Every year, the Wrestling Observer Newsletter gives out its annual awards as voted on by the fans. Some people care a lot about these awards, some don’t. Personally, I just like to read about these to see what different wrestling fans think is the best during any given year.
Let’s take 2001 as an example. It was one of the most important years in wrestling history for many reasons. The Monday Night Wars came to an end. WCW and ECW both folded and were later absorbed by WWF. Oh, and it was the last year that the WWF was still the WWF. But wrestling was still extremely popular and Vince’s company was putting on the best matches anywhere, and…
What’s that? The Match of the Year for 2001 wasn’t in WWF/E? Really?
I went and checked to see what matches were voted as the best in 2001 and the results were, well, strange. There were two matches from December 2000 that were voted as the best matches of 2001 thanks to a technicality (I reviewed those matches here and here). Chris Benoit vs. Chris Jericho from the Royal Rumble came in 6th place. Triple H vs. Steve Austin came in 5th while Benoit/Jericho vs. HHH/Austin from that famous RAW match came in second place. And TLC II didn’t even crack the top ten; it was an honorable mention.
So what match stole the show as the best wrestling match in the entire year? The match we’re looking at here. But was it really that good? Read on to find out.
Today we look back at the big singles match between Genichiro Tenryu and Keiji Muto from June 8, 2001.
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 is a match that no one thought would ever happen. Tenryu was once a big star in All Japan Pro-Wrestling and was pegged to be the guy to carry the company into the 1990s. But that didn’t happen because Tenryu left AJPW abruptly in 1990. One of the biggest manufacturer of eyeglasses in Japan offered Tenryu a king’s ransom to form his own wrestling company, which he did. Called Super World of Sports (SWS), Tenryu led a huge exodus of wrestlers from All Japan for the promise of glory. Sadly for Tenryu, things fell apart very soon afterwards, and SWS closed after only two years. Naturally, AJPW owner Giant Baba was furious with this betrayal and basically blackballed Tenryu from ever coming back to All Japan, à la Vince McMahon and Randy Savage. In an ironic twist, it was that departure that forced Baba to rethink his booking philosophy and decided to push the then-still-unproven rising stars that would later become the Four Pillars of Heaven: Misawa, Kawada, Kobashi and Taue.
Baba promised that Tenryu wouldn’t wrestle for All Japan so long as he lived. And Baba kept his word…but his widow’s word was a different matter.
A year after Baba died, Misawa announced he was leaving All Japan to create his own promotion following irreconcilable differences with Baba’s widow Motoko. After Misawa and his crew left to form Pro Wrestling NOAH, All Japan was left with only two native wrestlers. Desperate to keep All Japan afloat, Motoko made the one call her husband Shohei wouldn’t: she called Tenryu. And Tenryu came back to help save All Japan.
But Tenryu wasn’t the only one Motoko called; she also called New Japan and they agreed to do a year-long crosspromotional story. It was similar to WWE’s Invasion storyline, except way better booked. And one of New Japan’s key players in that feud was Keiji Muto, who was in the middle of a massive career renaissance in 2001. He was having a Shawn Michaels-level second run, filled with big matches and captivating performances. In time, Muto’s incredible talent and charisma helped him reach the peak of this All Japan vs. New Japan feud: he earned a title shot for All Japan’s Triple Crown Heavyweight title. And the champion at the time was Tenryu, who hadn’t held the title since 1989.
Thus the stage was set for a titanic battle for the soul of All Japan. would Tenryu continue his title and vindicate himself for his betrayal back in 1990? Or would Muto make history by becoming the first person to hold world titles in New Japan, the NWA, and All Japan?
This match originally took place on June 8th, 2001. It was rated ****1/2 out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer and was voted Match of the Year for 2001 by the Observer’s readers. After over twenty years, let’s see if this match still lives up to the hype.
This is for Tenryu’s Triple Crown Heavyweight Championship. Muto rushes Tenryu right away. He dropkicks him once in the head and once in the knee. Muto goes for a dragon screw leg whip. Tenryu blocks and grabs Muto’s leg. But Muto knees him in the face with his free leg. Proto-Shining Wizard! Muto hits a rib breaker and goes for a moonsault. Tenryu rolls to safety, giving time for Muto to pose and soak in the crowd’s adoration.
