(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Hirooki Goto vs. Minoru Suzuki (Hair vs. Hair Match) – NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 12

njpw goto minoru suzuki 2018

One of the best things about pro-wrestling is when a match looks poor on paper but ends up being way better than expected. This is one of those situations.

It’s a match that was destined to be thrown into the dustbin of wrestling history and forgotten as a nothing midcard match between two guys that had nothing better to do at that time. But that’s not what happened; instead, these two wrestlers with nothing better to do put on one of the most entertaining and interesting under-20-minute matches in many years. But was it really as good as so many fans have said? Let’s find out.

Today we revisit the hair vs. hair match between Minoru Suzuki and Hirooki Goto from NJPW Wrestle Kingdom 12.

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

Throughout 2017, Goto chased Suzuki and his NEVER Openweight title. And each time they fought, Suzuki won. So when Goto challenged Suzuki a third time after Power Struggle 2017, Suzuki said no. As he should have. At that moment, Suzuki had no reason to face Goto again and Goto hadn’t done anything to earn another shot. Undeterred, Goto looked for any avenue he could to earn another shot. He eventually found on in December during New Japan’s annual tag tournament. Early on in the tournament, Goto pinned Suzuki clean. It was a big deal for any champion to be pinned in any match, so the logical step would’ve been for Goto to get his shot. But Suzuki refused again, this time saying that he had nothing to offer in exchange. Thinking on his feet, Goto decided to offer his hair, which Suzuki later accepted, but not after trying and failing to blindside Goto by shaving his head following a cheap shot. And to make sure it was a fair and decisive fight, it was decided that it would be a deathmatch (whatever that means; different companies use the term to mean different things) and no one from either wrestler’s stable would be allowed to interfere.

Thus the stage was set for a big showdown at Wrestle Kingdom 12. In terms of personality, you couldn’t really find more polar opposites. Suzuki was a sadistic bastard that laughed when getting hit by his opponents, made funny faces at them to get under their skin, and wore one of the most inexplicable and bizarre haircuts in wrestling history. Goto was his polar opposite. His is the most straightforward gimmick in the whole company. His nickname is “Aramusha” which translates as ‘Fierce Warrior’. He’s also stoic and embodies fighting spirit and grit. Basically, if there was a pro-wrestling version of a samurai, it would be Goto. He also had long flowing hair that made him look like a badass.

So which one of them would get shaved?

The match

This match originally took place on January 4th, 2018 at Wrestle Kingdom 12. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.

This is a hair vs. hair no-seconds deathmatch for Suzuki’s NEVER Openweight Championship. There are no disqualifications in this match (from the wrestlers involved) and seconds (i.e. stablemates, friends, or allies) are forbidden from getting involved (which would lead to a disqualification). The loser must also have his head shaved.

Goto’s ready to lock up but Suzuki bitchslaps him instead. Suzuki talks s**t to him and Goto fires back with a stiff slap of his own. The trash-talking continues and then the elbow exchange begins. Suzuki fires off another slap. An angry Goto tries his own but Suzuki ducks and goes for a sleeper hold. Goto backs into the corner to break it since ropebreaks are useless in this deathmatch. Suzuki sits on the top turnbuckle and lifts Goto up in a hangman’s sleeper. Goto’s face goes limp as he slumps down and collapses. The referee and a doctor check on Goto but Suzuki shoves them aside. He tries to lift Goto up but Goto’s body is now completely limp. The referee gives Goto every opportunity to keep going as he doesn’t want to stop the match like that. Suzuki uses this as an opportunity to kick Goto’s ribs and then throws him to ringside. Goto starts stirring so Suzuki throws him into the barricade and whacks him with a chair.

