Features

5-Star Match Reviews: Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Tetsuya Naito 2017 Triple Feature

New Japan Pro-Wrestling’s 2017 was defined by not one but two intense rivalries. While most of the world was abuzz about the game-changing world title battles between Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega, there was a secondary feud that followed beneath them. This same feud followed Okada/Omega throughout 2017 and, had Okada/Omega not been a thing, it would’ve been main-eventing shows instead. Each of New Japan’s three biggest shows of the year – Wrestle Kingdom, Dominion, and the G1 – featured an Okada/Omega singles match. And each one of them also featured a singles match between Tanahashi and Naito.

And since we’ve already looked at that first rivalry, let’s look back at the second one. But instead of tackling them one-by-one, I’m going to look at their three-match mini feud all at once. This is because there are so many interwoven threads and plot points between all three matches that separating them wouldn’t make as much sense here. So with that, let’s look back at the 2017 big match rivalry between Hiroshi Tanahashi and Tetsuya Naito.

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.

Tanahashi vs. Naito 2017, part I: Wrestle Kingdom 11

The story

On the surface, there didn’t appear to be much of a story here. Both Naito and Tanahashi saw each other as a means to an end. Tanahashi wanted to forget his previous year’s loss to Kazuchika Okada and needed a win at Wrestle Kingdom to do that. Meanwhile, Naito longed to be back in the main-event where he felt he belonged, but still found himself playing second fiddle to others courtesy of the IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Even though he was a champion, he wasn’t happy about it. Naito was vocally unimpressed with how many titles NJPW had created and saw that his title was very much a consolation prize, something to placate him while Okada and others stayed at the top.

But beneath that veneer of simplicity was a very deep rivalry between two men with opposing mindsets and values. Naito returned to NJPW a changed man, a man that spat on the companies values and traditions, both metaphorically and literally. He couldn’t stand the rigidity of the old ways and was convinced he was better than everyone else but the company’s top brass kept him at arm’s length from his dream. It was within his grasp, but they were dangling it in front of him like a carrot; all he had to do to reach it was change his ways and conform. But Naito wouldn’t do that. Especially when he was in the ring with Tanahashi, the man that symbolized everything he hated.

Simply put, Tanahashi was New Japan. He was their rock, their pillar, the man that exemplified all that was good about the company. He was righteous and honorable, upstanding and exemplary. He was a role model both in terms of how he acted and how he wrestled. And to Tanahashi, Naito was a problem. Naito was corrupted, a man whose conscience and innermost desires had caused him to go down a dark path. Tanahashi had his own desires going into this match, true. But if he was going to win, he might as well teach Naito a lesson about how to do things the right way.

The match

This match originally took place on January 4th, 2017 and was rated ****1/2 stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It is for Naito’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship. Naito spends the opening moments coolly avoiding Tanahashi but the ever-serious Tanahashi presses forward into a lock-up. Tanahashi lands a body shot that gets a loud reaction and whips Naito, but Naito counters, sends him out of the ring, and rolls into his Tranquilo pose. Naito rushes Tanahashi as he re-enters the ring and applies a deep headlock. Tanahashi manages to counter into his own, but Naito escapes by pulling his hair. Tanahashi does the same to the delight of the crowd and then he counters a cheapshot with a chain of quick strikes and takedowns. Tanahashi blocks a corner charge and goes for a second-rope crossbody but Naito dropkicks the back of Tanahashi’s knee before he jumps off. Excellent counter by Naito.

Naito seizes the opportunity and starts attacking Tanahashi’s knee with elbows and a big corner dropkick. Naito lands a pair of knee smashers and Tanahashi tries to fight back. Naito rakes his eyes and then pushes Tanahashi’s leg into the referee. The ref catches it, allowing Naito to dropkick it hard. He continues attacking that limb with surgical precision and applies a modified Figure-4 but Tanahashi grabs the ropes right away. Naito takes his sweet time letting go and then stomps both Tanahashi’s knee and his face, just to mock him. Tanahashi tries to make another comeback with forearms, but Naito hits back, then teases a third one, but goes low and kicks Tanahashi’s exposed leg once more. Smart. Naito kicks him some more and even spits on him, but Naito shuts him down with yet another dropkick to the knee, grinning from ear to ear all the while.

