New Japan Pro-Wrestling had one of the best top-level runs as a company in years. From 2012 until the onset of COVID in early 2020, NJPW was the #1 company when it came to putting on amazing wrestling matches. The only other company that had such a long and sustained run of great matches was All Japan in the 1990s.
But where the two companies differ is in variety. All Japan’s matches were iconic but all of their iconic matches were heavyweight matches. Meanwhile, New Japan’s top-level run included both heavyweight and junior heavyweight matches. And today we look back at one of the best junior heavyweight matches to ever take place in New Japan.
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 BOSJ is the junior heavyweight version of the G1 Climax. Two blocks of wrestlers compete in a round-robin tournament and the winners of each block face off in the finals to win a big cash prize, a gorgeous trophy, and a shot at the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. And the 2015 tournament finals had two of the most evenly-matched wrestlers possible.
KUSHIDA wasn’t as much of a spot-heavy wrestler as most of his peers. While he did hit big moves in his matches, he was more of a technical wrestler and submission specialist. That was because he did MMA before pro-wrestling and finished that career with a 6-0 record.
But his opponent here had a similar background. O’Reilly spent many years doing amateur wrestling, kickboxing, and jiu-jitsu, and as such has adopted those disciplines’ elements into what he does in the wrestling ring. So even though this was a junior heavyweight tournament, fans knew that these two wrestlers would put on more of a technical display than they would an aerial one.
But this wasn’t a “virgin” encounter between these two wrestlers; they faced off before in tag matches. It was O’Reilly and Bobby Fish – reDRagon – who beat KUSHIDA and Alex Shelley to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championships back in November 2014.
The two teams fought many times since then, and all four ended up in this tournament as singles combatants. O’Reilly was alone in his block while KUSHIDA had both his partner and one of his tag opponents. But Shelley was injured before getting to face KUSHIDA so that match-up never happened. But KUSHIDA did beat Bobby Fish; and now that he was in the finals could he do the same to O’Reilly, one of two wrestlers that had been a constant thorn in his side for months on end? There was only one way to find out.
This match originally took place on June 7th, 2015. It was rated ****3/4 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.
KUSHIDA’s left elbow is taped up so you know O’Reilly’s actually going to go for that weakened limb instead of ignoring it. The two wrestlers shake hands and then have a tense lock-up and jockey for control against the ropes. O’Reilly goes for KUSHIDA’s legs but KUSHIDA blocks, which leads to a fast-paced scientific grappling exchange. O’Reilly out-grapples KUSHIDA and tries pushing his shoulders to the mat but KUSHIDA bridges out. O’Reilly tries pushing KUSHIDA down by balancing himself on KUSHIDA’s torso but KUSHIDA traps him in a Hoverboard Lock/kimura. But O’Reilly quickly escapes that and goes for an STF, only for KUSHIDA to block that. Another technical exchange ensues. KUSHIDA holds on as O’Reilly tries rolling out of a front chancery and then literally spins around on top of O’Reilly to mock him. O’Reilly avoids a big spinkick, leading to a stalemate and loud applause from the crowd.
O’Reilly headlocks KUSHIDA and then shoulder tackles him down. He avoids a kick and then walks all over KUSHIDA, and then blocks a hiptoss with a backslide and gets a one-count. KUSHIDA answers a charge with a Manhattan drop and a dropkick to O’Reilly’s knee, followed by a handspring dropkick to his head. Then KUSHIDA applies a short arm scissor hold and does his best to keep it locked in until O’Reilly gets a ropebreak with his foot. KUSHIDA sends O’Reilly into a corner but runs into a big boot. Then O’Reilly takes KUSHIDA down with a martial arts combination that hits him at different points on his body so he can’t block everything. O’Reilly gets a one-count off that strike combo and another one off a single-knee backbreaker. The two wrestlers trade forearms but O’Reilly tanks every strike from KUSHIDA, traps one arm, and lands a hammerlock DDT/arm snapping move. KUSHIDA rolls around the ring to escape O’Reilly so O’Reilly stomps on his arm as he reaches the ropes. O’Reilly viciously attacks that arm once he forces KUSHIDA to the mat by stretching it, kicking it, and stomping on it with all his might. Then O’Reilly targets KISHIDA’s other arm and nearly rips it out of its socket. O’Reilly follows with a sort of double-arm cradle pin for a two-count and then locks in a sort of octopus hold/arnlock type submission. I’ not sure exactly what it is but it’s clear that KUSHIDA’s in very real pain here.
After getting a ropebreak, KUSHIDA tries fighting back with chops but the damage to his arms renders them fairly weak. He has to stop between chops which allows O’Reilly to cut him off with a spinkick to the gut. O’Reilly follows with rolling butterfly suplexes and a swinging double-arm DDT for a two-count. KUSHIDA avoids a vertical suplex with a knee to O’Reilly’s head and then hits some kicks while against the ropes. Then KUSHIDA gets some revenge by landing an over-the-shoulder armbreaker using the ropes instead of his shoulder for impact.
