Wrestling fans like to talk about underrated or underutilized wrestlers a lot. There have been so many instances where one big company or another has such a deep talent roster yet doesn’t utilize them to their full potential.
Today’s WWE is one example, with many fans bemoaning the presentation of such talented stars as Cesaro, Sami Zayn, Ricochet, and Aleister Black, among others. Late 1990’s WCW was also a great example as they had a deep roster of smaller and more technical grapplers (Eddy Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Rey Mysterio, Chris Jericho) that were likewise not utilized properly despite their obvious talents.
Today we look at a singles match between two such wrestlers that took place in Japan back in 1991. Both of these men would work for either WWE or WCW during the 1990s with varying degrees of success. One was an absolute monster whose credibility was damaged by backstage politics and questionable creative decisions. The other enjoyed a good first run stateside but was barely used later on beyond being booked in useless squash matches.
For this edition, we’re looking at the famed NJPW singles match between Keiji Mutoh and Big Van Vader from NJPW’s 1991 G1 Climax.
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.
This match took place during NJPW’s annual G1 Climax, a round-robin tournament that in 1991, featured only eight participants. Keiji Mutoh was one of NJPW’s biggest stars, beloved by the crowd for his athleticism and heroics. Stateside, fans might know him as The Great Muta. That character was many fans’ introduction to Japanese wrestling and was entertaining as hell during his runs throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. Mutoh balanced between his real name and the Muta character, sometimes wrestling under both names on the same night.
Meanwhile, Big Van Vader was arguably the biggest and most threatening foreign/gaijin star in Japan at the time. He was huge and heavy but moved with surprising speed. He was stiff as hell (which was expected and even encouraged in Japan) which helped elevate his aura of badassery in that country. He even looked like a monster, entering the ring with a mecha-like mask contraption that billowed smoke out of it as he walked. He really did look like a badass monster and people both feared and respected him for it.
Going into this match, Mutoh led in his block but had one more challenge to overcome in order to advance to the finals. But that challenge would prove to be much harder than his previous opponents since Vader was bigger, stronger, and more dangerous. Could Mutoh overcome the odds, or would Vader demolish him like he had so many others before him?
This match originally took place on August 10th, 1991. This is a fancam shoot and is the only videotape of this match.
Their first lockups end in standoffs. Vader gets Mutoh in the corner and lands hard strikes to his chest. Mutoh escapes the ring, and then returns and fires back with his own explosive barrage of strikes. Now it’s Vader’s turn to leave the ring. When he returns, he teases a Greco-Roman knuckle lock but slaps Mutoh in the face with his free hand. Vader Irish whips Mutoh and drops him with a big clothesline. A World’s Strongest Slam gets him a one-count. He goes for another clothesline but Mutoh ducks it and lands a standing dropkick. Vader doesn’t move, so Mutoh keeps landing big kicks until Vader reaches the apron. They lock up again and Vader lands another clothesline followed by a sitting abdominal stretch with chest clubs. Vader pins but Mutoh kicks out at two. A Vader body clock sends Mutoh flying out of the ring.
The video’s a bit clipped so the next thing we see is Vader brawling with Mutoh into the crowd. Vader smashes Mutoh face-first into the steel ringpost and poses for the crowd. He gets onto the apron but Mutoh dropkicks him back down and lands a plancha onto Vader down below. He whips Vader into the steel barricade and follows with his handspring back elbow. The crowd pops huge for that move. Mutoh hits a snapmare/flashing elbow combo and pins but Vader throws him off with great force. He tries to maintain control with a headlock but Vader hammers him with hard punches.
Another big clothesline gets Vader a two-count. The crowd gets really loud cheering for Mutoh. Vader applies a dragon sleeper but Mutoh wriggles out of it as fast as he can. Ge goes for a vertical suplex but Mutoh lands on his feet and lands a huge forearm shot to Vader’s face. A running forearm downs Vader. Vader starts fighting back with punches and a headlock but Mutoh counters into a back suplex. Springboard dropkick by Mutoh. He goes for a pin, but Vader kicks out with great force again. Mutoh rushes to the corner. Snap diving Moonsault. One, two, no, Vader kicks out. Mutoh’s all fired up. He whips Vader into the corner and goes for the handspring back elbow, but Vader catches him in midair. Vader drops Mutoh with what looks like a cross between a German suplex and an Uranage. Brutal landing for Mutoh.