Naito charges a corner but Tanahashi kicks him with his good leg and then lands a forearm/uppercut combo. Tanahashi lands a big running forearm and a second-rope somersault senton for a two-count. Naito counters a corner Irish whip and sees Tanahashi going for a running knee dropkick and dodges. He’s seen enough Tanahashi matches to know what to avoid. Naturally, Tanahashi exposed his knee by doing this move and Naito’s more than happy to continue exploiting it. Naito lands another standing knee breaker and charges, but Tanahashi musters all his strength to dropkick Naito’s knee. Now both men go down.

Tanahashi goes for the Texas Cloverleaf but Naito grabs the ropes. He tries going for a dragon screw leg whip, but Naito interrupts by spitting on him. Oh, now Tanahashi’s pissed and Naito’s got a huge s**t-eating grin. Naito ducks a forearm and goes for his rope-assisted tornado DDT, but Tanahashi blocks, ducks a forearm from the apron and dragon screws Naito’s leg through the ropes. Awesome counter. Both men end up on the apron, which is the most dangerous part of the ring, as Tanahashi proves. He charges…and lands an apron slingblade. Naito collapses to the floor as Tanahashi gets a sudden second wind. But he’s not done. The crazy bastard goes to the top rope. With a badly injured knee. But he still soars through the air. High Fly Flow to the floor!

Tanahashi hobbles over to the apron and does Naito’s own pose in front of him as Naito struggles to move. He tosses Naito into the ring (because he wants to win Naito’s title, among other things) and, seemingly fully recovered, prepares his comeback. Naito dodges a slingblade but still gets launched into a corner and gets hit with a stinger splash. Tanahashi hits a forearm on the apron and Naito suddenly starts hobbling again. Tanahashi prepares another HFF to a standing Naito but Naito staggers over and hits the ropes, crotching Tanahashi in the process. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but it was a perfect counter to Tanahashi’s favorite move.

Naito gets to his feet and hits Tanahashi’s knee as hard as he can. He climbs up and lands a big super hurricanrana. That’s followed by a bridging German suplex. One, two, no, Naito releases his own pin. He can’t hold it due to the damage to his own knee. Outstanding psychology on display. He tries to land Gloria (a pumphandle side powerslam-type move) but Tanahashi escapes so he lands a big enzuigiri. Tanahashi counters an Irish whip and Naito lands a flying forearm. His Gloria slam connects this time but only gets two. He goes for Destino but Tanahashi escapes. He tries a tornado DDT but Tanahashi escapes. So he goes back to basics and dropkicks Tanahashi’s knee again. But Tanahashi fires back with a knee dropkick of his own and then charges. Naito counters with a victory roll into a knee lock. Tanahashi screams in pain as Naito looks into the camera with a funny look on his face. But somehow, somehow, Tanahashi counters into the Texas Cloverleaf. Another outstanding counter. Tanahashi seats as deep as he can but Naito still manages to reach the ropes.

Naito holds onto the rope for dear life so Tanahashi answers with another dragon screw. Naito counters another Irish whip, so Tanahashi counters that counter with two consecutive slingblades. He goes for a pin but Naito kicks out at two. Tanahashi goes to the top rope and waits for Naito. The moment Naito gets to his feet Tanahashi flies off. High Fly Flow connects. Tanahashi goes for another one because he knows one isn’t enough for an opponent as tough as Naito. He flies again…but misses this time. Naito rolls out of the way…and then lands Destino! Then Naito pulls a piece out of Tanahashi’s playbook and goes for a second finisher. But Tanahashi counters with a twisting neckbreaker. The crowd is going absolutely nuts.