KUSHIDA gets a few seconds to recover and then lands a springboard forearm followed by some high kicks to O’Reilly’s now-injured left shoulder. O’Reilly reverses an Irish whip but KUSHIDA hits first with a handspring elbow. He tries fighting on but O’Reilly stops him with a kick to the arm. O’Reilly blocks a corner whip and the two ducks under each other. KUSHIDA tries another Hoverboard Lock and a cross armbreaker but O’Reilly blocks the first one and then counters the second into an armbreaker of his own, only for KUSHIDA to wrestle out of that. O’Reilly blocks another charge and knees KUSHIDA’s face. Then he locks in a standing guillotine choke. KUSHIDA counters into a Hoverboard Lock and rolls to the middle of the ring. But O’Reilly reaches the ropes quickly to force a break.
KUSHIDA maintains wrist control but O’Reilly breaks free and hops onto the top turnbuckle. But before he can do anything KUSHIDA kicks his left shoulder and tries yet another Hoverboard Lock. But this time O’Reilly punches his way out and lands a diving hammerlock DDT/armbreaker, followed by a Fujiwara armbar. KUSHIDA doesn’t tap so O’Reilly switches to another hold. But in that transition KUSHIDA rolls out, blocks a suplex, tanks some elbows to his face, and drops O’Reilly with a German suplex. O’Reilly staggers backwards and goes for a McGuinness/Ambrose-style rebound lariat. KUSHIDA ducks it and lands a bridging dragon suplex. One, two, O’Reilly kicks out.
Both wrestlers struggle to their feet and KUSHIDA hits first with an over-the-shoulder armbreaker. He goes for a second one but O’Reilly blocks with a sleeper. KUSHIDA throws him off and charges but runs into a kick. O’Reilly charges to the ropes but KUSHIDA kicks him to the floor. KUSHIDA jumps onto the top turnbuckle and hits a swanton bomb to the floor.
KUSHIDA recovers in the ring and O’Reilly makes it in at the count of seventeen. But as soon as he passes through the ropes KUSHIDA dropkicks his head. KUSHIDA goes for a diving moonsault. He lands on O’Reilly…but O’Reilly counters with an armtrap triangle choke. Amazing counter. KUSHIDA tries escaping but O’Reilly has the hold on tight. KUSHIDA sinks down, which allows his foot to touch the ropes to break the hold. Talk about a lucky break for KUSHIDA.
O’Reilly rips off the tape on KUSHIDA’s elbow and lifts him onto the top rope for a super back suplex. KUSHIDA elbows out and hits another shoulder armbreaker to send O’Reilly falling. KUSHIDA teases another dive but O’Reilly crotches him on the top rope. Then O’Reilly connects with an avalanche back suplex and covers. One, two, KUSHIDA kicks out.
O’Reilly lands another kick to KUSHIDA’s shoulder which causes KUSHIDA to sink to his knees. But despite the incredible pain, KUSHIDA demands that O’Reilly kick his arm more and O’Reilly obliges. Eventually, KUSHIDA catches O’Reilly’s foot and lands a martial arts rush of his own, complete with multiple kicks. But then O’Reilly catches KUSHIDA’s leg and lands a bridging Regal-plex. One, two, and KUSHIDA kicks out again.
O’Reilly hits an ax kick and an elbow but KUSHIDA fires up and hits a big elbow of his own so powerful he hurts himself in the process. Both wrestlers struggle for control when O’Reilly lands a shoulder armbreaker of his own and charges for a lariat. But KUSHIDA ducks it and lands a Pélé kick. O’Reilly staggers again and connects with the rebound lariat. But it’s too weak to do any damage and KUSHIDA remains standing. KUSHIDA tries the same move but O’Reilly’s next lariat nearly takes KUSHIDA’s head off. One, two, KUSHIDA kicks out again. Sheerdrop Brainbuster by O’Reilly! KUSHIDA kicks out once more! Cross armbreaker! KUSHIDA clasps his hands together to save his left arm. O’Reilly locks in another Fujiwara armbar. But somehow, somehow, KUSHIDA manages to pull himself to the ropes for a break.
Both wrestlers end up on the apron and O’Reilly’s tag partner Bobby Fish trash-talks KUSHIDA from the floor. O’Reilly lands another kick to KUSHIDA’s badly damaged right arm and goes for yet another shoulder armbreaker. But this time KUSHIDA blocks it and shoves O’Reilly away. O’Reilly comes back with another standing guillotine choke. But KUSHIDA powers out into a Brainbuster onto the apron. Both wrestlers collapse to the floor. The ref begins his count and both guys barely make it in before he reaches twenty.
