperation. KENTA whips Marufuji into the steel barricade and Marufuji hits it stomach-first, then KENTA drops him onto that same barricade from his shoulders. Marufuji re-enters the ring slowly, and KENTA suplexes him stomach-first into the ropes then lands a diving knee drop to the back of his head and neck. All of that gets k KENTA a two-count, so he applies a bodyscissors to weaken Marufuji’s torso some more.

Marufuji tries to roll to the ropes but KENTA grabs his arm to stop him. There’s some excellent ring awareness by KENTA. Marufuji reaches the ropes with his foot, so KENTA starts kicking Marufuji in the head in a mocking way. Suddenly, Marufuji gets a second wind and starts no-selling. That’s a bad idea, because K KENTA out-slaps him and drops him with another kick. More brutal kicks to the sternum by KENTA followed by a diving double knee stomp. Good Lord, is he trying to make Marufujis’s stomach explode?

KENTA pins but gets a two-count and returns to the bodyscissors. Marufuji escapes that so KENTA teases suplexing Marufuji over the rope to the outside. But Marufuji reverses that and lifts KENTA, who lands on the apron. They trade forearms. Springboard dropkick by Marufuji. Wow, where did that come from? KENTA goes flying into the barricade.

Marufuji teases a dive, but KENTA moves, and Marufuji lands outside on his feet. KENTA lands some kicks but Marufuji does the third one and kicks KENTA into the fans.

Suddenly Marufuji pulls the barricade closer to the ring. What the hell is he planning? He jumps. Asai Moonsault onto KENTA! But No! He hit the barricade. HOLY SHIT! MARUFUJI HIT THE BARRICADE THROAT-FIRST! My God, what a horrible landing. How is Marufuji still moving?  And KENTA’s been busted open the hardway. Damn, this is way more brutal than I thought it’d be.

Amazingly, Marufuji gets back into the ring first. It’s KENTA who’s still recovering and his throat is still in one piece. KENTA returns to the ring at the count of fifteen and Marufuji pounces on him right away. He goes for a powerbomb, it’s reversed and KENTA goes for a kick, which is also reversed, and Marufuji drops KENTA with a capture suplex. That gets Marufuji a two-count.

Stinger splash by Marufuji and he ascends the turnbuckle for some dive. But KENTA cuts him off. They’re fighting on the top rope. Something big is about to happen and the fans sense it. Marufuji blocks a forearm and teases a powerbomb, KENTA blocks it, so Marufuji springboards and smashes KENTA’s face into the steel ring post. Wow, that was clever.

Marufuji attempts a superkick, KENTA dodges sand teases a German suplex, Marufuji reverses that into a drop toehold and charges, but KENTA dodges his basement dropkick and punts him hard in the back. Amazing sequence.

KENTA charges Marufuji in a corner but Marufuji blocks with a kick. He attempts a crossbody but KENTA blocks it with an RKO out of nowhere/Ace Crusher. KENTA dropkicks Marufuji and is getting riled up at the twenty-minute mark.

KENTA hits a kicking combination and a springboard lariat for a 2.5-count. A yakuza kick and fisherman suplex by KENTA get him a 2.75-count. He lands his patented KENTA rush and charges, but Marufuji cuts him off and hits a devastating running lariat. Man, the sound of that lariat echoed all throughout Bukodan Hall. He continues his assault with a corner elbow and a powerbomb for another two-count and the crowd applauds. Superkick by Marufuji. He’s going for the shiranui…but KENTA blocks it. Marufuji goes flying out of the ring to the floor.

KENTA places Marufuji on the elevated ring ramp and tells the ringside reports to move. KENTA teases a suplex from the apron to the floor, but Marufuji reverses and tries a suplex of his own. But KENTA reverses that and lands behind Marufuji. KENTA tries to German suplex Marufuji, but Marufuji lands on his feet. Superkick by Marufuji and he teases a shiranui, but KENTA blocks that. Marufuji teases a German suplex from the apron to the floor (like what Kurt Angle and Shawn Michaels had tried the year prior), but KENTA holds on for dear life. Superkick to the gut by Marufuji, and he teases the shiranui yet again. They both tease a vertical suplex but KENTA wins the exchange with a falcon arrow from the apron to the floor. My God, what a brutal move that was. You can hear Marufuji writhing in pain at the twenty-five-minute mark.

KENTA’s not done being an evil bastard, because he springboards from inside the ring and lands a diving double foot stomp onto Marufuji’s stomach. Holy shit. If I didn’t know this was a wrestling match I’d think Marufuji would have a ruptured spleen or internal bleeding, or something along those lines. That’s how merciless KENTA has been in this match.