They lock-up again and start trading holds. Tenryu overpowers Muto with an armlock and brings him to the mat, scissoring his head in the process. Muto escapes but he misses a dropkick to the knee (DTK) so he applies a deep headlock. He follows with a snapmare/flashing elbow drop combo and puts on a chinlock, but Tenryu fights out with a Backdrop suplex. He wends Muto into the ropes but Muto rolls under a clothesline and hits a dropkick for a one-count, and then locks in a kimura-style armlock. Tenryu gets a ropebreak so Muto sends him into a corner, only for Tenryu to block a handspring elbow with a boot to Muto’s head. Tenryu follows with an enzuigiri but only gets a one-count off a pin. That’s followed by a Folding Powerbomb that gets two. Tenryu lands some stiff chops but Muto connects with a rolling kick and they both go down and Tenryu falls to the floor.
Tenryu gets up but Muto dives onto him with a plancha. Tenryu slowly makes it back onto the apron but is greeted with two DTKs. Muto goes to suplex Tenryu over the rope and into the ring. But Tenryu blocks and then counters. Apron Brainbuster! Muto hits hard and collapses to the floor. But Tenryu isn’t done. He sees Muto stirring and dives through the ropes, and lands clutching his bad knee that suffered Muto’s dropkicks. Tenryu gets up first but Muto grabs him from the floor. Dragon screw from the apron to the floor. Tenryu’s knee gets wrecked. But Muto isn’t finished. DTK from the apron to the floor.
Muto tosses Tenryu into the ring and lands a diving DTK from the top rope. He waits for Tenryu to get in position and lands yet another diving DTK, Tenryu fights to his feet and dodges yet another DTK and hits Muto hard with chops but Muto shuts him down with a second dragon screw. Figure-4 leglock! Tenryu screams in pain but somehow manages to roll to the ropes to break the hold. But he gets little peace as Mutoh gets up again and lands his sixth DTK. Muto goes for a third dragon screw but Tenryu fights back with elbows and hits his own DTK. But it’s not enough to stop Muto from landing his seventh. And yet, Tenryu fires back with his second and then lands a dragon screw on Muto. Tenryu locks in his own Figure-4. Muto is forced to roll his body into a deeper hold to avoid being pinned. He has no choice but to drag himself (and therefore Tenryu) to the ropes for a break.
Muto misses his eight DTK and Tenryu hits his third. Tenryu teases another dragon screw but changes his mind, takes Muto down, and locks in a Texas cloverleaf. But Tenryu can’t hold it for long due his own knee giving out. Tenryu does manage to lift Muto onto the top turnbuckle. He connects with a spider German suplex, followed by a diving back elbow. One, two, Muto kicks out. Tenryu charges but walks into a Frankensteiner. But Muto can’t hold the pin because now his knees are giving out. Shining Wi – no, Tenryu blocks it. Snap Brainbuster! One, two, th – no, Muto survives.
Tenryu whips Muto into a corner and lands a chop/jab combo, followed by a super Frankensteiner. He pins again but Muto kicks out. Tenryu goes for a scoop Brainbuster this time. Muto counters with a knee to Tenryu’s face in midair. Both men struggle to their feet. Tenryu goes for another strike volley. Muto drops him with a Pélé kick. Shining Wizard connects. One, two, and – NO, Tenryu kicks out. He connects with a second Shining Wizard. Tenryu kicks out again. Rib breaker. Muto goes to the top rope. Snap moonsault press! One, two, THREE! There’s the match! Muto wins the Triple Crown!
Winner and NEW AJPW Triple Crown Heavyweight Champion after 23:24: Keiji Muto
Post-match, Muto kneels down and kisses the belts making up the Triple Crown, and then poses with the image of Giant Baba on the entrance curtain.
This was another terrific example of wrestlers getting the most mileage out of so little. This wasn’t one of those long, drawn-out marathon epics that we’ve covered here many times before. Instead, it came across as a tense battle that could end at any moment as long as either wrestler hit their biggest moves. And while it was refreshing to see that philosophy in action, the shared method both wrestlers used to create that atmosphere was a double-edged sword that both improved and weakened the match at the same time.