Vader whips Mutoh, he ducks a clothesline and counters a back body drop attempt into a sunset flip. But Vader counters back. He sits down on Mutoh’s chest. Oh lord that must hurt. Running splash by Vader. Mutoh kicks out. Vader whips Mutoh into the corner and lands a body block in the corner. Powerbomb by Vader. It’s over. One, two, thr—no, Mutoh kicks out. The fans are going nuts chanting for Mutoh.
Frustrated, Vader starts punching Mutoh in the face against the ropes. He whips Mutoh, Mutoh ducks one clothesline but can’t dodge a second one. Vader attempts another clothesline, but Mutoh blocks and counters into a backslide. Great move. One, two, no, Vader kicks out. Vader’s up first and goes for a suplex but Mutoh counters into a small package for another two-count. Vader lands another corner body block, but Mutoh gets a sudden second wind. Diving crossbody. Vader catches him in midair. Vader goes for a slam. Mutoh counters into a cradle. One, two, three! Mutoh wins! The crowd EXPLODES in cheers! Fans start pelting the ring with their seat cushions. Post-match, Vader shakes Mutoh’s hand and raises it in respect.
Winner after 13:54: Keiji Mutoh
This was a fun match to watch. They set a frantic pace early and the action never slowed. The story was a classic David vs. Goliath situation with Mutoh fighting from underneath against the monstrous Vader. Mutoh had his hands full but never gave up, creating this feeling of hope with each near-fall. Mutoh kept getting closer and closer to victory and managed to win by using Vader’s own strength and momentum against him.
I loved how Vader wrestled in this match. He didn’t to generic big man things like bear hugs, slow slams and completely no-selling his opponent’s offense. Instead, Vader was like an angry grizzly bear, mauling Mutoh with stiff forearms and brutal suplexes. He was incredibly quick for a man his size and showed that here. The way he moved and how he was able to land some quick counters made him such a joy to watch here. And also sold for Mutoh pretty well. And taking Mutoh’s moves only made him angrier and therefore more vicious.
As for Mutoh, he shined as a hero in peril here. He kept things simple in his attempts at a fiery comeback, hitting Vader with his own flurry of big dropkicks and elbows. He did a great job of controlling the crowd without grandstanding too much and kept his focus on Vader. And he really tried everything he had to beat Vader but none of it worked. Once Vader kicked out of Mutoh’s Moonsault it seemed all hope was lost. There was no way to know how the match would end since both men’s biggest finishers had been kicked out of. But Mutoh found a clever way to win the match without it looking like Vader had been beaten decisively.
In doing so, Mutoh could claim the win and Vader still looked strong. And he respected Mutoh begrudgingly for the win and showed an unusual display of respect. That made Mutoh’s win all the more significant as Vader was known for being a merciless bastard more often than not.
Yet for all its positives, I just don’t see this as really having classic, 5-star status. It’s a fun match, but it just lacks something needed to reach that upper level of greatness. Much of the opening work was boring and repetitive, and the action really didn’t kick in until after the attack on the steel barricade.
There was also a bit of a lack of selling from both guys here. Vader beat the hell out of Mutoh yet he didn’t really show any signs of battle or exhaustion, which didn’t make the match feel as deep or brutal as it really was. His battle from beneath was less about him overcoming pain and showing toughness and more about overcoming his own frustration over being unable to hurt Vader. Those are two different tales, with the former being more exciting and emotionally-satisfying than the latter.
Final Rating: ****1/2
While this was definitely a great little match, I don’t think it’s in the conversation of best matches ever. The match lacked a certain emotional depth that can be found in other epics of its day, and got a bit too repetitive in terms of big moves and story. Things weren’t really layered onto each other beyond finishers kicking out, which was disappointing. Other than that, it had all the right elements of an entertaining wrestling match. In fact, this might still be the best single wrestling match of both men’s careers. So while it might not be the best match out there, it’s definitely something worth watching if you’re a fan of either wrestler.
Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.