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(Almost) 5-Star Match Reviews: Jushin ‘Thunder’ Liger vs. Yoshinobu Kanemaru – NOAH Departure 2004, by Alex Podgorski

Why do people watch professional wrestling? Because it’s an escape from reality. It’s ridiculous, over-the-top, unrealistic and kitschy. It’s the poster child of the guilty pleasure, and today we’re looking at a match that really defines what that means.

The match we’re looking at today is something out of my personal collection of enjoyable matches. It wasn’t considered a show-stealing epic when it came out, but it was lauded nevertheless. It’s a match that I personally enjoyed watching, and I wanted to share it with others in the wrestling fandom.

It’s the cruiserweight title match between NJPW’s Jushin Liger and NOAH’s Yoshinobu Kanemaru from NOAH’s Departure 2004 Tokyo Dome show.

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

In the early-and-mid-2000s NOAH had a working relationship with New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW). This working relationship led to wrestlers from each company’s respective rosters working on each other’s shows, creating inter-promotional feuds. One such feud became the centerpiece of NOAH’s junior heavyweight division. NOAH founder Mitsuharu Misawa wanted NOAH’s juniors to get better recognition compared to how the AJPW juniors were (mis)treated under Baba. To that end, he used the working relationship between NOAH and NJPW to have high-profile championship matches on both NOAH shows and NJPW shows.

Seven months prior to this match, then-GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion Takashi Sugiura defended the title at NJPW’s annual January 4 Tokyo Dome Show. He defended it, and lost it…to Jushin Thunder Liger. One challenger after another tried and failed to save NOAH’s honor and reclaim that title.

Until Kanemaru came along, and hoped to best Liger on the biggest show in NOAH’s history.

Going into the match, this looks to be the one of the biggest and most hilarious mismatches I have ever seen in pro wrestling. Kanemaru comes out and he looks like the blandest, most generic 205 Live guy possible. He doesn’t look menacing at all, and walks down to the ring trying really hard to convince the audience (as well as himself) that he’s got this.

Of course, he’s right to be worried, because his opponent is Jushin Thunder Liger, the god of cruiserweights. Almost no one (outside of regular NOAH fans) knew who Kanemaru was going into this match, but every wrestling fan worth his salt has heard the name Jushin Liger. He’s perhaps the most innovative and influential junior heavyweight wrestler of all time. Only Rey Mysterio (Jr.) could possibly claim to be a bigger cruiserweight star, and even then it’s debatable.

So Liger comes down to the ring like a boss and shows off NOAH’s title that he captured six months prior. And as the two men wait for the bell, you can see how bad things look for Kanemaru. Seriously, this contest is like the pro wrestling version of one of the Friday the 13th movies, with Liger playing the role of Jason and Kanemaru playing the role of every mortal ever trying to avoid or overcome the unstoppable supernatural force standing before them.

The match

This match took place on July 10th, 2004 at NOAH’s departure Tokyo Dome show (the same show that was main-evented by this brutal war). It was originally rated 4.5 stars out of five by the Wrestling Observer’s Dave Meltzer. It is for NOAH’s GHC Junior Heavyweight Championship, at the time being held by NJPW’s Jushin Liger.

The bell rings and they explode into each other. Kanemaru lands a running big boot and goes to Irish whip Liger. Liger reverses and Kanemaru does a Tiger feint in the ropes. Liger charges but walks into a boot and Kanemaru misses a Lionsault plancha. He lands on his feet but walks into a huge running Shotei palm thrust from Liger. MASSIVE LIGERBOMB! Ligers pins. One, two, thre—No, Kanemaru kicks out at 2.99! Liger almost won right there.

Liger argues with the ref then signals the end. Liger goes for a Sheerdrop brainbuster…no, Kanemaru counters into one of his own. Brainbuster! He pins Liger. One, two, thr-No, Liger kicks out at 2.9. Another ridiculously close call.

Liger rolls out of the ring to recover, and when he returns, Kanemaru cuts him off and applies a rear chinlock. Good work targeting the neck he almost destroyed with that Brainbuster. Kanemaru applies a bodyscissors but Liger reaches the rope with his foot. So Kanemaru places Liger in the tree of woe and lands a painful-looking running dropkick to Liger’s face. He pins but Liger kicks out at two.

