(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Naomichi Marufuji vs. Prince Devitt – NJPW Super J Cup 2009

prince devitt marufuji njpw

One of the many things wrestling fans love to argue about is how their favorite wrestlers are underutilized and misused. This has been the case for decades and has taken place in many promotions, but the most common target of this criticism has been WWE. One doesn’t have to look far online to find discussion threads or videos bemoaning how so-and-so is being wasted despite being incredibly talented.

But this isn’t just some opinionated fans voicing their displeasure; there is verifiable proof of wrestlers being signed to the biggest wrestling company in the world and then being stripped of what made them exciting in the first place. Wrestlers like Cesaro, Ricochet, The Viking Raiders, Chad Gable, Neville, and countless other NXT call-ups were brought to WWE’s main roster only to flounder and remain largely underappreciated.

One notable case is Finn Balor. Although he has enjoyed mild success since coming to WWE’s main roster in 2016, many fans have felt that he hasn’t been used properly. Despite his widespread popularity, Balor spent most of the past six years floundering in the midcard while wrestling with an iron ball chained to his leg. He has been somewhat impressive in WWE, but he hasn’t gotten the chance to show WWE’s fans the maximum of his in-ring potential.

To see that, we have to go back in time, travel across the Pacific Ocean, and watch Balor wrestling under his old name against the most influential wrestler of the past twenty years.

Today we look back at the singles match between Prince Devitt and Naomichi Marufuji from the 2009 Super J Cup 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.

The story

This was the fifth edition of the Super J Cup Tournament. Like its previous iterations, this tournament was designed to elevate rising junior heavyweight stars and expose them to a wider audience. And while the single-elimination tournament started with sixteen participants, only two were left standing heading into the finals.

One was Prince Devitt, now known as Finn Balor. This was long before the Bullet Club existed and Devitt spent most of his time teaming with Ryusuke Taguchi in New Japan. To get to the finals, Devitt defeated AJPW cruiserweight Atsushi Aoki, DDT’s version of Goldust in Danshoku Dino, and Dragon Gate wrestler Yamato.

But the man Devitt would face in the finals was a much bigger threat: Naomichi Marufuji.

Most people might not recognize Marufuji’s name, which is a shame considering how influential he is. More than any other wrestler still active, Marufuji is responsible for creating the modern ‘indy’ style match. Think of any wrestling trope you’ve seen over the past fifteen to twenty years. Things like tons of superkicks, blistering speed, long back-and-forth no-selling sequences, insane my-turn-your-turn finisher exchanges and lots of ‘flippy’ stuff. Marufuji popularized these things during the 2000s and wrestlers all over the world started copying him. So if you’re wondering who to thank for the wrestling style that was common in Triple H’s NXT, thank Marufuji.

But being a trend-setter wasn’t Marufuji’s only claim to fame. Going into this match, Marufuji was already the biggest young star in Japan not named Tanahashi. He had already won numerous accolades all around Japan by the time this match took place. He had already won All Japan’s junior heavyweight title, both the junior and heavyweight titles in NOAH, and had numerous tag team accolades as well. Oh, and he also won the last Super J Cup tournament, which was held in 2004.

As if that wasn’t enough, the people that Marufuji beat to get to the finals were much bigger than Devitt’s opponents. Marufuji beat Jushin Liger (a.k.a. the guy that created the tournament in the first place), Tiger Mask IV (perhaps the most iconic junior heavyweight in NJPW at the time), and Devitt’s tag partner Taguchi. So Devitt lost the opportunity to have a big match with his partner in the finals of a prestigious tournament thanks to an outsider crashing his party.

Needless to say, Devitt had his hands full with Marufuji. But could he channel that into a surprise win and avenge his comrade? Or would he be beaten by the only protégé of wrestling god Mitsuharu Misawa? There was only one way to find out.

The match

This match originally took place on December 23rd, 2009 in the finals of the 2009 Super J Cup tournament. It was never given a rating by the Wrestling Observer, yet many people have considered it a classic. Let’s see how good it really was.

Marufuji gets a clean break on the ropes and then Devitt takes his arm. They both do some flippy stuff and chain grappling that lead to a standoff. After a second technical exchange they start trading elbows and then start blocking and dodging big strikes. Devitt takes Marufuji down and starts working his head and arm despite Marufuji’s attempts at counters. He wears down Marufuji’s arm with different holds and throws, and knees Marufuji in the chest while trapping that same arm. Marufuji escapes to ringside but Devitt chases him down and attacks his arm again. Devitt thinks he’s in control when suddenly Marufuji bounces off the apron and clotheslines Devitt down (using his good arm). Marufuji follows with a Brainbuster onto the apron. Just like that Marufuji has control.

Devitt rolls into the ring and Marufuji goes right after his neck with stomps and forearms. Marufuji drapes Devitt in the ropes in position for the 619 and then does a drive-by kick Roman Reigns wishes he could do. Devitt kicks out of a pin at two so Marufuji applies a deep chinlock to target Devitt’s weakened neck. He gets a ropebreak so Marufuji drags him into a corner and stands on his head and neck. Devitt tries fighting back with chops but Marufuji shuts him down with a spin kick to the gut. Marufuji locks in a cobra clutch and then spins into a crossface chickenwing but Devitt gets a ropebreak once again so Marufuji lands a running foot stomp to Devitt’s head. Marufuji pins but only gets two.