Both men get up and start brawling. They trade forearms back and forth with the crowd chanting along. Naito breaks the combo and dropkicks Tanahashi’s knee again. Tanahashi answers with a swift kick to Naito’s bad knee. Then it becomes a tough-man contest to see whose knee is in better shape. Surprisingly, Naito ends up in control and lands another big dropkick. But Tanahashi fires back with a big slap. That’s followed by a bridging Dragon suplex. One, two, thr – no, Naito survives. HFF to Naito’s back. Tanahashi tries again. HFF connects…with Naito’s knees. Naito saves himself at the last possible moment.

Naito goes to the corner and counters a dragon screw with an enzuigiri. He uses the corner to his advantage and lands a rope-assisted Destino out of nowhere. One, two, thr – no, Tanahashi survives this time. Naito signals the end as he grabs Tanahashi’s arm and spins. Destino connects. One, two, three! There’s the match! Naito pins the ace!

Winner and STILL IWGP Intercontinental Champion after 25:25: Tetsuya Naito

Review

The whole ‘Dave Meltzer rates Tokyo Dome matches better’ meme is a bit overplayed, if not a bit oversimplified. But a big part of why Tokyo Dome matches get so much praise is the undeniable quality of what goes into them. Simply put, Tanahashi and Naito had an outstanding match here. It was a near-perfect blend of incredible story, strong psychology and intense in-ring action. If Okada-Omega I was not on the card, this would’ve been a deserving main-event and the fans would’ve still gone home happy.

This match really did have ‘no wasted motion’ as both Tanahashi and Naito made every move matter. Naito showed this earlier when he started attacking Tanahashi’s knee and made that the focal point of his strategy. He was clever and inventive with how he destroyed Tanahashi’s knee and combined that inventiveness with awesome character work by stretching ropebreaks out as much as possible. Few wrestlers did that in New Japan as effectively as Naito. And one of the match’s best moments happened courtesy of Naito blurring the lines between selling and opportunity. After getting his own knee attacked, he hobbled around the ring and staggered into the ropes, causing Tanahashi to lose his balance on the top rope. It was refreshing to see something realistic and actually spontaneous in a match that, despite its world class athleticism, still had an unshakeable sense of choreography about it.

From then on, the match went into the typical modern NJPW style finish with incredible counters and constant twists and turns. Even after watching hundreds of NJPW matches if not more, these sequences always feel fresh and exciting. The counters and sudden changes in control were amazing here and the near-falls were great. These two wrestlers hit counter after counter on each other, and while it wasn’t quite Tanahashi-Okada level, it was still fun to watch. And even though Tanahashi has largely become a one-trick pony when it comes to finishes, he still has an incredible knack of making his false finishes genuine and exciting.

All of that being said, this match would’ve been perfect if not for one thing: inconsistent pacing. This was a problem especially in Naito’s case. He put on an amazing display of selling, especially when he was forced to break up his own pin from the damage to his knee. For one brief moment, the pain in his leg looked real. Then seconds later, he was running and doing flying moves using both legs. He sold for like ten seconds and then went back to hitting his jumping and running moves. It was illogical and made it harder to suspend disbelief. I’ve seen better matches from earlier years in which wrestlers struggled to land their own moves and even keep themselves on their own feet during their comebacks. And while Naito showed flashes of that same genius, he wasn’t consistent with it.

Tanahashi wasn’t innocent, either. While he’s undoubtedly one of the best wrestlers ever, his match structure does have a similar flaw as Naito’s approach here. Tanahashi had his knees destroyed but still went for the same moves and went for the same sequences. It was disappointing. I had higher expectations of a wrestler as technically-sound as Tanahashi here. he dove off the second rope seconds after getting his knee brutally attacked and showed very few signs of wear and tear. I get that he was trying to show he was overcoming the pain, but his selling on that front could’ve been much better.