Kanemaru applies a camel clutch then tries to rip Liger’s mask off. He fails and then stomps away on Liger as Liger tries to fight back with some kicks. He applies a Figure-4 neck lock but Liger manages to wrestle his way out of it (because he’s Jushin Liger) but Kanemaru quickly applies a grounded headlock to maintain control. Liger gets some quick one-count pins but Kanemaru maintains the hold. Liger reaches the ropes, breaking the hold, but Kanemaru follows with knees to the gut. He whips Liger into another corner and charges but Liger kicks him. Kanemaru ducks another Shotei and Liger goes for a tilt-a-whirl backbreaker. Kanemaru slips out of it in what looks like a minor botch, so Liger drops him with a rolling abisengiri kick. Because Liger is awesome and knows how to save a match when things go awry.

Kanemaru rolls out of the ring and Liger kicks him with a baseball slide. Powerbomb on the ringside mats by Liger. He just plants Kanemaru deep with that move. Back in the ring, Liger raises his hand in victory as the ref reaches the count of thirteen (out of twenty) as Kanemaru slowly start stirring. Yet somehow, Kanemaru makes it in by the count of 19.5. Liger goes for an Irish whip but Kanemaru makes it only two feet before collapsing. The ref checks on Kanemaru to see if he can continue, but Liger has no f**ks to give and lands another hard Powerbomb in the ring. The ref doesn’t let Liger pin as he starts counting to see if Kanemaru can even continue the match. He reaches the count of nine of ten before Kanemaru makes it to his feet. But as soon as he does, Liger drops him with a German suplex. He pins, but Kanemaru somehow kicks out at 2.9 again.

Liger maintains control as he places Kanemaru on the top turnbuckle and launches him across the ring with an avalanche underhoook suplex. Kanemaru kicks out of another pin at 2.5, so Liger applies a seated abdominal stretch. Liger rolls this into a pin but Kanemaru kicks out at two, so Liger transitions into a sleeper hold with bodyscissors. Not satisfied with the pain he’s causing, Liger switches to the Romero Special, and then goes full Bryan Danielson by switching that into the dragon sleeper variant. The referee does the arm check to see if Kanemaru has passed out. His arm slumps down once, twice, no, he survives. Kanemaru’s still in this.

Liger picks Kanemaru up and chops him into a corner. Liger charges but walks into a kick, and Kanemaru charges. But Liger has him scouted and kicks him and goes for another powerbomb. But this time, Kanemaru escapes and lands on his feet. Kanemaru fires back with elbows, charges, ducks a clothesline, and lands a running dropkick to Liger’s knee. Great counter. Liger’s more of a power and mat-based wrestler by this point in his career so anything taking his strength away from him is an excellent way to beat him.

Kanemaru tries to maintain control with a headlock but Liger counters into a Backdrop Suplex. Liger places Kanemaru on the top turnbuckle again, but this time Kanemaru fights back and flips over into a Powerbomb of his own. Another great counter. Kanemaru starts making a comeback. He climbs the turnbuckle and lands his Deep Impact Diving DDT. He pins but Liger kicks out at two. Moonsault by Kanemaru. Liger rolls out of the wat. Liger cradles him. Kanemaru kicks out. German suplex attempt by Liger. Kanemaru escapes and charges, but walks into a cradle pin. Another close kickout for Kanemaru. Avalanche Hurricanrana by Liger. He pins, no, Kanemaru rolls over into a pin of his own. Liger kicks out at 2.5. Kanemaru charges…and walks into a Shotei from Liger. Liger whips him into the corner and lands another hard Shotei. Avalanche Brainbuster from Liger! Wow, what a crazy move. He goes for the pin. Kanemaru kicks out at one! At ONE! What a comeback.

Lier charges but Kanemaru cuts him off. Sheerdrop Brainbuster by Kanemaru. Liger kicks out at one this time. Both men are down. Liger gets up first. He charges for a Shotei, but Kanemaru catches his hand, so Liger bitchslaps him with his free hand. Shotei palm thrust! Sheerdrop Brainbuster by Liger! The referee counts one, two, thr…no, Kanemaru survives.