Devitt counters an Irish whip and then answers a front kick from Marufuji with a spin kick of his own. Marufuji blocks a charge with a kick and goes for a second-rope dive but Devitt hits first with an enzuigiri and Marufuji falls to the floor. Devitt goes to the top rope and dives with a swanton bomb to the floor. Marufuji gets launched into the audience as they cheer for Devitt, who gets his second wind and tosses Marufuji back into the ring. Marufuji dodges a diving foot stomp but can’t avoid a corner dropkick. Devitt follows with a Brainbuster of his own. One, two, Marufuji kicks out. Devitt goes for his Prince’s Throne fireman’s carry gutbuster finisher but Marufuji escapes. Devitt blocks a move by elbowing Marufuji’s arm which leads to a crisscross that ends with Marufuji landing a lariat. Devitt ends up on the apron but Marufuji cuts him off with a springboard dropkick that sends Devitt to the floor. Now Marufuji gets his second wind. He charges…and jumps over the rope and lands a dropkick to Devitt on the floor. Damn, Marufuji was always something else when it came to speed.

The referee begins his count and Devitt appears to have hurt his knee. But despite that pain, he runs into the ring at the count of 19.5 to avoid getting counted out. But that ends badly for him because Marufuji lands a diving dropkick to Devitt’s head the second he enters the ring. Marufuji pins but only gets two. Devitt blocks a Shiranui and lands a Pélé kick. He struggles to stay on his feet as he avoids a corner charge and hits a kick combo. Devitt ducks a clothesline and hits an enzuigiri to set up his diving stomp. Even with a bad knee, Devitt climbs the top rope. Diving double foot stomp connects. One, two, thr – no, Marufuji kicks out. The mostly Japanese crowd starts chanting ‘let’s go Devitt’ in English, that’s how much they love him here.

Devitt places Marufuji on the top rope and goes for a super back suplex. Marufuji blocks and teases a super Shiranui but Devitt blocks that and connects with his suplex. He crawls over to pin but Marufuji still kicks out. Devitt ducks a thrust kick and lands a Codebreaker followed by a roll-up that gets two. He goes for Bloody Sunday. Marufuji blocks and hits the Shiranui. Both men collapse from exhaustion. Devitt gets up first and charges. Marufuji blocks and hits a kick combo. Devitt ducks another kick and does a small package for another two-count. Devitt follows with a corkscrew kick and hits what appears to be a Go 2 Sleep. He pins…and Marufuji kicks out again. Devitt goes back to the top rope but Marufuji cuts him off this time. Diving Spanish Fly! One, two, thr – Devitt survives. Marufuji follows with some inverted Ranhei headlock driver thing and then kicks Devitt in his face. All of that yields another two-count so Marufuji signals the end. Pole Shift Fisherman piledriver! One, two, and three! There’s the match!

Winner of the 2009 Super J Cup Tournament after 18:06: Naomichi Marufuji


It’s said that the mark of a great wrestler is their ability to have a great match with anyone. Well by that metric, Marufuji more than lives up to his reputation. He was a machine here and he dragged Devitt up to his level to create a pretty awesome little match. If you like high-octane spot-fests that are all flash, you’ll love this match. Even though it might feel dated compared to today’s craziness, it’s still an impressive feat considering this was the first time these two ever faced off.

This match gave me Bret-Owen WMX vibes with how it started off. It featured two technical geniuses squaring off and trading holds in a desperate attempt to gain an early advantage. Devitt knew he was up against a major threat, so he tried to keep Marufuji grounded as much as possible. But even though Devitt’s strategy was sound, he failed to take Marufuji’s creativity and explosiveness into account. All it took was one sudden rebound lariat out of nowhere and all of Devitt’s work was rendered inconsequential.

Marufuji took over from there and just wrecked Devitt’s neck whenever he could in order to set him up for his biggest finishers, all of which target the neck. Each time Devitt got a glimmer of hope, Marufuji shut him down again. Those false hope spots led to the crowd getting behind Devitt more and more, which only made sense since he was the hometown underdog trying to take down the more experience outside veteran. Balor realized that the only way to stop Marufuji was to try and beat him at his own game, which led to the second half of the match that was all bombs and high-spots. Devitt soared through the air like a bird and yanked control of the match back from Marufuji. He went move-for-move with Marufuji and tried to out-kick and stomp him. That seemed to work for a while until Marufuji landed the Spanish Fly from the top rope. As clever as Devitt was, he didn’t have anything to deal with Marufuji’s high-risk nature and tendency for suicidal high-spots.

From there it just became a waiting game. Devitt did land a few desperation counters and pins, but nothing strong enough to win the match. Marufuji’s strategy of targeting Devitt’s neck was starting to pay off and Devitt became closer and less able to counter things in time. One signature move led to another and Marufuji was able to string together enough head-and-neck-targeting bombs to score the winning fall. It was simplistic in terms of story, but it played out in a fun back-and-forth contest.

Unfortunately, this match could’ve been better if both wrestlers took advantage of obvious things that happened within it. Devitt looked like he injured his knee following Marufuji’s suicide dropkick but it was ignored by both wrestlers. Devitt barely sold it or incorporated it into the match and Marufuji had a golden opportunity to use that to his advantage but missed it. He still won the match, but he would’ve made his own job easier by taking Devitt’s legs out and therefore taking away Devitt’s ability to land his most critical moves. At the same time, all the armwork done early on was abandoned, which in turn made it come across as time-wasting. Because of all that, the match lacked what it needed to reach that higher level. Both wrestlers left a lot on the table and could’ve used the tools presented to them more effectively to tell a deeper and more meaningful story in the ring.

Final Rating: ****1/4

Watching this match made me wish Devitt never signed with WWE. He was so much better in Japan, even before the Bullet Club was formed and became a critical part of modern pro wrestling history. This was the biggest match of Devitt’s career up to that point, and though he lost, he made people pay a lot more attention to him afterward.

Even with its flaws, this is still one of the best matches of Devitt’s career. Granted, when your opponent is a master of innovation and the protégé of perhaps the greatest wrestler to ever live, then such in-ring greatness is to be expected.

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.