Final Rating: ****3/4

This match would’ve been a perfect 5-star match were it not for a few minor issues that were too hard to ignore. Tanahashi is an amazing wrestler but his big matches have become a bit too formulaic. It’s incredibly rare for him to win with anything other than the HFF and that rigidity and repetition makes his most of his matches less fun. Meanwhile, Naito was amazing here but he still had some inconsistency in terms of how he sold. 2017 was one of the best years in NJPW history and Naito was very much a part of that, but here he still suffered from the same pitfalls as many modern wrestlers do. So many wrestlers put together these grandiose and ambitious matches that they forget the smaller things. Selling is a big one, but from what I saw here Naito didn’t seem to think so.

And yet, it’s still a spectacular wrestling match that would’ve been worthy of main-eventing Wrestle Kingdom. Both Tanahashi and Naito were awesome here and it was a great way for them to start the year.

 

Tanahashi vs. Naito 2017, part II: Dominion 6.11

The story

By this point in the feud, things between Tanahashi and Naito went deeper than simple wins and losses. Tanahashi began feeling more and more disgust towards Naito because of how he treated the IWGP Intercontinental Championship belt. Since winning it, Naito began throwing it around with wanton recklessness on every show (including non-televised ones. He did this at a NJPW/ROH live show in Toronto I went to in 2017. He sent that belt flying way into the air. I’m amazed it didn’t shatter into pieces when it landed on the entrance ramp).

By the time this match took place, that belt was a shell of its former self, a broken piece of leather and metal that was in worse shape than the original WWF Hardcore Championship. But he didn’t do this just for fun. To Naito, that belt symbolized his spot as ‘second place’, i.e. beneath the world title, and his lost main-event position. And Tanahashi, being a man of principles and righteousness that has sacrificed so much for New Japan, can’t take seeing such disrespect anymore.

The match

This match originally took place on June 11th, 2017 and was also rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer Newsletter. It, too, is for Naito’s IWGP Intercontinental Championship, which Naito throws into the ring once again as he makes his long and apathetic entrance. Tanahashi picks the belt up in the ring and sees a piece already crumbing off. Unable to contain himself any longer, Tanahashi attacks Naito outside the ring. The fans chant for Tanahashi as the two wrestlers brawl ringside. Naito sends Tanahashi into the steel barricade but Tanahashi’s resolve is so steely that he immediately charges back, in spite of his injured and taped-up arm. Naito gains a momentary advantage and starts taking off his suit, but Tanahashi dropkicks him hard off the apron. The brawling continues as the two trade control in the corner, with the fans cheering Tanahashi and booing Naito. Naito spits into the crowd as they boo him and traps Tanahashi’s injured arm as he attempts to regain control. Naito lands a hiptoss and dropkicks Tanahashi’s arm, which forces Tanahashi out of the ring to recover. This gives Naito enough time to take off his suit and wrestle in proper gear.

Naito rolls into his Tranquilo pose as the commentators mention Tanahashi’s (legit) partially-torn bicep. He wraps Tanahashi’s torn arm into the guardrail and wrenches it hard, which gets a torrent of boos. Then he lands a big apron-assisted tornado DDT and Tanahashi goes down hard. The referee starts counting and Tanahashi barely gets back into the ring at the count of nineteen. Naito attacks tanahashi’s arm some more with stomps and submission holds. Tanahashi fight hard and reaches the bottom rope with his foot, but Naito takes a very long time to let go. With each second he does more damage to Tanahashi’s arm, which will render most of Tanahashi’s big offensive moves either weakened or downright useless. Tanahashi gets to his feet and lands some left-hand punches but Naito shuts him down with more forearms to his damaged arm. Naito’s dickishness reaches maximum as he smacks Tanahashi’s head as hard as he can. Naito’s s**t-eating grin disappears as Tanahashi bitchslaps him hard, hits a German suplex, and lands mounted close-fisted punches. It takes a special breed of jackass to make Tanahashi do something like that. Even the fans are caught off guard and boo Tanahashi’s uncharacteristic viciousness. But they do applaud him spitting on Naito.

