A lot has changed in wrestling over the decades, but there’s one thing that has remained largely the same since 1990: the best junior heavyweights come from, and wrestle in, New Japan Pro-Wrestling.
That has been the general consensus ever since Jushin Liger and Naoki Sano revolutionized the smaller guys’ style in 1989 and 1990. And since then, any smaller wrestler worth his salt has gone to New Japan for seasoning and to improve his craft.
The list of great junior heavyweight wrestlers to compete in NJPW over the decades is impressive: Liger, Rey Mysterio Jr., Eddy Guerrero, Owen Hart, Chris Jericho, Ultimo Dragón, Ricochet, KUSHIDA, Kota Ibushi, and many more. But the truth is, there’s a second home to great high-flying wrestling: Mexico.
Lucha libre is one of Mexico’s most sacred and time-honored modern traditions. The sport is a defining part of Mexican culture and has created many iconic figures: El Santo, the Blue Demon family, the Villanos, La Parka, Atlantis, the Guerreros, Rey Mysterio (again) and the Lucha Brothers are just a few of Mexico’s biggest wrestling names.
So what happens when you have a Japan vs. Mexico rivalry? You get this match.
This is a match between two top modern cruiserweight stars that have taken their war across the planet. They started their feud in Mexico, brought it to the US, and then to Japan. It was a constant game of one-upmanship that saw both guys trade big wins and losses. Their matches were as personal as they were gravity-defying. and today we look at what is considered to be their best match against each other.
Todaty we look back at the match between Japan’s Hiromu Takahashi and Mexico’s Dragon Lee from NJPW’s The New Beginning in Osaka 2017.
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.
On January 4th, 2017, Hiromu beat KUSHIDA to win the IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. One night later on New Year’s Dash, which is NJPW’s ‘reset’ show that marks a new year and new feuds, Hiromu was attacked by Dragon Lee to start a new feud. Actually, this wasn’t a new feud but a new chapter in a two-year feud that had started elsewhere. In 2015, Hiromu – then wrestling as “Kamaitachi” – feuded with Dragon Lee in CMLL. Kamaitachi lost a traditional wager match and was forced to unmask. The two continued their feud into 2016 and things got even tenser. Hiromu/Kamaitachi beat Lee to win the CMLL World Lightweight Championship but Lee won it back two months later. This feud spilled over into Ring of Honor (ROH) as well as the two wrestlers had another big match at All Star Extravaganza VIII.
So after two years, Lee burst into Hiromu’s home promotion and sought to do to Hiromu what Hiromu did to him: embarrass him in front of his fellow countrymen and take his title. But could Lee do it? Could he beat a wrestler with many more years’ experience in his home promotion?
This match originally took place on February 11th, 2017, right before this famous match between Hiromu’s ally and trainer Tetsuya Naito and Michael Elgin. This match was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well it holds up after over five years.
This is for Hiromu’s IWGP Junior Heavyweight Championship. The bell rings and the two wrestlers run at each other at full speed. They start hammering each other with open palm slaps and forearms until Lee hits a corner yakuza kick. He charges again but Hiromu chases him and hits a corner clothesline. Lee reverses a corner whip and hits a dropkick and then does a handstand to avoid a hurricanrana. They crisscross and Lee handsprings again. And then when Lee goes for a hurricanrana he lands it successfully and sends Hiromu to the floor. Lee follows with a suicide dive through the ropes and takes Hiromu out.
Lee throws Hiromu into the barricade and starts landing chest kicks. Once back in the ring, he applies a chinlock, then he lands a kneelift and a basement single-leg dropkick for a two-count. he kicks Hiromu mockingly but on his next Irish whip Hiromu slides out of the ring and charges for his sunset bomb but Lee elbows him first. Lee goes for a springboard but Hiromu thrust kicks him. Then Hiromu lands his patented suicide sunset flip powerbomb to the outside.