Five minutes have passed as the ref checks on Goto again. The ref pulls the chair from Suzuki so Suzuki waits in the ring for Goto to get up. Goto struggles into the ring but then Suzuki snapmares him and punts his spine. Suzuki continues the mocking kicks and slaps but Goto starts channeling fighting spirit. He starts hitting stiff slaps to Suzuki’s chest, but Suzuki isn’t just no-selling; he’s laughing. He laughs right in Goto’s face and then drops him with a huge wind-up elbow. Goto fights up again and does the same thing but Suzuki elbows him back down. Suzuki keeps telling Goto ‘come on’ in Japanese yet he maintains control with stiff strikes. He lands a corner yakuza kick and applies a standing cravate hold but Goto tries to fight out. But he fails as Suzuki stops him with a brutal knee to the gut. Suzuki does another snapmare and goes for a running Penalty Kick but Goto catches his leg. Goto lands an elbow to the top of Suzuki’s knee. Suzuki answers with another stiff elbow. Suzuki goes for a corner Irish whip. Goto reverses it and hits a corner wheel kick followed by a running bulldog. Suzuki counters an Irish whip with a sleeper. Goto escapes via Saito suplex for a two-count. They trade elbows and this time Suzuki starts wobbling. Goto goes for the ushigorishi. Suzuki counters into a guillotine choke at the ten-minute mark. Goto powers him back up onto his shoulders. Suzuki reverses into a sleeper and then goes for the Gotch-style piledriver. But Goto powers out. Suzuki fakes him out, ducks a lariat, and reapplies the sleeper. But this time Goto counters the piledriver with a successful ushigorishi. Both wrestlers go down.

Both wrestlers are still down as some action starts happening at ringside. Some of Suzuki’s stablemates approach the ring to help, despite the stipulation banning them from doing so. They’re stopped by the Young Lions watching from ringside. Then TAICHI comes in with a chair but he’s stopped by Goto’s tag partner YOSHI-HASHI. Goto sees this and elbows TAICHI to the floor, unaware that Suzuki’s pulling a Randy Orton and slithering behind him. The two wrestlers trade elbows again. Goto charges but runs into a dropkick from Suzuki. Suzuki laughs as he pulls Goto to his feet. And then he just wrecks Goto with countless slaps and palm strikes. Goto must have no feeling in his cheeks or jaw at this point. Suzuki follows with a sleeper. Goto starts fading as blood appears on his lips and then tries powering up. Then he fades again. The ref checks on Goto. Goto’s arm drops once…twice…thr – no, Suzuki decides to embarrass Goto by going for his piledriver again. He lifts Goto up…and Goto resists. Goto powers Suzuki into a corner and hits a clothesline.

Fifteen minutes have passed as the two wrestlers trade forearms on the second rope in a corner. Suzuki hits a nasty head-butt and locks in a front chancery. Goto musters some inhuman power and lands a diving ushigoroshi. He crawls over for a pin. One, two, Suzuki kicks out. Goto attempts his GTR finisher. Suzuki powers out and traps Goto’s arm. They trade stiff elbows again. Goto tries hitting a barrage of elbows but Suzuki just taunts him. Then Suzuki breaks free. But Goto hits first with a head-butt of his own. Inverted GTR. Goto smashes Suzuki’s face into his knee. That’s followed by a standard GTR. Inverted headlock lariat knee backbreaker combo. One, two, and three! Goto beats Suzuki and wins the NEVER title! Suzuki will have to have his head shaved!

Winner and NEW NEVER Openweight Champion after 18:04: Hirooki Goto

Post-match, Suzuki-gun members carry their nearly-unconscious leader backstage. But midway through, Minoru Suzuki pushes them off. He may be a total prick, but he’s going to deal with the consequences of his actions like a man. He grabs a chair, but instead of whacking some helpless Young Lion like he usually does, he uses it to swing away another chair that Goto had setup for him. Because he’s going to sit in a chair of his choosing, dammit. Suzuki rips the electric razor from Goto’s hand and shaves off his Mohawk by himself. With that, Suzuki’s trademark hairstyle is gone. He no longer has the weird patterns mixed with some fishtail/Mohawk-like protrusion.

By the following night, Suzuki will have gone from this:

To this:

Good God, what sort of eldritch abomination has Hirooki Goto unleashed?!


New Japan isn’t really known for stipulation matches. 99% of their singles and tags matches are straight-laced, bare-bones athletic contests centered on wins and losses. And even when they do have stipulation matches, they’re usually something built around wins and losses, like that 2-out-of-3 falls match between Okada and Omega. But this one was different. This match saw New Japan try something, well, new. And by going in that new direction, these two wrestlers managed to put on a much better match than if they had repeated the same gimmick-free matches they’ve had before.