Naito nonchalantly walks over and the two men start trading stiff strikes while holding each other by the hair. Naito gets the upper hand (an easy thing to do since Tanahashi has to hit with his bad right hand) and then lands more head smacks and spits some more. Tanahashi answers with a sudden elbowed to the face and a dragon screw leg whip to Naito’s taped-up right knee. Tanahashi goes for another dragon screw through the ropes but Naito counters with a standing armbreaker. Naito lands a missile dropkick to Tanahashi’s arm and sends him into a corner. Tanahashi instinctively gets his feet up to block, but Naito catches them and attacks his right arm once more. Naito goes for a top-rope hurricanrana but Tanahashi escapes. He waistlocks Naito and pulls him out of the corner with all his strength. Naito escapes a German suplex and attacks the arm. Tanahashi gets sent into the corner and Naito goes for his sweep/dropkick combo but Tanahashi catches his leg. He goes for a dragon screw and connects despite Naito’s resistance.

Tanahashi charges, slides under the bottom rope and lands an inverted dragon screw off the apron. Naito struggles to stay on his feet as Tanahashi ascends the top rope. Yep, you know what’s coming. High Fly Flow from the turnbuckle to the floor. Tanahashi connects fully but hurts his own arm even further in the process.

Tanahashi tosses Naito into the ring at the count of seventeen and goes for the Texas Cloverleaf. He struggles to connect for a bunch of reasons: Naito pulls his hair, reaches the ropes quickly, and his damaged bicep makes it harder to pull off the move as needed. He stomps Naito’s knee some more and attempts another dragon screw but Naito counters by wrenching his right arm. Another running dropkick from Naito to the arm shuts down Tanahashi’s momentum. The fans supporting Naito drown out those supporting Tanahashi as Naito lands his corner sweep/dropkick combo to Tanahashi’s arm. Naito follows with a Rings of Saturn-type submission hold and digs his knuckles right into Tanahashi’s injured bicep. One commentator suggests that Tanahashi give up to save his career, but the other (Don Callis, I think) notes that Tanahashi would rather die before he gives up. And judging from his actions, Naito knows this and has accepted the challenge.

Tanahashi gets a much-needed ropebreak, so Naito lands his Gloria side powerslam for a two-count. Naito goes for Destino but Tanahashi escapes and sends him into the ropes. Naito goes for a flying forearm. Tanahashi counters with a Black Hole Slam-type move and goes to the top rope. Naito cuts him off and applies a hammerlock on the top rope. He grinds his forearm into Tanahashi’s bicep and lands a super hurricanrana! But wait, Tanahashi pulls a Rey Mysterio and counters the pin onto Naito. One, two, Naito escapes.

Naito tries to maintain control with a rope-assisted tornado DDT but Tanahashi counters with not one but two twisting neckbreakers. He goes to the top rope. High Fly Flow misses. Tanahashi hurts his arm badly. Naito sees his opening and goes for Destin but Tanahashi blocks it. The two men start trading stiff slaps to the jaw. This goes on for quite some time until Tanahashi goes for a dragon suplex. Naito tries to fight out but Tanahashi traps his arm. Bridging armtrap German suplex. Naito kicks out. Tanahashi tries for the dragon once more. Naito escapes by hitting Tanahashi’s bad arm and then connects with the tornado DDT. That’s followed by a high-angle German suplex and a diving Destino. Naito crawls over for a pin. One, two, no, Tanahashi survives. Naito does for another Destino. Tanahashi counters into a dragon suplex. Naito ducks a slingblade and lands an enzuigiri. But he can’t avoid another one. And then another. Then Tanahashi goes back to the top turnbuckle. High Fly Flow connects. One, two, thr – no, Naito kicks out. Texas Cloverleaf by Tanahashi. He applies the move fully in the middle of the ring. Tanahashi sits further and further back until Naito’s almost vertical. Naito has nowhere to go. He survives the hold for thirty…sixty…ninety seconds. Then he taps! Naito actually taps out! Tanahashi wins the match and the title!

Winner and NEW IWGP Intercontinental Champion after 25:56: Hiroshi Tanahashi

Review

HELL YES! This match was tremendous. Just awesome all around. It had all the great parts of their January match plus more of a solid story. It felt both different and more personal. It stood out so much more than most big New Japan matches.