Hiromu walks up the entrance ramp and lands a dropkick, then shoves Lee into the ring and pins for a two-count. Hiromu starts untying Lee’s mask while clubbing his weakened shoulder. He actually gets the mask past Lee’s chin but then decides against it and returns the favor from earlier with mocking corner stomps of his own. Hiromu slaps Lee and goes for a corner dropkick. Lee ducks and sends Hiromu onto the apron. Lee follows with an enzuigiri and then charges. Lee runs, jumps over the top rope, and hurricanranas Hiromu to the floor. Awesome move. But he’s not done. Suicide dive to the floor!
Lee tosses Hiromu into the ring and then hits a continuous northern lights/fisherman/vertical suplex combo for a two-count. Lee almost hurts his own hand on a stiff chop and then places Hiromu on the top turnbuckle. Hiromu elbows out but Lee hits back and Hiromu ends up hanging upside down. Lee climbs up for a double stomp but Hiromu throws him from the top turnbuckle to the floor. Nasty landing for Lee. Hiromu follows with a running dropkick from the apron that sends Lee into the barricade.
The ref begins his count and both wrestlers barely make it in right before the count of twenty. Hiromu charges but Lee sidesteps and lands a rebound German suplex. But Hiromu powers up, ducks a clothesline, and lands a German of his own. Lee does the same and hits another German. Then he ducks a clothesline and goes for a wheelbarrow move but Hiromu counters into yet another German. But Lee gets up right away. Both guys clothesline each other. Lee blocks a clothesline with his boot and misses a clothesline of his own. Hiromu charges but runs into a standing Spanish Fly. One, two, Hiromu kicks out.
Both guys fight to their feet and exchange stiff slaps and chops. Lee hits a spinkick and goes to the corner for a charge but Hiromu hits first with another dropkick. Hiromu goes for a suplex but Lee counters and suplexes Hiromu into the corner pad. Lee goes for another running hurricanrana to the floor but Hiromu counters with a powerbomb onto the apron. But Hiromu’s not done. Diving senton to the floor.
Both guys return to the ring with Lee making it way later at the count of seventeen. Hiromu hits mocking slaps and pie-faces and blocks the same spinkick that Lee landed earlier. Hiromu answers with a clothesline but Lee counters that with a Fujiwara armbar. Hiromu tries rolling out but Lee rolls with him. Then Lee traps Hiromu’s other arm to blocks a ropebreak and rolls into a crossface in the middle of the ring. Hiromu starts crawling towards another set of ropes so Lee traps his arm in a scissored armbar. But he neglects Hiromu’s legs and Hiromu uses them to reach the ropes.
The referee checks on Hiromu’s shoulder in a corner and Lee charges for a dropkick. But he hits the ref instead of Hiromu. Hiromu hits a superkick and goes for the diving victory roll but Lee blocks. Then Hiromu reaches back and pulls off Lee’s mask. Dragon Lee has been unmasked! Hiromu connects with the diving victory roll but only gets a 2.5-count. Lee goes to the apron to put his mask back on and then hits Hiromu with a bicycle knee strike. Then Lee hits a Desnucadora (Vertical Suplex Powerbomb)! Amazing move. One, two, and – Hiromu kicks out. Lee goes for the Phoenix-Plex. Hiromu counters into a Canadian Destroyer. They trade strikes again. Lee blocks another superkick and lands another bicycle knee. He charges but runs into a successful superkick this time. Lee goes for a pop-up move of some kind. Hiromu counters into another Canadian Destroyer. One, two, Lee kicks out. Hiromu follows with a running corner Death Valley Bomb followed by his Time Bomb fireman’s carry Emerald Flowsion. One, two, and three! Hiromu retains his title!
Winner and STILL IWGP Junior Heavyweight Champion after 18:23: Hiromu Takahashi
This is another match that falls into the ‘nonstop blistering lunacy’ category of wrestling matches. If you like speed, you’ll love this match. If you like daredevil acrobatics, you’ll find plenty of that here. This was like a 1990s junior heavyweight match on super-fast-forward and with all the filler taken out and replaced with nonstop bomb-fests. It was fun, especially for an under-twenty-minute match.
