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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Go Shiozaki vs. Katsuhiko Nakajima – NOAH 20th Anniversary Show

Despite the dreadful circumstances of the worldwide pandemic, pro-wrestling somehow managed to survive, and in some cases, thrive in 2020. Even without live crowds, many companies were able to put on excellent wrestling matches that were said to rival earlier matches with fans in terms of quality. Many fans have called this their Match of the Year for 2020. With that level of praise, it must be really good, especially with all the competition around it. But was it really that good? Let’s look back and find out.

Today we revisit the singles matches between Go Shiozaki and Katsuhiko Nakajima from a big NOAH show in November 2020.

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

Boy, do these two ever have a history together.

Shiozaki and Nakajima were both pegged as top prospects fifteen years earlier when both were starting out. Nakajima debuted in January 2004 and Shiozaki a few months later. Shiozaki spent those rookie years teaming with his mentor Kenta Kobashi and Nakajima did the same with his mentor Kensuke Sasaki. That included an outstanding two-on-two tag match that featured both sets of students and mentors in 2005.

As the years went on, both men went their separate ways with Shiozaki staying with NOAH and Nakajima working all over the place. Shiozaki became arguably the biggest active star in NOAH behind only company president Marufuji, and over the course of the 2010s he became GHC Heavyweight Champion four times. Meanwhile, Nakajima continued to gain experience wrestling in different promotions, and also beat his mentor Sasaki in his retirement match. As the years went on, Nakajima eventually ‘settled’ in NOAH and became a regular there. He also drastically changed his look and going into this match he sort of resembled Shinsuke Nakamura.

For NOAH’s fans, this was a big match. Shiozaki and Nakajima were two of the best active wrestlers in the country outside New Japan. Both of them had many accolades and had put on great matches before. But only one of them could be the best in NOAH, so which one would come out on top?

The match

This match took place on November 22nd, 2020 and was rated ****3/4 stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. Let’s see how well it holds up.

This is for Shiozaki’s GHC Heavyweight Championship. The tension is off the charts as the match opens with some sharp kicks from Nakajima and a clean break on the ropes from Shiozaki. They have an icy staredown, Shiozaki counters an Irish whip and sends Nakajima into the corner but Nakajima escapes to ringside. He takes his time getting back into the ring and when he does he rakes Shiozaki’s eyes. But Shiozaki bounces back with a flying shoulder tackle.

Shiozaki lands some vicious chops and sends Nakajima into a corner but Nakajima dodges and kicks his head in. a missile dropkick sends Shiozaki onto the apron and Nakajima starts targeting Shiozaki’s neck with a foot choke. Nakajima goes for an apron Death Valley Bomb, Shiozaki escapes and lands a big capture suplex. Nakajima literally bounces off the edge of the apron and into the floor. God, what a nasty landing.

After a long pause, Nakajima re-enters the ring at the count of seventeen out of twenty. Shiozaki walks over for a move but Nakajima can barely even get to one knee. He keeps fighting to try and get up on his own and suddenly counters an Irish whip and lands a big kick to Shiozaki’s gut. That kick sends Shiozaki out of the ring and he rolls in pain ringside as Nakajima takes time to recover.

Nakajima gets a sudden burst of energy as he lands a running kick to Shiozaki’s head and then whips him into the barricade. Shiozaki tries to fight back with chops and lands one, but Nakajima dodges the second one and Shiozaki hits the steel ringpost. Hard. With his hand. Ouch. A lightbulb goes off in Nakajima’s head as he targets that hand and arm almost immediately. He smartly starts working Shiozaki’s arm and wrist for several minutes by smashing it into any hard surface he can find. The referee starts counting, gets to nineteen and basically orders Shiozaki in. That looks like an awkward spot. Why didn’t the ref continue the count to twenty? Shiozaki could’ve stayed there and retained the title.

Shiozaki makes it into the ring and is met with a kick to the bad shoulder. Nakajima continues with an onslaught of brutal kicks but Shiozaki starts powering up, only for Nakajima to shut him down with more stiff strikes. Seeing Shiozaki’s weakness, Nakajima opens himself up and demands that Shiozaki hit him. Shiozaki goes for a chop, but he barely touches him and staggers over in pain. Nakajima taunts Shiozaki more and more, until another chop is answered with an arm wringer into a stiff high kick. That’s followed by a second one into a cross armbreaker. Shiozaki rushes to the ropes but Nakajima takes a long time to release the hold.