The main story here was Tanahashi’s injured arm. Throughout the match, Naito attacked Tanahashi’s arm and even attacked the exact spot of his real-life injury. This is one thing about Japanese wrestling I really like: if someone is injured legit, you make that injury a part of the match instead of ignoring it. Yes, it’s risky and dangerous, but it also makes the injured wrestler – in this case Tanahashi – look like a tough sonofabitch instead of a weakling afraid to take damage to a specific body part. Plus, if you’re skilled and professional enough – which is the case for both Tanahashi and Naito – you can work a real injury without exacerbating it, which is exactly what they did here. Once everything was said and done, Tanahashi looked even tougher than before (as if that was possible) because of the pain he endured to win. And Naito came across as devious, remorseless and cocky. All of those are ideal qualities you want in either an anti-hero or an outright villain, which are two roles Naito has excelled at playing.

And that villainy was on full display here. Naito was so good at his job that he caused the righteous do-gooder Tanahashi to do some very unrighteous things. He made Tanahashi cheapshot him, show far more aggression than normal, and even forced him to land close-fisted punches. Those strikes are incredibly rare in New Japan and are usually seen in only the most bitter of feuds. But that’s how good Naito was at being, well, Naito. Tanahashi got outright booed because he did something that the fans saw as too extreme, even for him. But that’s how badly Naito got under Tanahashi’s skin.

And yet, Tanahashi’s iron resolve could not be broken on this night. Even after everything Naito did – the spitting, the constant reversals, destroying his arm – and everything Tanahashi did to himself – putting extra pressure on his arm during the Cloverleaf and hurting his arm on two HFFs – Tanahashi came out on top. He endured a monumental thrashing and managed to humble Naito by making him give up. It was a classic heroic comeback by Tanahashi who fought from underneath for most of the match. And his insistence on doing what’s right made gave this match an amazing finish that acted as an exclamation point to a terrific in-ring story.

And the best part was the finish. For once, Tanahashi actually made someone tap out to the Texas Cloverleaf in a big match. All those dragon screws targeting the leg and the HFFs targeting the torso made Naito’s survival borderline impossible. Naito fought through the pain as much as he could and survived a grueling 90 seconds in the Cloverleaf. And in the end, Tanahashi made him eat a big piece of humble pie.

Final Rating: *****

That’s right. This match gets a full five stars. It was that awesome. Even with the same issues with inconsistent selling (which weren’t that noticeable here as in other matches), this match kicked so much ass. It was intense from the opening bell and the sense of urgency never left the match at all. The match’s story was amazing and it was complemented by perfect in-ring action and character work. Sometimes the best stories are those that follow the typical hero-vs.-villain narrative and this match was exactly that. Naito was the despicable villain that cut corners while Tanahashi stood up for what was right. And even though Naito tried to drag Tanahashi down to his level, he didn’t succeed. Tanahashi out-wrestled and survived a ruthless Naito to capture and restore prestige to the IWGP Intercontinental Championship.

It was a great match on its own, but definitely not the final chapter in this awesome story.

 

Tanahashi vs. Naito 2017, part III: G1 Climax

The story

The narrative was stripped bare here for the G1. Both Tanahashi and Naito had the same number of points going into this match. Both had twelve points and their match was the last one of their block. There wasn’t an option for a draw; in the event of a draw, both would get one point and they’d end up in the same spot. I’m sure there was some sort of bureaucratic resolution if this scenario took place, but no one wanted to see that. Therefore, this match had to have a winner and the wrestlers had a maximum of thirty minutes to crown one.

The match

This match originally took place on August 11th, 2017 in the semi-finals and last match of the A-Block matches. Unlike the earlier two matches, this one was rated the full five stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer.