The stipulation allowed Suzuki to be even more remorseless than usual. With no ropebreaks at play, Suzuki was able to put Goto in a much more vicious sleeper hold and for much longer. That hangman’s sleeper looked brutal and Goto sold it like he was being legit choked out. Within two minutes, the match took a serious and almost kayfabe-breaking direction. The referee and doctor came in and checked to see if Goto was even conscious. The match could’ve ended right there, such was the seriousness of what Suzuki had done.

But this wouldn’t’ve been pro-wrestling if that happened. Instead, the referee became a major player in the emotional story being told. He kept slapping Goto and checking on him to see if he was capable of continuing while also keeping Suzuki at bay. Yes, it was a stalling tactic, but it was a necessary one. The crowd instantly grew louder and more excited as the ref kept checking on Goto. Everyone in New Japan, including the referees, want a match to end cleanly and without shenanigans (Bullet Club and House of Torture are notable exceptions). So the ref tried to will Goto on; not because he was being partial, but because he didn’t want the match to end like that. It’s so refreshing when the referees aren’t just nameless figures that exist just to call the decision. When the referees show some kind of integrity and adhere to some kind of code beyond just the simple decision when the situation calls for them, it gives a match more life and drama.

Of course, it also helps when the referee’s sense of integrity and Goto’s perseverance are combined with the sadism of someone like Suzuki. I know some people might not fully buy into his reputation as this fearsome tough guy, but man, did he do a great job of being vicious here. He threw the doctor away when Goto was being checked on. He smashed Goto’s back with a chair so hard that it looked like he swung it with full power. He taunted Goto so much that it was easy to despise him for being so remorseless. In other words, Suzuki was awesome at being the villain this story needed.

As got Goto, he was the perfect prototypical underdog hero this match needed. He was at a severe disadvantage from the opening bell and had to fight like hell just to stay conscious. Suzuki tried many different things and attacked Goto from different angles to try and stop his march forward. But ultimately, none of that worked. Once Goto got going, Suzuki’s different avenues to victory began to disappear. There was even a surprising-yet-unsurprising appearance from Suzuki’s allies, who pulled a WWE-style interference spot to distract Goto for one brief moment. But that was all Suzuki needed to regain control for a brief moment. Suzuki managed to stall Goto’s momentum and then proceeded to smack the hell out of him. But that only made Goto’s resolve – and his fans’ support – stronger.

But then something dumb happened: Suzuki released his sleeper and attempted a piledriver when he was literally seconds away from choking Goto out. Then he went for a front facelock on the top rope, but by then it was too late. Suzuki’s own vanity cost him the match. His desire to show off for no apparent reason allowed Goto to gain a critical opening. Once Goto his that top-rope ushigoroshi, he opened a hole in Suzuki’s armor. From there he tore into Suzuki with a barrage of stiff elbows and a few finishers to win the match. Because of that choice by Suzuki, Goto’s win came across as a bit unearned. He didn’t overcome Suzuki’s superior submission skills on his own; instead, Suzuki’s own poor decision cost him the match.

It was the right finish in the end, but the commentators were also correct here. All Suzuki had to do was hold the sleeper for a few more seconds and he would’ve won. When the commentators pointed out a flaw in Suzuki’s actions, they weren’t burying him. But when they pointed out Suzuki’s choice of action, it was too much to ignore.

Final Rating: ****1/4

If you want to see two wrestlers trying to out-macho each other New Japan-style, this is the match for you. There was nothing fancy here; just two tough bastards trying to overcome each other. It wasn’t a David vs. Goliath match-up in the traditional sense, but there was still a massive gulf between Suzuki’s amateur and submission skills and Goto’s. Suzuki almost crushed Goto underfoot at the beginning and Goto spent 85% of the match on defense. And once he came back, he put Suzuki away fairly easily.

By no means is it some kind of genuine epic, but it was still refreshing. I just wish they did more with the ‘deathmatch’ billing. I’m not asking for barbed wire bloodbaths or anything, but I think amping up the sense of danger and brutality would’ve made this match more memorable. Instead, it just came off as a normal match with minor rule adjustments. The action didn’t justify the name or the headline, but at least the match’s story was fun.

Thanks for reading. You can email me with any questions or comments, and be sure to check out my 5-Star and Almost 5-Star Match Reviews series here.