What makes a wrestling match entertaining? Is it a deep and compelling story? Is it larger-than-life characters? Is it ridiculous slapstick violence that makes people laugh and lose themselves in the absurdity of what’s before them? Or is it realism and believability? The answer to these questions will depend from person to person, and there are many matches and segments out there that fit into all of these categories. And today we’re looking at that last option.
It’s a great example of realism and believability making a match way more entertaining and compelling than it has any right to be.
Today we look back at the singles match between NJPW wrestler Katsuyori Shibata and AJPW/NOAH legend Jun Akiyama from the 2005 Wrestle-1 Grand Prix 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.
During the mid-2000s, AJPW owner Keiji Mutoh looked everywhere to find partners with whom he could do special shows. Throughout the decade, he and his AJPW partnered with companies like K-1 and PRIDE to put on special shows. Later on, Mutoh decided to use the Wrestle-1 name for a tournament involving the best wrestlers in his company plus some outsiders as well. (He seemed to love that name so much that when he broke away from AJPW in 2013, he founded his own company called, you guessed it, Wrestle-1, which was in operations until early 2020.)
This tournament had a bunch of big names in Japanese wrestling at the time. Mutoh himself was wrestling under his famous alter-ego The Great Muta. WWE alumni Giant Bernard and Akebono (of WrestleMania 21 infamy) were there as well. There were also some established legends from decades past like Kensuke Sasaki, Genichiro Tenryu and Riki Choshu. And included among these wrestlers were Jun Akiyama and Katsuyori Shibata.
Some diehard New Japan fans reading this will recognize Shibata’s name. He’s that guy that nearly killed himself for real when he head-butted Kazuchika Okada in what many consider the greatest match of the 2010s. But long before that, he was a young New Japan hopeful alongside Hiroshi Tanahashi and Shinsuke Nakamura. Those three were supposed to be the new Three Musketeers of New Japan, and as such they needed to be treated like big deals. Nakamura was already on his way there: he was Inoki’s personal pet project and was given a push almost identical to Brock Lesnar’s when he debuted. Tanahashi was a bit beneath Nakamura at the time, but he was still one of New Japan’s top workhorses during the mid-2000s. As for Shibata, he wasn’t given a major push as of yet, so New Japan sent him around smaller promotions, hoping he could get some seasoning. Unfortunately for Shibata, his first match in this tournament would be against Akiyama.
Jun Akiyama has been called the unofficial ‘fifth pillar’ of All Japan’s Four Pillars of Heaven. To say he was born to be a pro-wrestler would be an understatement. He debuted in September 1992 and within less than a year he was already wrestling like a seasoned veteran. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, he had oneamazingmatchafteranother alongside his older AJPW comrades. And yet, Akiyama was never able to surpass any of them. He was always a fantastic worker but never became the top draw NOAH needed. To try and fix that problem, NOAH sent Akiyama all over the place to improve NOAH’s exposure in Japan.
And thus these two representatives from two different companies would face off. For those fans that love their wrestling extra brutal and violent, this was something of a dream match. Shibata was a no-nonsense stiff strike machine that didn’t give a damn about his opponent. Meanwhile, Akiyama was a thirteen-year veteran, plus a national amateur wrestling champion and near-Olympian. He was to All Japan – and later NOAH – what Gable Steveson is to WWE now in terms of being a high-profile and credible signing.
Needless to say, when these two wrestlers clashed, it was bound to be something special.
This match originally took place on August 4th, 2005. Dave Meltzer never gave it a formal rating so we don’t have that factor looming overhead going into this match. That said, I’ve read from many fans that this was a fantastic match when it took place so let’s see how well it holds up.
The bell rings and Shibata rushes Akiyama and hits a boot. That’s followed by a Backdrop suplex and some mocking kicks to Akiyama’s head. The second kick busts Akiyama open the hard way. Blood is pouring out of his head.
Akiyama rolls to the floor and Shibata separates the ropes to invite him back in. but when Akiyama doesn’t, Shibata goes after him. BIG mistake. Akiyama proceeds to knock the piss out of Shibata with forearms and kneelifts. Akiyama’s downright furious as he drags Shibata into the crowd. Fans run away as Akiyama wails on Shibata with a chair. They both make it back into the ring and start slapping each other as hard as possible. Akiyama absorbs everything Shibata throws at him and lands a Backdrop suplex of his own. But Shibata maintains a headlock and switches into a sleeper hold. Akiyama escapes the body scissors but Shibata keeps the sleeper locked in until Akiyama sinks down. Shibata follows with a nasty Penalty Kick to the face. Akiyama fights to his feet but Shibata rushes him with kneelifts, uppercuts, and corner kicks. An especially stiff kneelift sends Akiyama to the floor as Shibata catches his breath in the ring, wearing Akiyama’s blood on his arm like a badge of honor.
Shibata wants to go after Akiyama on the floor but the referee stops him and actually fights to keep Shibata in the ring. Shibata eventually gets past him and knocks Akiyama into the ring post. He hits some knees and kicks and then goes for a roundhouse kick but Akiyama ducks. Shibata’s foot connects with the ring post. But Shibata no-sells this and lands more knee lifts with his good leg. But here comes Akiyama, angry as ever, who back suplexes Shibata onto the commentary table…without clearing it. But he’s not done. Akiyama grabs a chair and smashes Shibata’s leg with it. Then he pulls off the ringside mats and hits a piledriver onto the exposed cement floor. That’s followed by more stiff chairshots to the head and shoulder.