Marufuji returns to the ring at the count of fourteen and the audience applauds loudly. KENTA recovers and hits a springboard dropkick that sends Marufuji careening to the opposite end of the ring. He hits running knees to Marufuji’s back and then double-arm suplexes Marufuji right into the corner. Damn. Yet another brutal move by KENTA. He’s being completely savage in this match. It looks like Marufuji landed on his head, which only makes it more brutal. KENTA’s in full control now. Picture-perfect bridging tiger suplex by KENTA. The referee counts one…two…thr—NO, Marufuji kicks out at 2.9. Great near-fall.

KENTA gets up and signals the end. KENTA rush followed by a BUSAIKU KNEE! Good God, he damn near caved Marufuji’s face in with that knee. He goes for a pin, but Marufuji kicks out yet again, this time at 2.99. WOW, I thought that was the end.

KENTA picks Marufuji up for the Go 2 Sleep, but Marufuji reverses it into a shiranui. He finally nailed it. But he can’t go for a pin, he’s too beat up. Marufuji climbs the turnbuckle slowly. KENTA charges but Marufuji has him scouted and kicks him in mid-air. Marufuji dives but KENTA catches him on his shoulders…sort of. They both fall down. It looks like that move was botched.

KENTA hoists him up in the fireman’s carry again, but Marufuji slides out and lands a backdrop driver. KENTA gets up right away and lands a backdrop driver of his own. Burning spirit time. German suplex by Marufuji. German by KENTA. Marufuji tries another German. KENTA lands on his feet. Discus lariat by KENTA. Marufuji no-sells. Superkick to the side of the head. Both men go down. The crowd goes wild.

They both get up slowly and Marufuji lands another superkick at the thirty-minute mark. He lands a cut-throat shiranui that gets him another two-count. Marufuji’s in complete control as he places KENTA on the second turnbuckle. He’s going for the Shiranui Kai. But KENTA fights back. He attempts a German suplex but Marufuji fights back. KENTA’s not done as he jumps onto the top turnbuckle Shelton Benjamin-style. He hooks the arms. AVALANCHE TIGER SUPLEX! HOLY SHIT! KENTA crawls for a pin. The referee counts one…two…thr—NO, Marufuji kicks out yet again.

KENTA gets up first and starts kicking Marufuji’s head for another two-count. KENTA signals the end once more. He hoists Marufuji onto his shoulders. Marufuji blocks one attempt but can’t block the second one. GO! TO! SLEEP! KENTA lands his big finisher. The referee counts one…two…NO, Marufuji gets his foot on the rope. KENTA was so desperate he failed to hook all of Marufuji’s limbs. This is absolutely crazy.

KENTA lands running knee and starts picking up speed for another Busaiku Knee. But just as he’s about to land it, Marufuji gets a second wind and charges for his rebound lariat. KENTA dodges and eats a superkick for his efforts, but no-sells and lands another Busaiku knee.

Both men are down once again and they’re slow to get up. Another stiff slap exchange begins. Superkick by Marufuji, martial arts kick combo by KENTA. Marufuji ducks the third one and lands another kick to the side of KENTA’s head. Then another while KENTA’s kneeling. And a third one to KENTA laying down for good measure. He goes for a pin but KENTA kicks out.

Now it’s Marufuji’s turn to signal the end as he places KENTA on the top turnbuckle. He head-butts KENTA a few times for good measure. Diving Spanish Fly! Damn, another amazing move.  The referee counts one…two…thre—no, KENTA kicks out again. Marufuji’s had enough of KENTA’s shit. He picks him up…POLE SHIFT! He dropped KENTA right on his head.

The referee counts one…two…three! That’s it! The match is over.

Winner and STILL GHC Heavyweight Champion after 35:34: Naomichi Marufuji

Pro Wrestling NOAH: Naomichi Marufuji (c) vs KENTA

Review

HELL YES! That was an incredibly epic match. It lived up to the hype in every way. They pulled out all the stops. This was a fantastic example of two wrestlers knowing each other so well and telling a fantastic story. This was King’s Road wrestling mixed with a newer, more fluid style. The constant reversals, switches, teases, twists and turns made it unpredictable and exciting. The pacing was unbelievable here as those 35 minutes just flew by without a single dull moment. Both guys had such unbelievable stamina to move so quickly despite being in incredible pain.

But above all else, this was a demonstration of wrestling brutality.