Naito avoids some early lock-ups and then gets a clean break on the ropes. They trade control against the ropes on another lock-up and Tanahashi slaps Naito in the face. At first, Naito acts all nonchalant about it, but then Tanahashi slaps him again. Naito rushes him in response but gets knocked down and escapes the ring to recollect himself. More faking out occurs as Naito does the Tranquilo pose until Tanahashi stomps on him. They trade corner chops until Naito counters a corner whip and then a crossbody by dropkicking Tanahashi’s injured right arm. Naito goes to work striking and stretching Tanahashi’s arm as the crowd remains split 60-40 in Naito’s favor. He goes further with the armwork and goes so far as to grind his elbow into Tanahashi’s bicep. Tanahashi gets a ropebreak but Naito once again takes his time letting go. Naito goes for a swinging neckbreaker but Tanahashi counters into one of his own and begins his comeback. He lands some corner gut punches and a standing splash combo for two. He goes for a second-rope somersault senton but Naito rolls to safety and dropkicks his arm again. Just like that Naito’s back in control. He sends Tanahashi into the corner and goes for his sweep/dropkick combo but Tanahashi catches his leg and lands a dragon screw leg whip that sends Naito barreling out of the ring. Okay, maybe not.

Tanahashi goes to the top rope and lands a big High Fly Flow onto Naito on the floor below. He hurts his own arm in the process but that’s Tanahashi for you. He throws caution to the wind in big matches like this. Naito gets onto the apron at the referee’s count of sixteen but Tanahashi’s waiting for him and dragon screws his leg through the ropes. Tanahashi goes for the Texas Cloverleaf but Naito gets to the ropes, so he goes for another through-the-ropes dragon screw. But Naito blocks by hitting Tanahashi’s arm and then snaps it across the top rope. Great counter by Naito. Naito follows with another dropkick to that arm. Both men go down having suffered damage to an important limb.

Tanahashi tries to block a corner charge but Naito counters with a single-knee backbreaker. Naito follows with a counter enzuigiri and a flying forearm and then drops Tanahashi on his head with his Gloria slam for two. He goes for Destino. Tanahashi blocks and goes for the dragon suplex. Naito fights out but gets his arms trapped. Tanahashi fights through the pain and lands his bridging armtrap German suplex. Naito kicks out and then cuts Tanahashi off on the top rope. Naito repeats his spot from Dominion with a corner hammerlock and then goes for the super hurricanrana. But like at Dominion, Tanahashi rolls the pin over onto him. Naito barely kicks out. Tanahashi answers with a third dragon screw. Naito goes down clutching his right knee as the fans chant loudly for Tanahashi.

The two wrestlers start trading stiff elbows, with Tanahashi starting with the right arm and then switching to his healthy left one. Tanahashi fires up with a forearm/uppercut combo. Naito answers by spitting on him. The two men exchange incredibly stiff slaps. Naito follows with a bridging German suplex for two. He goes for a dragon suplex but Tanahashi reaches the ropes, so Naito kicks his arm again. The two men crisscross in the ring and Tanahashi misdirects him and lands a slingblade. That’s followed by another one for a quick two-count. Tanahashi goes to the top rope. High Fly Flow connects to a standing Naito. No dropkick or knees this time. he goes for a second one. Naito rolls out of the way.

Tanahashi charges into a corner but Naito dodges and lands a rope-hung neckbreaker. He goes for the top-rope Destino but Tanahashi counters with a top-rope dragon screw. Tanahashi applies the Texas Cloverleaf. The fans are screaming in the arena. This is how Naito lost at Dominion. Tanahashi sits back and applies the hold with all his might. The referee tells him if he gets no answer or no ropebreak then he’ll stop the match. Naito answers with a defiant push to the ropes and reaches safety. Awesome moment.

Tanahashi tries to pull Naito off the ropes but Naito kicks his arm to push him back. He attempts yet another dragon screw but Naito swings wildly at his arm once more. Tanahashi charges but Naito counters with a rope-assisted tornado DDT.

Five minutes left.

Naito goes to the corner and lands the diving swinging Destino. One, two, thr – no, Tanahashi survives. He goes for another standing Destino. Tanahashi counters with three twisting neckbreakers. Tanahashi charges again. Naito counters with another Destino. He picks Tanahashi up and lands one more. One, two, three! There’s the match! Naito wins!