Muto was the star of the match by far in terms of in-ring work while Tenryu brought a bit more star power. Muto was also the outsider looking to beat one of the biggest wrestling stars of the 1980s and 1990s, which he managed to do by hitting his version of ‘the Five Moves of Doom’. Except it wasn’t the exact same sequence applied to each match in the same way; instead, Mutoh sprinkled his five moves (dropkick to knee, dragon screw, Figure-4, elbow drop, and Shining Wizard) plus a few others throughout the match in such a way that he actually told a great story using only those select moves. His whole strategy was to ground Tenryu and build the match around his Shining Wizard finisher. By spamming dropkicks and dragon screws, Muto both slowed Tenryu down to the point that he could barely land moves of his own and also opened him up for his finisher. It took a long time, but eventually that strategy worked. Tenryu could barely stand and got hit with the Shining Wizard at least once.
But it wasn’t a foolproof strategy because Mutoh got hoisted by his own petard. His strategy exposed him to the same moves and so Tenryu flipped it on him. And once Tenryu started using Muto’s own moves against him, they had more of a lingering effect on him. Even though Tenryu hit some high-impact bombs and spiked Muto on his head here and there, he got the most out of those leg-targeting moves because Muto couldn’t end the match with one Shining Wizard. He had to land at least one more, and when that wasn’t enough, he was forced to go to the top rope with a moonsault. The story made complete sense, which is why the crowd loved it so much and made so much noise from bell to bell.
Sadly, this match, like many highly-praised classics, had an obvious flaw (and I hate that I have to be repetitive and bring this up again): inconsistent selling. While that has been a minor issue in some great matches, it was far more glaring here because it caused the match to sort of fall apart at the end. Muto spent most of the match on offense and did a phenomenal job destroying Tenryu’s knee. But when the time came to flip the script and have Tenryu go on offense with the same, Tenryu’s selling became inconsistent bordering on nonexistent. When he was on defense, Tenryu was sluggish and fought like hell just to stand up. But when he was on offense, he moved as if he hadn’t suffered any damage at all. And then Muto did the same thing. At first he slowed down and struggled to stay standing, but even after being locked in an excruciating Figure-4, he still ran and landed those Shining Wizards as if he too hadn’t experienced any pain.
Worse, Muto’s finishing stretch involved moves that relied heavily on his knees: a rib breaker (jamming his opponent’s ribs into one knee while bending the other), Shining Wizards (a running shin attack), and a moonsault (a diving backflip press that ends with Muto landing on his knees). He hit all of these moves in quick succession with little if any selling of Tenryu’s offense, and he didn’t seem to be that worse for wear following his pins. it seemed illogical and made it harder to suspend disbelief considering Muto spent so much time selling like he couldn’t move, only to ignore all of that and spam those finishers as if he had suffered no damage. And this wasn’t even the ‘fight-through-the-pain’ sort of no-selling but the ‘screw-this-I’ve-got-moves-to-hit’ sort of no-selling, which never does anyone any favors.
Final Rating: ****1/2
Even though this match does hold up well after twenty years, by no means was it the best match of 2001. Not by a long shot. Hell, Austin/Rock, TLC II, Benoit/Jericho and Austin/HHH were all significantly better matches than this one. Even if those matches weren’t as ‘scientific’ or as psychology-driven as this one, I think this match is hampered by its inherent flaws more than those ones were.
And yet, there’s something about this match that I think makes it really worth revisiting. As I’ve said earlier, these two wrestlers (but Muto in particular) got so much out of so little. Any wrestler with minimal creativity can spam fifty different moves in a single match and say they’ve taken the fans on a ride. And it’s pretty damn easy to wrestle the same match over and over again with one’s ‘signature comeback sequence’ in the same spot without any variation and call it a day. But it takes exceptional skill to build an entire match around a handful of moves, make all of them mean something, and keep the audience on the edge of their seats for over twenty minutes.
Small wonder, then, that Muto had the word ‘Genius’ written on his tights, was called the ‘pro wrestling master’ by the commentators, and had the nickname ‘the Cross Wizard’. He was basically pro-wrestling’s version of the wise old sage, complete with grey beard and everything. And he showed why he got that name with this match.