Nakajima remains in control by working the arm until Shiozaki lands a diving shoulder tackle from the corner. Shiozaki starts making a comeback with, of all things, machine gun chops with the damaged hand. A sudden lariat gets him a two-count, as does a fisherman suplex. He attempts another lariat but Nakajima kicks his arm. Nakajima fires back with a running dropkick to Shiozaki’s knee and an enzuigiri and then traps Shiozaki in an abdominal stretch. Shiozaki reaches the ropes and then lands another big chop. Nakajima fires back with more big kicks to the chest and gets a two-count of his own.

Shiozaki escapes a suplex and lands a big Kobashi rolling chop to the neck followed by a big lariat with his healthy arm. He tries to follow up with another suplex but Nakajima counters into one of his own. But Shiozaki bounces right up and lands another lariat. Both men collapse and spend a long time recovering. After about two minutes on the mat, both men get up and trade brutally-stiff strikes, Shiozaki with chops and Nakajima with kicks. They go back-and-forth like this, blow for blow, for several minutes until Nakajima lands a Backdrop suplex. Except Shiozaki bounces up once again and lands a German suplex that knocks Nakajima loopy.

Both men get up again and demolish each other’s chest with more chops and kicks. Each strike sends a nasty echo throughout the arena and with each impact the guy eating the move demands more. They hit each other tons more until Shiozaki catches and then elbows Nakajima’s leg and Nakajima blocks a big chop. But despite that they keep going with another chop/kick exchange. They just keep absorbing such incredible, brutal punishment. Finally, both men go down, first Shiozaki and then Nakajima. Both men get resounding applause from the crowd for their toughness.

Shiozaki rushes Nakajima but walks into three kicks to the head. Nakajima goes for a suplex but Shiozaki counters into a go Flasher (suplex into an elbow drop for two. Shiozaki channels Kobashi once again and goes for a lariat but Nakajima kicks his arm. Shiozaki tries again but Nakajima counters into a Becky Lynch-style grounded armbar. Shiozaki crawls towards the ropes with his legs, only for Nakajima to sit back into a cross armbreaker. Shiozaki gets the ropes but Nakajima takes his time letting go.

Nakajima gets booted on a corner charge but lands a jumping wheel kick as Shiozaki jumps onto the top rope. He goes for a top-rope Frankensteiner but both men fall out of the ring instead. Shiozaki gets slammed into the steel barricade but bounces back with a sudden lariat. Both men return to the ring, with Nakajima barely making it in at 19.5.

Shiozaki’s in control as he lands a big spinning chop to the neck followed by an arm-trap backdrop suplex for two. He scoop slams Nakajima and goes to the corner. Diving moonsault connects…with Nakajima’s knees. Shiozaki writhes in pain as he clasps his ribs. Nakajima takes advantage and starts kicking Shiozaki right in the torso. Both men dodge big hits from each other but Nakajima has the upper hand as he lands a devastating strike barrage. The referee checks on Shiozaki to see if he has been knocked out. Shiozaki pushes himself up to show he’s still alive. Nakajima answers with a punt to the chest. He continues with stiff forearms to the head (similar to what Brock Lesnar did to Randy Orton at SummerSlam 2016). But Shiozaki refuses to give up. He rises slowly, and even uses Nakajima for leverage to lift himself up. Nakajima looks on with pity and mockery in his eyes. Brainbuster by Nakajima. One, two, no, Shiozaki kicks out.

Nakajima hoists Shiozaki onto his shoulders but Shiozaki counters into a sleeper suplex. Both men stagger around the wing. Shiozaki lands a Misawa-style triple elbow smash combo. Nakajima somehow stays on his feet so Shiozaki follows with a running lariat. One, two, no, Nakajima kicks out this time. Another scoop slam. Shiozaki’s moonsault connects. He goes for a pin but rolls over from the pain in his arm. He loses a few critical seconds due to that arm which allows Nakajima to kick out of another pin. Another lariat from Shiozaki. Followed by two more. Nakajima goes flying end over end. Shiozaki pins. Nakajima gets his foot on the ropes. Short-range Burning Lariat. One, two, three! There’s the match! The champion retains!