Winner and advancing to the finals of the 2017 G1 Climax after 26:41: Tetsuya Naito

Review

Yet another terrific match from two of New Japan’s best. These two wrestlers had awesome chemistry once again and they told an awesome story.

This match felt like a combination of their earlier two matches. It featured the same arm-targeting from the Dominion match early on and showed the same disregard for ropebreaks as he did in both the earlier ones. Both men found early formulas for success just like before, with Naito destroying Tanahashi’s arm and Tanahashi going after Naito’s right knee. Both men spent the early portions of the match focused on these two respective strategies, which worked very well. And in a refreshing change of pace, the selling of the limb damage was a bit more consistent from both wrestlers here than in their January match.

But while the match did feature the typical elements of NJPW greatness – awesome technical wrestling, solid psychology, a wild crowd, and lots of back-and-forth action – the best moment was Tanahashi’s submission spot. He applied the Texas Cloverleaf on Naito and for the first time in what seemed like forever, people believed it could end the match. After all, Naito did tap out to it two months earlier. As someone that has watched many big Tanahashi matches, you’ve no idea how refreshing it was to see that submission spot here and actually believe it could end the match. it added a much-needed sense of urgency and unpredictability to the match while still doing its main job of weakening Naito and making it harder for him to move around, thereby setting Tanahashi up to hit a successful HFF.

But Naito caught on to Tanahashi’s plan and adapted accordingly. After escaping the Cloverleaf he did whatever he could to keep Tanahashi grounded. Even with Tanahashi adapting on the spot with some painful-looking twisting neckbreakers, Naito maintained control and landed the right reversals at the right times to stop Tanahashi dead in his tracks. The crowd came alive towards the end and remained at Naito’s side as he landed the two Destinos he needed to win.

And yet, I think this match wasn’t as good as either of the first two. Both wrestlers seemed more focused in the WK match and their chemistry together led to better near-falls, more intensity and a more airtight psychology. Meanwhile, the Dominion match went even further with the great psychology and told a much better story than just ‘two wrestlers want to beat each other’. Simplicity is great, but it’s hard to tell such a straightforward and surface-level story after such a deep and satisfying character-driven rollercoaster like their Dominion match.

And once again, the inconsistent leg selling reared its ugly head. it bothers me when consummate pros don’t sell stuff consistently because they’re too concerned with hitting their big moves for the fans. Case in point: Naito got his legs destroyed with dragon screws and a Texas Cloverleaf, and less than a minute after escaping the very move that cost him his title two months earlier, he was running and jumping to hit his signature tornado DDT with seemingly no ill effect. It made most of Tanahashi’s hard work come across as insignificant and made Naito’s comeback feel unearned.

Lastly, the ending of the match was a bit underwhelming. Yes, Naito planted Tanahashi with two Destinos. But still, there was a lack of gravitas in what was happening. Naito seemed like he survived by the skin of his teeth. Given how deep this story went and how high the stakes were, I left this match expecting…something more.

Final Rating: ****3/4

While I don’t think this match deserved its original 5-star rating, I still think it’s pretty damn great. Naito was on fire in 2017 in terms of great matches and Tanahashi was Tanahashi. He once said that Shawn Michaels was his favorite wrestler and given how well he has wrestled over the past decade I can’t say I’m surprised. Tanahashi was basically Shawn Michaels in this match against a vicious and malevolent Naito. And just as Michaels has done for WWE many times before, Tanahashi stole the show in this match against Naito, even in defeat.

So ends a pretty damn awesome feud that helped make 2017 an epic year for New Japan. While its main-event scene was dominated by the legendary performances of Okada and Omega, we as fans were blessed with the Tanahashi-Naito feud in its immediate undercard. Any three of these matches could’ve main-evented a big New Japan show and people would’ve been more than satisfied. But the fact that each of these matches was complemented by either equally-good-or-better matches from two other NJPW wrestlers speaks volumes to just how amazing NJPW was during that year.

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