Back in the ring, the ref starts counting for a possible double knock-out. KUSHIDA lifts himself up enough to stop that count but then sinks back down out of sheer pain and exhaustion. Can’t say I blame him; the wrestling in this match has been off the charts so far. Both guys make it to their knees and trade (right-arm) elbow strikes. O’Reilly wins that exchange and KUSHIDA sinks down. Then he fights up and hits a big elbow flurry of his own, but all it does is anger O’Reilly. Both wrestlers slug it out as they hold each other by the hair. O’Reilly wins the exchange and lands a massive Misawa rolling elbow. Both wrestlers collapse again.
O’Reilly gets up first and charges but KUSHIDA blocks it and lands a reverse STO into a turnbuckle. KUSHIDA follows with a running knee strike and a Shiranui for a very close two-count. Then KUSHIDA dives with a corkscrew splash that mostly connects with O’Reilly’s head. One, two, O’Reilly kicks out. KUSHIDA charges for a kick but O’Reilly dodges it. Then KUSHDA lands a flying tilt-a-whirl into a Hoverboard Lock! O’Reilly pulls himself towards the ropes. He’s fingertips away from breaking the hold when KUSHIDA rolls them both away. KUSHIDA tightens his submission hold in the middle of the ring. O’Reilly taps out! KUSHIDA wins!
Winner of the 2015 Best of the Super Juniors tournament after 30:45: KUSHIDA
Post-match, KUSHIDA offers a handshake but O’Reilly goes further and bows deeply. The two of them show deep respect for each other and the crowd shows their appreciation with even louder applause.
WOW! What a mesmerizing and phenomenal wrestling match! Those thirty minutes just flew by. The wrestling, psychology, tension, and counters were all off-the-charts awesome here. This is without a doubt one of the best matches I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t a spot-fest, or a blistering strike exchange, or a brutally stiff war. Instead, this was thirty minutes of technical wrestling at its finest that was as exciting as it was smooth. This one really deserves the praise and still holds up tremendously well after so many years.
Both KUSHIDA and O’Reilly had the exact same strategy here: go for the arm. Both of them were absolutely visceral and unrelenting in their limbwork. Each time either one found an opening, they went to the arm. Those identical strategies bound the entire match together and played a key part in the match from start to finish. It was so refreshing to see limbwork done early and followed up on until the closing bell without it being thrown to the side in favor of a different approach introduced midway through for no apparent reason. By keeping to this same strategy, these two were able to make this match incredibly compelling. The match could’ve ended at any times given how badly both guys’ arms were. At no point did the match veer into the realm of surrealism; it maintained its sense of believability because pretty much everything that was done was logical and fit the match’s story and psychology.
Both wrestlers left the match better than how they came in. O’Reilly showed off his wrestling smarts by attacking KUSHIDA’s taped-up left arm and looked vicious as he didn’t stop targeting it. That forced KUDHIDA to fight from beneath and made him look like a tough SOB for fighting through immense pain and major challenges as he had a much harder time stringing any offense together. Even as KUSHIDA did some typical cruiserweight stuff he had to slow down after every big spot because he was still in pain and limited in what he could do. That’s what makes this such a unique and exciting cruiserweight match: it’s less about the token high-flying stuff and frenetic bursts and more about telling a story. There was substance to the match here instead of just random flashy MOVEZ. There was a reason to get behind KUDHIDA as the match’s babyface while O’Reilly, though a heel, did such a phenomenal job of controlling the story that one couldn’t help but applaud him.
Plus, the match’s MMA influence made all the little details matter. This was a match that kept viewers glued to their seats. The match changed directions several times not due to high spots or explosive sequences but due to the slightest counters and smallest details. KUDHIDA went for his Hoverboard Lock finisher several times and locked it in out of nowhere because it fit the match’s story and his need to beat O’Reilly as quickly as possible. It didn’t go long because the wrestlers wanted to; it went long because the wrestling was so airtight and the wrestlers were both so tough. There was little wasted motion if any here, especially since both guys’ selling came across as believable and realistic here.
There really wasn’t anything in this match that stood out in a bad way. KUSHIDA did miss that diving splash towards the end but it’s not like that had much of an impact on the match to begin with since the match started with armwork and ended with armwork. Even the typical cruiserweight stuff that usually emphasizes style over substance didn’t hurt this match because, again, both wrestlers stuck to their strategies and built everything else they did around them.
Final Rating: *****
Even with a single slightly botched diving press at the end this match is simply outstanding. It’s an absolute must-watch match. It’s easily one of the best matches of the past ten years and a contender for the best junior heavyweight match ever. And the funny thing is, it barely even features any high-flying.
But that’s not the draw here; this match is far more compelling than most high-flying moves matches because it’s put together so flawlessly. I know it hasn’t happened yet, but if AEW’s Bryan Danielson were to finally wrestle NJPW’s Zack Sabre, Jr., this is more or less what that match would look like.
Few matches pass the time as well as this one while still being so entertaining and captivating. This was top-tier wrestling and is definitely worth the New Japan World subscription.