The match started off with both wrestlers flooring it on the gas pedal and never really slowed down. They hit each other at 100mph and kept going with strikes, flips, counters, bombs, dives, and spikes. But this wasn’t just daredevil acrobatics done just for the sake of showing off. There was malice in the moves here. Even though a lot of sequences were labored and convoluted, there was a method to the madness here. Lee and Hiromu infused anger and hatred into what they did here. As they wrestled they managed to BOTH impress with their athleticism and tell a deep and personal story. Hiromu wanted revenge on Lee for his attack while Lee wanted revenge for things that took place back in CMLL. They hit each other hard and ran into each other recklessly and with full force. And while much of the action was largely copy-and-paste from other Hiromu matches from the same time and later ones, there was something unique here that added an additional layer of intrigue: Hiromu going after Lee’s mask.
Hiromu teased unmasking Lee earlier but decided against it and pretended to forego going down such a dishonorable road. But then he decided to about-face later on and decided to humiliate his luchador opponent in the most heinous way possible. And it worked almost perfectly. Lee was in control for quite a bit up to that point and that sudden action caused Lee to rightfully lose his focus. He, like Rey Mysterio and many others before him, couldn’t risk having his face exposed. So his guard fell and he nearly lost right then and there. Once he managed to get his mask back on, Lee was enraged. He threw as many more high-impact bombs as he could but Hiromu was already one step ahead. Hiromu was in full ‘imma kill this man’ mode and spammed insane head spikes like there was no tomorrow. Once he landed those Canadian Destroyers, there was no turning back. Hiromu compacted several brutal head-targeting moves in short order to seal the deal. From then on, it was less a question of who would win and more a question of ‘how angry and vengeful must Hiromu be to go to such lengths to tenderize Lee’s neck’.
That business with Lee’s mask and how it played into the finish was really important because it turned this from yet another robotic ‘MOVEZ SPAM’ match into something better. It actually gave this match a story and gave it a much-needed personal edge. Even the smallest detail/action like that can make a world of difference. When almost every match in modern times is filled with dozens of wrestlers hitting the same high-spots and following the same philosophy of nonstop balls-to-the-wall insanity, doing striking a personal chord becomes that much more important.
Final Rating: ****1/2
This is a great match that starts off strong and never really falters. I’ve seen several Hiromu matches since he ascended to the top of NJPW’s junior heavyweight division and many of them have been too formulaic. But that wasn’t the case here. Even though he hit all his high notes and showed off his trademark recklessness, he went out of his way to be both a combatant and a storyteller here. Lee brought the fight to Hiromu and Hiromu returned it in kind. Instead of this being a purely pedestrian affair by NJPW junior standards, it felt like a fight. It felt like these two wrestlers were very much trying to both one-up and maul each other. It came across a personal war that just happened to include cruiserweight insanity instead of being just another case of empty cruiserweight insanity involving interchangeable robots.
Could the match have been better? I think so. Lee should’ve tried to rip Hiromu’s head off for unmasking him and should’ve had maybe one or two more near-falls to hammer home how desperate he was to both win and hurt Hiromu. Plus, the style of wrestling here tends to veer into the realm of surrealism and even though it had a good story, it wasn’t immune from being a bit too ridiculous at a few moments. After all, Lee did a lot to hurt Hiromu but Hiromu rarely showed that he was that much worse for wear. Then again, this is cruiserweight wrestling we’re talking about. The whole point of the style is to be as superhuman as possible and I guess that also means not really selling in a realistic way. To me, that’s fine in small doses, but not as a central theme to an entire match.
All of that said, this is a great match that I strongly encourage readers to watch. Dragon Lee was very impressive here as he kept pace with Hiromu, which is not an easy thing to do. Who knows, maybe Lee will be the next luchador to make it big as a singles star in one of the big American companies.