The beauty of the King’s Road style is that it looks so real because the wrestlers blend real, full-contact martial arts strikes into their repertoires. So unlike in most American wrestling, when you see and hear those stiff strikes they’re either incredibly real or ‘worked’ but done so convincingly that they look and sound real. Marufuji and KENTA just tore into each other so viciously, especially with those kicks to the gut. Both of them sold like they were hit for real, which made their later struggles so much more realistic and believable. They put on a classic and they definitely proved themselves capable as main-eventers. If anyone wants to know why these men have been emulated so much, go watch this contest.

All that being said, there were some issues with this contest that detracted from its quality. First, there were some lengthy moments of poor selling by both guys. Both Marufuji and KENTA attacked each other’s torsos with vicious kicks. Normally such brutal offense would be sold throughout the match with things like labored breathing and retching sounds, which both guys did (but Marufuji more so). But Marufuji seemed to forget all about that pain during the last fifteen minutes of the match. It would’ve been better if he slowed down or had some delayed selling later on in the match to give KENTA’s earlier work more significance.

That no-selling appeared again twice later, first during the suplex exchange and then when both of them started sprinting. While having bursts of energy gives the match more drama and purpose, that too weakens work done earlier in the match. During the first half, Marufuji in particular could barely move after all of KENTA’s kicks, yet after the second half he suddenly had enough energy to pull on a full blown sprint? It an example of drama at the expense of story and realism, which I think is more of a hindrance than a benefit.

Secondly, there was a truly scary moment in this match that didn’t need to happen. Marufuji executed an Asai Moonsault and landed throat-first on the guardrail. That wasn’t just brutal; it was terrifying. It was sickening. He landed with such force that I thought he was going to have trouble breathing and that they’d have to stop the match right then and there. But he continued the match as if nothing happened, which makes him one hell of a tough bastard. Still, it was an unnecessary move. Marufuji didn’t need to do something that crazy and the match would’ve still been awesome. He’s such a creative and innovative wrestler that he could’ve done something far safer and he would’ve had the same awesome match. But that particular move was so scary it took me out of the match and made me worry for his safety. That’s the last sort of reaction you want out of a viewer if you’re a pro wrestler. You want them so engrossed and emotionally-invested in your match that they forget you’re hurting yourself for their entertainment. If you have that immersion broken by a real or too-realistic-looking injury, you’ve gone too far trying to be daring and risky.

Lastly, this match was all about the big ‘high-spots’ and not some larger narrative. The focal points of this match were all those sick bumps, the sudden bursts of energy and the insane reversals. While both men targeted a body part with great focus and brutality, all that work barely played a part in the finish. KENTA and Marufuji basically abandoned any sense of taking the earlier work to make it mean something later on and just started throwing bombs at each other. That strategy works when you start and finish that way. Abandoning earlier work just to do big moves makes the earlier part of the match feel boring and completely insignificant.

Final Rating: ****3/4

This isn’t so much a wrestling match as it is a cross between a wrestling ‘spotfest’ and attempted murder by way of kicks and metal guardrails. The wrestling itself was pretty damn awesome and the fans lost their minds for a lot of it. I can see why so many wrestlers have either referenced or straight-up copied this match and its elements in recent years. These two smaller junior heavyweights proved they could wrestle at the level set by their legendary forbearers while also doing something new. They set the standard for smaller, lighter wrestlers everywhere looking to make their mark in an industry previously dominated by heavyweights.

At the same time, I thought like they went too far with some of their risks. I get that they wanted to escape the shadows of their respective mentors (Misawa and Kobashi). But that could’ve been done without resorting to lengthy no-selling sequences and Marufuji deciding to have an impromptu tracheostomy. Yes, their respective mentors took sick, crazy bumps throughout their careers. And yes, Misawa and Kobashi were known for being stiff and making their matches increasingly dangerous over time.

But do you want to know what else made them famous? Simple wrestling.

Marufuji and KENTA focused too much on the high-risk moves and the ‘can-he-withstand-this-intense-pain’ sequences that they neglected to focus on the simpler grappling aspects that made their mentors legends. Misawa and Kobashi’s legendary singles and tag matches from the 1990s and from 2003 weren’t just ‘spot-fest’ matches; they were complex, layered stories that put psychology and logic at the forefront more often than not.

Don’t get me wrong, these two put on an awesome wrestling match. But in doing so, they changed the way people watch wrestling in general. Because of matches like this one, people no longer want to see wrestling as a grappling art; they want to see wrestling moves. That’s like watching a highlight video of your favorite movie character’s most iconic scenes and one-liners while ignoring all the character development that may have occurred in the missing scenes. Sure, it’s fun and entertaining, but you just don’t get the full picture.

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