Liger signals the end and places Kanemaru on the top turnbuckle once again. He goes for another avalanche brainbuster, but Kanemaru fights back. Diving DDT. And not the same kind as before with one guy diving onto a standing opponent and hitting a DDT. But a full flying DDT with Kanemaru lifting Liger up and then diving downward taking Liger with him. Damn that’s just crazy.

Kanemaru covers Liger. Liger kicks out again. Moonsault by Kanemaru. Liger kicks out yet again. Kanemaru signals the end this time. Sheerdrop Brainbuster. But he’s not done. He’s still holding onto Liger. A second, twisting Brainbuster. One, two, three! That’s it. There’s the match.

Winner and NEW GHC Junior Heavyweight Champion after 17:39: Yoshinobu Kanemaru

Review

I enjoyed this match way more than I thought I would. I don’t think this was a 5-star epic by any means, but it didn’t need to be. It was the best it possibly could be, especially considering it was in the seventh match on a ten-match card. Just like the Shawn Michaels/Shelton Benjamin RAW match from 2005, it was a fun match to watch, and that’s all that really matters in this case.

The story going into this match was that Liger was the disrespectful outside invader that could not give less a shit about his opponent if he tried. Liger came into this match looking to out-wrestle and embarrass Kanemaru in front of his home fans, and nearly succeeded. He wiped his ass with the notion of respecting his opponent when he dropped Kanemaru with a Ligerbomb in the opening twenty seconds, with Kanemaru getting a VERY close kickout. From there Kanemaru had to prove to everyone that he could, at the very least, wrestle on Liger’s level, which was no small task.

To do that, Kanemaru focused on Liger’s neck and attached it at almost every opportunity. And to make things easier for him, he tried to take Liger’s power game away from him by kicking Liger’s knee with all his might. But Liger was, well, Liger, and he has two sorts of matches. Either he shows respect for his opponent or he acts like a douche and tries to destroy and disrespect them. This was a case of the latter and it was more entertaining than if Liger treated Kanemaru as his equal. Liger did his best to kill Kanemaru dead but Kanemaru refused to lie down and die. Kanemaru took a monumental thrashing from the cruiserweight equivalent of a final boss and not only survived, but beat him. In doing so, Kanemaru left the match looking like a genuine star, which was the complete opposite of how he entered this match. So to that end, this match more than accomplished its goal.

That being said, there were a few issues I had with the match, though. I didn’t like how the ref didn’t allow Liger to pin Kanemaru after dropping him with that powerbomb and instead insisted on doing the dramatic ring count. I understand that Liger wanted to keep the title and didn’t want to cross the referee. But, if Kanemaru was so close to being unconscious, then Liger should’ve had the chance to pin him. The whole counting sequence just seemed to pad the length of this match and took away the sense of urgency that Liger had fought with from the opening bell.

Final Rating: ****1/2

I don’t think this is a legendary or historic match by any means. And yet, it’s very enjoyable. There’s something entertaining in seeing Jushin Liger some into another company and wipe his ass with their politics, booking, and top stars. And he nearly did that here as he tried to mop the floor with Kanemaru, but Kanemaru wasn’t going to give up just because of the legendary status of his opponent.

If anything, this match is something of a textbook case in how to make a star out of a potential nobody. Kanemaru went into this match looking like he had no chance. And Liger almost proved that to be true when he dropped Kanemaru with his finisher in the opening seconds. But Kanemaru not only survived that, but he outfought and outwrestled the most iconic cruiserweight of all time. This match put Kanemaru on the map in Japan and made people care about him a lot more than they did before. Liger basically made Kanemaru into a much bigger star than he was before, which shows how much Liger understands about wrestling storytelling and how to make your opponent look good.

So while it’s not historic or iconic as a match, it’s the kind of guilty pleasure wrestling match you can watch and enjoy without having to understand the story behind it. To some, it might come across as a bit unrealistic or video-game like, but those parts are only in small doses here and are juxtaposed by realistic grappling that keeps this match somewhat grounded in realism. And that balance is what made early-2000s NOAH so unbelievably awesome.

Check out previous entries in my 5 Star Match Reviews series right here. Thanks for reading.