Winner and STILL GHC Heavyweight Champion after 42:35: Go Shiozaki

Review

A lot of people called this their Match of the Year for 2020. It has been praised for its story, brutality, psychology and intensity. Even under COVID restrictions – under which no one could really cheer, only applaud – the fans gave these wrestlers tons of support. But I just didn’t see the MOTYC that so many fans were talking about.

The story here was that Shiozaki and Nakajima had a bitter, intense rivalry that had spanned over fifteen years and both men recreated that intensity here. Nakajima stood out more than Shiozaki because he was smarter and more focused. He took advantage of Shiozaki hurting his own hand and attacked that arm brutally and relentlessly throughout the match. On one hand, he showed great common sense in this logic and it created a lot of intense and dramatic moments whereby Shiozaki could’ve tapped or passed out. On the other hand, Shiozaki’s selling of that injury was spotty at best. He sold it very well when he was on defense and fighting to survive. But when he was on the offensive, his selling was borderline nonexistent. He chopped Nakajima as hard as he could with his right (read: badly hurt) hand and kept attacking with that hand, even though he had a fully functional left hand he could’ve used all the while without risking further damage to his right one. He only realized this maybe once or twice; the rest of the time he chopped with his bad hand to try and make himself look incredibly tough. That only worked to some degree because he also made himself look like a one-track-minded doofus with the same actions.

This match also suffered a common problem of modern matches: the wrestlers automatically think that longer = better and that’s not always the case. This match was a prime example. It went over forty minutes and felt bloated. There were so many moments where the action was drawn out and stretched, especially with those long strike exchanges. Yes, they were cool and both wrestlers looked inhumanly tough for surviving them. But the pacing therein was so slow that it looked like there was no sense of urgency. Both Shiozaki and Nakajima stood there like warm bodies waiting for each other to strike. And they kept repeating these same spots so much that I kept thinking to myself ‘get to the point’. I’ve seen hundreds of longer matches at this point and this issue of dragging stuff out to pad the length was far more pronounced here than in many other equally-long matches.

And while the actual wrestling taking place during those 42 minutes was solid, Nakajima was by far the better wrestler. He took advantage of a sudden injury and focused on it as much as possible. I knew very little of him going into this match but he told a great story about himself and sold himself to the audience incredibly well. And the reason that Nakajima was better here was because Shiozaki was basically ‘mini-Kobashi’. Seriously, Shiozaki had precious little in the form of his own identity as a wrestler. Aside from his gear, his entrance music, and his hair color, everything else about him Shiozaki took from his mentor Kenta Kobashi. His persona, his emphasis on chops, his taunts to the crowds, and his overall wrestling style, were all tributes/copies/emulations/whatever-you-want-to-call-them of Kobashi. And while you’re unlikely to find a bigger fan of Kobashi’s than me, it got a bit irksome seeing a wrestler act as a carbon copy of their mentor instead of creating their own identity.

Imagine if Roman Reigns copied The Rock in every conceivable way. People just wouldn’t buy into him because they’d see him for the knock-off of a better wrestler that he was portraying. That’s pretty much what Shiozaki did here. Despite being a solid wrestler in his own right, he attempted to wrestle like a once-in-a-lifetime wrestler whose time had come and gone. Because of that, I just wasn’t interested in much of what Shiozaki did and found myself cheering the supposed heel in the match – Nakajima – more than the supposed babyface.

Final Rating: ****1/4

Despite having some great in-ring action, this match just doesn’t hold up well to scrutiny. It was one of those long matches that went long just for the sake of it and without any real justification. It had some intense action and brutal striking but nothing you haven’t seen before. And despite having a good story leading up to it, the execution of this match’s story really left a lot to be desired.

It’s a shame. Pro Wrestling NOAH had gone on such a huge downward spiral post 2007 and I was hoping that this highly-praised match would be good enough go watcvh more of NOAH. But it wasn’t. This match is worth watching if you’re either already a fan of NOAH’s or are someone looking for an even more esoteric niche within pro-wrestling. but if you aren’t, this match is largely skippable and a bit forgettable.

The only thing that really stands out is Shiozaki’s chops. For all the stuff he copies from Kobashi, the one thing that he might surpass his mentor in is landing loud, vicious chops. So if you like seeing one wrestler attempt to turn his opponent’s chest into hamburger meat with his bare hands, you’ll find something to love here.

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