Shibata returns to the ring but Akiyama lands a running knee just as he passes through the ropes. Akiyama hits some stiff kicks and knees, followed by another Backdrop suplex for a two-count. Guillotine choke by Akiyama. Shibata escapes by punching and kicking Akiyama’s ribs. But that only makes him even angrier. Jumping knee but Akiyama. Spinning wheel kick by Shibata. Both guys swing at each other like wild animals. Shibata gains the advantage and hits his trademark running corner basement dropkick. Shibata teases an Exploder suplex but then switches to an STO slam into an inverted crossface-type hold. Akiyama gets a ropebreak so Shibata pins for a two-count.
Shibata applies another sleeper but Akiyama gets a ropebreak. Akiyama blocks a dragon suplex so Shibata pulls a Tanahashi and switches to a German suplex instead. Then Shibata hits a PK to the back and charges for a front PK but Akiyama ducks and hits an Exploder. Shibata bounces up and lands a Backdrop. Exploder #2. Another PK. Both wrestlers collapse at the ten-minute mark.
Both wrestlers get up and Shibata hits first with some body blows and knees, but Akiyama catches his leg and connects with another Exploder and then locks in his own crossface. Shibata fights hard but eventually escapes by getting his foot on the ropes. Akiyama answers with a running kneelift to the face that causes Shibata to do the Kurt Angle falling tree sell. Akiyama hits another running knee. Shibata kicks out at one and staggers into Akiyama. Both wrestlers slap the taste out of each other’s mouths. Akiyama hits another kneelift and another Exploder. Running knee strike #2. Shibata kicks out again. Wrist-Clutch Exploder suplex. The referee counts one, two, and three! Akiyama puts Shibata down!
Winner after 13:46: Jun Akiyama
Take whatever preconceptions you may have about Japanese wrestling being all about ‘honor’ and ‘respect’ and throw them out the window. This was a Japanese-style striking match mixed with the kind of outside-the-ring brawls that were famous during the peak of the Attitude Era. It was fourteen minutes of pretty much nonstop violence. It was one of the best examples of a match that has grit to it; so when you read what the Undertaker said about today’s wrestling, you can have this match in the back of your mind as one of many examples of how matches in the past were better.
The story here was that Shibata the younger star needed to make an impact against an established veteran. And what better way to do that than by beating him bloody? The wrestling culture in Japan is very big on toughing things out, so when Akiyama got busted open, he didn’t order the match stopped to clean himself up; rather, he channeled that into unchained fury and proceeded to give Shibata the receipt he deserved. That ‘receipt’ came in the form of an aggression rarely seen from a wrestler as technical and ‘refined’ as Akiyama: he brawled with Shibata into the stands and smashed his entire body with chairshots. It was another great example of a younger wrestler ‘poking the bear’ and learning his lesson for doing so.
Of course, there was still some proper ‘wrestling’ in this wrestling match as well. There were lots of submission holds and Akiyama did a great job of targeting Shibata’s leg after Shibata kicked the ringpost. It was only natural that following that mistake (and Akiyama’s chairshots to the leg) that Shibata’s trademark PK finisher ended up being far less effective at finishing his opponent off. Once that problem materialized, Shibata resorted to hitting like a wild man and trying to play mind games with Akiyama by kicking out of other finishers. And like in a proper high-quality wrestling story, the drama built up over one believable near-fall after another. Shibata survived one high-impact finisher from Akiyama after another until there was really only one left: the wrist-clutch Exploder. Akiyama saved his bigger finisher for the end because Shibata had survived Akiyama’s ‘main’ finishers. Doing so underscored how desperate Akiyama was to win and how tough Shibata was. That way, even though Shibata lost, he looked great in defeat. It said a lot that a wrestler as experienced and established as Akiyama had more than his fair share of trouble in putting Shibata down.
Final Rating: ****1/2
It’s refreshing to see a wrestling match that actually sells the idea that two wrestlers genuinely hate each other. Even though there are some fans out there that think that full-contact striking doesn’t make sense since ‘wrestling’s fake’, for those of us out there that still enjoy more realistic wrestling, it’s great that matches like this one can still be found. The more wrestling veers towards entertainment and away from sport, the less believable it gets. And believability is often sorely lacking in today’s wrestling landscape, especially when you see people way past their prime beating younger and fresher talent.
There are some parts of the match that some viewers might not like too much: the hard chairshots and the somewhat wanton recklessness with which these two wrestlers hit each other. But in my opinion, that’s part of this match’s appeal. Both wrestlers are naturally tough and underwent rigorous training so that they can withstand inhuman punishment and they’re both so skilled and convincing that they look like they’re in more or less a real fight here.
Sometimes having more sport than entertainment is necessary, especially when you’re trying to build a star for tomorrow while protecting someone that’s already established. This match accomplishes both of those things while still being both entertaining and realistic, all in such a short amount of time. It’s pretty special, all things considered.